NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language, crude humor, and intimations of violence.
My daughter Alexa, who is in grade school, gets a lot of homework. One recent assignment was to memorize a 28-line rap about the parts of speech. This task caused her a fair deal of Sturm und Drang, and I myself got pretty tired hearing her rehearse. It wasn’t a bad little rap, but it wasn’t interesting enough to bear such repetition. Actually, it wasn’t really what I’d call a rap. It was more of a rhyme, really.
I appreciate the fact of the rap assignment, but—my mind having been fairly marinated in real rap music for more than two decades—I felt I could write a better version. So I did, or at least I tried. This post examines the hows and whys of learning through music, before proceeding to the World Premiere of my own Parts of Speech Rap. (If you have a short attention span and/or better things to get done, like updating Facebook or Twitting someone, you can go right to the poem by clicking Ctrl-F and searching on “Dana’s.” And if you don’t even have time for the rap/poem itself, how did you land here in the first place?)
It’s not hard to guess why Alexa’s school used a rap to teach parts of speech. Anybody who has seen “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” will remember that Charlie Brown excelled in the spelling bee because of a song called “I Before E Except After C” that his dog played for him on the temir komuz. (I have just now realized that the Alphabet Song is probably a better example.) Putting things to music, or at least throwing in some rhyme and/or rhythm, seems to be an effective memory aid. I found plenty of Google hits on “parts of speech rap,” including this rather inspired song, performed with great flair.
As useful as music and rhyme are to memorization, I have long pondered how bawdy and/or illicit verse seems much easier to memorize than the parent- or teacher-approved varieties. I’m not sure why this should be so, other than perhaps the social benefit of entertaining or titillating your school pals. Consider the following song excerpts:
Now we’re streaking in the halls.
I learned those songs more than thirty years ago, and they’re still with me. And yet, I cannot remember—and in fact never managed to learn—the normal version of either song. I learned the schoolyard versions from my brothers, but it’s not like those guys sat me down and taught me; I overheard the songs a couple of times and—just like that—I knew them cold. When I trotted them out for my schoolmates, I (briefly) became a hero. Nobody my age had such great stuff. (This was just one of the many benefits of having older brothers.)
So it was in college when, though struggling to memorize my French class vocab lists, I memorized entire rap songs without even trying. For example, I realized one day that I could rap, verbatim, Ice-T’s “Peel Their Caps Back”—though I’d never consciously attempted to memorize it. That song is over fifty lines; meanwhile, I know only thirty lines of Poe’s “The Raven,” even though it’s my favorite poem, and I’ve studied it extensively and have tried several times to learn it off.
Why memorize the parts of speech?
You may be wondering why I even care whether or not kids learn the parts of speech. Isn’t this the kind of useless trivia you learn just long enough to pass a test? Isn’t proper grammar just an annoyance, like that “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon that polluted your Saturday morning TV ritual?
Well, grammar is not trivial to me. Somebody should have explained adverbs to the ad agency that created the Apple “Think Different” ad campaign. It wouldn’t bother me if people acknowledged the obvious grammatical error while defending a stylistic choice, and it certainly wouldn’t bother me if somebody put forth that “different” in this context could be taken as a substantive adjective. But too many times I’ve pointed out the “Think Different” error to somebody who replied, “Huh? Seems right to me,” and/or “What’s an adverb?” Such ignorance is far more offensive to me than anything Lil Wayne, Obie Trice, or Eminem could serve up.
My School Rap Project
As soon as I heard Alexa’s assigned Parts of Speech Rap, I knew deep down in my soul that I’d have to write my own version. It didn’t matter that such a project has no practical value. That’s right, no value. Even if I could prove to the teachers that a grittier, more authentic, and more risqué rap would be easier to memorize than the existing version, it wouldn’t do to have kids earning street cred by spewing profanity or celebrating gang violence. To my ear, kids cussing is about as vulgar as you can get. It’s one thing for kids to teach each other naughty songs; for an adult to provide them is as inappropriate as buying booze for teenagers.
Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this blog, it’s that no audience is too small for a literary effort. Maybe one or two parents will read this and think it’s funny. Maybe it’ll find a home among the other “parts of speech rap” Google hits. And I’m toying with the idea of letting Alexa hear my rap exactly one time, just to show her what is possible … you know, inspire her to shoot higher than the vanilla school curriculum. Then, as with a magic trick, I would put it away and refuse to repeat it. (Not even once. Who knows how quickly she might commit the rap to memory, and how viral it could go on the Marin Elementary playground?)
So here’s my rap. I chose not to paste in the school's sanctioned version, as it’s probably copyrighted or something. (In contrast, if any kid gets hold of this rap, I’ll disavow it entirely and claim my blog got hacked.)
Dana’s “Parts of Speech” Rap
It’s possible certain words in that rap didn’t make a lot of sense, like “straight,” “clock,” “spit,” and “bite.” If so, I recommend the Urban Dictionary.
You may have noticed that my rap isn’t particularly hard-core. When it came down to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to go beyond a PG-13 level. After all, it’s conceivable that some enterprising young student might do an Internet search on “parts of speech rap,” and I’d hate to introduce anything truly offensive into the student culture. That kind of thing is really the students’ job.
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