By Sarah Kuper
Growing up, Al Elliott dreamed of making his living teaching kids to ride bikes.
“But the older I got the more I realized that wasn’t a real job,” Elliott said.
Now, the Green Valley Elementary teacher is an educator, a filmmaker and a rapper.
Elliott will be speaking at the March 12 TEDx event in Birmingham. He was chosen because of his work in film and music and the way he is incorporating those skills into elementary education.
As a child, Elliott struggled with a speech impediment, but he noticed that when he rapped the stutter went away.
He began using rap as a way to express himself and to hone his creative writing skills.
Elliott said his past struggles with speaking and being understood have made him able to empathize with students trying to be heard.
“I see myself in a lot of these kids so I be sure to let them know when they have a good idea, because a lot of people will tell them when they don’t have good ideas,” Elliott said. “I try to make sure I acknowledge them because I don’t know when is the next time they will get that validation.”
He said he is always developing his teaching style, and one way he keeps evolving as a teacher is through relationships with local artists.
In the early 2000’s, Elliott was performing spoken word poetry around the area. The relationships he developed during that time have kept him engaged in the hip hop and film scene in Birmingham – particularly in the Sidewalk Film Festival.
The festival showcases films made in Alabama by Alabama artists. Jurors from around the country judge submissions and the public is invited to screenings around town.
One element of the festival is the Sidewalk Scramble, for which filmmakers have only a few days to produce a film from start to finish.
Elliott and a team of artists won the 2010 competition with the music video “Glue, Glitter and Glove.”
Elliott’s other film and soundtrack work has won nominations in regional Emmys and attention in the Birmingham music and film scene.
He said he is at his artistic best when he is able to work with other talented artists. The same is true of him with teaching.
Elliott has started a monthly Google+ Hangout with educators from around the world to discuss techniques that will give students the best education.
“I’ve met teachers from the New York Writing Project and even from Denver institutions. We don’t spend time debating who is right and who is wrong, we talk about things that we have found work and we say, ‘OK, what are we going to do with this?'”
Elliott encourages his students to think abstractly and to use writing to challenge classmates’ imagination and critical thinking skills.
He thinks back to when he dreamed of teaching bike-riding.
“I told some of my students about how I had wanted to do that and they thought it was a great idea. They came up with a name for the business and everything. I think, what if these had been my classmates back then? And I realized as long as I’m learning from them, they are sort of my classmates.”
In his upcoming TEDx talk, he will explore the importance of validation with audience members. Elliott said he believes that schools should be a validating environment and that students shouldn’t be defined by the mistakes they make.
As for his film career, he said he is incorporating that into his teaching but education is taking the priority in his life right now.
He does keep up with trends in filmmaking and admits he will follow and watch the Oscars this month.
“I try not to get too caught up in it. There is a certain popularity contest to it but I’ll watch it because it is pop culture.”
Elliott said he has explored ways to become eligible to vote on the Academy Awards but it is a complicated and exclusionary process.
Elliott will deliver his speech March 12 along with 15 other speakers as part of the TEDx Birmingham event.
For more information on speakers and the event, visit tedxbirmingham.org