Reading, Writing and R&B

By John Gillis, Education Reporter
The Chronicle Herald

Nova Scotia Halifax, Canada

The students filling the gym at St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School in downtown Halifax weren’t merely happy to be learning about grammar and writing Wednesday afternoon; they were ecstatic, exuberant and joyful about it.

Synonyms were the topic of the hour at a session for students from several grades and schools led by Texas writing consultant Erik Cork.

But this wasn’t your ordinary language arts class. Hip-hop and R&B tunes were blasting over the speakers and students bobbed and sang in their seats as they diligently recorded synonyms for what Mr. Cork called illegal words.

Those are pedestrian terms such as happy, sad, good, bad, many and very- too often used when more precise or colorful words would be better. “You cannot use the same words over and over and over,” he told the junior and senior high school students. “People judge you by the words you use and how you use them. It will be that way for the rest of your lives.”

The workbook went on with exercises on building sentences, paragraphs and essays using rap-style rhymes to help students master grammar, style and structure.

Before the students returned for the afternoon session, Mr. Cork, a journalist and poet, explained he hoped to help students tap the skills they have to better use the power of words and writing. He said many students who do poorly on literacy assessments don’t lack intelligence or ability; they just don’t understand the terms and forms of evaluation that are used. “I’m not trying to turn teachers into rappers and singers or dancers,” he said.

“My goal is to give the teachers more things that can just add to what they’re already doing.” One technique that might not immediately be adopted by local teachers is his penchant for handing American dollar bills to students who correctly answer questions. Mr. Cork said that’s meant to turn the bling message of many rap musician on its ear. “Where I’m spending my money and investing my bling is in your brain,” he said. “I’m trying to flip that script and emphasize the importance of education instead of all the materialistic flashiness.”

The students were definitely buying in. “It’s a fun way of learning,” said 12-year old Deiaz Desmond, a Grade 7 student at S. Pat’s-Alexandra. Jason Zinn, 11, a friend, agreed. You want to do your work because he gives out stuff… He puts on music, gets everybody to dance, makes everybody happy,” he said.

Jason earned $2, one for his dance moves and one for his knowledge of grammar. Both students said their favorite new word was “murmured.”

Mr. Cork will make presentations to more students at St. Pat’s-Alexandria today and Friday, said principal Ken Fells, who arranged for his visit.

Tiffany Dean-Wright