Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

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Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

Post  eddie on Tue Jun 28, 2011 3:53 am

Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

When your teacher is a performance poet, English lessons can have a different accent

Judy Friedberg guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 June 2011 17.30 BST

Teacher by day, performance poet by night: Sam Berkson entertains year 9. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Neat rows of well-behaved year 9s collapse into giggles and cover their faces with their hands as, on the stage, English teacher Sam Berkson launches into a Linton Kwesi Johnson poem, Mekin Histri, in a startling Jamaican accent:

Now tell me someting

Mistah govahment man

Now tell me someting ...

What most of them don't know is that by night Berkson is a performance poet known as Angry Sam – and he's not about to be put off by a little teenage embarrassment. They are won over by his conviction and clarity, and soon become mesmerised. Berkson is not so much reciting the poem as rapping it, and he gets them to chant the chorus:

It is noh mistri

Wi mekin histri

It is noh mistri

Wi winnin victri

Berkson and art teacher Chris Beschi, another poet-by-night whose performance name is Curious, have organised a slam at Kingsbury high school, a huge comprehensive in north-west London. They're doing four poems from the year 9 syllabus in the style of a hip-hop contest, and giving the school's 300 year 9s the chance to vote for their favourite.

They have chosen poems about London, one thing their diverse group of pupils has in common. The earliest is William Blake's London (1794) followed by William Wordsworth's Composed Upon Westminster Bridge (1802). The most modern is Kate Tempest's Cannibal Kids, an extraordinary rap about the capital's disaffected youth.

The teachers adopt the persona and speech patterns of each poet, and say a little about themselves before they launch with gusto into the poems.

Poetry may once have been seen as a bit "girly" but hip-hop has transformed that. These days, teenagers are constantly listening to intricate rhymes written by the artists they admire, both American and British. They watch rappers compete to see who can outwit and outperform the rest. There is an energy, beat and relevance that chimes with other aspects of urban culture: hip-hop dance styles, DJing, and graffiti art.

Beschi says: "A big part of making the link between the academic poetry syllabus and the students' love of hip-hop is having people perform it who understand poetry, who have a passion for it, and who write it themselves."

Do pupils identify poetry and rap as the same thing? "Not of their own accord," Beschi says. "They understand the link once other people make it."

Berkson adds: "Many kids are interested in lyrics, and in writing lyrics themselves – and it's not that different from writing poetry." What poets call "lines", rappers call "bars", the poets explain. "Generally, kids will write 16 bars," says Beschi. "In their heads they are hearing a 4/4 rhythm and writing to that."

Berkson says: "The beauty of our approach is that it breaks down the barrier between what they're already into and academic poetry."

Judging by the attention of the pupils in the hall, and the cheers that greet every poem, it's working. Could other teachers do what they are doing, or would it just be embarrassing if they tried?

Beschi says: "I would argue that it doesn't work for everyone. You have an authenticity as a poet that comes into your work as a teacher. And I don't think you can fake that. Being involved in the writing, performing, promoting process – there's something important about artists teaching, practitioners teaching."

But age and accent are certainly not barriers, says Berkson : "It doesn't matter if you are middle-class or middle-aged, it's just if you've got a feeling for poetry. And that comes from a deep involvement.

"Performing poetry is a chance to model the learning behaviour that you want from students," says Beschi. "If you're a white middle-class person reading Linton Kwesi Johnson in a cod patois accent, you're just reversing the role that you ask of your patois-speaking Jamaican student when you get them to read Blake.

"That's really important, not just in teaching poetry but in teaching anything: modelling that kind of academic risk-taking. You're saying: 'I'm going to do something I'm not familiar with because that's what learning is – I try things I don't know'."

Berkson sees his teaching as a step-by-step process, starting with a grasp of what students already know. "You've got to work out where they're coming from, what they understand, and then you've got to work out where you're taking them to. Hopefully, you have a social empathy with the kids you're teaching."

Besides teaching art, Beschi is also Kingsbury's behaviour support manager, and uses poetry to help students with emotional issues. "Poetry can be a channel for frustration and anger. When kids write rap and express their thoughts in a creative way, it's cathartic for them. It's a way of getting things off your chest," he says.

