And then, ‘Killamanshank’: Stumbling my way towards curriculum diversity

Maybe it’s because I haven’t shied away from my interest in Hiphop, maybe it’s because I’m black, maybe it’s because he’s found my youtube channel, but there’s this kid in my GCSE class who keeps challenging me to a rap battle.

It’s sweet really; he finds me in corridors, smiling inanely (him, not me) and starts calling me out with half formed lyrics, almost entirely borrowed from youtube views. I keep telling him it won’t happen. Mainly because he can’t rap, and my Simon Cowell-esque teacher persona refuses to take him seriously.

Until recently, when he came in, eyes gleaming, repeating the phrase:

“Killamanshank, Killamanshank”

complete with gun fingers. And then I called him on it. I asked him what he was saying, if he knew what he was saying and if he knew why he was saying it. What was it about shanking someone that he felt was exciting enough to bring to a cheeky rap-against-your-teacher scenario? Which led to a whole-class discussion about whether or not Grime reflects reality or reinforces stereotypes.

And then we watched the lyric video to ‘Castles’, discussing tensions between society’s view of the young black male and the actual societal pressures faced by young black males. Which, as it turned out, was a conversation of especial relevance to non-black members of the class, inasfar as they were forced to challenge their own perceptions of blackness.

And then we got to the line:

Tell Boris he’s lucky that I made it rapping or I would’ve been looting too

I asked them who ‘Boris’ is. They correctly identified the reference to London Mayor, Boris Johnson. I asked them who ‘Boris’ represents. They said they weren’t sure (my fault for asking a closed question). 

So I drew their attention to a few scribbled notes from the previous lesson, during which we had discussed the concept of marginalisation.

  
Look carefully at top right. That’s a list we came up with of all the things that the most privileged members of UK society are, the criteria that places them at the centre of mainstream society. We went through each point in turn and asked if they apply to Boris Johnson. Then we did the same with reference to David Cameron. Then we discussed what it means for someone to not satisfy any of that criteria. 
And I showed them this picture:

  
  
which none of them had seen. They immediately clocked Boris Johnson and David Cameron and started questioning how it could be that such a small circle of friends could end up in such positions of social privilege and political influence.

And then I showed them this picture:

  
and asked them what the difference is between a group of MCs who are heavily influencing the mindset of an urban generation and a group of public-school educated Oxbridge alumni who are heavily influencing the country. Which led us back onto the topic of marginalisation and social disenfranchisement, namely questions of how the socially disenfranchised respond to social inequalities, as highlighted by the Bullingdon photo.

Which in turn prompted me to turn our attentions towards the video to ‘ill Manors’ by Plan B.

  
It turned out that this is a very inclusive slice of anti-establishment class-based protest music, in that it features a full complement of marginalised peoples from a social spectrum; people of colour, people living in conditions of deprivation, criminals and would-be criminals, girls, boys, women, men, even an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

My students, at this point were gripped in debate. Some of the girls were firing home truths to some of the boys about their fascination with only the worst aspects of black culture. And some of them were realising, seemingly for the first time, that music videos are hyper-stylised representations, as opposed to accurate depictions of real-life. 

Which prompted me to click the video to Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ (featuring Maverick Sabre), 
  
a song about the exciting and dangerous urban ‘jungle’ that is East London. With the new perspective offered by our conversation, the class were sharply critical of the representation of young, black men as Morlock-esque urban miscreants, full of nocturnal malevolence. We started to ask difficult questions of Professor Green and challenge our own preconceptions of ‘black boys’ as well as the wider presentation of black youth in pop culture.

In retrospect, this entire lesson (which was a complete derail from what I had planned) was a focussed exploration of three very important concepts: Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement. All three of these concepts are of crucial importance to the experiences of young people, but they don’t readily find a place in mainstream curriculum. Since exploring Hiphoped in practice in my own pedagogy, I have found that most kids are itching to discuss the various intersections between popular culture (that they feel ownership of) and dominant social paradigms (that they are subject to).

All of this demands an interrogation of the modern curriculum. Shortly after this experience, I found myself steering a year 9 unit of work on ‘Survival’ into a study of modern London and the tensions of multiculturalism, during which we examined and compared texts (literature, songs, music videos, poems) by Zadie Smith, Dizzee Rascal, Doc Brown, Sway, Plan B, William Blake and Charles Dickens. 

Along the way, we also studied a selection of newspaper articles and opinion pieces from the Telegraph and the Guardian, branching off into issues if Higher Education and the realities of studying in London. I’m wondering now why I didn’t explicitly introduce the concepts of Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement to this class and think that next year, it might be a good idea to build the Bullingdon Club/ Boy Better Know Debate into their year 10 curriculum. 

