Writing Academic Raps II: the Remix

This second edition post, Wiring Academic Raps II: the Remix, is a more in-depth and updated look at my favorite unit as a teacher: the Crusades Rap Battle! The post is meant to serve as an example and provide resources to teachers who would like to incorporate academic rap writing into their classroom. Feel free to use and remix all of the resources and take advantage of all that I have learned during my 3 years running this unit. Read the original post if you want to see how this unit has evolved over time.

Every student should write and perform academic raps. Why? Well I assume if you are here reading this you don’t need any convincing. However, for anyone who isn’t sure, check out these 5 Reasons I’ve laid down in my blog post for Flocabulary*, an educational hip hop site dedicated to improving student learning through rap music.

The following is an overview of a Crusades Rap Battle I have done over the last three years with my middle school social studies students. In the post I will try to broaden the scope of the project and share ideas on how it can be adapted to fit any unit or subject.

The Goals:

Students will understand the causes and effects of the major events surrounding the Crusades.

Students will be able to use song structure to organize and present ideas.

The goal of this unit can be adapted to fit just about any unit or subject, and will fit nicely with both content knowledge and skills.

The Hook

Crusades TrophyOne of the most powerful reasons to incorporate hip hop into your teaching is the high level of engagement it provides for the students. With this unit however, I decided to step it up a notch. Instead of making the unit about writing and performing raps, I upped the ante by making it a Rap Battle; winners were decided, champions were crowned!

To hook the students I called upon my school’s art department to help me with making a trophy. I then made a mockumentary about it, again relying on a host of staff members to join in. I also asked last year’s winners to challenge this year’s students, as another way to gets the kids fired up.

I also leveraged the power of social media. Students knew the videos would be the postedScreen Shot 2018-04-25 at 9.39.59 AM and shared on YouTube. I also shouted students out on Twitter and other social media platforms (of course with their permission). Some of my

favorite moments would be showing students the love and support they received on social media and seeing how proud they felt from sharing their work with an authentic audience.

While it could be said I took the whole thing a little too far, I believe students follow your lead, and will reciprocate effort with effort!

Here is my Hook: the Legend of the Crusades Rap Battle mockumentary

Adapting It To Your Class: if adding in all of these bells and whistles doesn’t work for you, try to think of different ways to give the students an authentic audience that will provide authentic feedback. Tape the performances, find a live audience, use a student performance poll, make it a class competition, and then share with the students what will happen before you begin the work: a little motivation in the beginning will go a long in the end.

Learn the Material

I then proceeded to teach the material as I would any content. I accessed prior knowledge with students by asking them to fill in a timeline of Islamic expansion in the early Middle Ages, which they had just finished studying. I then broke the Crusades down into 8 major events and gave students an organizer to guide and house their notes. I put students into groups and they watched a documentary, read, collaborated, and took notes to learn the new material. I then reviewed with the students the events through a class Q&A session, and for extra support I provided them with a screencast video I made on the topic for them to watch moving forward.

Adapting It To Your Class: the heart of this unit is writing, memorizing, and performing the raps. With that said, the delivery of the content was in line with how I would usually have students learn new content. A mixture of reading, discussion, lecture, collaboration, HyperDocs; whatever works for you and your students.

Learn to Write a Rap

Teaching students to write a full-length rap song can seem like an intimidating task, however when it is broken down into steps, like any writing process, it’s no trouble at all. I like to use the I Do – We Do – You Do format. It provides enough support to get students ready before you release them to work. Here is a copy of the presentation I use to teach how to write academic raps. I also believe that having them collaborate in groups of 2-4 works best – it is amazing the writing that come out as they bounce ideas back and forth off of each other.

Watch How:

Break Down the Beat: rap music is broken into bars, otherwise known as measures, each containing 4 beats. Spend time with your students counting the beats and bars.

A Series of Couplets: rap lyrics can be broken into a series of couplets, two lines that go together, with the rhyme falling on the same beat, and usually the 4th beat.

5 Steps to Write a Couplet:

  1. Write Bar (line) 1 – use your notes/information
  2. List words that rhyme with the last word – the more the better
  3. Choose a word that fits – have a few back-ups just in case
  4. Write Bar (line) 2 – the rhyming word comes at the end – so start with that word in mind and write it ‘backwards’
  5. Check, Revise, and Edit – make it fit the music (add or takeaway syllables) and use strong vocab

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 10.00.41 AM

Build a Song: there are different ways to organize a rap song – although most songs follow a similar pattern.

  • Intro – who are you/what’s the song (4 bars)
  • Chorus – the main idea of the song – 4 bars repeated
  • Verse 1 – part of the story/content – 16 bars (or more, depending on the content)
  • Chorus
  • Verse 2
  • Chorus
  • Outro – sign off – 4 bars

When guiding students keep in mind the academic component and how the content is organized – for example, I broke the Crusades into 8 major events, and I had the students put the first 4 events in verse 1 and the last 4 in verse 2.

I also like to put a chorus in the beginning, as it’s the main idea, or thesis, of the song, and therefore follows other writing patterns the students are familiar with.

Adapting It To Your Class: you might decide to start students with just writing a few couplets for a smaller assignment, for example to practice vocabulary words, before attempting to have them write a full song. Make sure they, and you, feel comfortable before undertaking a full 3+ minutes rap song!

