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Our poetry and rap group started out with about 35 students.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t select everyone to perform in our final ceremony. 😦  Here I am in a picture with the infamous Dr. C (a.k.a Colleen) and the fabulous, the spectacular final group of Wuhan poets and rappers.

If you recall (or maybe not), in session 1 we focused on literary poetry.  In the sections below, I’ll go over some of the method to the madness of our Wuhan rap workshop.

Working Out the Kinks

Session 2 of the Wuhan Poetry and Rap Workshop was all about the beats and rhymes of urban poetry . . .  or rap, as it is widely known.  This was my first time doing a rap workshop for ELLs (English Language Learners), so I’ll go ahead and admit that I was kind of nervous.  I mean, I had a bunch of *great* ideas in my head, but theory and practice don’t always mesh so well, ya know.  So how did I deal with my uncertainties, you ask?  I experimented a bit with some of my regular classes during the day 🙂    In our regular English through American music culture class, we have a section on hip-hop where I cover the Nas song, “I Can”.   We talk briefly about issues of race, class and urban communities in the U.S. to give context to the social climate that inspired the song.

Establishing a Rapper Identity

James Paul Gee is an expert on sociocultural aspects of teaching and learning (Shouts to Gee, a beautiful mind).  I took a cue from him when he said that in order to actively participate as learners, students must feel that some part of their identity can mesh with the identity required to engage with the content.  In other words, I don’t want to learn science if I don’t feel that I fit in with the community of people who can be called scientists.  I knew that several of my students might have misgivings about seeing themselves as rappers, so that’s where we started – creating our rap identity.

I introduced myself as MC Free – unable to be confined, a lover of liberation and self-expression.  Okay, well it sounded “deep” to me at the time. 🙂   We talked about the rap alias or nickname and how central it is to the goal of expressing one’s individuality.  I showed a slide with some examples of rapper nicknames from the U.S. and yes, right here in China (of course!!).  We also explored the meaning of MC prefix and how it has faded as a popular convention in U.S.  hip-hop communities (but is thriving worldwide!!).  Here were some of my favorite nicknames that students chose in the rap workshop:

Big Ha Ha

MC Candy

Mr. Bullet

Dr. Smooth

MC Sleepy

The Rhyme Cipher

After a little background the hip-hop practice of doing Ciphers, we did our own rhyme Cipher.  The students learned how to follow a rhythm of 4 beats per line (or bar) and say one rhyming word on the first beat.   Like this  . . .  cat – 2- 3- 4, bat – 2 – 3- 4, etc.   After they got it with simple counting/clapping, I turned out a rap instrumental and put them to the test.  It helps for ELLs to prepare their rhyme lists in advance.   Then 8 students came to the front and had to say one rhyming word when it was their turn.   They got it on the first try.  It’s always fun to see who will be the last man/woman standing after the others get eliminated for running out of rhyming words.

Writing Your Own Bars

After the Cipher, it was clear that the students understood the basics of rhyme and the four-beat counts of hip-hop lines.  Cool.  So now we’re ready to write our own bars.  The goal was to write at least four bars.  Some students wrote as many as eight.   I guided them through the first two by showing my own simple example (don’t clown!):

My name is MC Free and I’m busy as a bee

If you’ve never heard of me, check your local magazine

Here are some examples of bars the students came up with:

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Each day, at the beginning of class, I give the students a riddle to solve.  Not only are riddles fun, they are great for teaching about the nuance of language.  At the heart of riddles there is often some obscure, less-than-obvious meaning of a word.  Riddles tend to involve idioms fairly often too.

I’m amazed at how creatively my students think when it comes to riddles.  Many of their answers actually solve the riddle very well, even if their answers are not the “correct” one I’m looking for.

Here’s one example:

What can you keep after you’ve given it to someone?

Student A’s answer:  a name

Student B’s answer: a thought

“correct” answer:  your word
I think the students’ answers fit the riddle just fine, and they show that the students understand the figurative nature of the language.    Very impressive.

Just for kicks, I’m including a the riddles powerpoint that I use in class.  Can you solve them?

DailyRiddles

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For the past few years, the college students in the Wuhan program have been offered a chance to participate in a poetry workshop, hitherto led by the venerable Don Yorty.  This year, I took over the workshop, and decided to extend it to include rap.   In this post, I’ll discuss session 1 – Literary Poetry.

In this session, I borrowed many of Don’s wonderful ideas (thanks, Don!!). We started with a brainstorming warm up called “Poetry Is . . . “.   I challenged the students to describe poetry in one word.  We kept the warm up going with a group (chain) poetry exercise.  Later, we moved on to our main exercise, which focused intently on metaphor. To illustrate this concept, I used a few lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

We bypassed the interesting metrical and (half) rhyme features of this poem to really dig into how the metaphor was constructed.  The students quickly identified Dickinson’s bird metaphor.  We also used these lines to focus on imagery and appeal to human senses.

The students were then given the task of finding a metaphor for “love”.   I’m convinced that many of the Wuhan students are born poets.  The effort they dedicated to this task is beyond commendable.  During session 3, the students will revise and rehearse their poems in preparation for our closing ceremony.  I’d like to share a few of my favorites from session 1:

Love is a flower,
Beautiful yet weak
Water it with trust and patience
You will be rewarded with its fruits

Love is like the snow,
Clean and bright
Dancing in the sky of the soul
When it falls
It becomes the first present of Christmas

Love is a blue umbrella,
Blooming in the soft rain like a flower
The direction will be told by the water
It falls with one being loved
And the other left with a wet shoulder

The next session I will cover is our rap workshop, which includes moments when the Wuhan students became MCs.  Coming soon . . .

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