By Will Baldwin-Pask – The Tutor Trust
As anyone who works in mainstream education will tell you, children and young people are offered increasingly little in the way of original, exciting and experimental ways of learning. Pupils are so swamped with exams and teachers are so pressed to get certain results that classrooms rarely see new, subversive methods put to use. Testing has supplanted teaching in schools’ priority lists.
The charity I work for, the Tutor Trust, recruits university students to work as tutors in schools around Manchester, helping children and young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A lot of the pupils we work with share not only an economic disposition that can limit their chances in education, but also an uninspired attitude towards school.
One of the things we stress to our tutors is that their pupils do not need a run of the mill going-through of grade boundaries and exam specs every week. They need to be taught in creative and engaging ways, that allow them to get to grips with subjects that they consider boring. For that reason, we try to source people who we think will make good, enthusiastic role models as well as competent tutors.
Back when I was a tutor myself, I was constantly coming up with different techniques for teaching English students. One week I found myself inspired by a university module I was taking called ‘Hip-Hop Studies’. We had just covered the topic of hip-hop in education and discussed the impact of using rap music in classrooms to teach in more interesting ways. Naturally, I decided to try this myself with a pair of Year 11 boys who were preparing to take their English Language GCSE.
One pupil was very into their grime and UK rap, but neither was remotely bothered about their English Language exam. So I decided to spend one of our first sessions together analysing a song by legendary UK garage/rap artist The Streets, ‘Has It Come to This?’, in the same style they’d be asked to analyse a text in their exam.
In every AQA Language Paper, the second question will ask you to look for the same things in a given text, which are how a writer uses the following in order to achieve a certain effect:
• words and phrases • language features and techniques • sentence forms
People who struggle with this paper are often put off by the fact they must deal with never-before-seen book extracts and often bland content. But rappers use all three of the above features constantly and just as interestingly. I explained this to the boys and asked them to analyse a verse each; they proceeded to go through identifying examples of each feature using a different coloured pen – just as they would in revision, just as they would in an exam.
I gave them the question “How do The Streets use language to convey a sense of pride?” and asked for a couple of points for each bullet point above. They found anaphora (“Some men rise, some men fall, I hear your call, stand tall now”), rhetorical questions (“I’m just spitting, think I’m ghetto? / Stop dreaming”) and similes (“Don’t forget the Rizla, lean like the Tower of Pisa”).
Though this was clearly a bit of fun, the boys were able to apply analytical skills, used proper subject terminology and visibly enjoyed the task. They immediately got on board with the text and were more comfortable with giving it the exam treatment. The situations and slang, the anti-establishment attitude and the mild drug references were perfect for getting a couple of 16-year-old boys to sit up a little straighter.
Bringing a rap song to an English tuition session had just the effect that my ‘Hip-Hop Studies’ lecturer Dr Eithne Quinn had suggested it would. The text we worked with was accessible on many levels, so the worn-out concepts of the English Language GCSE felt reinvigorated; most importantly, the pupils engaged in a way that they usually didn’t. As a tutor, I saw the benefits of using rap music to educate and would encourage other educators to use it in a similar way.