Write the Raps and Rehearse

At this point students should be ready to begin writing their raps. I encourage them to use Rhymezone for listing rhyming words and to keep a thesaurus, like www.thesaurus.com, close at hand. This unit is one of the most language rich projects I have seen my students do. The amount of new vocabulary they will have to consider, the types of figurative language they will have to incorporate, and the playing around with sentence structure that they will have to do to make it all work, all leads to a rich and deep use of language, more than any other writing assignment I have ever used. Therefore, I am very active during this part – I am constantly moving around the room listening in on students and adding in suggestions. I am there to define words, drop hints, and introduce new examples of figurative language. Of course, I also check in on the content to make sure that each verse contains the basic and correct information.

In previous years students had little class time to practice and rehearse. The final year, I decided to dedicate a day for students to practice on stage for just me so they could get feedback and get a chance to work out the kinks. While one group was performing for me, the other groups were spread around the school practicing. This extra day definitely improved the overall quality of the performances and I highly recommend it!

Tip: I had the students write their raps directly into a Google Slides presentation, that would serve as a background to their presentation. This way the audience would be able to see and hear the lyrics during the performance. I decided to create a template myself, to help keep them organized.

Adapting It To Your Class: how much, or how little, you help should be based on your students. Younger students might need more support, while older students may be able to work more independently. As an international school teacher, almost all of my students speak English as a second language, and spend most of their non-academic life speaking in Spanish – therefore I find they need more support with the language component.

Perform!

Performance

The first year I ran the unit, students performed at the front of the classroom and we taped it on our class iPad. It was fun and the students turned out great performances, however I knew I would have to step up my game. This year, I reserved a common space, set up a stage, had tech support to set up lighting and sound, as well as borrowed the nice school camera with microphones to get a high quality recording. Students came dressed up, many groups with props, and we invited in outside guests to come watch. I also had students write their raps using Google Slides, and we projected the lyrics on the board for the audience to see (we also ran a second projector to the back wall for the performers to read, just in case they got nervous and forgot a lyric or two). To break the ice, and to model a willingness to leave one’s comfort zone, I decided to perform my own Crusades Rap to kick off each class! Watch here for a good laugh!

Adapting It To Your Class: I always find the bigger the audience the better when it comes to get students to do their best. Find an audience and a stage that works best for you and your school – maybe you can reserve the auditorium and ask another class to come watch or you perform at the cafeteria during lunch. Make sure to consider the quality of sound, lighting, and visibility before setting things up. I highly recommend consulting with your colleagues – I received invaluable help from our tech teacher (lights and camera) and our band director (sound and recording). You can also coordinate with a a digital design or film class to help capture the event, which will give those students a real life application of their skills and to take some work off of your own plate!

Judge

A rap battle needs judges and a way to crown a champion. Here’s how I did it. First, class winners had to be decided, which was 50% class vote and 50% YouTube Challenge. Student from each class voted on their own class winner. I set up a survey and had students rank each performance from their favorite to least favorite. Next, I incorporated a YouTube challenge. Students had to get as many views and likes as possible in one week. I gave students 1/10 of a point for each view and 5 points for each like. It gave them real world experience of promoting their work and tapping into their social community. In total, in just one week students manages almost 10,000 views and 2,000 likes! (note: I reached out to parents prior to the unit to ensure I had parent support. Here is the copy of the email I used)

Finally, each class winner was sent to a panel of judges – I sent each judge a link to the winning performances and had them rank them from their favorite to their least favorite. I asked a variety of people to help – teachers from across different school divisions and subject area, admin, and teachers I knew from around the world. I also had the previous year’s winners to add in a student voice to the process!

Adapting It To Your Class: judging can be as simple or complex as you make it. Maybe you follow a rubric and judge the raps yourself or maybe you give a live performance and have the audience vote. I do find that the bigger you make the audience the better; getting other teachers, classes, parents, and admin extends the walls of your classroom and gives learning a real purpose.

Celebrate

Our school has a school assembly once a cycle, which I knew would serve as a great setting for announcing the winner. With the help of the previous year’s champions, I called each class winner up and got the crowd to give a thunderous applause. This also served as a way to get next year’s students already looking ahead! I then announced the winner, passed on the trophy, and played the winning video for everyone to see. While the students blushed slightly with embarrassment, I knew the recognition was a great way to celebrate their hard work.

Adapting It To Your Class: celebrating student success is a great way to improve motivation. This is a great time to take advantage of social media – post winning videos on YouTube, Tweet out the links, post pictures on Instagram or a class blog. Email parents or put the winner’s picture on the school bulletin board. Either way, find a way to promote the great work of your students!

The Winning Videos

The Champion

The Runner Up

Honorable Mention

A Video Blog

Here is my first attempt at creating a video blog of this unit. Watch and enjoy!

Resources:

How to Write Academic Raps (Google Slides Presentation)

Song Organizer Template (Google Slides)

YouTube Challenge Parent Email

YouTube Challenge Directions

YouTube Channel Playlist

Please leave questions and comments below!

*Flocabulary, an educational hip hop site, is at the heart of how I incorporate hip hop into my class and is a great tool for this unit. I highly recommend checking out the site and seeing for yourself all that it has to offer; I cannot speak their praises high enough (a full review is long overdue and is coming…one day…I promise!). However, this unit can be done independently of any resource.

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