No complex conclusions on this one, just a reminder underliner of the importance of opening up the curriculum. When I allowed myself to enter a responsive state, I found myself asking questions alongside my students whilst also asking questions of them. By focussing on issues of marginalisation and representation, I could effectively offer them a place at the table without pandering to stereotypical notions of modern youth, at once accepting them as individuals whilst interrogating their social views and preconceptions. For me, this interweaving of social critique and textual study embodies HiphopEd:

HHEd Manifesto

By removing (or widening?) the parameters of the curriculum, my classes are able to have far more vital conversations than I could have planned for. Two things worth noting here:

1) Many of the essays produced by my students found new intersections between texts, starting conversations rather than confirming established conclusions.

2) This was the first time that my students had seriously discussed writers and artists of colour regarding issues that affect people of colour. In light of a decidedly white curriculum, this is not only significant, but an alarming reminder of the lack of diversity in the usual curriculum. 

As ever, something to think about.

Unseen Flirtations

Note: If you’re interested in further details of the units of work mentioned here, drop me a line in the comments. Always happy to talk.

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Beyond Rags and Riches: The Reductive Power of Known Narratives

There’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking.

 

The mainstream, in its control of discourse, seems to function through aggression. It takes, dominates, appropriates, dictates and ultimately decides what Is and what Isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be. In this, non-dominant voices find themselves at the mercy of lines that have been pre-defined by society’s rulers (pun intended). And like all rulers, mainstream discourses tend to be rigid, brittle, inflexible and terrified of being bent out of shape.

 

Before I take the metaphor too far and lose you completely, I should explain the reasoning behind this essay’s opening statement.

 

A short while ago, I was busy recycling when I stumbled across a copy of ES magazine. A cursory flick-through revealed a feature spread on UK Grime artists Krept and Konan. If you don’t know, Krept and Konan are, to quote ES magazine, ‘Lords of Hiphop’. If you know a bit more, you’ll be aware that they are a duo of South London-based Grime MCs who came up through a largely underground following and are now making chart hits straddling both sides of the Atlantic.

kreptkonan1

 

 

ES magazine is a free publication distributed to commuters across London. There’s nothing niche about it. For this particular publication to be featuring Krept and Konan was an exciting prospect for me. I’m no connoisseur, but I follow Grime and am fascinated by its relationship with the mainstream. Grime is, among many things, the soundtrack of vibrant disaffection; kind of violent, energetic, playful and agitated all at once. Arguably, it’s an urban-born protest genre, reaching into a long heritage of Black British music. (Read this for more thoughts on the genre.) To feature in a magazine designed to distract Jo and Joanna Average on their way home from the office was, for me, intriguing.

 

Flick to the article in question (you can read it here) and it was clear that Krept and Konan had ‘arrived’. The article was a huge showcase of their new-found success, as marked by the glossy pictures of them in designer clothes, standing next to Rolls Royces, posing with Rolexes and lounging in private jets. Beside a subheading that ran:

 

Growing up surrounded by gang crime, rappers Krept and Konan found escape in South London’s urban music scene. Now everyone from Kanye to Ed Sheeran is a fan and they’re poised to break America. They tell Richard Godwin about doing time, being chauffeured by Drake and why they just want to make their mums proud

 

And… I didn’t like it. Because… I expected it. Let me explain.

 

Rags to Riches

The article is essentially a Rags to Riches story. More specifically, the exact same Rags to Riches story we have been presented with time and time again in the world of Hiphop. Socially deprived, economically impoverished criminal element picks up mic and makes millions through rap. The end.

 

Superficially, this, like all Rags to Riches, is a tale to be celebrated. But we have to consider the context. The Hiphop Rags to Riches is a mainstream endorsement couched in the politics of disempowerment. Hiphop is beleaguered by the Rags to Riches narrative. Think about it. A successful Hiphop artist is almost expected to come from some kind of social deprivation, as though their salvation (and acceptance by the mainstream) is tied to their ability to overcome socio-economic poverty. This is seriously reductive.

 

If the mainstream only accepts the success of the ‘other’ when that success is linked to a Rags to Riches narrative, then the Rags become overly important, and the Riches become overly valued. It is no accident that the ES article purports to understand Krept and Konan, but the reality is far more complex. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even a Hiphop act, but the article headline calls them ‘Lords of Hiphop’. The mainstream brain has kicked into gear to understand, package and pigeon-hole them as an understandable ‘other’.

