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.