Meeting a great need–and having a blast

Alarms bells sounded in his head. Observing the epidemic-like speech and language difficulties demonstrated by the children on a daily basis can prompt that type of reaction in someone who cares–passionately–about kids’ futures.

So Douglas “Sage” Hoston Jr., disabilities coordinator at the Head Start program in Cleveland, sprang into action. He was acutely aware that if these African American children began grade school with deficits in key learning benchmarks, they didn’t stand a chance academically.

Hoston improvised some simple classroom methods to help his kids develop their language skills. One was a “call and response” technique he used at story time. He urged the children to pay close attention as he read them the story. He’d then shout out questions about the story to see who was paying attention.

“The kids lit up. I could see the lights turning on,” Hoston says, his own eyes widening with wonder at the memory. “From a learning standpoint, they were developing social and emotional awareness, self-efficacy, expressive and receptive language skills, and story comprehension.” And, he nods, his face softening into a characteristic smile, “They were having a blast.”

Hoston’s highly interactive instruction techniques led to marked gains in speech and language skills. The children’s test scores improved. But, in order to turn around an educational system failing urban African American children, Hoston knew that even more radical change was needed.

Reflecting a Higher Vision

In many urban schools, even the brightest students find themselves lost and languishing within a curricular orthodoxy that doesn’t connect with their cultural identities. Sage Hoston believes that teachers in America’s underserved educational communities must master and engage these students with culturally specific languages in order for the young people to fulfill their individual and social potential and thrive in the encompassing national culture.

Growing up, Hoston’s parents nurtured him in ways that continue to shape his views of what education could and should be. As a small child, his father read to him and challenged him to think critically, respect his African American heritage, and attend college. But it was a substitute teacher who, in a brief, shining moment of insight and inspiration, set him on the path to performance poetry, pursuit of a doctorate at WSU, and a burning aspiration to become a teacher of teachers.

With a shrug, Sage admits he can’t remember the name of that 7th grade advanced English substitute teacher. She was only in his life for a week or two. But she looms large in his memory as a beacon of transformation.

During a classroom exercise in which his classmates were reading plays aloud, Hoston began to improvise his lines. Instead of correcting him, the sub praised his use of language.

“She was the first nonwhite teacher I’d ever had,” Hoston recalls. “She was a proud Mexican lady. The way she threw in Spanish words into her speech, and her compliments, all that invigorated me. Not only did she recognize my skill, this smart minority woman gave me permission to be more fully myself. Most minorities learn how to act in public to get along in a predominantly white culture. How she acted in public was more like what I saw at home. So for me, it influenced the rap lyrics that I was writing.”

In Hoston’s Phoenix middle school, kids gathered in circles to rap as soon as class was released.

Cypher–freestyle rapping improvised in a group or circle–was a powerful social tool, earning status for those who could think fast and perform well.

“There was also this braggadocio aspect to it,” Hoston says. “Rap and hip hop were exploding. I thought that if I could do this well, I could do anything, go anywhere.”

Hoston’s creativity burgeoned, and he became a prolific writer of poetry, short stories, plays, and essays. He became a student leader in high school and college, striving to emulate the the footsteps of his cultural and literary heroes, which included Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, the poets Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, and the black feminist science fiction writer Octavia Butler. In 1994, he founded the Black Poetic Society, a still-thriving Cleveland-based performance poetry troupe that explores social justice themes.

“I learned to gain my place through the arts–through poetry, through writing,” Hoston says. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have been lost. It would have been impossible because I would have had no voice. If you think deeply, you need to engage with others in ways that satisfy your head and your heart.”

Leading classrooms through the arts

Sage Hoston envisions an ideal classroom that is informed by all the arts, from dance to theater, from literature to music. He sees music, especially, as playing a key role because of the cultural ascendency of hip hop.

“If you are going to embrace this particular culture of kids you need to know that hip hop is important and here to stay,” Hoston says. Like many generations of youth who learn social skills through popular music, “Kids get their value systems from it.”

