As they learn how writers revise their work and use literary devices, the students gear up for a school assembly led by Australian rap star Nelson Dialect
When superstar Taylor Swift writes a song, she deploys the same creative tools used by a girl named Henley, a Denver fourth grader.
In a first draft of her hit song “Out of the Woods,” for instance, Swift repeats the phrase “I remember” three times in a row. In the studio recording, however, she sings it once.
Henley noticed the difference when she and her classmates were in a sound room at the University of Colorado Boulder comparing an early version and final rendition of Swift’s hit song and others. She said the final version is better. And that’s the point of the exercise: learning that writing well means revising carefully.
This is one of several eureka moments during a half-day poetry boot camp organized by Adam Bradley, CU Boulder English professor and director of the Laboratory of Race and Popular Culture—or RAP Lab. The lab’s Pop Lyrics in the Classroom program brought kids from Asbury Elementary School in Denver to Boulder last month.
But why teach elementary-school kids about rhyme, meter and the process of revision? What do popular songs have to with the art of language? And who cares about poetry?
Bradley and teachers at Asbury Elementary strive to help kids learn—and love—writing, which can be equally wonderful and laborious. Popular songs are crammed with literary devices, and students who understand this are more likely to love wordplay, or at least feel comfortable tackling essays, book reports and, later, professional writing.
In previous years, Bradley ran a program called Hip Hop in the Classroom, which worked with high school and middle school students. This year’s program, which will culminate in May with a school assembly led by Australian rapper Nelson Dialect, focuses on younger children.
Desi Kennedy is a personalized learning coach at Asbury who taught Bradley’s daughter in Boulder and has known Bradley’s family for years. At Asbury, Kennedy’s role is to connect students’ learning to “authentic real-world experiences.”
The songs kids love teach them the tools of poetry—rhythm, rhyme, figurative language—without the intimidation that some students feel when approaching a more conventional work of literature."
As Kennedy devised the fourth-grade poetry lesson plan with an Asbury literacy teacher, “we brainstormed and imagined ways we could integrate rap music and poetry in collaboration with our music teacher.”
Then they consulted Bradley.
Pop in the Classroom dovetails perfectly with those aims, Bradley said. The goal is to use the comfort students have with rap and popular music of all types as a way to open the door to literary studies, the practice of composition, the discipline of close reading—“all the things we want them to learn in the language arts.”
Bradley and his graduate and undergraduate students in the RAP Lab have developed lesson plans for younger students, and those plans were executed last month.
The Asbury students’ field trip to Boulder included a visit to Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Café, where café co-owner Brian Buckley discussed Robert Frost’s poetry and the kids’ favorite words, which included “fiddlesticks,” “spatula” and “sopapilla.”
He also invited kids to the stage to recite their own poetry. Henley was one of the first to volunteer, reciting her poem about bullying, “Bullies Stand Down.”
The fourth graders then went to the RAP Lab on campus, where they absorbed five sections of poetic instruction:
Judging by the fourth-graders’ reactions, the exercises were fun, and Bradley said that’s the idea. Teaching composition, revision and close reading in abstract terms can seem wooden and boring to kids.
"Pop songs are laboratories for language,” Bradley says. “The songs kids love teach them the tools of poetry—rhythm, rhyme, figurative language—without the intimidation that some students feel when approaching a more conventional work of literature. I’m not saying that Ariana Grande should replace Shakespeare, but her songs can help us read Shakespeare—and everything else—better.”
In the final element of the program with Asbury, Nelson Dialect will perform at a school assembly and will do a freestyle rap, in which kids prompt him to create lyrics on the spot.
In an email interview, Dialect said his grandmother, who was a poet, fostered his interest in language. He started reading and writing poetry and rap lyrics when he was about 11. “As I discovered hip hop music through my older brother’s collection of albums, I was fascinated by the rhythm, storytelling and wordplay,” he said.
Like Bradley, Dialect thinks the effort can help the kids: “If we can encourage the students to enjoy writing, it can strengthen their confidence and comprehension of their day-to-day lives in a creative way beyond social media, text-messaging or essays, which can be routine and standardized.”
Bradley said he hopes the students will leave next month’s assembly with “a greater sense of wonder at the art that surrounds them—the music, the films, the things we take for granted in popular culture.”
The hope is that students will be “empowered” to know that when an idea floats into their minds, “they can grasp it, look at it from all angles, let it grow. . . They will understand themselves as capable of creation, and they will have the tools to observe the creative energies that are around them at all times.” (See video below with Bradley’s five tips on using language and music to express your creativity.)
Henley, the fourth grader, has gotten that message. She said she hopes next year’s fourth-grade class will be able to do the field trip, too. Her favorite part: “making rap and poems out of similes. And the sound room.”
Adam Bradley's Five Tips
on how to use language and music to express your creativity
- Listen like a child
- Speak in simile
- Don’t throw out your demo tapes
- Sing like you know the words even when you don’t
- Enjoy the silence
(see video for explanation)