 

On Thursday 10th December 2015 I had the privilege to hear Breakin’ Convention leader Jonzi (@jonzid) speak about his life in Hiphop at a HiphopEd seminar. He wove a rich, varied tapestry of art and culture, high and low, that went so much further than the Rags to Riches narrative. Jonzi stated very clearly that the commercialisation of Hiphop is not at the core of a culture that essentially requires no money to explore. So money cannot logically be an end goal. But, of course, Rags to Riches insists that a successful Hiphop artist is one that can stand next to a Rolls Royce in a gold watch.

41fvutzv48l-_sx334_bo1204203200_

Narratives are nothing new. And nothing new is known through them. In his exhaustive and excellent study of narratives ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Christopher Booker explores the notion that there are a finite number of narratives that we (as a species) continue to find and recreate to make sense of our selves and our stories. This is not offensive in itself, but paired with social inequalities and power paradigms? Something very dangerous can occur.

9780141186887

Things Fall Apart

Shortly after I presented some of these ideas at HiphopEd, Darren Chetty (HiphopEd and academic @rapclassroom) leaned in to offer that these politics of narrative are exactly the focus of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. If you haven’t read it, the novel details the life and times of a tragic protagonist, Okonkwo of the Nigerian Igbo tribe. And after chapter upon chapter exploring the intersection of generations and cultural skirmishes alongside the moral fluctuations of a seriously enigmatic tragic hero, it ends with a musing from the British Commissioner:

 

One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

As I say, there’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking. The Commissioner, in his representation of a colonial mindset, only understands what the thinks he knows of the Igbo. And of course he completely underestimates the richness and humanity of their entire culture. His casual reduction of an entire culture and one man’s (unknown) story to something worthy of ‘a paragraph’ is at once depressing and terrifying.

 

Beyond Rags and Riches

The presentation of Krept and Konan as a simple example of Rags to Riches is similarly problematic. It ignores so much that it doesn’t know, and worse still, fails to ask the kind of questions that might offer a new perspective to the mainstream brain. For example, one of the defining characteristics of Krept and Konan as artists is a propensity for punning and wordplay, almost of the Christmas cracker variety. Their lyrics are riddled with puns and double entendres, some quite clever, some worthy only of a groan. It was this that singled them out in the Grime scene in the first place.

 

I find this to be a defining feature of not only their work, but many Grime artists in general, something decidedly British that has roots in variety theatre and Stand-up as much as in MC heritage. But the mainstream lens isn’t wide enough for this conversation. Anything beyond the established narrative is a distraction and therefore irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Krept and Konan might share some kind of postmodern lineage with punchline peddlars of old, because they are, quote ‘rappers [who] found escape in South London’s urban music scene.’ End of.

 

Things Falling Apart in Education?

Admittedly, there must be a responsibility for those ‘in the know’ to offer these new perspectives. But the marginalised voice is rarely given an opportunity to be heard, listened to and acknowledged. This conflict comes into sharp relief with regard to formal education.

 

During my presentation, I played an impromptu game of ‘Cohort Bingo’ with the audience. Call out as many cohorts as you can, as discussed by educators in educational institutions. They came thick and fast. EAL. Black Boys. G&T. Looked After. SEN. Radicalised. At Risk. NEET. White Working Class. Etc. Schools, by identifying these cohorts, are at risk of doing to children (and by extension whole sections of society) what the Commissioner does to Okwonko in the final paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’. As soon as we decide what a someone’s narrative is, we deny them the right to shape their own story. And worse still, we ignore their story as it might have existed so far. I’m finding that Education is treated as one big Rags to Riches arc, with students too often treated as broken Cinderellas in need of the Prince Charming of assessment to get them to the university ball. As a result, we focus too intently on the Rags element. Can they read? Are they poor? Are they naughty? Are they clever? Do people like them get the Riches we want them to get? All of this stops us from asking more profound questions about their journey.

 

This cohort-heavy approach to education comes from a fascination with the other, and fascination and fear are close bed-fellows. The Commissioner’s motivation is to pacify ‘primitive tribes’ largely because colonists are always afraid of the unknown. The dark threat needs to be tamed, right? And the first step towards that taming is understanding. But this, I feel, is the most dangerous step, when ‘understanding’ is a construct built upon ideological foundations.

 

For these reasons, educationalists have a serious responsibility to challenge mainstream discourses in exactly the same way that Chinua Achebe challenged race/colonial discourses in his novel (and how I should probably challenge ES magazine by writing an essay on the British wit of Grime). Until then, we will be at the mercy of accepted narratives that shackle far more than they liberate. Definitely something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

Teaching to the converted: Black History Month

This blog post has a soundtrack. Click this link in a new tab and read on.

