John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts teaching artist Bomani Armah stood at the front of Kenwood Middle School’s library on Oct. 3 with more than 60 students staring at him.
“I want to make sure you learn these five steps of the writing process. I found a real easy way to remember the five steps,” he said. “I want to show it to you. If you follow these five steps, I promise you everything you write will be better.”
Moments later, the music started, and the beat drummed out its crescendo. Armah captured the beat and launched into his rap: “When I want to write something and my thoughts are all a mess, I put it all together with the writing process.”
Then he involved the students (the entire room) in the dance and words that accompanied the chorus: “I’ve got thoughts I must express or issues I must address, the way to do it best is the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, publishing.”
As a Kennedy Center teaching artist, Armah travels the country showing educators how to use hip-hop to teach the creative writing process. He led 15 Clarksville-Montgomery County School System educators in a teacher-training workshop on Oct. 2, and the following two days, he held several writing workshops for nearly 350 Kenwood middle schoolers.
Austin Peay State University’s Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts (CECA) paid to fly in Armah in collaboration with CMCSS as Kennedy Center Partners in Education. Armah, who lives outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland, was the first of four teaching artists who will come to Clarksville this school year.
Guiding students as they write lyrics for a hip-hop song helps to energize them about learning not only a subject but also how to write, Armah said.
“The basic idea is that I help students turn any text into a song,” Armah said about his student workshops. “This year we’ve written songs about the American Revolution, about the water cycle, about where to put the decimal place, about classroom rules. Literally whatever the text is, we break it down and turn it into rhyme.”
The finished rhyme is a pneumatic device that helps students remember a subject: “But more important than the finished product is the process of getting there,” Armah said. “Students breaking down the text, figuring out what the words mean, finding the simile, metaphor, rhyme words.
“That whole activity of trying to make the rhyme helps engrain the concept into their brains because they’re forced to look at the concept from a whole bunch of different angles,” he said. “On top of that, it’s fun.”
During his workshops with Kenwood eighth-graders, Armah guided the students through the writing process, asking them to find words that rhyme with their names and to describe the places where they’ve lived. The students took those tidbits to start crafting an autobiographical song about themselves, prewriting, drafting, revising and editing along the way.
“Just the whole process of having them write words that rhyme with their names expands their vocabulary,” he said. “They start talking to their classmates, and they come up with interesting words.”
For educators, the process allows teachers to engage students through pop culture while showing the students they can use their voices (and their bodies through dance) to communicate clearly, whether verbally or in writing.
“The students don’t even notice they’re doing the writing process,” Armah said. “I show the students that the beginning process of writing rhymes is also the beginning process of writing absolutely anything else, whether you’re writing a book or an essay.”
The next two Kennedy Center teaching artists are Cissy Whipp and Eric Johnson, who both teach arts integration through dance.
The teaching artist residencies are supported by CECA and the Heydel Family Foundation, which gave a generous 10-year gift to Austin Peay in honor of June Heydel. The CECA-CMCSS partnership also is supported by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.