Creative Mindset: Focus on the Writing Process

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images Jay-Z signs copies of his book “Decoded” at Barnes & Noble in New York. Go to related article »

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language arts

Teaching ideas based on content from The New York Times.

Overview | How can using writers’ notebooks and practicing using literary elements help writers develop ideas? In this lesson, students examine rap artist Jay-Z’s lyrics for literary elements, including rhyme, metaphor, puns, and allusions, then reflect on what he says about his own process. of writing. Finally, they analyze additional lyrics and apply lessons from Jay-Z’s process to their own reading and writing.

Materials | Computer with projection equipment and speakers; music player (for student presentations); copies of the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” and the document “Empire State of Mind Literary Elements Hunt” (PDF)

Warm up | When students walk into class, listen to Jay-Z’s popular song “Empire State of Mind” in audio or video. (Note: the lyrics are provocative. Be sure to preview them to gauge their relevance to your band.) Ask for feedback on the song. What do they like in there? What are the main ideas and themes of the lyrics? Is it literary? Why or why not?

Distribute the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” and the handout “Empire State of Mind Literary Elements Hunt” (PDF). Challenge students to identify an example of each of the literary elements on the sheet in Jay-Z’s lyrics.

After students have shared their examples and you have discussed their accuracy, ask: How did Jay-Z use these literary elements to express his own experience? Why does he use them? What effect do they have on you?

Related | In the article “Jay-Z Deconstructs Himself”, Michiko Kakutani reviews Jay-Z’s “Decode”, a memoir chronicling his evolution as a writer and artist:

“Wherever I went, I wrote,” Jay-Z recalls in his captivating new book, “Decoded.” “If I was crossing a street with my friends and a rhyme came to me, I would pull out my binder, spread it out on a mailbox or a lamp post, and write the rhyme before crossing the street.” If he didn’t have his notebook with him, he would run “to the corner store, buy something, then find a pen to write it on the back of the brown paper bag.” It became impractical when he was a teenager, working the streets of the East Corridor, selling crack, and he says he started working on memorization, creating “little nooks in my head where I stored rhymes.”

In time, this love of words would give Jay-Z more No. 1 albums than Elvis and fuel the realization of his childhood dream: to become, as he wrote in one of his earliest lyrics. , the poet with “rhymes so provocative” that he was the “key in the lock” – “the king of hip-hop”.

Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.

Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. As a young man, how did Jay-Z use his notebook to capture lyric ideas?
  2. How did Jay-Z’s former life as a drug dealer contribute to his development as a writer?
  3. How has writing helped Jay-Z find meaning in his life?
  4. Can you give examples of ways Jay-Z uses traditional literary devices to help him express life on the streets?
  5. What does “postmodern” mean? How could Jay-Z’s work be considered postmodern?
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Activity | The main activity detailed below, which guides students through reviewing song lyrics for literary elements, and the Going Deeper activity, which explains how students could use the Writer’s Notebooks to develop their own writing ideas, revolve around Jay-Z’s writing process. Either could be the subject of your lesson.

To begin an examination of how writers use literary elements, draw students’ attention to this paragraph from the article:

Ultimately, “Decoded” leaves the reader with a keen appreciation for how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying, and “the most familiar subject of rap history – why i’m dope”) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double meanings, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhyme upon rhyme, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected streams of—leaps of consciousness that rework old cliches and play clever aural jokes on the listener (“ruthless” and “roofless” , “tears” and “floors”, “meaning” and “since”).

Discuss how this applies to the lyrics of “Empire State of Mind” with the following questions:

  • What themes does Jay-Z address in this song?
  • How does his use of literary elements contribute to bringing out these themes?
  • Where in the lyrics do you see layers of metaphor?
  • What are the effects of his “language tricks” on you as a listener?

To further analyze the lyrics, have students examine another favorite song for literary elements. Artists can include Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Fall Out Boy, The Beatles, and many other songwriters. Some artists lend themselves better to this type of analysis than others, so you may want to ask students to get your approval on their selections before proceeding.

Ask them to print out the lyrics of the song they have chosen and annotate them, highlighting key words, literary elements and devices, observations they make about the text, and ideas about the theme. Then ask them to find examples of as many literary elements in the lyrics as possible. Once done, ask them to choose three literary elements to examine more closely. One way to do this is to create and populate a table with three column headings: “Passage”, “Literary Element”, and “Analysis”.

Meet in class for presentations. After students have finished sharing, ask them the following questions:

  • Which musical genres seemed to use literary elements the most? Why do you think this is?
  • Why would musical artists use the same old literary devices we study in class?
  • How do these artists keep these devices fresh and avoid the cliché?
  • What would the lyrics sound like without these literary elements?
  • Which of these words would you qualify as literary?

Go further | Remind students of how Jay-Z uses writer’s notebooks and writes rhyme ideas on the fly. How could he use these notes to develop songs? Tell them to start a writer’s notebook and use it, as Ralph Fletcher, a writer who advocates writer’s notebooks, puts it, “to breathe in the world around him,” and to include a variety writing in their notebooks about things they notice, questions, intriguing little details and seed ideas, like Jay-Z does.

Have students hold a writer’s notebook to capture details, scenes, and emotions from their life, school, and neighborhood over a period of days or weeks. Encourage them to always have their notebooks with them and to use them in a way that reflects them, whether that’s drawing pictures, making lists, rhyming thoughts, or writing paragraphs on their own. A writer’s notebook is a place of experimentation, creativity and risk-taking. This can be done using a pad of paper or technical tools like the iPod Touch.

Alternatively, students create and maintain running books, in which they jot down excerpts of lyrics they hear, excerpts of poetry, and other quotations, along with their ideas about them. Different from writers’ notebooks, in which students consciously write and record their own ideas, running books serve as a sort of gathering place for students to react and respond to the words of others, which, of course, can prove valuable fodder for their own writing.

You can give creative and personal writing assignments – including songwriting – designed to encourage students to extract raw material from their notebooks and develop more polished tunes.

Standards | This lesson correlates to McREL’s national standards (it may also align to the new Common State Standards):

language arts
1. Uses soft skills and writing process strategies
5. Uses general skills and strategies of the reading process
6. Demonstrates proficiency in general skills and strategies for reading a variety of literary texts
7. Uses general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

7. Understands the relationship between music, history and culture

arts and communications
1. Understands the principles, processes and products associated with the arts and communication media
2. Knows and applies the appropriate criteria for artistic and communication products

3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various artistic and communication contexts
4. Understands the ways in which human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication

Life skills: working with others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group
4. Displays Effective Interpersonal Communication Skills

Scott R. Banks