Right. So for reasons only the timetable gods will ever really appreciate, I recently found myself having to cover a merged set of year 8 classes, including only a small handful of kids from my actual class, who have been studying ‘Conflict’ over the past few weeks. We’d recently been exploring the concept of being at conflict with a place (namely London), examining George the Poet’s ‘My City’. I wanted to go further by studying ‘Sittin Here’, the opening track off Dizzee Rascal’s first album, Boy in da Corner.

So I get the music playing and present a selection of words from the song, excitedly telling the kids that we’re going to have a cypher.

Dizzee words

“What’s a cypher?”
“It’s a bunch of people rapping in a circle, and most of you are now terrified.”

Which they were. Admittedly, I hadn’t really set up the situation probably and the prospect of rapping freestyle in a group of peers is pretty daunting for even the most year 8-ish year 8 mind.

Of course, we got off to a slow, halting start and the kids didn’t do much beyond huddle in groups/ cling to tables/ stare wide-eyed at me/ shrink into themselves like prodded snails/ delete as appropriate. To be fair though, there was a palpable sense of excitement slash fear in the air, which transformed into positive energy once I got them all to chant a shared chorus. “Let me think… Let me THINK… Let me THINK (About what!) LET ME THINK!” etc. Despite having seven years of teaching behind me I was learning, all over again, about group dynamics, as if for the first time.

Naturally, I had to rap first to break the ice, and delivered an iceberg-shattering verse that the kids seemed to like, punctuated by whoops, repeated rhyming words and hype-man-esque dance moves. We were warmed up.

At that point, I lowered the volume and let the kids start writing lyrics of their own (note: it was amazing how quickly they found something to write on and with, with absolutely no heel dragging. Hiphoped: Bringing Children, to Life ™). Feel free to lower the volume on the other tab yourself.

Now, this isn’t a blog post about the magical powers of Hiphop to appeal to modern youth. I’ve written than one already. It’s about Black History. And black culture. See, I’ve spent the past four days wrestling with a blog about the perils of that thing we lazily call ‘cultural capital’ in modern education, linking it to something known as Aggression Theory. Please google it. That particular blog will probably never see the light of day because I just can’t reconcile my ideas properly, but this little anecdote I’m spinning offers a measure of clarity.

As the year 8s thawed and started sharing their verses, I was struck by how well-versed they were in the norms of Grime and Hiphop. Irrespective of gender, colour, creed, height, academic ability and eye colour they knew what was appropriate and what was expected. They knew which idiolect to adopt and which references to drop. To varying extents, they shared a tangible cultural capital of ‘black’ culture.

The problem was/ is/ might be they don’t fully appreciate the nuances of the culture they have adopted as their own. I’ve said in previous posts that there is an allure to the illicit nature of urban music that will always appeal to the adolescent mind. But there is so much more going on that many kids, through no fault of their own, do not see, let alone appreciate. I talked to the year 8s about their lyrics (often violent, always boastful, littered with references to money, sometimes playful) and they hadn’t considered why they leant towards some subjects over others. Only one student (interestingly enough, an ‘at risk’ black boy with a history of school suspension) wrote about something really profound, talking about “this place called prison/ that you don’t want to live in”, with references to young children wielding knives in the streets. They laughed with incredulity when I described looping the breaks on funk records to create a party (“what’s a record?”) and furrowed their brows when I suggested that some of them had written lyrics of protest. And when I asked who they wanted to listen to, it was a top five rundown of the latest youtube stars, rather than a considered list of interesting or arresting artists.

With another Black History Month on the horizon, I’m thinking that I might have a responsibility to offer these kids deeper insights into Black British culture, not because I’m black, but because I appreciate the nuances of that culture. I can see the provenance of various urban genres and their wider socio-economic relevances. I can place myself in a socio-cultural historical context. I’d like to think that I can hold my own in a rave just as much as in a debate about UK race relations in the 21st century. And if we’re serious about giving kids a cultural capital that means anything, perhaps we should offer them opportunities for similar understanding of their selves. Definitely something to think about.

-U

Skepta-gate: Why Teachers Can’t Keep it Real

 

So I’m drifting round my first year 10 lesson of the Autumn term and I hear one of my students rapping away to himself. My ears tune in and I realise it’s the hook from ‘Shutdown’ by UK Grime MC, Skepta. One of my students, a young Bengali boy, is quietly rapping away to himself while underlining the date and title.

 

Jokingly, I tell him that he’s going to need to put more bass in his voice if he’s going to pull that off. His response? Widened eyes and dropped jaw.

 

Him: “Sir, you KNOW that song?”

 

Me: “Why wouldn’t I know that song?”

 

Him: “Sir, it’s SKEPTA.”

 

Me: “I know!”

 

For some reason, this student (and the other kids on his table) found it utterly unbelievable that I would even be aware of, let alone appreciate the music, life and times of Skepta. They were bemused and incredulous all at once and to be honest, I don’t think they really believed me anyway.

 

Skepta is a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. I am a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. We share a number of similarities, up to and including the complexion of our skin. He looks like this:

and I look like this:

IMG_5621

I have tracked his career from the earliest days of Lord of the Mics. I have bought his music and scrutinised his lyrics. I have discussed the socio-cultural resonances of his work with academics. I have shouted his lyrics in my car whilst driving through the streets of East London. And yet a scrawny teenager of Bengali heritage feels more entitled to claiming kin than I do.

 

Three theories immediately spring to mind as to what’s going on.

 

Theory A: Youth

Skepta represents aspects of youth culture that a 14-year old (irrespective of cultural background) feels close to – closer than he thinks I could or should be. As a boring grown adult, it seems unlikely that I would fully appreciate the youthful exuberance of Skepta’s music and general energy. (Especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory B: The streets

Linked to the above. Skepta is a representative of the streets, in his slang, his dress, his references. The average teenager would feel more aligned to this than he may expect of his 33-year old chino-wearing English teacher. (Again, especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory C: General appropriateness

Linked to both A and B. Skepta’s music does not court the attention of adults, and it would be incongruous to hear an adult professional chanting Grimy road anthems while at work. It’s far more appropriate for a teenager who frequents youtube and is drawn to the allure of illicit music to be be rapping at school, rather than his teacher. (Who dresses a bit like Carlton Banks.)

Carlton aside, somewhere in the middle of these theories dance the deciding factors of context and identity. In previous posts I have explored the intersection between persona and identity, suggesting that teachers find themselves snared between crafted and appointed personalities, sometimes at conflict.

 

Skepta-gate, as it shall be referred to from this point on, throws this conflict sharply into light. Why should my teacherness be an obstruction to my other identities? Why can’t my students reconcile my role as a teacher with the possibility that I may be other things? That I may be from the same social universe as their idols? What is it about the establishment that brings the gears of identity grinding to collapse? And who exactly are my students seeing when they see me? Someone like them with a shared appreciation of marginalised cultures, or someone who is so ingrained in the systems of education that he couldn’t possibly understand where they are coming from?

home road school

I find this worrying. One of the underpinning philosophies of Hiphoped as a critical pedagogy is that it seeks to offer a space of reconciliation for various identities. In the past, we’ve talked of the languages of Road – Home – School as being disparate, forcing students to code-switch and slalom. When I think about it, a similar pressure is exerted upon teachers, especially teachers who fall out of mainstream norms. Not to overstate the case, but isn’t it weird that a young, black, urban teacher is seen, by students, as alien from black, urban youth culture?

 

A cynical but valid argument is that capital E Education is a straitjacket on identity. The idiosyncratic peaks of an individual who becomes a teacher are bulldozed flat by the profession itself. Alarmingly, my students might look at me and see not a person with the potential for personality like any other, but a simple manifestation of an established system.

 

The upshot of this is that teachers may find themselves struggling to forge meaningful relationships with their students if the teacher persona is indeed as restrictive as I’m suggesting. And any efforts to reach out and bridge this gap are fighting against a tide of socially and culturally ingrained ideals. When I think about it, this is perhaps a central tension that runs through Hiphoped, or any pedagogy that seeks to meet the kids where they are. Kids aren’t of the establishment, teachers are. End of. It’s no wonder that my anti-establishment claims (ie: liking Grime music) would be met with instant incredulity.

 

Interestingly, Skepta himself explores the tensions between identity and establishment in the song ‘Castles’ from his 2014 album ‘Blacklisted’. The song (analysed and discussed here by Hiphop Educator/ Academic Darren Chetty and UK rapper Ty – well worth a listen) outlines a young black male’s movement through a system of distrust. He reflects on failing at school (being labelled a ‘sideman’ by teachers), being distrusted by shop security guards, potentially ending up a ‘statistic’ to his racial profile, empathising with the London rioters of 2011, gun crime in urban environments, and the futility of casual drug use (smoking a ‘stupid zoot’). In this, the disconnect between society at large and societal expectations of the young black male prevent Skepta from relaxing into his successes. Yes, he is invited ‘to talk to the kids at assembly’, but his success as a musician is shackled by ongoing social stereotyping.

 

Ironically, I find myself in the inverse position, whereby the students I teach might distrust my authenticity because of my professional persona (linked to stereotypes of what a teacher is), while the system I teach in fully welcomes my teacherness. As long as I look, act and sound like what a teacher is supposed to look, act and sound like, I can’t possibly be as ‘real’ as is expected of a young black male. In the eyes of my year 10s, a teacher can’t be as real as Skepta, hence the incongruity of my knowing about Skepta in the first place.

 

Ultimately, this leaves an anvil-like question mark dangling precariously over the flimsy box construction that is identity. Should I shrug and accept my fate as a teacher destined to culturally be at arm’s length from my students? Or do I fight to make my authenticity/ realness/ social identity/ delete as appropriate known? No easy answers, but, as ever, something to think about.

 

-Unseen

 

Note: A potential problem in all this is the extent to which ‘realness’ is equated with negative social traits, but that’s for another blog post. Much to think about.

Poetry: ‘The Eighth Man’

The first man tried, the first man died.
The second man tried, the second man died.
The third man tried, the third man died.
The fourth man tried, the fourth man died.
The fifth man tried, the fifth man died.
The sixth man tried, the sixth man died.
The seventh man watched,
The seventh man saw,
The seventh man ran,
The seventh man soared.
The seventh man flew
The seventh man leaped
The seventh man flew from the edge over depths
That kept as a bed where the first six had rested,
Darkened by shadows and precipice crests.
The seventh man jumped,
The seventh man stretched,
The seventh man flailed,
The seventh man reached,
The seventh man tried.
The seventh man wailed.
The seventh man died.
The seventh to fail.

The eighth man tried,

-UF

Poetry: ‘My People’

All these white people
Nice enough people
Just far enough removed from white people

Who decided people
Hued like my people
Didn’t deserve equal treatment by people

Living like people
Here with my people
Post-code ascending right to buy people

Sugar sweet people
Cuppa tea people
Coupla plantations overseas people

Owning slave people
Born and raised people
Making wage and get paid by trade people

Eye-to-eye people
Turn a blind people
Just like we out to shop and buy people

We exploit people
Got no choice people
Too far away to hear their voice people

Making things that we buy with cash people
Take away our discarded trash people
On the other side of charity drive people
Two pounds a month just to survive people

Often small people
Or recent old people
Nimble fingers that stitch and sew people

Clothes to clothe people
Far away people
Shopping mall shuffling window gaze people

Bargain bin people
Hidden sin people
Worship at the church of scratch and win people

Justified people
Much to buy people
Turn a blind eye from other side people

Turn a blind eye from other side people
Learn to get by with drier eyes people

These are my people
Make you sigh people
All alive until left to die people.

-U

Becoming yourself: A teacher’s journey to authenticity

Harry Hill has something profound to say about who you are.

Right then. Let’s start with an easy one. What do the kids call you at school? I’m guessing… some variant of Mr/ Miss/ Ms/ Mrs Something-or-other? Perhaps ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’? At least to your face.

Ok, now a harder one. Who exactly are you when you’re at school? Well, to answer that one you’re going to have to read the rest of this blog post. Stay with me.

In the earliest days of my PGCE, I remember being profoundly weirded out by my given title of ‘Mr Boakye’. To clarify, my name is Jeffrey Boakye. At no point in my life had I been referred to as Mr anything and it felt odd to suddenly find myself decorated with that moniker, just because I was hanging around in a school in a professional capacity.

‘Mr Boakye’ (inverted commas entirely necessary) felt somewhat different to the ‘Jeffrey’ that I felt myself to be prior to teacher training. ‘Mr Boakye’ kind of felt like a new character I was adopting, rather than the person I actually was. Jeffrey came quite easily to me aged 26. ‘Mr Boakye’ was going to take some work.

Which, to an extent, summarises the following seven years, up until the writing of this blog post, during which time I have been crafting ‘Mr Boakye’. He talks a certain way. He definitely dresses a certain way. He has certain attitudes and behaviours, and projects a certain set of ideals upon his practice. Not to get too Liam Neesonish about it, ‘Mr Boakye’ has a particular set of skills acquired over a (reasonably) long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you.

Introduce a very interesting dichotomy that forms the basis of this essay: The fact that ‘Mr Boakye’ is a crafted, craftable concept, and one that I can objectively scrutinise, suggests that there is something about teaching that is performative, if not artificial. Simply put, teachers don’t just stroll into their careers as the casual first namers you might meet in a pub or wherever; we take an active step into the role of teaching. And that comes with effort and deliberation.

See, while the crafted persona of ‘Mr Boakye’ is strong and gets stronger, the life of Jeffrey Boakye has informed my teaching at every turn. When I think about it, many of my lessons have been tea-stained by events of my life. For example, when helping my sister get her daughter into primary school, my letter of commendation became the subject of persuasive writing analysis. I once got a bunch of year 9 boys to analyse and critique my wedding speech. My love of Hiphop has almost entirely derailed my pedagogic thought processes (for the better). And so on.