Rap can be pretty crude, he admits. "A lot of the rap that kids listen to doesn't come from record labels, it's home-grown, recorded on your mate's phone, put on YouTube. There's no editing process – it's really coarse.

"And what comes across is that it's an expression of confusion. They're not feeling empowered but they don't really know why. They have a sense that they're part of a structure they can't control. This is a way of getting some control."

The government is keen that pupils study "useful" subjects such as science and maths. But poetry, say the teachers, teaches equally valuable skills – students learn to analyse, to communicate, and to believe in themselves.

"By giving people the opportunity to perform poetry, you're letting them express their own ideas, which there isn't much space for in the English curriculum," says Beschi. "It's empowering to have your ideas heard and discussed."

Berkson adds: "The benefit comes across as confidence. Often people say about public school kids: 'They've got a real confidence about them'. Affluent kids go out and do things; they feel they have the right to ask for stuff and make things happen. And kids who aren't from that background feel that their role in society is to follow. They don't feel like they could be a leader of society. It's vital to build their self-worth and give them a sense that there is a value to their thoughts."

Performing verse, rapping, can give you status among your peers too, the teachers say. Being an urban poet is a pretty cool thing to be these days.

At the end of the slam, Mekin Histri wins convincingly. A group of pupils tells me: "We liked it when he did the accent. We were happy that it was something different, not formal English."

"Using audience participation means they invested in the poem," says Beschi. "And it's a great poem – angry, but also uplifting."

"The last poem in a slam always wins," says Berkson.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

Post  pinhedz on Thu Aug 11, 2011 3:41 am

A deep rolling bass.

FAT black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.

More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.


Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.

A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.

And "BLOOD" screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
"BLOOD" screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
"Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune

With a philosophic pause.

From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,

Shrilly and with a heavily accented meter.

Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,

Like the wind in the chimney.

Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants' hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play:—
"Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,

All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.

And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you."

Rather shrill and high.

Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
Danced the juba in their gambling-hall
And laughed fit to kill, and shook the town,
And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
With a boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM....

Read exactly as in first section.


Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas. Keep as light-footed as possible.

A negro fairyland swung into view,
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true.
The ebony palace soared on high
Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.
The inlaid porches and casements shone
With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.
And the black crowd laughed till their sides were sore
At the baboon butler in the agate door,
And the well-known tunes of the parrot band
That trilled on the bushes of that magic land.

With pomposity.

A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
And danced the juba from wall to wall.

With a great deliberation and ghostliness.

But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throngng:—
With a stern cold glare, and a stern old so
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you."...

With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.

Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Shoes with a patent leather shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.

With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm.

And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with the jessamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
(O rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.)

The cake-walk royalty then began
To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
To the tune of "Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"

With a touch of negro dialect, and as rapidly as possible toward the end.

While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
And sang with the scalawags prancing there:—
Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Beware, beware, walk with care,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,

Slow philosophic calm.

Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.

Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.

A good old negro in the slums of the town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
Beat on the Bible till he wore it out,
Starting the jubilee revival shout.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs.
And they all repented, a thousand strong,
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed their hymn books till they shook the room
With "Glory, glory, glory,"
And "Boom, boom, BOOM."

Exactly as in the first section.


And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steel they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve apostles, from their thrones on high,
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry:—
"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;

Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."

Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

With growing deliberation and joy.

Then along that river, a thousand miles,
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way 135
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.

In a rather high key—as delicately as possible.

There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
'Twas a land transfigured, 'twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation;
And on through the backwoods clearing flew:—
"Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.

To the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."

Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune:—
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.

Dying off into a penetrating, terrified whisper.

Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."

-- Vachel Lindsay
Schrödinger's Hepcat

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Re: Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

Post  Yakima Canutt on Thu Aug 01, 2013 7:10 pm

but how can one teach the smell of 119th street?
Yakima Canutt

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Re: Teachers use hip-hop to teach poetry

Post  pinhedz on Fri Aug 16, 2013 8:48 am

Schrödinger's Hepcat

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