Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:


All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

Language “Rules” and the Common Core State Standards

CCSSImageWhat do the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have to say about language? I’ve heard teachers and students, colleagues and friends, talking about the Common Core, hinting at worries about yet more standardization and inevitable high-stakes testing. I can agree that more standardization, especially regarding language in a massively multilingual and rapidly changing educational context is worrisome. But, what do the CCSS actually say?

Anyone with Internet access can take a look and navigate through all the standards on the website (www.corestandards.org). So, I did. I had one guiding question: What are the CCSS telling teachers to teach our kids about language? I found some happy surprises.

First, I found this statement in the introduction to the “Language” standards:

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary

The Language standards include the essential “rules” of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives.

Those quotation marks around “rules” were my first hint of potential CCSS flexibility. Perhaps the crafters of these standards take the concept of language “rules” with a grain of salt. If “rules” are in quotes and craft and informed choice considered important, teachers could be liberated, rather than constrained by the Common Core.

Could this stance be consistently maintained from Kindergarten through Senior Year? I continued through the Language standards to see.

The word nuance in one of the Kindergarten standards (#5) caught my attention and supported my first impression that strict definitions and rigid “rule”-learning wouldn’t be the focus. So, I began there:

K5: With guidance and support from adults, explore word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

K5C:Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., note places at school that are colorful).

K5D: Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g.,walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.

This sounds like a nice way to learn about language and meaning in context: Walking through a school, noting places that are “colorful”–or, marching, strutting and prancing, accentuating the nuance in each gait (and word)!

But, Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. Even standards writers might think so. What happens in first grade? They must start memorizing dictionary definitions then, right? No!

In first grade, this standard remains the same:

With guidance and support from adults, demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Now students note “places at home that are cozy” and continue to “distinguish shades of meaning,” of verbs like look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl or adjectives like large, gigantic.

And in second grade, students must demonstrate their recognition of nuance without “guidance and support from adults”:

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

In third grade the standard adds “figurative language” but maintains the need to find nuance.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

This standard remains exactly like this through 12th grade. Children go from marching, strutting and prancing around school to analyzing the shades of meaning of hurl versus throw to identifying hyperbole and paradox. Students’ understanding of word nuance consistently grows along the way.

But by starting with the “nuance” standard, I may have created a biased impression.  What about other standards? Are the rest more “rule” bound, standardized and lacking in nuance?

I started over in Kindergarten, this time with the most boring looking standard I could find, 1A. No nuance there:

Print many upper- and lowercase letters.

1A progresses to first grade like this, with even less nuance, as many changes to all:

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.

To second grade:

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).

And third grade:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

And, Common Core State Standard 1A continues in the same vein from 4th to 10th grade:

4th: Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

5th: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.

6th: Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

7th: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

8th: Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

9th and 10th: [in an abrupt and ironic break with previous grades] Use parallel structure.

Grammar rules seem to be piling up.

But I also noticed a healthy pattern of explanation of rules of “proper” usage (grade 6), interspersed with the slight concession to context, noting these features may function differently in “particular” (grade 5 and 8) or “specific” sentences (grade 7). But where does this all lead? What happens in 11th and 12th grade. Certainly you can’t be teaching more grammar points to 17 and 18 year olds?

Nope! In 11th and 12th grade, rules become “rules,” or, more explicitly, a “matter of convention” that “can change over time” and be “contested”:

11th and 12th: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

After this dip into the Common Core website, following the ripples of a couple standards through the grades and into adulthood, I began to feel reassured that the CCSS (on their own) will not doom us to decades of robotic teaching and learning.

Understanding nuance is officially Language Standard #5. Nuance also infuses these standards and their interpretation. Like so many educational tools, they can be used and abused. I’m hoping to use them to support more critical thinking about language in classrooms, among students and their teachers, the community, and beyond. I’m also hoping that when students are exploring “shades of meaning,” (CCSS language standard 5D) those who speak several languages, or varied dialects, will be invited to share those shades of meaning too. (See Nelson Flores’ post on Multilingualism and the CCSS). Ideally, up to and beyond graduation, students will engage with the nuance of language, knowing they can also be the ones who change language “rules” and contest conventions.

What have your experiences been with the CCSS? Have you been aware of them as a teacher, a professor, an administrator, policy-maker, or a parent? As a citizen who consumes media about education policy? What do the CCSS ignore or leave out? How are they constraining? How might they be liberating?