Rap Genius in the Classroom: A Student Testimonial

The following is a first-person account about Rap Genius in the classroom, by 11th-grader Louis Lafair of Austin, Texas.

I’m a high school student in one of the first English courses in the country to use Rap Genius. We’ve already worked on several different novels, from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and poems, from Williams’ “The Yachts” to Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

When I first heard that we were using Rap Genius, I was somewhat perplexed. I didn’t know much about rap, and yet there we were, annotating The Great Gatsby on a hip hop site. Soon, though, I became thoroughly intrigued. We weren’t actually discussing hip hop, but instead using Rap Genius’s collaborative annotation platform to explain works of literature.

In the most general sense, the site has taken me beyond the classroom. While my English teacher alone used to read my papers, my work’s now available to a much larger community. A single set of eyes has transformed into hundreds of views from Facebook and Twitter. Ideas that used to sit, forgotten, in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced papers, are now part of a permanent database of knowledge.

Bringing English class into the 21st century, Rap Genius has allowed me to explore visual rhetoric; I can use images and videos to enhance my annotations. For example, I annotated Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” using a variety of multimedia, which illustrated my arguments far more effectively than mere text.

Even for traditional papers, my posts on Rap Genius serve as “pre-writing” exercises to test ideas and formulate larger, intertextual arguments. For instance, I used excerpts from my posts on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when writing about the choice between two forms of insanity: disillusionment, on the one hand, and awareness of a haunting truth, on the other.

All in all, Rap Genius has made English a more engaging, dynamic experience. What’s normally just a class (albeit an important one) is now an opportunity for me, and other students, to actively contribute to something much larger.

When Mahbod, one of the founders of Rap Genius, noticed some of my posts (e.g., Could Gatsby be Black? and The Invisible Servants), he promoted me to editor status on the site. (In addition to myself—Louis Lafair, AKA LeFlair—several of my classmates were promoted as well, including AlyDaBoss and NotoriousMER.) I’ve remained actively involved in the site, helping draft the Poetry Brain Editing Guidelines and contributing to some of the ideas in Rap Genius for Educators.

Already, there’s tangible, digital proof of students on Rap Genius making a difference. And there’s much more to come.

Rap Genius/Poetry Brain in the Classroom

Lincoln still blasts his EP at Rap Genius

As this blog has demonstrated again and again in the past few months, the energy around Rap Genius’s recent launch of Poetry Brain is a powerful force. The editors of the site act as a kind of literary first response unit, responding to cultural interests and events within the intellectual community. Poetry Brain published an annotated Emancipation Proclamation in time for the 150th anniversary of that historical document on the 1st of January. As Oscar season begins with much buzz about the recent film version of Les Misérables, we’ve uploaded Victor Hugo’s original French novel in translation. Thanks to the hard work of the Poetry Brain editors, the site is quickly becoming the place online for literary enthusiasts to discuss and annotate great works of literature.

Now Rap Genius/Poetry Brain is beginning a major initiative to recruit K-16 educators to begin using our social reading platform in their classrooms. Already teachers and professors from a wide range of disciplines have been assigning their students to explain poetry, novels, speeches, legal documents, and song lyrics on the site. Online Poetry Brain editions of The Great GatsbyHeart of DarknessMoby Dick, and selected poems of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Gwendolyn Brooks all prominently feature published student work. These assignments have reenergized class discussion and student essays because young people are using Poetry Brain to read, think, and write about literature and history in community. Look for a moving student testimonial forthcoming on the Poetry Brain blog!

The Top Scholars of PB's The Great Gatsby are high school students!

The Top Scholars of PB’s The Great Gatsby are high school students!

Students using Poetry Brain will cultivate a wide range of traditional academic skills from reading comprehension to literary analysis. In many ways, Rap Genius is the ultimate close reading tool as it asks users to look deeply at small pieces of text. The power of the platform, though, is that this reading and analysis is done collaboratively so that students are not working alone, but building knowledge together as a community of learners. Students working on Poetry Brain are thus active producers of knowledge, not just passive recipients. As more and more text moves online, students are required to compose different types of writing, integrating images and hyperlinks, and responding to broader audiences. Through the use of our social reading and writing tool, Poetry Braniacs will develop critical digital literacy skills, skills that will help them more effectively navigate other social networks within academia, and also become responsible digital citizens outside the classroom.

If you are a teacher or professor interested in using Poetry Brain in your classes, check out our “Rap Genius for Educators” page to learn how the annotation platform can be useful for you and your students. Please contact Chief of Education Jeremy Dean (jeremy@rapgenius.com or Lucky_Desperado on Rap Genius) for more information.

Billy Collins’s “Marginalia” as Poetry Brain Call to Annotate

A monk’s marginal doodles in a copy of a medieval manuscript

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
And reached for a pen if only to show
We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
We pressed a thought into the wayside,
Planted an impression along the verge

Billy Collins was a two-term Poet Laureate of the United States (2001-03). He did much to promote poetry not as some sort of esoteric form of knowledge only the privileged had access to, but as an everyday practice of everyday people. Through the Poetry 180 project, for example, Collins challenged high schools to have a different poem read each day of the school year.

The contemporary American poet Billy Collins

Poetry Brain is right there with you, Billy. We invite the world to join us in annotating all the great and small works of literature online. As an inspiration to us all in this new year, here’s Collins’s “Marginalia,”—an ode to those who annotate, from medieval monks doodling in the margins of the texts they copied to contemporary high school students dutifully taking notes on e-reading devices—fully annotated on Rap Genius.

David Foster Wallace’s notes in C.S. Lewis’s first chronicle of Narnia

Welcome to Poetry Brain!

You’re a student assigned to read Hamlet. You come across a line that confuses you. You click on it and instantly get a straightforward explanation, plus a broader interpretation that starts your mental wheels turning…

You’re the teacher who assigned Hamlet. You want your students to research and analyze it, but don’t want to stick them with the standard five-page paper. You guide them through a website that lets them annotate the text, line by line…

You’re an author looking for new ways to share your published poems. You show your fans a site where you’ve glossed them with your own commentary, which is partly candid, partly coy…

Welcome to Poetry Brain. We’re the brainchild of our parent site, Rap Genius, whose mission is to explain the entire universe of rap lyrics with the help of dedicated fans. Our goal is to do the same for classic literature, text by text, line by line. We’re building something unprecedented: an educational resource for teachers and students, a promotional platform for authors, and a thriving community for readers, all rolled into a single online library.

Our annotated texts are still hosted on the Rap Genius main site. Starting today, though, this blog will be Poetry Brain’s home base, from which we’ll announce updates, share links, and field reader suggestions. We’ll be posting each day, so bookmark us and check back often.

Want to learn more about Poetry Brain? Take a look at the About page. Have a question for us? Let us know. Ready to dive into some texts? Register at RG and get started.


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