Matthew S. Monahan
1.1 Statement of Context
As a sixth year veteran of teaching English, I do currently teach poetry; however, the
New Haven School District English Language Arts
curriculum allows little room for a complete unit dedicated to the form of poetry. The majority of lessons and class time I currently give to poetry generally focus on the teaching of specific literary devices and analysis (with a concentration on the acronym SIFT: Symbol, Image, Figurative Language and Tone). I do generally concentrate on modern and contemporary works. I look forward to the prospect of engaging all of my students through the inclusion of such unchartered territories (speaking from a strictly personal standpoint) of memorization, and vocal performance in the classroom. In the preface to his book
Teaching Poetry in High School
, Albert Somers states "that anyone can like poetry, that a lot of poetry is approachable and fun. And poetry is fun to do things with" (ix). This is what I look forward to most, discovering new approaches to poetry to both enliven and enrich the experiences of my students.
My first year teaching at Metropolitan Business Academy (MBA), an inter-district magnet high school, I taught one section of creative writing. Much of its focus was the writing of formal poetry and of "free verse" (I am placing free verse in quotations because with this "freedom" came responsibility, specifically a number of criteria e.g. the incorporation of a set number of student-generated neologisms or portmanteau words). A current Metro senior recently expressed his fondness for the course and stated that he still has everything he wrote for class. One of my aims is to create a unit that inspires this type of reaction from all students within the context of a required English course.
Although MBA is a magnet high school, students are admitted solely on the basis of lottery. There are no entrance or placement tests. Additionally, the term inter-district has been somewhat misleading. It is true, that in the interest of greater diversity, our school does service students from surrounding districts (with a few coming from as far away as Bridgeport and Naugatuck); however, despite these efforts the student body does remain predominantly minority and the lion's share of students receive either free or reduced lunch.
My prior use of hip hop or rap in the classroom has been extremely limited. Although Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America" lends itself to a Gil Scott Heron-esque performance/reading, I believe it is the work of Tupac Shakur, specifically his poem "Liberty Needs Glasses," that I have read with my students. The Baraka poem has been great fun; however, as this the unit was at one time intended for freshmen, I believe it is worth noting that its mature language would reserve its use for upper-level classes.
Prior to and initially during my studies of secondary English education at City College, CUNY (City University of New York) I spent a good deal of time working in service industries that were closely connected to the entertainment business. Up until this point the lyrical stylings of Chuck D. and Public Enemy represented both the beginning and the end of my appreciation of the form (i.e. hip hop or rap). In the early part of the twenty-first century while working a N.E.R.D. show at New York's Irving Plaza, I and approximately twelve hundred others were treated to a surprise appearance by Jay-Z. The power of his performance gives me pause; why haven't I capitalized on this medium before? Am I afraid that my students might find it condescending if we were to focus on a genre that is so often assumed to be of high-interest? I guess, in reality, I often been overly concerned with the separation of musical forms and other more "accepted" genres for use in the classroom. Exposure to the very different versions of Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innis Free" and WC Handy's work at our first seminar meeting has worked to dispel such misguided concerns and assuage such fears.
Poetry finds its way into the collective unconscious in a myriad ways, whether it be Bruce Dickinson of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden reinterpreting Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a group of second-generation brat-packers standing on desks reciting Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" or Rodney Dangerfield's Thorton Mellon romancing Sally "Hot Lips" Kellerman in
Back to School
by reciting the villanelle "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,"
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
I have always admired Yeats (yes, I realize that last line was Thomas), and I feel "The Second Coming" is a fierce poem on many levels. I have used it to illustrate the motif of things that are cyclical by nature especially when introducing such works as Toni Morrison's
The Bluest Eye
, which is structured around the changing of the seasons, and Chinua Achebe's
Things Fall Apart
whose title alludes directly to Yeats and "The Second Coming" in particular. These digressions are somewhat illustrative of the past approaches to my teaching of poetry.
My unit will run approximately six weeks and has been created with my senior students in mind; it will be easily adapted to all grades at the secondary level. This is significant as I also have taught freshmen and juniors and historically speaking my grade level assignments have changed from year to year.
1.2 Teaching Philosophy
An effective teacher encourages participation, aids in the development of students' self esteem and promotes the value and practice of respect for others. Additionally, the effective teacher understands the importance of a balanced approach to instruction that utilizes both individual and cooperative learning processes. The teacher stresses the importance of classroom as community, possesses infectious enthusiasm and has a clear message.
It is my hope that through the study of hip hop and poetry and in crafting their personal statements my students will minimize their fears of failure and discover and value their individual voices. What is voice without sound? It does not exist. In leading, steering, and coaching my students along this journey of self-discovery I wish to avoid moulding, shaping or indoctrinating them.
We don't need no education,
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom-
Teacher, leave them kids alone! (Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall." 1979.)
It sounds; I sound like a broken record, "The irony is not lost on me." I will complain that a teacher/author who has the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) seal of approval lauds teachers who espouse Dylan (Bob not Thomas; even though Zimmerman's moniker is homage) as poet in the highest esteem and makes the claim that hip-hop is rock derivative successfully marketed to African-Americans, and I lead off with a quote from Roger Waters come Bob Geldoff of the Boomtown Rats.