In his excellent book on the history and machinations of stand-up comedy ‘Getting the Joke’, Oliver Double offers the astute and useful ‘Performer-character’ distinction. Stand-up comedians, he argues (by the way, read this essay if you need convincing on the genetic similarities between the comedian and the teacher), are on a performer-character spectrum. Meaning that they straddle all kinds of lines between who they are and who they choose to project to their audiences.

Teachers, I believe, are on the same spectrum. Who we are, who we choose to be, and who we think we need to be are all paddling in the same canoe.

Anyway, here are Oliver Double’s distinctions. I’ll list them first, then we can consider how they might apply to a teacher:

  • Character comedian. You know the type – comedians who exist entirely as a stylised character bearing no relation to the person who plays them. Think all the characters played by a Harry Enfield or Steve Coogan. Personally, I’m not sure if this can apply to a teacher, unless you walk into a classroom with a fake name and completely fabricated personality. Which, crazily enough, I actually did for a string of lessons in 2011 in which I adopted the role of ‘Poetry Man’, a Wonka-esque, trilby-hatted loon who took kids out on adventures involving balloons, biscuits, zombies and polaroid cameras. Seriously, I did that. Click the links. It was exhausting.
  • Exaggerated persona. These are those comedians who play amped-up versions of themselves, usually with stage names and outlandish wardrobe. This, if I’m being honest is where I am at the moment. ‘Mr Boakye’ has evolved into a stylised vision of my own creation. A kind of cartoonified projection of the teacher Jeffrey Boakye has chosen to be.
  • Naked self. When all pretences are dropped and the character is as close to the person as possible. Ironically, I think this naked self can only really emerge accidently. The intensity of teaching and constant proximity to audience (students; colleagues…) means that any chosen persona will necessarily slip. I’ve always maintained that the ‘real’ you will out after even a short stretch of teaching, because you can’t keep a a mask on when building relationships. I can do everything in my power to create ‘Mr Boakye’ but the kids know Jeffrey whether I like it or not.

Recently (by which I mean the last four years or so) I have been trying, intently, to forge the naked self into the exaggerated persona. I have no idea if this is a sensible idea but I’m in love with the concept of not having to put on (or take off) any masks in my professional life. I want to be ‘Mr Boakye’ at all times. I want to lose the inverted commas; I want my work wardrobe to be my weekend wardrobe.

What I really want, I think, is authenticity, and this might be the point of this essay. Teaching thrives in the relationships between teacher, student, subject, and the more authentic these relationships the better. If I’ve learned anything about developing this authenticity it’s that you have to allow something real to permeate your crafted self just as much as you have to exercise control over your naked self.

None of this comes easy. Like the comedian, the teacher is probably racked with insecurity, a sense of deficit and constant doubt. What we do is intimate, but stylised; authentic, but kind of fake, and we have to straddle all that on a day-to-day basis (minus holidays). Teaching is intensely personal. No safety buffer. ‘Mr Boakye’ is me. His competence, passion, expertise, skill, likeability is being judged all day long. Oliver Double talks of the ‘person in the persona’, a neat summation of what we wrestle with. We aren’t one person; we are a collection of choices and experiences. We choose to let some things show and we can’t prevent other things from showing. As Harry Hill puts it:

I think once everyone started doing their own material, most people are putting over… something about themselves, no matter how hidden it is.

From this understanding, it’s not so much a case of asking can you control your persona, it’s more a case of do you want to?

In the past thousand words or so I have suggested that ambiguity over the self is part of becoming a teacher. The question to leave on is whether or not (or to what extent) this ambiguity might help or hinder your practice. Teaching forces us to do what comedians and artists strive to do: reconcile our various selves. We’re so exposed, and so structured, that we have to find a middle ground. This is to be welcomed, perhaps celebrated? It’s about honesty, or the right level of dishonesty, or control, or lack of, which keeps the relationships alive and vital. The audience, the students, need to see some of who you are if they are to accept you and genuinely enter the dialogue you instigate every time you stand there with a lesson plan. To go back to the hard question at the start of this essay, who are you when you walk into the classroom? And who do you want to be? As ever, no straightforward answers, but definitely something to think about.

-Jeffrey ‘Unseen Flirtations’ Boakye

For more thoughts on the nuances of performance and persona I strongly recommend finding and reading ‘Getting the Joke’ by Oliver Double.

10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Poetry

A neat rundown of how to introduce and cultivate spoken word in the classroom.

