Kidsburgh Hero: Teacher Charles Herring inspires kids through hip-hop and film

Like a lot of kids, Charles Herring occasionally dreamed of stardom.

He just didn’t think it would come as a teacher.

To the kids in his Kindergarten through 5th Grade Enrichment classes in the South Fayette School District, he’s clearly the star of the show, whether rapping a lesson or appearing in a student-made film as the superhero Grammar Man.

“I’m not the typical educator,” Herring says. “I wasn’t even ‘in education.’ I was manager of an Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and before that, I ran a record company.”

His label, Fat Crayon Records, came close to putting Pittsburgh’s hip-hop scene on the map more than a decade before Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, with artists like Mel-Man (who went on to work with Dr. Dre) and Pensoulzinakup, featuring scene mainstays Akil Esoon, Emmai Alaquiva and Supa C.

Herring thinks the path his life has taken is hilariously ironic.

“I went from a C-student – from one of the worst schools in the state, Wilkinsburg High School, with a 2.3 GPA – and this year, I’ll have my doctorate,” he says. “How does that happen?”

Charles Herring
Charles Herring Photo by Mark Simpson

Student as teacher

Herring’s teaching philosophy involves creating a “hybrid space,” where learning is a two-way street between teacher and student.

“A lot of people don’t get it when they get into education,” he says. “They feel like they’re the bastions of knowledge, and should be disseminating it to the students, and the students don’t bring a lot to the equation. The teacher has a certain knowledge, and the student has a certain knowledge, and the hybrid space is where they meet. It’s a symbiotic relationship. There are times when the student is the teacher, and you’re learning from them.”

It’s about more than finding a way to speak students’ language.

“The main thing you want to do as a teacher is allow the students to be the constructors of their own education,” says Herring. “Set up the parameters of whatever you want the students to learn.”

A lesson on magnetism and electricity, for example, led to comparisons to the Force in “Star Wars.”

Movie making plays a role, too, in his curriculum that has so captivated students. His 5th graders take part in a year-long filmmaking project, a three-camera shoot that is professionally edited.

“Kids do 90 percent of the work – advertising, auditioning, camera-work, everything,” Herring says. “They start out as a separate production company, write a script, do storyboards.”

Students present their plans to Emmy-winning filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva – the “Hollywood producer” who will greenlight a project.

One of their favorite projects is a comic pilot called “Grammar Man,” a superhero who fights against his arch enemy, Double Negative.

In a recent guest appearance at the Inspire Speakers series, an event hosted by the Green Building Alliance, Herring zeroed in on events in 1984 that set his direction.

“Three things happened to me,” Herring says. “One, I found a mentor. Two, (I learned) the power of mantras. That stuck with me. The third thing was hip-hop.

“When I was 16, there was a party at the ‘Y’ in Wilkinsburg.  I heard Run DMC’s “Sucka MCs” and I was just hooked. I had heard hip-hop before, but that song changed my life,” he says.

“The slang word is swagger. It’s more than confidence. Confidence can wane and be broken. I call it ‘efficacy.’ You believe that you’re going to be able to get things done regardless, no matter what. Whether you’re losing by 100, or in the worst position in the world, if you have a high degree of efficacy, you can do it.”