Saturday, 10 August 2013

Enid Blyton goes rapping with William Shakespeare

Now that I have exorcised my demons about ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I feel I can start talking about Shakespeare, and, in particular, teaching Shakespeare. Recently, I taught a little Shakespeare unit to a class of Year 7s and, for once, I decided to jazz it up – I mean rap it up.

Before I explain what I did, I need to explain how street I am. In fact, I am so street that council tidy me up every three weeks. I am so street that my stomach is one big speed hump. I am so street that all my clothes have double yellow lines on them. Actually, I am so far from anything being anything remotely street. This has been an influence in my teaching of anything related to rapping. I didn’t touch it with a barge pole.  
 
Personally, I feel that the ages between of 8 and 12 are crucial in the formation of any street cred or teen identity. Sadly, at that crucial time I was living in Cyprus, playing adventures in the ocean, while my peers in ‘sunny’ Wales were learning how to swear and how to perfect a teenage slouch in readiness for their teenage years. When I arrived back in the UK for the last few months of Year 6, I was like an Enid Blyton character on a day visit to the New York Bronx. It was like two worlds meeting. If only this bizarre juxtaposition of cultures was a fleeting thing. It wasn’t. Therefore, during my teenage years, while my friends were swearing their heads of, I was ‘golly-goshing’ and ‘gee-whizzing’. It was like I missed out the very important meeting where everyone learnt to swear. Sadly, I didn’t have an older brother to imitate and I was left to find my own way of being hip. While friends were experimenting with cider and twenty twenty, I was enjoying lashings of ginger beer, hoping said friends would participate in a midnight feast and solve mysteries.
 
Then came music. The 90s were a great and bad time for music. During my growing up, I liked dance music and indie music. And, I didn’t feel there was room for rap music. It always felt that it wasn’t for me. I had failed epically with trying to be ‘cool’ with swearing, so I was not going to try to be ‘cool’ with music. As my CD collection can confirm, I didn’t have that much luck with the music either. You will find Babylon Zoo. Proof, that just listening to music in the 90s doesn’t automatically define taste.
 
Fast forward to today. I have grown up and changed from an Enid Blyton character and matured into an Agatha Christie character – just without the murder. I am quite reserved and emotionally detached. Generally, I talk like a 1930’s radio announcer and hate public displays of affection. Furthermore, my welsh roots are only heard when I mention the words coat, jacket and, oddly, the word: here. All this makes for a great combination. I feel like Boris Johnson if I approach anything remotely cool, with a tiny hint of Tom Jones.
 
For years, I have heard teachers praise the use of rap in the classroom. I have sat in teachmeets where the enthusiasm has bubbled and oozed out of a teacher as they explained how beneficial it is; I have just sat there with my stiff upper lip, having flashbacks of my childhood.  I hid in the sand until a problem arose: I found a brilliant video to introduce Shakespeare as a rap. I procrastinated longer than Hamlet on this one. Do I use it and make a complete fool of myself? Do I use it as a fun way to introduce Shakespeare that sticks in the students’ minds? Or, do I get them to complete a worksheet? 
 
I did it. I rapped with the class. And, it wasn’t that embarrassing...much. We learnt the rap from the video and sung it with actions. I learnt something along the way that I don’t think I had really thought about it. The Year 7s were not the best rappers or experts on rapping I had ever seen. They were a bit like me. They thought it was ‘cool’, but they had this self-awareness that they were not skilled rappers; we liked the idea of rapping but we really didn’t have the skills to do it. I was awkward; they were awkward. It was a fun combination.  
 
Then, we explored the playful nature of rap. We took the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech and turned that into a rap. We experimented with how to say the words and where to place emphasis, volume or even actions. This is a before and after.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

 
To be,
or not to be: 
that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings 
and arrows 
of outrageous 
fortune,
Or to take arms 
against a sea 
of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 
To die: 
to sleep;
No more; 
and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache 
and the thousand 
natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 
'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. 
To die, 
to sleep;
To sleep: 
perchance to dream: 
ay, there's the rub;

 
This is just a variation of performance poetry, I know. However, I have found that performance poetry can lack a bit of focus. It can be good, but more than often it isn’t. This way of rapping bits from the text meant that thought was place on how an individual should read it and not a group - often performance poetry leads to a poem being shredded and individual lines shared out by the group. Yes, I know that they ignored and followed the punctuation, but mainly they made it ‘real’. Like a real piece of speech. How would Hamlet rap this? We found that by the playing around with the lines on the page we discovered the constant listing, and the constant use of verbs. Here a thunk to think about: Who is the best Shakespeare rapper? Hamlet? Othello? Lear? Romeo? 

The great thing about this method was that we were looking at the musicality of the writing. Looking at how the beats work. Where there should be pauses? Where things should speed up? For the year 7s, it was fun and different. But for me, it was getting students to engage with Shakespeare’s language without breaking it line by line and explaining what every word or phrase means. It was listening to how the words sound and how it should be read. I could probably write an essay about some of the choices they made, as it added to the overall meaning of the text. Rapping Shakespeare isn’t about a crazy gimmick to appeal to students; it is about listening to how the lines should be read. How many times have we wanted John to channel the spirit of Kenneth Branagh when reading a brilliant line? Sadly, often it has meant that he has only channelled the spirit of the speaking clock instead.  I have heard famous lines read with a deadpan expression that is comical. Murder read like a shopping list. Declarations of love read like a train station announcement.   

Before people think I have gone mad and that I am planning to have every lesson about Shakespeare using a Dido song with another student rapping over the top of it, I am not. Instead, I am going to work on the performance of the text first, sometimes. I will get them to work out how it should be read and look for where the emphasis is. I have already got a lesson planned, where my Year 10s are going to take some of Othello’s speeches and try to read them out as a rap.
 


It is the cause,
it is the cause,
my soul,--
Let me not name it to
you,
you chaste
stars!--
It is the cause.
Yet I'll not shed her
blood;
 
Blank verse and prose floats into out teaching when looking at the text, but I feel that this 'rapping with Shakespeare' first approach could lead to the discussion in a natural way.

We always argue that plays should be acted out in lessons, but for an awkward teenager who worries about their voice, appearance and position in the class, it isn’t always the best thing. Because rap has this slightly cool air about it, it means that just by making it rap rather than drama, there is a stronger appeal.

If only I could go back in time to Wales in 1990s with my newfound rapping ability. Who knows I could have been that street to be in ‘The Streets’? Then again, I haven’t perfected the swearing yet. Golly gosh, is that the time – must dash!

Thanks for reading,

Xris32 

1 comment: