Pen Tapping Beats in the Age of Austerity

10 Jul


– Cuts to education, health care, housing, and everything else we use to regenerate our lives.

– A state of bare life: no roses and barely enough bread.

– When capitalism goes into crisis, and can save itself only by cutting our lives.

Pen Tapping:

-An art form created by youth in schools.

– A complex rythmic process produced with the simplest means of production:  no studio, no computers, just pens on a desk.

It looks like this:

My students introduced me to pen tapping, telling me they used to have tapping battles like this in their middle schools.  They said they’d often have to evade school authorities and teachers to make this happen.  I thought it was telling that the student who uploaded this video felt the need to specify that “this was done in Yearbook NOT detention.”  How many students start tapping when they get bored in some drill-and-kill standardized test prep class?  How many get disciplined for it?

Pen tapping strikes me as a form of creative resistance to austerity.  The system cuts the music programs in working class / inner city schools across the country, and yet students keep making music, turning their pens and desks into instruments and creating a Youtube trend with millions of followers.

Think of all of the complex cognitive skills that go into this next video.  The rhythm, the lyrics, the rhymes, the flow, the shifting tone and volume.  It would probably be difficult to teach all of this; it certainly runs the gamut of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  And yet students are teaching this to themselves and each other:

Is this  creativity something that school makes possible,  or is it a rebellion against school?

Fellow teachers, if you saw students doing this in your classroom, would you

a) tell them to stop

b) praise them

c) give them time in class to refine their skills, linking this to other learning objectives

d) refer them to the principal’s office?

What would your building administrators expect you to do?  What bubble would they expect you to fill in if this were a multiple choice question on a teacher certification exam?

I worry that the answers to these questions become increasingly ugly as the age of austerity settles in.  That can make it hard to be positive. 

But this art form shows how resilient and creative youth can be.  It also shows why we should fight cuts to music programs, and for access to instruments, studios, mics, etc. If students can do this with two pens and a desk, imagine what they would be able to create if they had control of the full means of production?


6 Responses to “Pen Tapping Beats in the Age of Austerity”

  1. this2shallchange July 12, 2013 at 12:19 am #

    Wow, great post! That guy is amazing! The article opens up all sorts of questions and opportunities for discussion. I tend to think that if one goes with praise or allowing time in class, those choices might lead to students feeling a loss of ownership of their art and response to austerity (or boredom). And of course if your choices are to punish or make them stop, you should definitely get out of teaching right away. Sure, music and everything else should be fully funded, but how to do this so that music programs aren’t predominantly or exclusively eurocentric/dominant white culture impositions. Access to the tools of music (and other arts forms, books, history, etc.) is crucial, but control of the curriculum is dangerous.

    • mamos206 July 12, 2013 at 2:19 am #

      That’s a great point. I could totally see teachers trying to coopt this and make it corny. Some uses of hip hop in the classroom can come off that way as well. Students need to have the creative autonomy to develop culture that speaks to multiple authentic audiences from their communities, not simply to the teachers’ expectations for what counts as culture. This requires a high level of trust, not only between the teacher and the students, but also among students. It also requires that teachers understand the complexity and dynamism of various forms of culture and that they don’t freeze/essentialize/reify cultural forms as if they are universal and unchanging (e.g. let’s all make burritos on Cinco de Mayo).

  2. ncrieser July 12, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    I have been a substitute teacher in Des Moines and the Chicago area. I think there is a far more mundane explanation for this behavior. When I see a kids doing this in class, I ask him/her them if he/she is a drummer. Inevitably they (sheepishly) answer “yes”. I can’t think of more abundant evidence of a kinetic learner. Let’s take the reification out of it and stop seeing it as subversive. And the “solution” is… take a deeeeeep breath, please … put them in the jazz band!! Wow! What a revolutionary concept! – Nick Rieser

    • mamos206 July 12, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

      I’m not saying it’s subversive all the time. Some students see it as subversive and some don’t. Sometimes it involves challenging authority, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in any case, it is an expression of people’s creativity and self-activity, which in itself runs counter to the control agenda being pushed in schools. The whole point of the post is that there should be opportunities like Jazz Band – but not all students have access to that in this age of austerity. Especially at majority non-white working class schools.

  3. girlinturquoise July 16, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    Reblogged this on Girl in Turquoise and commented:
    This blog post made me think about Singapore’s school culture. Have we allowed secularisation to make our kids loyal to austerity?

    When I attended French summer school some time last year in Lyon, our French teacher was rather dismayed by our … lack of participation. She even commented “Il n’est pas autoritaire ici!!” (it is not authoritarian here) when we refused to guess the meaning of a French sentence, subconsciously afraid that we’d get it wrong.

    In the local papers, inspiring role models who have attained “success” are featured. They are what society desires. They are what we should aim to be.

    • mamos206 July 18, 2013 at 5:30 am #

      And it is exactly those aspects of the Singaporean education system which are being held up here as a model for U.S. school reform! Just like the worst parts of U.S. capitalism are held up as a model for Singaporean austerity. It’s the worst of both worlds.

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