Freestyle Fridays

Our pandemic response

by Ikechukwu Onyema

The axiom that even the most challenging crisis can provide opportunity captures the spirit of my conversation with Gabriel Tanglao as we conceived Freestyle Friday. Gabriel works in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. We spoke immediately after the March 9 state of emergency announcement regarding the COVID quarantine. We wondered if we could ‘remix’ the traditional webinar format of delivering professional development workshops.

Maybe you’ve endured a well-intentioned presenter delivering a thoughtful slideshow—maybe that presenter was you. Did the dull monotony of it undermine the content? For Gabriel and me, this experience needed fresh attention. In hip-hop, a core traditional practice of the culture is to remix—to reimagine anew classic melodies and lyrics for the present time and generation. With Freestyle Friday, we sought to transform the classic workshop template into a podcast-style webinar format in order to advance the work of racial and social justice, which seemed ever more urgent in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Gabriel and I knew that this global pandemic was life threatening, we couldn’t have imagined the over 24 million infections and 400,000 deaths nationally as this piece goes to press. Nor could we have imagined the global mobilization against white supremacy sparked by the murders of Ahmad Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others to name. We did believe, however, that special stewardship would be needed as educators stepped up to serve the most vulnerable in unimaginable ways—like we always do.

How could we share their stories? How could we hold space for educators to make sense of this uniquely traumatic moment? Did the virtual silos into which we were now all relegated offer any opportunities? The flow of our conversation and the weight of these questions gave birth to Freestyle Friday—a video interview podcast format with me as the host, Gabriel as the producer, and two brilliant educators—one local and one national—sharing how we were improvising in the classroom and the community to serve our students during this pandemic season.

From April to June 2020, these weekly conversations felt more like a collective exploration of complex educational issues during a moment of deep uncertainty. Packed with diverse perspectives, mostly centering Black, Indigenous and People of Color voices, our special guests offered a wealth of insights. Here is snapshot of the lineup:

  Ep. 1 – Think Global, Act Local: Mutual Aid Networks

          o  Erika Strauss Chavarria and Christina Jacquez

  Ep. 2 – Xenophobia toward Asian and Muslim Communities

          o  Estella Afi Owoimaha-Church and Nagla Bedir

  Ep. 3 – COVID-19’s Impact on Students with Special Needs

          o  Stephanie Tellez and Dr. Tiffanie ThrBak

  Ep. 4 – From the Ground Up: Community First

          o  Jessyca Mathews and Zellie Thomas

  Ep. 5 – Reflections on Climate Justice and Beyond

          o  Sam Kapoi and Rachael Arens

  Ep. 6 – White Aspiring Antiracist Educators

          o  Terry Jess and Jim Boice

  Ep. 7 – Black Women Teaching and Leading

          o  Mrs. Turquoise LeJeune Parker and Petal Robertson

  Ep. 8 – Community Organizing in the Uprising

          o  Chigozie Onyema and TJ Whittaker

  Ep. 9 – Freedom Dreaming and REAL Movement-Building

          o  Fatimah Hayes and Gabriel A. Tanglao

Through facilitating these interviews, I realized as a years-long consumer of hip-hop that the true essence of a ‘freestyle’ had eluded me. Gabe captures it, saying that “freestyle is when an MC flows with the lyrics from their head without having to write them down.” The agility required to balance preparation and spontaneity was invigorating for my guests and me. I couldn’t have foreseen how I would be inspired by organizers in North Carolina and Detroit, how ignorant I was of the experiences of children with special needs and their families, or how the ancestral practice of carving Hawaiian canoes (Hōkūle´a) might inspire us all to commit to climate justice.

I did not expect that a special community would form as we bonded through these virtual conversations. What created that special magic? Was it the craving for human connection during the early stages of quarantine? Did the courageous narratives of how educators responded compel people to continue tuning in?

The Freestyle Friday experience helped inspire my imagination about what is possible, even in this moment of chaos, when we build our connections with one another and keep it REAL. As a platform for educators to seize our political initiative in all of its variety, Freestyle Friday answered the well-known hip-hop call and response—Can I kick it?/Yes you can!—with resounding affirmation.

Look out for the season release of our Freestyle Fridays in spring 2021 at

Ikechukwu Onyema is a chemistry teacher at East Orange Campus High School. He can be reached at