Hip Hop in the Classroom: Writing Academic Raps

I love hip hop. I love teaching. And I especially love teaching with hip hop! The following is the epitome of why: here is a look at my favorite unit as a teacher: the Crusades Rap Battle!

I have written before about my love of hip hop and how it can be used in the classroom to improve student engagement and learning. The following is an overview of a Crusades Rap Battle I have done over the last two 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.

Flocabulary, and 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 HighFiveHistory full review is long overdue and is coming…one day…I promise!). However, this unit can be done independently of any resource.

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 both nicely with content knowledge or skills.

The Hook

One 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!

Crusades Trophy

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. Finally, I promised the students the publicize the videos to the best of my ability – posting them on YouTube, placing them on the school blog, and shouting them out on Twitter and other social media platforms. Some could say I took the whole thing a little too far but 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. 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

How to Write a Rap

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

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.

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 for year 2. 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).

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, students from each of my blocks voted on class winners. I set up a survey and had students rank each performance from their favorite to least favorite. Next, 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 – I had middle school and high school, social studies, PE, music, and admin all represented as judges. I also had the previous year’s winners to add in a student voice to the process! Finally, I incorporate 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.

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. 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!

A Video Blog

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

The Winning Videos

The Champion

The Runner Up

Honorable Mention

Please leave questions and comments below. We love to hear from our HighFive community!

Hi 5!

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11 thoughts on “Hip Hop in the Classroom: Writing Academic Raps

  1. Jessica Walsh says:

    This. Is. The. Coolest.

    Thank you for sharing your resources and process! I love everything about this. I’m off to figure out how I can incorporate this into my 7th grade World Geography class. So many options!!

    Like

    1. mrkauf says:

      Thanks Jessica! I agree, this is the coolest unit/project of the year for me. It is so much fun, from the start to the end. There are so many moments while the students are writing that blow me away. Let me know how it goes and how you incorporate it into your class. Also, check out http://www.Flocabulary.com. They have so many amazing videos for social studies; they are a regular part of my entire year.

      Like

  2. Kelly C says:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing. I’m currently giving it a shot with my 7th grade Social Studies students… they’re definitely feeling challenged by it. I’m wondering what you used for the background beat? Is it a resource I can access online? Thanks!

    Like

    1. mrkauf says:

      Thanks Kelly for the positive comment! It is definitely a challenging assignment, in the best way possible. Our school has a subscription to Flocabulary, which is an AMAZING resource. They have free beats that you can download, plus a really deep well of awesome content and skills videos. The class subscription is around $100 and in my opinion totally worth it. If that doesn’t work for you, I would just search YouTube and find a beat you like, there are plenty to choose from. I hope this helps and please let me know how the students do and share some of the student work! Maybe our classes can connect to build an even larger audience!

      Like

      1. Kelly Crainer says:

        Thank you! I also have a Flocabulary subscription and had no idea there were free beats there. I will check it out! Look forward to possibly collaborating in the future if this goes well! (This time is a minor production, no super structured judging or trophy, etc!)

        Like

  3. Maurice Bell says:

    Really awesome project! I have copied (borrowed) a lot of it and will be starting with my 8th grade class this coming week. I even made a mokumentary and I has been very interesting how excited everyone was to be involved.Thanks for all of the info and inspiration.

    Like

  4. holmdeltc says:

    Really awesome project! I have copied (borrowed) a lot of it and will be starting with my 8th grade class this coming week. I even made a mokumentary and I has been very interesting how excited everyone was to be involved.Thanks for all of the info and inspiration.

    Like

    1. mrkauf says:

      Thank you for the positive feedback. I am glad you were able to use some of the ideas for your own class. I would love to see some of the final products. Can you share your mockumentary?

      Like

      1. Maurice Bell says:

        I will share the final projects when complete. I have our high school film crew video taping them and the stage is reserved for the competition.

        Like

      2. mrkauf says:

        This is awesome Maurice! I imagine the students loved it! Pass along the performance videos when they are ready, I would love to see what your students come up with.

        Like

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