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Student Engagement

Sixth-Graders, Pop Lyrics, and Iambic Pentameter

June 12, 2012

Even those of us who teach Shakespeare may never take the time to appreciate the dedication that he had to craft. He's such a fixture of Western sensibility that he's easy to take for granted; we might begin to assume that writing came easily to him, but wouldn't that diminish his hard work? According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, his complete works consist of 118,406 lines of verse. A solid majority of those verses are in rigid iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter or some other icky meter that most of us modern poets don't touch with a ten-foot quill. I personally lean towards haiku, as do most of my students.

However, in April I was teaching my sixth-graders about the basics of poetry, using sections from A Midsummer Night's Dream to show how poems could perform all of the feats of the other major genres of literature -- prose and drama -- with a Cirque du Soleil flourish. In analyzing sections of the play -- tickling the feet out of the lines and searching for the rhyme and reason of stanzas -- it suddenly occurred to me that Shakespeare must have really liked to write poetry, because not even he could have counted out all of those syllables and had a life, too.

When I expressed this in class, my sixth-graders just shrugged. Whereas I saw a man profoundly committed to craft, they saw a guy with too much time on his hands. They weren't terribly impressed, and I wanted them to be terribly impressed.

They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol'n the Scraps

The day after this revelation, I brought in a few songs from the top ten list: one from an alt rock artist, one rap song, a country tune, and a ballad-ish piece by the popular boy band One Direction. I edited them all down to their primary verses, leaving out choruses and the extra long refrains of "oh baby baby baby baby," finally reducing each song to about fifteen and twenty lines a piece. I gave these shortened versions to my students, whom I had put into small groups. Then I told them to make Shakespeare proud.

Their assignment was to translate one of these songs into either iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter with a rhyme scheme of their own device.

Initially, the classroom was trembling with an outrage that would have had Hamlet scratching his head. The kids were convinced that this was a task beyond their abilities and that I was an unjust teacher with unreasonable expectations of them. However, as the groups settled into their task, they became invested in the process, and they began to discover that they were quite capable poets themselves. To their surprise, some even began to enjoy the process, perhaps finding some of the same delight in words that Shakespeare once had.

In every corner of the room, children were clapping out syllables, rearranging lines, plowing through thesauruses, or turning to for words that rhyme with "rapper." Some were arguing about whether "dapper" had the same connotation as "divine" when describing "swagger." Others were crafting metaphors about swans in order to have an end rhyme for "on." They even asked me for advice! What's more, they listened when I gave it.

Trippingly on the Tongue

Admittedly, some of the poems were ridiculous when all was said and done, but it was an original absurdity that seemed an improvement over some of the more trite lyrics of modern pop music. I'd love to hear One Direction sing my students' version of their song "What Makes You Beautiful," that romances a sweetheart with the message:

If only you could see you're cute to me;Soon you will see you warm my heart like stew.I am looking at you and I can seeYou are beautiful, that's what makes you you.

What woman doesn't want to be compared to stew?

I was having a blast helping the kids invent rhymes and count out syllables. Fantastically, I wasn't the only one. A young bard, after three days of diligent craftsmanship, said (on the down-low, of course), "This is actually kind of fun. Do you think it was fun for Shakespeare?"

Upon finally finding a two-syllable word to rhyme with "overwhelmed," a girl cried, "One Direction would be so proud of us!"

I don't know about One Direction, but I'm pretty sure Shakespeare would be.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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