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Remixing the Personal Narrative Essay: “The Hardest and the Best Thing I Have Ever Done”

Mark Blaauw-Hara and Kevin Putman  

Is the English classroom ready to go multimodal?  As Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis point out, the changing social and technological landscape has led to “meaning [being] made in ways that are increasingly multimodal—in which written-linguistic modes of meaning are part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns of meaning” (5). According to a recent report sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, “more than one-half of all teens have created media content” (Jenkins 3), suggesting that students are more than ready for the English classroom to go multimodal.  Perhaps a better question is:  Where to begin? 

The personal narrative is a common assignment in first-year composition. Traditionally, the narrative has been taught as a standard essay, usually consisting of a series of illustrative anecdotes and culminating in some discussion of significance. Although the assignment as it is usually taught certainly has its place, we argue for “remixing” it by blending it with elements of songwriting.  In the audio world, “remixing” describes taking an existing song and modifying it while still maintaining the integrity of the original composition. Some remixes are relatively superficial, involving adjusting the relative volume of different instrument or vocal tracks. Some, however, can be fairly significant, and might include looping tracks, adding or removing instruments or vocalists, or otherwise re-envisioning the song, sometimes in subversive ways. A major remix is seen as a creative act in its own right. When we speak of remixing the personal narrative essay, what we mean is encouraging students to become co-creators of the assignment by giving them space to re-envision the essay in a multimodal way that allows them to build on the media-creation experiences with which many of them are already familiar.

Featured here is “Breakin’ the Symmetry,” an example of how the personal narrative might be remixed as a rap song. A familiar musical genre to most students, rap is a form of public writing in which the lyricist highlights biographical details to construct an identity as a member of the larger rap community as well as a smaller subgroup (e.g., East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South). Rhetorical scholars such as Donna LeCourt have argued that we should view identity as something continually under construction, or ‘performed,’ a conceptualization that works remarkably well with rap. Teachers of the personal narrative will recognize in rap lyrics elements common to such essays: the lyrics are anecdotally driven, for instance, and include a discussion of significance. Introducing the concept of identity performance through rap can lead students to consider what aspects of their own identities they choose to highlight, both in their narratives and in different contexts of their lives.

For our example, Mark Blaauw-Hara, a community-college English professor, created a “beat,” or musical track, using inexpensive software, as described in the lesson planning section of this article. Kevin Putman, a former student of Blaauw-Hara and a rap aficionado, composed lyrics describing his struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), from his growing awareness that he had the disorder through his experiences with treatment. During the composition process, Putman grappled with issues of which anecdotes to include, both to portray the identity he wanted to perform (OCD sufferer, family man, member of the rap community), and to support the message he wanted to convey. They eventually visited a local studio to lay down the vocal tracks with the results contained in the .mp3 of “Breakin’ the Symmetry” featured here.  A transcript of the lyrics follows the lesson plan below. 

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Breakin' the Symmetry by Kevin Putman

How do we adapt the methods of this unique studio project to create a multimodal classroom experience?  To assist instructors who might be interested in bringing elements of songwriting into the writing classroom, we have provided a sample assignment prompt and a step-by-step overview of how to make an assignment like this happen, complete with suggestions for software and a sample pop music template.  Other multimodal ideas that Blaauw-Hara has successfully tried in his courses include using multiple musical genres, including country, rock, alternative, metal, and pop, in addition to rap and blues. Furthermore, Putman and Blaauw-Hara have also worked together several times in literature classes to introduce poetry units through rap.  In the poetry unit, Putman performed and analyzed model songs.  Then, he and Blaauw-Hara assisted and provided back up as students wrote their own raps and performed them. Students welcomed the opportunity to write and perform in ways atypical to the standard English class and tended to report that these were their favorite class sessions.



Sample Essay Prompt: A “Remixed” Personal Narrative

For this essay, you will select events from your personal history to craft an identity for yourself. Depending on the context, we all pick and choose what aspects of our selves we reveal to others—in other words, we continually build, or “perform,” our selves. One of the goals of this essay is to make this process conscious.

            One example in popular culture that highlights how people choose autobiographical stories to craft an identity is the realm of rap music. Rappers routinely select personal details to include in their songs to portray a given identity: a rags-to-riches story, as Notorious B.I.G. does in “Juicy;” the significance of one’s name and its connection to family and history, as Shad does in “A Good Name;” or one’s complicated and evolving relationships with parental figures, as 2Pac does in “Dear Mama.” You will find many models of excellent autobiographical lyrics in rap; feel free to search for more than I’ve listed here. One thing to be aware of, both as a listener and a composer, is that rappers frequently use profanity. I ask that you minimize profanity in your own lyrics in consideration of our classroom audience.

