Friday, 12 August 2011

"Now let's get it all in perspective..."

I'm meant to be writing this week. Only I haven't written much. Events, as they say, seem to have taken over. I've just responded to one of the e-mails I've had from friends and family overseas about life in London right now. It's reproduced below;

Started as a protest for police shooting a young black man in Tottenham- that's not even getting discussed anymore though.

There were people attacking police & police cars
There were people attacking banks and bookies
There were people looting
There were people protecting their businesses and, later, "their communities" - Southall Sikhs, Dalston Turks. Then came the Eltham (where Steven Lawrence was murdered) EDL-chanting White men...

Seems everyone agrees the police were slow to respond, even Cameron. Footage of them watching looters - why? outnumbered? hoping to get proof that the cuts to police shouldn't come? Hoping for support for tougher legislation (which they'll then employ on the protests)?
Rumours that 'rich' areas were better policed.

Cameron says we must be more responsible. He says his policies are not at all responsible. He says that rioters are sick. He plans to punish the sick.

Much twitter talk of Bullingdon boys' 'high jinks' - but nothing in mainstream.

Manchester Police reporting that someone has 10 weeks prison sentence for swearing at police. Clear sense of people being made examples of.

Teachers getting blamed. Parents getting blamed. Hip-Hop getting blamed.

Much talk of how parents are terrified to discipline their children in 'modern Britain' - How people know their rights but not their responsibilities.

Much talk of more discipline, more authority - nothing about more job opportunities, about developing a sense of belonging through meaningful employment etc

Media focus is on looters and violence. Both are very visual so play well. Discussing poverty, not so good for ratings.

Thankfully the water cannons and plastic bullets did not come to pass - but scary times as the mood of the nation seems to be to move further to the right.

Talk of taking away rioters' council housing - effectively punishing a whole family for a crime. Probably posturing.

Any attempt to talk about poverty, unemployment, education cuts, that London has the richest and the poorest etc is shouted down as making excuses for rioters.

Mainstream journalists reluctant to ask politicians whether looting, MP expenses, Bankers' crisis ,  are all examples of seeing an opportunity to make a quick buck illegally.

Much nostalgia for the riots of 81 and 85 - it is said even by Tories that these were political. I remember at the time hearing it described as 'the blacks going wild' but time seems to give some perspective.

Hoping it will again...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Teach The Kids To Sample!!

A lot of rappers like to talk about how they are original and unique. As for copying? Well, back in the day this was called 'biting' and the attitude to it was summed up in the line 'biting is illegal, against the law.'

When it comes to writing stories, lot of teachers like to take the same line - "don't copy anyone else, make sure it's your own work."

But when it comes to writing (hot 16s, or stories) is it really that clear-cut? I'd say not. Here's a couple of examples and a bit of gentle theorising - see what you think.

Exhibit A.

The new tune from Jill Scott 'Shame' featuring Eve. Jill Scott is an original, no doubt. On 'Shame' she sings 'I'm the Magnificent' over the remix of "I'm the Magnificant" by Special Ed.

 Has Jill run out of new ideas? Of course not. Likewise, when Eve begins her verse with the first line from Special Ed's verse we know it's not a 'bite' but something else. If I was in an English Lit class I might try to drop in words like 'homage' or 'intertextuality' to explain it (and let's face it try to impress people).

Taken further, when the beat from Special Ed's original version comes in we hear the samples of '007' by Desmond Dekker, which reminds us of Hip-Hop (and Ed's) Jamaican heritage. Of course, non-Hip-Hop anoraks might not get all that- it's still a wicked tune. But for those who know there's not only the satisfaction of knowing, there's the understanding that, Jill loves Hip-Hop and can draw on it and still bringing something brand new to the party. She knows the foundations upon which she is building her art (I believe that may be a mixed-metaphor but it makes sense, no?)

But even artists who don't explicitly reference other's artists are drawing on their work. Part of developing your own style is disguising your influences effectively. But the influences are still there. A rapper who hasn't listened to rap will be found out immediately.

And so will a storywriter who hasn't read stories.

Pie Corbett, the storyteller and Literacy consultant, describes the process of teaching writing as 'Imitation, Innovation, Invention.'

It strikes me that this is how writers and, indeed, all artists learn their craft.  I've read so many interviews with MCs, poets, comedians and visual artists who recall how their earliest efforts were very derivative but an essential stage in learning their craft. Basically, they started out as 'copy-cats'. Pie Corbett talks about encouraging children to 'magpie' words, phrases, or story structures from quality writers. Learning what's worth borrowing is itself a skill. I've tried this approach and it works! The kids, liberated to copy, 'borrowed' from  books, from me and from  each other.

