Street Rhyme Rhythm

by Sarah Kortemeier

Sarah KortemeierSarah Kortemeier is a teaching artist and is completing her MFA at the University of Arizona. She also teaches undergraduate poetry and composition courses at the U of A.

The Poetry Center's first fall Poetry Joeys is happening this Saturday, Sept. 25th at 10:00 a.m.

When I taught Poetry Joeys for the 7-9 age group this spring at the Poetry Center, I had the pleasure of working with a class of very energetic and intellectually curious children.  During our first lesson, one boy asked me if I knew what a chimera was: clearly, this was a group of kids who loved words.  I saw immediately that many of the students were deeply attracted to learning the sense of new words; by the acquisition and use of complex vocabulary, they were attempting to achieve a more diverse, complicated, and sophisticated view of the world.  

Needless to say, this class was a blast to teach.

The theme for the Joeys this spring was "street rhymes," and as I observed these students, I decided that I wanted to encourage them to use street rhymes to access words in an unfamiliar way, to re-learn the strangeness of words in order to unlock further creative potential.  In addition to the sense of the words, I wanted the kids to experience words in terms of their sonic beauty and also in terms of their physicality: what emotional effects do we get from words when they're combined with movement and chanted in clearly rhythmic, musical patterns?

To do this, I began several classes by throwing "sense" out the window: our warm-ups encouraged the use of nonsense words, made-up words, and a lot of physical movement.  These exercises were not just games, however; they were purposely designed to incorporate difficulty, and that difficulty usually had nothing to do with the sense or pronunciation of the words that we chanted.  I tried to choose exercises that incorporated rhythmic complication, hand-eye coordination, chant, and mental and physical alertness.  We really had to think hard to keep up with the chant as we did these activities.  In the process, I hoped that poetry would become more verbal, physically energetic, and spontaneous for the students: that the games we played with our hands and feet would erupt naturally into words.  And when this happened, it was pure joy to watch.

One of my favorite warm-up activities for these Joeys was one I chose for a lesson on rhythm.  Rhythmic chants are the bedrock of many street rhymes; the rhythm you set up in the voice is echoed in the rhythms of the game.  I began this lesson with an old game called "Dum Dum Da Da."  There are a number of versions of this game; the version I learned as a child incorporates hand motions that require increasingly difficult levels of hand-eye coordination.  These hand motions also get progressively larger and sillier.  The nonsense syllables ("dum dum da da") are sung to the chorus of "Old Man River," and the hand motions are performed in rhythm with the song.  This is version we used:

All performers should be seated in a circle, sitting close enough to touch one another.  At the end of each iteration of the "Old Man River" tune, punch the air with both fists and yell, "HOO!"

First iteration of the "Old Man River" tune:
As you sing "dum dum da da," tap your own knees twice with both hands, then your right-hand neighbor's knees twice, then your own knees twice again, then tap your left-hand neighbor's knees twice.  Repeat until the end of the tune.  HOO!

Second iteration of the "Old Man River" tune:
Tap your knees once.  Cross your hands and tap your knees once.  Uncross your hands and tap your knees once.  Reach out on both sides and tap both your neighbors' knees once.  Repeat until the end of the song.  HOO!

Third iteration of the "Old Man River" tune:
Hold arms in front of you.  Place your right hand on your left shoulder.  Then place your left hand on your right shoulder.  Then straighten your right arm.  Then straighten your left arm.  Repeat until the end of the song.  HOO!

Fourth iteration of the "Old Man River" tune (fair warning: this one is difficult!):
Tap your knees once.  Cross your hands, bring them up to your face, and grab your nose and left ear (hands should remain crossed as you do this).  Uncross your hands and tap your knees once.  Cross your hands again and grab your nose and right ear.  Uncross your hands and tap your knees once.  Repeat until the end of the song.  HOO!
Repeat the entire cycle of 4 "verses"...FASTER.

The goals of this activity, in a children's creative writing classroom, are straightforward: by the end, everyone will have made a lot of "mistakes," and more importantly, everyone will be laughing at these mistakes.  This establishes a safe classroom atmosphere; the kids understand, after we've been through this introductory activity, that it's perfectly OK to use nonsense words in their poetry, to play with various sounds, and to do things they might otherwise consider "silly" in front of the group.  In addition, the game establishes a very firm link between words and rhythm: students literally beat the rhythm of the song out on their own bodies (gently, of course!).  From here, we moved to more complicated clapping games that incorporate both "sense" and "nonsense" words and subdivided rhythms.  Any clapping game you remember from childhood will work; I also had the kids teach me some games I didn't know.  By the end of the lesson, many of the children had spontaneously come up with a number of highly rhythmic chant-games, complete with original movements, and when given pencil and paper wrote several street rhymes at once.  Their street rhymes were highly original in terms of both movement (many of them used their entire bodies, not just hand motions, in their games) and word use.  

I had a lot of fun with this lesson.  Here are some of the chant games the kids composed:

Shalom chaverim
Shalom chaverim
lehitraot lehitraot
hello friend
goodbye friend
see you later
see you later
I love you
lehetroat lila tov
--Emberly Davis

I like hotdogs.
You can't find them in bogs.
I like hotdogs.  
They're not made of frogs.
I like hotdogs.  

Nothing, nothing,
nothing isn't something
so don't do nothing,
punch, the air or something!
Don't do nothing,
pat your head
no don't!
Why not do something!
You should count!
1 2 3 4 etc.
--Ames Stevens

Created on: 
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents