When I look back at my planning for this unit - I honestly did not think it would take 4-5 weeks to really cover ‘The Art of Rhyme’. There were several factors that came into play:
- Students’ prior knowledge when it comes to poetic constructs and reading/hearing them in songs
- How much can be accomplished in 40 minute blocks - some days flow quickly as they got some concepts faster, while some days we had to slow things down and really dig in
- Comfort-level with being vulnerable to the process: writer’s block, not worrying about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approaches, etc.
Once I was able to meet my students where they were at - they really took the reigns and ran with it. By the time we reached the end, they were asking…BEGGING…to present to each other.
Starting off slow: Build-up to writing their rhymes
The decision to start off slow and not jump into writing rhymes right away was intentional. I wanted them to truly explore the importance of the element and its use of known literary conventions. Inspired by Chase March's Lesson Plan on the Structure of Rap Songs and Paul Carl's Rap Poetry Lesson, I created a Kahoot! fun quiz on “Shakespeare” vs. “Hip Hop” which helped the students see that when you strip the beat away, rap lyrics can often be indistinguishable from a Shakespearean sonnet. We also watched a bit of the Ted Talk where Akala eloquently modeled this. This led to exploring the literary conventions emcees use in their rhymes.
We looked at several sets of lyrics and annotated them; spotting the different conventions in the verses. We discussed and broke down what they meant. They backed up their choices. They struggled with spotting the conventions. After jumping through a few annotations of classic and modern hip hop songs - I hit them with Hamilton.
Again, saving Hamilton for last was intentional. Their challenge was to find as many literary conventions as possible. Of the 10 conventions on their lists, “Alexander Hamilton” - the introductory song to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s libretto - has about EIGHT. Feedback from the students was fruitful. They shared their awe with rapping over a live orchestra pit, observations of the different rhyme styles presented by the characters, etc.
Following our annotations, we looked at the construct of most Hip Hop songs. Hence the title of our lesson, 16 Barz. They learned that most Hip Hop songs are 16 bars in a verse (8 couplets) and a hook. We looked at Run DMC’s “My Adidas” to examine phrasing, aesthetics, as well as the beat. Through this exercise they learned how to “find the one” and how rap song generally follow a four beat count-off - “1, 2, 3, 4, 2-2, 3, 4…”
Then they were off and attempting to fly on their own.
Unlocking the inquiry
Each section (101 A & 101 B) split into two groups. Each group was assigned a school-related topic: Books, Notes, Pens, and Class. The requirements were simple: come up with 16 bars (8 couplets) using the “end rhyme” convention aka the most common literary convention in a rap song. To spark their ideas - I had them write the topic in the middle of the poster paper and they were to come up with as many words that could possible rhyme with it. I provided them with 10 classic Hip Hop beats (selected from Complex Magazine's list) to choose from and they worked on matching their rhymes over the beat of their choosing.
Pushing, but nurturing students to challenge themselves
Teaching a Hip Hop sociocultural history elective is challenging enough with younger, middle school students, but there is an added layer of challenge when the population is as diverse as an international school. Students aren’t always going to be comfortable with lyrics, much less writing their own - particularly when English is not their first language. Some days, I felt I was maybe pushing too hard or that maybe I was not mindful of the time they needed to process the information flying at them. Thus, it was helpful to have the list of conventions w/ definitions that they could always reference. Moreover, I required them to only use words that they actually knew the meaning and use in the correct context. Lastly, when they were really stuck - we took time to talk about that frustration and having them unpack it. Those side conversations were quite informative because I discovered that most of them were anxious about doing it “wrong.” It was a reminder for me - a native English speaker who listens to Hip Hop songs regularly - that my students want to do things well and that they need to be reminded and encouraged that that it was okay for them to make mistakes and that the real lesson is in the process of creating.
The end result is MAGIC: