I entered the Fifth Ward Saints/Iowa Youth Writing Project Writing Club partnership with no intention to do a rap album; in fact, I assumed this would be like any other writing club I had volunteered at with the IYWP—we’d have a room full of students who loved to write and would be game to do anything we asked them to do. It was clear, after the first day, the kids at Fifth Ward Saints North would require a different approach than what I (or any of the other volunteers) had done at a writing club before. These were students who had little interest in listening to adults they didn’t know and little stamina for activities they weren’t interested in—and, considering Fifth Ward Saints North specializes in youth athletics, creative writing wasn’t exactly everybody’s cup of tea.
We implemented a “Pencil Points” PBIS system that rewarded students for attendance, participation, and for sharing their work. They received a point for each component (with a maximum of three points per session); after acquiring five points, the students were allowed to pick a prize from our prize box—which contained notebooks, pens, and various snacks. Once the students understood the system, they transformed. Suddenly, they were willing to try things—even if they were uncomfortable. Through this system, we were able to foster a positive environment where good behavior flourished. Now, at least, we had created an environment where we could hold their attention—at least for a little bit.
As I was getting to know our students from week to week, I began brainstorming ways to get them really get hooked on writing club. I wanted to combine something I really cared about (developing their reading fluency and writing ability) with something they really cared about—and after weeks of trying to sort their writing kits by the rapper names they’d written on them instead of their actual names—that it clicked. Together, we would create a rap album—written and spit by the kid themselves.
As an Americorp Reading Corps service member, it was my job to develop projects that engage students who read below grade level and work with them on improving their fluency—and being able to read their own raps at the pace necessary to keep up with a beat was a creative, innovative way to do that. It made practicing reading feel less boring, yet accomplished the goal of improving their prosody.
It was a gamble; I had no idea how to produce a rap album (or anything about music) and asking kids who struggled to sit still through a 20 minute writing exercise to commit to a several week writing project was asking a lot. But my time as a teacher had taught me that every child has a story to tell, and all they really need is a push (and a medium) with which to tell it. I knew, if I asked them to and gave them the support they needed, they would rise to the occasion (and truthfully, they exceeded my every expectation).
THE LESSON PLAN
But what of the lessons themselves? Our rap album unit was birthed from four fundamental lessons:
Lesson One: Rhythm and MusicAs a way to introduce our young MCs to seeing themselves as musicians, our first lesson focused on developing our own music based using objects found in the room. Some students freestyled over the percussive beats they’d made out of a combination of pencils, stress toys, ceramic sculptures, and drums made from tables and radiators.
Lesson Two: Nursery Rhyme Raps
The next week, we studied various rappers adapting Dr. Seuss’ “Wocket in my Pocket” and Anna Dewdney’s “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” after which students adapted a series of kid books to beats. This was an especially successful exercise in helping kids become more fluent readers—we even implemented a Reading Corps strategy called Duet Reading, which was very successful.
Lesson Three: Master Class (MC) in Writing Lyrics
As we moved into the next phase, we studied A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It”—both listening to and studying the lyrics on the page. To practice with rhyme schemes, they identified rhymes in the lyrics, then used the rhyming words to create their own bars.
Lesson Four: Writing Fire Lyrics
From here, students were given the keys to the kingdom and asked to write their own fire lyrics in the style of A Tribe Called Quest. We talked rhyme scheme and scansion (though rarely in those words). Kids spit and troubleshooted their bars before arriving at some of what we see on our album—“Can We Dunk It? (Yes We Can!)” is full of collaborative bars from this exercise.
Our rap album unit was broken up with lessons prepared by other IYWP volunteers. Our album’s “I Am From” spoken word pieces were borne out a place-based writing exercise dreamed up by IYWP volunteers; “Dear Myself” and “Dear Crab Legs” (in the style of Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” also came out of these exercises.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Like our friends at Fifth Ward Saints like to say, producing a rap album is a team sport.
Something like this would never have been possible with out one-on-one support from IYWP volunteers, who each partnered with a child and guided them through the various hoops I asked the to jump through. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my friend, Alex Weber, who stepped in to help me Frankenstein my recordings of the students into the songs that appear on this album when my original sound engineer plans fell through.
Thanks for listening,