Brian Mooney

  1. Be yourself.

If hip-hop isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Better to “keep it real” and be yourself. In other words, keep it authentic. Find connections to your students that are meaningful to you – but don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If you love classic poetry, boom – spoken word is calling your name. Open your mind to new voices, cultures, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Your students need you to!

  1. Create open mic time.

My students love reading their poetry during “open mic” time – this is a low-stakes, non-judgmental period of 10-15 minutes at the beginning of every club or class meeting when students can share anything they’ve written – poems, verses, raps, bars, songs, or short stories. No feedback, just snaps! It’s important to develop a culture of listening and affirmation before getting to this next tip…

  1. Workshop the writing.

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What I’ll Be Writing On That Starry Night, My Brothers

A poetic response to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, first read at 14, re-read at 33.

You know what?
Be ready to fight. Cos when Alex, Dim, Georgie and Pete, come in the night/ to ask questions of your wife and interrupt your write/ you’d better be ready for life/ -be a young man/– dumb, insensitive/ vocal and feeling plenty of/ power, rage and drive with rookers that fully clench/ and gullivers full of trouble, desire to see the red/ your swordpen cannot save you and neither can what you’ve read/– you’re either starry or not so I suggest you dispense with all the cutter and get yourself a cutter and dance among the gutter/ and shark up, my brothers/- dapper up your platties it won’t/– be very horrorshow if you act the man, he’s a boy/- you can’t reason with infancy/–he’s all he was meant to be – it isn’t indecency/– it isn’t unreasonable/ it’s entirely feasible/– the boy is unteachable but he’ll teach you a lesson/– I am suggesting that you enter the class – britva sharp – with a few ha ha haws (that’s laughs)/ -don’t be scared of a tolchock/– just go for the old rot, you’re human so use your fist to do what you know’s not impossible, just a bit unpalletable/– maybe slightly damaging but ultimately manageable/- and your devotchka? /-protect her like an animal/- all she is is groodies for glazzies to these malchicks.

What’s it going to be then eh?
A night where your DNA/ gets tested or wrested or fully bested? You be that way/– you sit and scribble your clever slovos/ – cos soon they won’t be good enough, you’ll have to use your goloss/– and when that isn’t loud enough you’ll have to use your rookers/– and if they aren’t – sharp enough a britva or a pooshka/– with which you might protect yourself at time of desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/– for meaning/– the in and out’s obscene and/– the violence has no ceiling/– you’ll find your glazzies greeting/– until you start to steel them/ the noga to the floor/ you’re at war/ with the floor/ you’re at war/ with the idiot you were and the demons that you saw/ it’s real/– mechanical steel/- the human is peel/ so do what you feel/– just feel it for real/ like eyes glinting looking for the violence in the silent night.

-Flirtations

‘Up in the Air’ (2009) – A poetic film review

A poetic review/ critique of the film ‘Up In The Air’ (2009), starring George Clooney.

Alone.

With your sharkslick moves; dripping hubris as you cruise
With digital ease through analogue seas
Of people, places and unrecognised faces,
An indefinite trip outside of all time, high-flying
Straight by people with lives weighted down and laden
With people, places and recognised faces they’ve acquired.

Detached.
Pack light: Move swift. Use-less
Energy on useless roots and routes that shoot and shout
Down through the fuselage of your ethos.
Crowds gather where clouds don’t matter and where clouds don’t matter the crowds have scattered –
Jettisoned ballast until your chosen solitude is so close
That you are immune
To your own calloused touch.

Moon bound.
Flying round.
Two hundred thousand miles in the air, getting nowhere
Nearer than closer to somewhere.
Targets thin like skin. Thin air,
Greying hair yet still; you don’t care
Because you care about not there, or there, but the ellipsis in between
Where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Never home, never slowing, sharkslick fin slicing
Through seas of barely recogniseable faces.

Inching.
Ten million miles closer to that home of your imagination
That dream made real by corporate corroboration,
A scene that means as much to you as two recent teens saying I do,
One small step closer to the landing site called home.
Ten million miles flown,
Each first class seat a throne,
The Emperor’s New Throne in fact,
Weighing just as much as your emptying soul.

Travelling.
With no destination. Outward bound, outward facing,
What exactly is gestating in that sharkskin case
Of you-shaped templates and hollow replacements (of holiday luggage)
Permanently escaping the one place you came from
That is so far away that you finally cannot place it.

But yes, you feel it, for beneath the calloused skin and
(Now slightly dipping) fin and silent, chrome wing
Is him: that collection of people, places and changing, aging faces
That initially flew you in.

-Unseen