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.


  1. bloody hell what an excellent post (and blog). I'm a secondary/ A level English teacher of 4 years and this resonates so much that I'm half surprised I haven't written it myself. (Not flattery, fact).

    Very exciting to see a(nother) teacher with fuelled at least in part by hip hop. I find myself drawing from the culture all the time, at times consciously, at times subliminally, but there's something in hiphop that lends itself nicely to all things pedagigical.

    Anyway, really enjoying your work. Keep It Moving like your name was KIM in acronym.

    -Unseen Flirtations

  2. Hey UF,

    Many thanks for the kind words, glad you like the blog! I plan to blog soon about the rap club I run at school. You tried anything like that at your place? If so, I'd be interested in hearing about it!


  3. I love this!
    Great theory - if the Bard copied, then why shouldn't we all? No idea's original and all that!

    I also run a rap class in a secondary school - would be interesting to swap stories...


  4. Hi Kate

    Thanks for the comment! Can I hear any of the group's stuff? How do you approach writing with them? What has worked well? Not so well?!

    We've just recorded a CD - but still need to deal with permission issues. Be great to collaborate on a tune at some point!

  5. This is a very measured, thoughtful post of how 'sampling' can help improve children's writing. I think this is what most of us are doing when we use the Teaching Sequence for Writing but the hiphop angle makes it much more relevant. And funky. Love it.

  6. Thanks a lot for the comment David!

    Is the 'TS for W' an official thing or is it the same as 'The Immersion Model'?

    I agree there's more folk doing this these days, but I do wonder if we give enough attention to the cultural knowledge our pupils already have and how we can communicate to them that it is 'right and proper' for them to draw on this. Maybe I'll write more on this at some point - or maybe you will?!

  7. Loving this post!

    Finding your voice as oppossed to automatically having one. It's very sensible to suggest encouraging students to copy first and then moving on to adding their own experience. Funnily enough it's what I also do in my workshops, but reading this highlighted the relevance of it.

  8. Excellent article. You're using familiar reference points to get across important information. So much education ignores what goes on beyond the essentially fixed curriculum.

    I'm a musician and I'd like to bring a musical angle to add to the literary one. Sampling is a process that even precedes sampling technology. There's not a great deal of difference between a musician who copies another person's drumbeat, bassline, saxophone riffs, keyboard melodies, entire sections etc and incorporates it into their creativity, and a hip hop or soul track that does the same, as in the Jill Scott case.