Getting Creative With Writing: Start a Word War

Writing can take many forms, especially in today's world of rapidly advancing technology and artistic expression. We asked teacher Peter Kelly to share five of his favourite classroom writing projects - we're pleased to bring you the first of these below and we'll be sharing the rest in the coming weeks.

My intention in creating Word War was to repackage elements of English in a way that would be as fun as they were functional

Word War is a unique battle rap literacy project aimed at 3rd and 4th Level pupils which began in 2012 in collaboration with the Scottish Book Trust. As part of their Teacher Ambassador Programme, I was asked to conceive of an activity which would link with their Authors Live poetry slam event and the first idea that came to mind was to take a slight semantic shift from poetry slam to rap battle. Obviously this would need to be somewhat rethought and reshaped to fit it for school purposes, but the wordplay and wit of rap was clearly a gift for teachers – they just didn’t know it yet. It just goes to show that you can’t always tell what a gift is from the (w)rapping…  

In essence, battle rap is a form of debate. Word War presents pupils with discursive topics which they dispute through rhymes to frame their arguments. Each battle lasts for three rounds with each pupil (or tag team – an excellent option) delivering 16 lines – or bars – of persuasive poetry each time. The back-and-forth structure creates tremendous excitement and it is all in good humour: pupils are reminded that their venomous verse must be kept to the argument, never resorting to personal attacks.

Fun and function

My intention in creating Word War was to refresh the traditional delivery of English and repackage elements of the subject in a way that would be as fun as they were functional. I hoped that the project would open new avenues for learning in the English class whether it allowed pupils to discover they could write creatively or revealed them to be talented performers…

Some of the credit for Word War should really be given to the pupil who would always enter my class filtering rap into one ear whilst reluctantly leaving the other free for English. I decided that I would hijack both ears with rap and English.

Actually, I also have him to thank for being honest about my working title for the project.

“What do you think about the title ‘War of Wordcraft’?” I asked him, expecting that he would appreciate the genius of my pun in its reference to World of Warcraft.

“Sir,” he said. “That is literally the worst idea I have ever heard.”

Thus, the title Word War was born. And thank goodness.

Rapper's delight

An inevitable fear which teachers may harbour is that if they conduct rap battles in class, they may have to rap themselves. This is not essential but is nowhere near as scary as it seems. I enlisted three of Scottish hip-hop’s biggest names – Dave from Stanley Odd, Loki and Louie from Hector Bizerk – who have been working on the project for the past two years and bringing their amazing talents and expert knowledge to the young people of South Lanarkshire in MC Events and an Interschool Final. You can see a brilliant video of the MCs here.

You should also watch an excellent video made to accompany Word War 2014 called For A Few Rhymes More, which shows Word War in action in the classroom.

This project teaches poetic techniques, drama and debate simultaneously and is even enjoyable in the process. Whilst my initial focus may have been that one pupil in my class, it quickly became obvious that Word War could engage all learners through its challenges of collaborative writing and performance.

Arguably, one of the greatest successes of this project is that it has gone from being an innovation in 2012 to becoming an established approach to literacy in 2014. Word War is a battle for expression, confidence and creativity in which everyone can win.

Give it a go

Want to try it for yourself? Peter created some excellent resources for his initial Word War project: you can find these in the case study for the project.   

We also have lots of other great blogs on poetry in the classroom and creative writing to inspire you!


Peter Kelly

Peter Kelly is a secondary English teacher at Holy Cross High School in Hamilton. At the time of writing he is working on secondment as a Development Officer for South Lanarkshire Council.