Musician Dessa takes over Iowa City high school class

Minneapolis-based rapper/singer took day to teach students a few english lessons

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In Kate Richey’s classroom on Friday, students who participated well were rewarded with fist bumps or an enthusiastic “tight.”

Not from Richey, an English teacher at Iowa City’s Tate High School, but from Minneapolis-based rapper/singer Dessa.

Fewer than 12 hours after busting open her lip during a Mission Creek Festival performance at Gabe’s, Dessa stood in front of 15 students Friday morning as she taught the first of three English classes at the alternative high school.

“I do a lot of youth work at home,” the artist said. “It was an easy yes.”

During her time at Tate, Dessa focused on similes and metaphors. She walked around the room and wrote the starts of sentences for her students to complete, with original similes, on the SMART Board – remarking on how using the technology left her feeling “drunk with power.”

Dessa brought her lessons to life and tailored them to her students, in classes of about 15 learners in size, singing snippets of songs by Rihanna (“Diamonds,”), Katy Perry (“Firework”) and even The Commodores (“Brick House”) to bring home her point. As she walked around the room engaging with the high-schoolers, she encouraged them to read their original similes aloud.

“I respect the heck out of people willing to be wrong in public,” she told one section. “I could learn to do a little more of that myself.”

A number of organizations – including the Iowa Youth Writing Project, Mission Creek and the Englert 101 partnership between Iowa City’s Englert Theatre and West Music – collaborated to bring Dessa to Tate for the clinic.

Some of those groups were responsible for musician Nat Baldwin visiting Richey’s classroom earlier this year. The English teacher said that in 16 years of teaching, Dessa was the first rapper to stop by.

“One of the things I think these kids love most is fine arts, but at the alternative school we’re focused on credit recovery and you miss out on fine arts and the humanities,” Richey said. “They just soak it up … I think it’s a chance for them to miss being talked at and instead be talked to.”

Dessa called out students who looked bored and didn’t participate. She also took the time to sit and ask questions as some learners struggled. During an activity in which students had to use a simile to describe a lie, she inquired about what color a lie would be or what a lie might taste like if it were food.

Her animated approach, complete with jokes and jumping around, led a few students to tell Dessa that she’d make a good teacher.

The artist answered questions about her personal life, career as a member of the hip-hop collective Doomtree and the music business. She also read poems and gave in to students’ requests that she perform, spitting short verses before the class periods ended.

The artist called the class experiences “awesome” and Richey agreed, saying Dessa has “good swagger.” At least one student also shared that opinion.

“She was cool. Her music’s really raw,” said 16-year-old Miranda Frantz of Iowa City, who’s a junior in one of Richey’s classes.

Frantz said she’d like to have more musicians stop by to educate.

“So much better,” she replied when asked how having Dessa compared with a normal day of English class. “We don’t get to have inspirations come into (our class). We usually read books and stuff."

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Tate High School is in Iowa City and that Kate Richey has taught for 16 years, not 14.

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