Hoston pauses to gather his thoughts. “Hip hop is different than when I came around. There was more creativity to it before it got hyped up by commerce and the media. And, yes, there is violence and objectification in commercial hip hop. But it’s like an iceberg. There is a vast underground of positive, empowering stuff. The kids are tapping into it with the help of some inspiring teachers.”

In his February, 2014 WSU TEDx talk, “On the Verge of Expression: Culturally Responsive Poetic Inquiry,” Hoston explained his pedagogical philosophy, reciting his own poetry to illustrate his reasoning. He stressed the importance of creating a safe space in the classroom for the open exchange of ideas.

In his talk, Hoston also identified three critical attributes for teaching success. The first is confidence. The second is competence. The third is what he described as “being constantly on the verge of expression.” Teachers, he emphasized, must be able to continually mirror and validate their students’ means of expression, while also guiding them to improve and learn.

Creatively engaging in this manner with students requires resetting the mindset of teachers to embrace a new leadership style.

“Truly effective classroom leadership,” Hoston insists, “is support and guidance that is offered in a way that fits individuals and individual classrooms. It helps people go after their dreams, goals, and desires.” This is a style of leadership, he continues, that “monitors progress to the point where they can do it themselves; and finally releases them to achieve as they see fit.”

Launching potential at WSU

When Hoston joined WSU’s Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education program in 2013, he met his Ph.D. advisor and mentor, associate professor Paula Groves Price, herself a hip-hop scholar.
“I wouldn’t have made it here without her,” Hoston says. “Mind you, it takes a village. But she helped me overcome an overwhelming crisis of confidence. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here in Pullman? Aren’t I a little too old? Am I intellectually up for this? Is my writing strong enough?’

“And here’s the big one: ‘Is there space for me in the academy?'”

Price quickly put Hoston at ease. He credits her with teaching him how to truly lead as an educator. “Dr. Price individualizes her leadership. She says, ‘This is what I see in you. What do you think?’ She’ll also say things like. ‘No. Do you.'”

Hoston recalls struggling to organize WSU’s inaugural Cultural Arts of Education Showcase in 2015. “I wanted to hold a cultural arts and education showcase. Dr. Price listened to my idea. She questioned me and encouraged me to seek inspiration at the Multicultural Student Services Center. She raised half of the money to make it happen. I got the modern dancers, I got the singers, I got the poets, I got the musicians, and the DJ. And it all came together.”

Hoston’s spreads his arms, his palms up, as if cupping the future. “Dr. Paula Price provides an incredible foundation of straight ahead teaching skills like public speaking. But she also displays competence, confidence, and allows for expression,” he says. “And at the point at which her students achieve competency, she steps back and takes pleasure in their success. That is the basis and criteria that I use in my work every day.”

At home on the Palouse

Hoston appreciates WSU for fostering a culture where people from all backgrounds can find community and feel at home.

“People at WSU are very aware that students come from many different places to attend this rural school, so they create spaces where like-minded people can gather,” he says. “There are also a lot of places where people can take a break, be comfortable, and head back to work or class refreshed.”

Hoston’s favorite campus haunts include the African American Student Center, Terrell Library, and an outdoor space outside Cleveland Hall, home to the College of Education.

“When the weather is nice, my favorite spot is a little grassy area outside Cleveland where there are benches,” Hoston says. “That’s where I like to reflect and reenergize.”

He relishes the supportive nature of the Cougar culture on campus. When students feel isolated or alienated, they can easily find support amid staff, advisors, and fellow students, he notes. And he applauds the invitational vibe on campus.

“They have programs on top of programs at WSU,” Hoston says. “I was a supervisor of the mentoring program at the African American Center, so I was aware of what was available on campus. If you don’t make it here, you don’t want to make it–or there is something really challenging going on in your personal life.”

Hoston credits the university with fine tuning his notions about the foundational elements that create an ideal community: it’s a setting that embraces diversity and supports personal and educational growth. “If a space or a program doesn’t exist,” he says, “people at WSU will find a way for you to create it yourself. I discovered this first hand and see it every day.”

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