Authors Live: Preparing for a Word War!

English teacher Peter Kelly has been working on an exciting project as part of our Authors Live Teacher Ambassador Programme. To tie in with our Authors Live: Poetry Slam event, Peter decided to run a rap battle with his S2 pupils to show them how words and poetry could come to life. In this first instalment of his fantastic blog series he tells us about the preparation for the Word War project.

Up until a few months ago, I had no idea what a ‘poetry slam’ was.

It sounded like it might have involved Emily Dickinson and dodgems. Or Alan Bennett going head-to-head with Anne Sexton in a wrestling match. Once over the initial disappointment that it meant neither Gothic Wacky Races nor depressed tussling bouts in spandex, I got quite excited about its similarity to one of my favourite things in the whole world: the rap battle.

I’ve been fairly obsessed with watching rap battles from a safe distance behind my computer for a while now. Yes, I know they tend to be a bit… extreme, what with the colourful language, aggressive posturing and no-holds-barred verbal assaults. But isn’t all great drama dependent upon the very sort of conflict we see in battle rap?

My interest in this punch-up poetry was kindled by the much-hyped battle between the 30-year-old English teacher and poet, Mark Grist, and the 17-year-old enfant terrible, Blizzard, which currently sits at almost 3 million views on You Tube. It was widely touted as “Teacher Owns Student In A Rap Battle” (ed note: this video contains strong language), but this was really a denigration of both estimable talents on display. For all Grist’s undeniable literary knowledge and practical skill in framing his images with technical prowess, Blizzard holds his own in terms of expert use of wordplay and his hard-hitting persona is substantiated by a rhetoric much richer than his years. This battle was a wake-up call which reminded me that there is more than one way to skin a poem.

My involvement with Authors Live meant that I had to put together work in collaboration with another teacher – Miss MacKenzie in Lanark Grammar – in association with the event. Ours was the Poetry Slam. I suggested a rap battle between S2 pupils based, not on personal attacks, but on discursive topics. In other words, all the structure and setting of a rap battle but with the slagging and slandering taken out! Would it work? I had no idea, but then, if you never risk failure, you never really succeed. Nevertheless, I felt quite a bit of responsibility in making the suggestion of a rap battle as what we were doing, another class would be mirroring. Plus, it was so far out of the comfort zone that it was in… the discomfort zone. If it had been the 2nd top answer to a Family Fortunes survey, the question might have been: “What would be the most potentially risky classroom activity ever?” (The top answer would probably have been ‘Russian Roulette’ or something.)

The first step was to introduce the class to the idea of rap battles without sounding like I was trying to be cool. Big mistake for a teacher to ever try to be cool, obviously.

I learned a great deal from speaking with the kids about rap. For one thing, I was amazed (and disappointed) that for all their interest in hip hop, they appeared to think of the genre as solely American and were completely unaware of British representatives of the scene, let alone Scottish MCs! What a huge loss to them that they were oblivious to the phenomenal rap talents on their own doorstep.

I also learned that (even as fans of the genre) their opinions of rap were almost as narrow as their attitudes towards traditional poetry. It took some persuading to convince them that it wasn’t all just gangsters posturing and bouncing in cars with dodgy suspension.

This is all beside the fact that after they collaborated on writing their bars, I would have to convince a member of each group to deliver three rounds in a rap battle themselves. (I don’t make things very easy for myself.)

I dangled a few carrots. One such carrot was that I would invite a celebrated Scottish MC, writer and battler called Loki into class to workshop with the pupils. Another was the promise of a final battle (or ‘Word War’) against another English class at Holy Cross, with the possibility of a follow-up next year against another school – Lanark Grammar. It’s amazing the efforts a class will make to succeed when things get territorial.

It took a good few days to get much started and there was a lot of finger-pointing before groups finally picked their MCs but once each one got their first round down, things started to come together and move a lot faster. It even emerged that one of our number had already competed in a rap battle back in his home of Poland. Clearly, the intention that Word War would make us look at poetry, and each other and ourselves in a new way was truly coming to fruition.

By the time we came to watch the live Poetry Slam event at the end of November, there was a clear buzz about the project. Mr MacKinnon (the teacher of our future combatants in the class v. class battle) and I brought the hordes together to watch three poets battle it out for the approval of their audience and there was a definite sense of occasion that was different from a regular classroom situation. It was really heartening to see pupils actually listen and pay attention to poetry rather than just read it from photocopied sheets of A4. Notably (but maybe not surprisingly), the poet with the greatest resonance across the board was the rough and ready rapper, Dizraeli. (One of my pupils later remarked that he thought the other poets had been stitched-up and placed in a battle with him to highlight the superior power of rap as opposed to more customary poetic styles... He may or may not have actually used those words, but that’s what he meant!)

The Authors Live event really helped to focus and contextualise what we were doing in our project. The pupils returned to their paper with more purpose and were clearly feeling inspired by the authentic approach they had seen exemplified so electrically by Dizraeli. Rhymes became funnier, phrasing more natural, style was colouring substance...

In Peter's next blog instalment he'll discuss how his pupils got even more out of the project after a workshop with a rap artist from Glasgow.

If you would like to try running a similar project in your classroom watch our Authors Live: Poetry Slam event and download the excellent resources created by Peter and his ambassador partner Helen. They tell you everything you need to know about planning and staging rap battles in your classroom, as well as discursive writing activities that you can do afterwards.

Peter Kelly

Peter Kelly is an English Teacher from Holy Cross High School in South Lanarkshire. The brilliant work he did on rap battles and poetry was part of the Authors Live Teacher Ambassador Programme.