Or in  Hip-Hop beat-making parlance , they sampled other artists' work. At first the sampling was obvious (Imitation) but then they mixed up the samples (Innovation) and then found a way of using them to say something personal (Invention). In the case of Jill Scott, the invention is so-evident that she can proudly display her influences knowing she will not be misunderstood as  merely imitating.

So too in children's literature.

Exhibit B

The children's picture book 'Into the Forest' by Anthony Browne.

This is a contemporary tale about (amongst other things) childhood fears. On entering the forest, the young protagonist encounters a number of fairy-tale characters, including Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. As with Jill Scott, recognising the references is not essential but adds greatly to the enjoyment.

Here's Browne, discussing how he came to write the book, you may want to skip to about 2:15

A few of Browne's phrases are worth highlighting. He talks about how the fairytales are part of his 'culture' and 'psychological make-up'. Of being 'steeped in fairytales' and immersed in a culture. But he also explains that the book is about a very personal experience of his.

As with Jill Scott, the invention comes from the individual artist, but is supported by imitation and innovation within a culture in which the artist is immersed.

So what are we teachers to make of all this? Well I'd say that we need to help children to become immersed in culture and understand also that they may be immersed in cultures not always recognised by the school system.

We need to encourage them to imitate. Let go of notions that copying is bad, because copying is how artists learn. Encourage them to copy 'good stuff' (e.g. Special Ed/ Red Riding Hood!) We don't create out of thin air.

When they can do this confidently, encourage them to switch it up, bring in some other stuff, be innovative.

Once they're confident with this, we need to give them opportunities to say something about themselves. To invent new stories, new songs, new art. If they are very confident, then like Jill and Anthony they can let their influences shine through because they are bring themselves into the story too.

I think this might be what is meant by a writer finding a 'voice'. At this point we are not beholden to culture nor are we attempting to operate independently of it. Rather we are recognising that we have a role to play in shaping it. If my pupils believe this of themselves, then I'm probably doing a good job.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Notorious Big Society

I posted this over on the excellent a while back.

As the phrase 'Big Society' is still being thrown around, here it is again. Short and sweet.

Basically ‘Big Society’ is a better slogan than ‘Small State’.

But then Thatcher said there was no such thing as society only individuals and families. So ‘Big Society’ points to the ‘personal responsibility’ argument.

Of course, if the wealthy in society are too busy to volunteer perhaps they could make donations…perhaps we could formalise that system by linking it to just how wealthy people are… and give elected people the job of making sure that the money gets to the right people, rather than leaving it to a hap-hazard approach where individuals find the most appealing cause to contribute to.

Now, what could we call that system? And who could those elected people be?

Sunday, 3 April 2011

"Once Upon A Time, Not Long Ago.."

So firstly, many thanks to those of you who contacted me with your suggestions from my last post. There are no prizes, but if there were they would go to the teacher who said "According to Scroobius Pip, 'Thou shalt not think having a blog makes you a journalist'." Well played my friend, wise words being spoken.

The untimely death of Smiley Culture has got many folks asking whether we will ever know the true story of what happened on March 15th when the police raided his house. The family campaign is calling a march to Scotland Yard on Saturday April 16th.

Over on the 'History is made at night' blog you can view the videos for Smiley's two biggest tunes plus a quote from Paul Gilroy about 'Cockney Translation', a portion of which I quote below,

"The record suggested that these elements could be reconciled without jeapordising affiliation to the history of the black diaspora... The record contains a veiled but none the less visible statement that the rising generation of blacks, gathering in the darkened dance-halls, were gradually finding a means to acknowledge their relationship to England and Englishness. They were beginning to discover a means to position themselves relative to this society and to create a sense of belonging which could transcend 'racial'/ethnic, local and class-based particularities and redefine England/Britain as a truly plural community. They were able to express their reluctant affiliation to it in the same breath as their ties to the African diaspora." ( Paul Gilroy, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, 1987)

I remember seeing Smiley perform 'Police Officer' on TV in the early eighties. A few years later Derek B, the first UK Hip-Hop MC to get into the pop charts, was telling the very same story of being stopped by the police only to be let-off due to his mic-skills on his 'Good Groove.' But then a good story deserves repeating doesn't it?

In fact I'd go further than that. As Gilroy seems to be suggesting, a good story can capture how people view something,  and  affect how they view it. As student teachers we explored Barbara Hardy's notion of 'Narrative as a Primary Act of Mind.' If stories are fundamental to how we view the world, we need to be thinking about the range of stories we have in the classroom... and in our own heads.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"According to The Jetsons there's no Blacks in the future..."