1.3 Descriptive Overview and Rationale
The argument that Albert B. Somers makes for the inclusion of rap music in his book
Teaching Poetry in High School
is not only sophomoric but also borderline offensive. He states, "Since the late 1970s rap music, or hip-hop, has been an important offshoot of rock, especially among African Americans" (170). Although I disagree with his supporting statements, one of my aims in writing this unit is to thoroughly convince myself of his thesis that "No teacher should overlook rap."
My bone to pick with Somers is largely a matter of tone. Whether or not my perceptions are correct, it sounds to me like he is saying that rap is derivative of rock and roll and therefore somehow inferior; additionally, the emphasis he places on its appeal "especially among African Americans" comes off as being somewhat condescending and has the effect of marginalizing the form's overall cultural impact and significance. While it is true, at least according to Bradley, that:
Hip hop emerged out of urban poverty to become one of the most vital cultural
forces of the past century. The South Bronx may seem an unlikely place to have
birthed a new movement in poetry. But in defiance of inferior educational
opportunities and poor housing standards, a generation of young people- mostly
black and brown- conceived innovations in rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay that
would change the English language itself (
Book of Rhymes,
Chapter 1, location 72).
The major differences in these two presentations are that Bradley acknowledges that while most of the progenitors of hip hop were people of color, thus broadening the scope of those recognized as being socioeconomically oppressed and politically disenfranchised, that the form's cultural significance has transcended race.
Reinforcing my newfound acceptance of words more closely associated with music is the writing of Adam Bradley, specifically his
Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop
. In it he discusses how "A good poem makes for a lousy lyric, and a great lyric for a second rate poem. Rap defies such conventional wisdom. By unburdening itself from the requirements of musical form rap is free to generate its own poetic textures independent of the music" (xvi). He goes on to explain how songwriters, unlike MCs, must also consider how their words match "melodies and harmonies." This disambiguation aligns MCs more closely to literary poets. If Bradley gets his way, Jay-Z will one day receive the serious consideration reserved for the likes of Kooser, Hall and Pinsky.
Okay, so now I feel confident that I have a sound rationale for the inclusion of rap in the study of poetry, but once one gets past the relative absurdity of having to rationalize the inclusion of the study of poetry in English class, it may lead him or her to a series of questions: How does one make effective use of poetry in the secondary English classroom without coming off pedantic? How does one counter the arguments made by literacy consultants and administrators alike, "Poetry is too difficult for our kids [students]…. We need to demonstrate to Downtown that we are preparing students to be successful [on the CAPT exam]." How might a deeper understanding of the sound of words through a greater appreciation of the music of poetry empower our students as writers of prose, especially in relation to something as seemingly pedestrian as the Personal Statement?
Why? The hook, even if the writing of poetry (let alone "good poetry") is not the endgame, students must write to be heard. like the emcee, the college applicant, wishes to avoid being just another face in the crowd.
What else might the skilled wordsmith have to impart other than a command of voice, whether we speak of Chuck D., Wordsworth or Longfellow?
Now they've got me in a cell
Cause my records they sell
Cause a brother like me says well
Farrakhan's a prophet that I think you oughta listen to
What he say to you
What you oughta do (Public Enemy, "Bring the Noise.")
Irony, tone, shifts in register. How does verbal irony differ from sarcasm? Does this have anything to do with the sound of words? What exactly is a malapropism? When a colleague mistakenly uses the word "nuisance" when he or she meant to say, "nuance," would that qualify? Where do
come from? Was there a Spooner? In fact, there was.
Dull, brazen, cherished, cherub, dilly-dally, rumble, crumple, burp, lurk, lark, glow and doze: the preceding dozen words seem to be like their meanings. Could any of them mean their opposite? Was Shakespeare correct in his assertion about roses? Could dull be, in fact, bright and shiny? Is there room for clever and humor in the Personal Statement?
Is it pronounced Ray-Kim or Rah-kheem? Rockin' his mic. Should I not take offense when Somers claims hip hop is derivative of rock?
1.4 Descriptive Overview and Long Term Plan
This six week unit provides for two eighty-six minute blocks and one hour long period per week for its duration; this time will be spent with students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and listening activities. The unit concludes with the culminating project of senior students producing their Personal Statements.
Although neither will be studied in isolation, students will focus on the genres of hip hop and poetry. The main purpose of these studies as a gateway to the personal statement, which in fact is a "significant task" as outlined by the District's twelfth grade English Language Arts curriculum, is that students will engage in discourse with a rich variety of texts and will therefore begin to develop personal voices, a sense of tone and a fundamental understanding of what Thomas Fox terms "position" in his essay "Repositioning the Profession: Teaching Writing to African American Students."
"Position" as a central concept in the exploration of African American student
writers requires a pedagogy that would investigate the ways in which history,
culture, institutions, social relations, and race intersect and influence writing (106).