This is China
  • Reflecting on a Hip Hop 101 Lesson Plan: 16 Barz - the Art of Rhyme

    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:



  • #NoPassionLeftBehind

    #sishiphop101 gets a taste of The Big Payback by James Brown #hiphopeducation #sisrocks #passion

    — Yvette Cuenco (@YvetteCuencoSC) January 19, 2017 

    Shortly before Winter Break, my assistant principal approached me about teaching electives in Semester 2. Not only did this opportunity give me a chance to have more face time with my students, but it also gave me the challenge of figuring out WHAT I was going to teach and HOW I was going to do it. Within about an hour after that conversation, I asked to run something by her. I decided I wanted to teach an elective on Hip Hop - but it won't just be about performance, it will give the students a foundation of where Hip Hop began and explore how it got to where it is now.  I got the greenlight.

    Begin panic.

    "Will they like it?" "How am I going to make this interesting for middle schoolers?" "I don't want to sound like I'm preaching." "I don't want to sound...OLD." 

    For the first time in quite a long time, I was nervous.  So how did I respond? I talked to my colleagues and I watched/read the news.  My colleagues seemed more excited about the Hip Hop class than the students. Through my conversations with them, my creative juices of what I will teach and how started flowing. Ideas of beat making, annotating rap lyrics, etc. all started to turn my anxiety to excitement. Watching/reading the news (particularly news from the United States) fueled my inspiration for the students to explore how external factors such as poverty, racism, disenfranchisement can manifest into a whole culture known as Hip Hop.

    @YvetteCuencoSC sharing her passion and spinning talents in her History of #HipHop class! Ss are loving it! #SISrocks #nopassionleftbehind

    — Carlos Galvez (@clos_gm) January 25, 2017

    My goals became quite clear:

    1. Exploring the foundations of Hip Hop gives them cultural context of not just the music, but also the sociopolitical factors that resulted in the artform.
    2. Learning by doing makes it FUN and complements our inquiry-based curriculum. We were going to explore the 4 Elements of Hip Hop Culture: MCing, Grafitti, DJing, and Bboying through experimentation and research.
    3. Lastly, outside of teaching/counseling - music is a passion of mine and Hip Hop culture is a huge part of who I am. This class is a great opportunity to model for my students how to take something your passionate about and challenge yourself to use it in different ways.

    We've only just finished the 2nd week of electives and already as my students and I warm up to each other, my pre-class jitters are slowly starting to go away.  When you let the internal mind chatter quiet down and you look at what's right in front of you, you will often see that "the work" isn't so difficult after all.

  • Hello Shenzhen! 您好深圳! Part 1

    I arrived in Shenzhen three days ago and so far, so good.  The settling in process takes time and plenty of energy.  In the next few posts I will be sharing my Shenzhen experiences and dropping a few pro tips along the way!


    Like with every international school orientation, it is information OVERLOAD and a major hit to the senses - new sights, sounds, smells, language, culture, etc.  I am sure my fellow newbies would agree that the school nailed their role in making this transition as worry-free as possible.

    Here is what stood out to me:

    1. Much like my school in Uzbekistan - greeted at the hotel by admin.
    2. Welcome bags full of creature comforts - snacks, bread, peanut butter, wine, beer, soda, etc.
    3. Cellphone w/ sim card. I took the sim out and popped it into my unlocked Android phone.
    4. Phone numbers of all admin and administrative assistants who are reachable at any time.
    5. Most importantly for me - It's a community that HUGS. There's truly nothing like coming off a plane after dealing with the dog, delayed bag, etc. and being greeted with warmth and friendly faces.


    After that first night, we toured the Elementary campus and were taken to different returning teachers' apartments to truly get a feel for the potential of spaces we'd call home.  Living in Tashkent and Bangkok, prepared me well for the lack of uniformity in the apartments I would see.  For some background - modern Shenzhen is really only 30 years old. It is a young city compared to Beijing and Shanghai.  Despite it's "new-ness", thanks to oil and tech - it is incredibly WEALTHY.  I did not expect to see so many BMWs, Teslas, Mercedes Benzes, etc. and I've only explored one district - Shekou.  This contributes to the lack of uniformity in the apartment spaces.  They build large skyrise condos and the original units are an empty shell when purchased. The landlords create the interiors on their own which leads to the diversity of spaces. I saw 5 or 6 two bedroom apartments in the same condo mega-complex and they all looked totally different. 

    While some of my colleagues have found it a little daunting, I did my best to enjoy it.  I stuck to my guns with what I wanted:

    1. Two bedroom flat - second bedroom has to fit a full-sized bed or at least a futon for guests
    2. Large open plan to get the most natural light
    3. All appliances inside (some apartments had their washers out on the balcony)
    4. Hardwood floor
    5. View of Shenzhen Bay
    6. Large exterior gardens with swimming pool
    7. Walking distance to school
    8. Easy access to shops and amenities

    One of the more surprising aspects of this hunt is that it was evident that the apartments were not cleaned, albeit empty. Some were much worse off than others. I saw an apartment with rotting food inside a fridge. I chalked this up to the fact that the landlords know Shenzhen is a hot market, particularly Shekou which is the special economic zone and closest proximity to Hong Kong (30 minutes by ferry).  Condo owners KNOW that their spaces will be rented no matter what. Despite being thrown off by the dust and grime, it actually made it easier to spot what issues needed to be addressed. I really liked the first place so I didn't want to waste any time - I asked the real estate agent if we could go back to it and I proceeded to check it out more thoroughly.

    PRO TIPS when apartment hunting - coming from my new colleagues:

    1. Flip open all the lights
    2. Open every door, cupboard, etc.
    3. Turn on all the faucets
    4. Look at the ceiling for water damage
    5. Check the furniture
    6. Don't be afraid to ask for stuff when negotiating
    7. Keep an open mind...a place can look like a mess, but have lots of potential

    As a result of this I was able to get my landlord to agree to a new fridge, new mattress, and repairing the shower at no extra cost. 

    Here is my new home:

    I'll post exterior photos later, but the complex hits all of my requirements and I will be surrounded by an instant community of colleagues/new friends.  The date of move-in is still TBD as things need to be purchased/cleaned/repaired, but at least now Milo and I can rest easier knowing we have a place to call home!

    Come back soon for Hello Shenzhen! 您好深圳! Part 2!