So apparently blogs are meant to be topical and not just the out-pourings of a confused mind. That might present a problem to me, but here goes...

The recent mini-controversey over the ITV series 'Midsomer Murders' has prompted lots of people to come out with their well rehearsed positions on 'these things'. As yet, I've not heard anyone use the term 'White on White violence' to describe the show, but then this phenomenon also goes unnoticed in the real world. The simple point I'll make about it, is that you can get away with racial exclusion for 14 years without any problem here in the UK. But the moment you talk about it, you're in trouble. It's little wonder some White folks think talking about race is itself the problem. And, some of those White folks will inevitably be teachers.

As a teen in the eighties, Apartheid was still in effect and Mandela was still in prison. There had been uprisings in a number of British towns over police treatment of Black people. There was nothing unusual in Black and Asian people being abused on the streets, or the terraces at football matches and some of my schoolmates spent their time writing NF wherever they could.  Yet, one poetry lesson aside, there was no talk about race, racism or any related matter at my school. (We did watch a couple of horrific videos of the treatment of Jews inside Nazi concentration camps, but I don't recall any discussion about them.) I was being taught at school that it was not appropriate to talk about racism. Meanwhile,  Hip-Hop was talking about race, and I was beginning to join in the discussion.

The 'Midsomer Murders' discussion was framed by some people as being about how many people of colour live in the countryside, as if finding an all-white English village was proof that nothing untoward had happened. But people of colour are often written out of places (Remember Notting Hill!) or times. And not only the past...

"According to The Jetsons there's no Blacks in the future..."

This Masta Ace line from "Wake Me When I'm Dead", has long been one of those 'notable quotables' I'd throw out in any discussion of hot lines in rap. Ace is a hugely underrated MC ( the absence of his lyrics from the recent Anthology of Rap  illustrates just how slept-on he remains in some quarters), who I will write about in greater detail in the not-too-distant future. For now though I want to focus on this one line.

"According to The Jetsons there's no Blacks in the future..."

It's simple observation that hints at a deeper issue, not unlike "A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon"by Gil Scott-Heron, who Ace sampled on his debut album. Whereas Gil's anger is at US public spending, Ace has his sights on race and representation. Fertile ground for educators.

"According to The Jetsons there's no Blacks in the future..."

It has a structure that can be used again and again:
According to Midsomer Murders there's no Blacks in the country.
According to True-May only Whites can be English.

And it can be used in the classroom as part of a Literature or Media Studies project;
According to JK Rowling only White men are Wizards
According to the adverts only women do the laundry

So finally to today's task - Yep even Hip-Hop teachers set tasks sometimes. Why not create your own "According to... " and send it in? (Yeh, yeh that was a desperate bid for a comment on my blog). Or, if you're teaching, why not try using it in class? I think it's the discussion that follows - "Is that what they're implying? Why? Is this important?"- that opens up space for learning to happen.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hip Hop Teacher?!

Ok, don't get it twisted.

The title of this blog is not some grandiose claim that I am  about to school you in the ways of Hip Hop. Nor is it a claim that I am 'The T'cha' within the culture of Hip-Hop - the title will always go to KRS-1 in my book.

Rather, this is a space for me to try and work out if there is any mileage in trying to understand my role as a primary school teacher in the UK through the prism of Hip-Hop. Why Hip-Hop? Who says it's a prism? Er, I don't know the answer to the second question, but I'll say a little about why I think Hip-Hop is important to me and what I do.

The way most people tell it, Hip-Hop and I both entered the world around the same time, albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  Apart from the well-documented early tunes that reached the charts, I first heard Hip-Hop through the Streetsounds 'Electro' Series (shout out to Morgan Khan). Kids were starting to bring out the lino or use the school gym to break, and I admit to joining in without much success. I remember vividly at age eleven walking past a group of breakers, having finished my football training, and thinking 'they're practising just as hard as we were just now, but they don't have any adults organising them and showing them what to do.'

But it was the words in Hip-Hop that held the most fascination for me. I loved the idea of writing little stories that I could perform (usually to an imagined audience, but later to real people). Shortly after my purchasing my first album, 'Raising Hell' by Run DMC, I had two poems published in the local newspaper. Actually they were raps, but at fourteen I'd clocked that it might not be a smart move to admit that, if I wanted to have them published. So I tried to do Hip-Hop without confessing that I was doing Hip-Hop. It's only recently I've realised that this approach has been present regularly in my life, especially in teaching.

When I try to make sense of my identity as an educator, Hip-Hop seems to be there saying "Come on! You know I've been with you since back in the day. When are you gonna give me my props?"

Maybe it's time to come clean...