Daily Archives: September 26, 2008

Poetry Friday: Hip Hop Speaks to Children

In my class, every year each kid chooses a poem and recites it for the class, and each year, I’m simply amazed by how excited they are to do it. I suppose the whole thing feels a shade old-fashioned, some might even say out-dated. I sort of feel like I’m the school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse when they stand up and recite their poems in front of the blackboard. Very Anne Shirley. Nevertheless, it’s one of the biggest hits of my language program and so I keep on doing it. We finish up with a poetry slam of sorts, where they stand up and perform their poems. Last year, after the first poem was read, all the kids started to clap and one of my students said, “No. It’s poetry. When it’s poetry you snap.” And so we snapped. We real cool.

I’m practically all tingly with the prospect of introducing Hip Hop Speaks to Children into my poetry unit this year. I can just tell the kids are going to get into this book. You’ll find all sorts of treats, some quite unusual, in this collection of Hip Hop and related poetic forms, edited by Nikki Giovanni. There’s some Langston Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Queen Latifah and Martin Luther King Jr – and more besides. 30 of the poems are performed by artists and poets on a CD included in the book (in much the same format as the very successful Poetry Speaks to Children).

I love the way this text encourages readers to discover the connection between modern Hip Hop and earlier musical and poetic traditions, reaching all the way back to Call-and-Response texts used in worship, to hamboning, and rap and the blues. I think that by seeing the roots of hip hop, kids and teens and parents will see this art form in a new, more open way. Another real strength of the text is the illustration. Each page offers bright and intensely rich colours, with different artistic styles to keep things lively for the reader. Even short poems get their own full page, which means lots of illustration to enrich the text and give readers something to sink into. Take a look at a sample page:

I have only one small quibble with this lovely poetry collection. In her introduction and in the notes about several of the poems offered on the CD, Nikki Giovanni’s tone veers towards the academic, which makes me wonder about the intended audience. I think that it might have been possible to tailor her language more to the age group that the book seems to be targeting. I imagine my class of ten year olds tuning out for a lot of that, or thinking, “Huh?” Valuable insights and important information about the poems and poets certainly, just not presented in an entirely kid-friendly manner. Of course, you could shift this observation more towards the positive by noting that Nikki Giovanni’s explanations are sophisticated enough to make parts of this book appropriate for early high school students too. Here’s Nikki talking about the book:

Coincidentally, soon after I received my review copy of this book, I was listening to the CBC morning show and there was an interview with the founder of what sounds like a remarkable literacy program, called Literacy Though Hip Hop. I’m thinking they need to order a few boxes of this collection to support their initiative. Hip Hop Speaks to Children is released October 7th, by Sourcebooks. It will add spice, depth and greater perspective to any poetry unit.