Patricia M. Sorrentino
There is a difficult challenge schools face each day: asking students to keep their electronic devices away! Even though some schools ban all electronic devices or even confiscate them, without fail you will be sure to see at least one student with an earbud attached to a device full of lyrics and beats stuck in his ear. Students argue that the music they listen to helps them stay focused and complete their work; teachers argue that the music their students listen to distracts them and makes their work unsatisfactory. So, how should educators fight this war? Many teachers dislike arguing, so they allow their students to listen to the music or even play it for them. Others stand true to their beliefs and refer a student with the banned electronic device to the principal's office, but some decide the lyrics their students are engulfed in are worth teaching. I would consider myself to be a part of the "some" category, but the never-ending question of how to teach these lyrics in relation to poetry is one most of us cannot answer. This unit will bring together my students' favorite lyrics with history's favorite poems to instill a fond appreciation for poetry's words on a page, which can be given a beat and become the words pumping through the earbuds my students refuse to remove from their ears. Poetry, like rap, creates an inherent beat due to the chosen words and the creative placement of those words. If students can begin to hear the beat the words alone make in rap, they will be able to then hear a poem's beat, and so they will no longer need the computerized sounds or instrumentals to accompany the words.
I teach under-credited and overage "juniors" and "seniors" at New Horizons School for Higher Achievement in New Haven, Connecticut. My students have been placed in our alternative high school for reasons of truancy, criminal records (court-ordered students), childcare issues, and serious behavior issues. Most of them live in poverty-ridden neighborhoods and find school to be their only "safe-haven," but fall way below their reading/writing grade levels, so schoolwork is difficult and frustrating. My job is to teach the New Haven junior and senior curriculum at an appropriate level, so none of my students feels over- or under-challenged, which is quite difficult when I have a class of fifteen students and reading/writing levels vary from "grade 2" through "post-high school." Another huge challenge is their truancy issues. In my class of fifteen I may only see the same three students every other day, so the units and lessons I plan cannot span over a couple days because I will only be forced to play "catch-up" each day with the students who walk into the classroom after three days of being absent.
My students love and live for music. They want their favorite music to be playing at all times and have most rap songs memorized. Some of my students enjoy writing their own lyrics or free styling to beats, but find no real connection to poetry, for the idea of poetry seems so far from the lyrics they love.
This unit will ask my students to look at their favorite rap lyrics and compare them to poetic lyrics. I believe my students love these rap lyrics because of the creative word use, but do not take the time to think about the effects of the artist's choice of words. I often hear students reciting their favorite artists' lyrics, and for reasons they are not aware of, are able to remember the lines and spew them out effortlessly. For example, in "Dumb it Down," Lupe Fiasco sings: I'm fearless, now hear this, I'm earless (less)/and I'm peerless (less), which means I'm eyeless/ which means I'm tearless, which means my iris/resides where my ear is,/ which means I'm blinded."
The constant rhyme allows for listeners to quickly pick up on the words. Not only are there the obvious repetition and rhyming of the "less" in his song, but all the surrounding words enhance that rhyme. The "this," "Iris," and "is" help punctuate the strong rhyming. Also, in Souls of Mischief's song "Disseshowedo," Tajai's lines "In battles I rip it and it gets hectic after/ I flip the script like a dyslectic actor/ you're no factor" allow for creative wordplay.
His message gets across by creating a strong simile and rhyming the words "after," "actor," and "factor." The strong simile allows for his listeners to image just how "hectic" it gets when he battles and the rhymes help to make the song catchy. My students encounter a lot of violence in their daily lives, but rap battles allow for a fight between two people without fists or guns. My students enjoy rap battling because the only weapons are words and they can "dis" each other without it ending violently.
These literary elements are already a part of my students' lives and their love for rap, but my job is to point out the literary elements, so my students can identify them in new songs they listen to, sing, or produce and transfer their knowledge to more "traditional" poetry. Their favorite rappers already use the tools I will teach my students, so through these rappers' lyrics, I can teach the craft of poetry to my students. Most of them do not realize that the words written on a page in a certain manner create a rhythm and rhyme without any music at all. Many rap artists use a specific form in which they write lyrics, just like poets, but my students do not recognize or do not have the experience to see this craft taking place. Lyrics, like poetry, use wordplay, signifying, and storytelling to send a message to their audience; that rap's message can be incredibly similar to a poem's, which is why I will ask my students to read and closely look at rap lyrics on paper next to a poem on paper.
In order to create this connection, we must first give our students what they want: lyrics. Through the lyrics created by Tupac (rapper), Eminem, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Lil'Kim, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, and others, poetic elements can be taught and then transferred to poetry, which has not been given a formal beat or made it to the top hits playlist. This unit is designed for 9-12
grade students who have a particular love for rap lyrics, but can be modified for the 7-8
grade level. It can also be modified to use a different genre of lyrics coupled with various poets. This unit will encourage students to make poetry to lyric connections (text to text), text to self, and text to world connections, while teaching the poetic elements found in poetry written by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Tupac (poet), and others. Students will have the opportunity to hear rap songs and written poetry performed, and they will also be given the opportunity to perform a poem (original or famous) to bring the words on a page to life. Elements of poetry, which create memorable raps and poems, will be learned about through Adam Bradley's
Book of Rhymes The Poetics of Hip Hop.
Most of the lyrics and poems chosen will relate in theme, but will also have similar poetic elements. For example, Hughes's
Mother to Son
poem will be taught parallel to Tupac's
lyrics. The theme of mother and son will be the focus, while the elements of storytelling, rhythm, and rhyme used to create the beautiful flow of both texts can be learned and appreciated.