            To craft this essay, you will first have to decide what part of your identity you will want to bring to the fore and share with the class. Then, consider what the key events and situations were that shaped that part of your identity. Finally, decide how you will write lyrics to tell about those events and situations. Make sure the significance of the events you relate is clear—we need to know what the key points are that you want us to take away.

I have created a “beat,” or musical track that you will use as a template for your lyrics. You can download it at ________. If you like, you can load the beat into a music editor of your choice and record your lyrics over top of it—talk with me about music editors available for download to your computer or phone. We will also have a day at the end of our unit where you may perform your rap to the class, if you choose. We will spend time in class listening to model rap songs and analyzing their lyrical construction, so if you are unfamiliar with the genre, do not worry. Regardless of whether you choose to perform or record your rap, all students will turn in a hard copy of their lyrics at the end of the unit.


MAKING IT HAPPEN—Technology resources for multimodal lessons

            It is becoming common for people to record music themselves via computer or phone; many students already know how to do it. However, we instructors may be newer to the field. The resources we provide below are not meant to be a comprehensive list, but they are relatively easy to use and produce a good product.  The links imbedded in this section are set to open in a new window--you might have to adjust your 'pop-up' settings on your browser.



            In rap, the drums are extremely important, and that tends to be where the song starts. We used the demo version of FL Studio for our sample song. The demo version is free but has the save function disabled (however, one can still export beats, just not save and edit later). The cheapest pay version is only $49 and has more than enough functionality for an amateur looking to create a simple beat. Creating a beat is fairly intuitive and visual, and involves clicking on buttons when one wants a drum to sound. Other options abound, many of them free- or shareware, and there are ready-made drum loops available for purchase such as Smart Loops, which Blaauw-Hara used to create some rock and country tracks for his students. After creating a good drum line, export it as a .WAV for the next step.



            To create a song that is more than just a drum beat, instructors will need software that allows the recording and mixing of multiple instruments. Many Apple users are familiar with GarageBand, a multi-track recording package available for the Mac and iPad. Our sample song was recorded in Sonar, which has a similar interface and is available in several versions. For the initial recording, we used the cheapest, Sonar LE, which came bundled with an audio interface that Blaauw-Hara used to get the sound of the bass and keyboard into the computer. Together, the audio interface and Sonar cost around $79. Users interested in doing as much of this for free as possible should look at Audacity, an excellent free software package with enough functionality to produce a good-sounding recording with minimal work. We would still advise instructors to purchase an audio interface, though, as the built-in microphone input on most computers is inadequate and cumbersome to use. Options abound, and many are available for both Mac and PC for under $100.

            To construct our song, we first loaded the drumbeat we had created in Step 1 into Sonar and “looped” it, or repeated it, until it was the appropriate length. Then, Blaauw-Hara plugged a keyboard into the audio interface and used Sonar to record and loop several keyboard parts. After Blaauw-Hara did the same with a bass-line, Putman used the rough version of the song to write lyrics. As the lyrics developed, we modified the song to fit them. Sonar has a fairly intuitive interface that allows dragging, dropping, and cropping of audio files, making modifications relatively simple.

Blaauw-Hara followed a similar process in his Songwriting course, except that he recorded only one standard version of each song for all students. We have included an example of the pop-song template Blaauw-Hara created for his class, for which he followed much the same process as detailed above: importing a drum track created in FL Studio to Sonar, and then adding guitars, bass, and keys. He structured the song to allow for two verses with a keyboard “hook,” or simple, repeating figure, in between. This song provides an example of the sound quality it is possible to achieve working off a laptop with the materials listed above (as mentioned previously, we performed the last stages of recording and mastering for the rap song "Breakin' the Symmetry" in a professional studio).  

You may need: Adobe Flash Player.

Pop Template by Mark Blaauw-Hara

We would recommend instructors give thought to the length of their songs, just as they might choose a page length for an essay, by determining how many verses they would like their students to write (it is most common to have three verses), and whether they would like to map out any sort of trajectory for students to follow in the verses. Our sample rap song, for instance, follows a chronological progression appropriate to Putman’s decision to detail his first awareness of his OCD through treatment and recovery.



            A song file from Garage Band, Sonar, or any other digital audio workstation (DAW) is too large and complex for general distribution to students. Instead, instructors will want to mix the song to taste and then export it to a common compressed format such as an .mp3 file. All DAW software has the ability to export, but not all will export to the format most usable to students. Audacity, the freeware sound editor mentioned above, will translate between several file formats. We have also had good success with Quick Media Converter, which converts files between a great many audio and video formats. Once the audio file is converted to a common compressed format, post it in a place students can download it, such as a class blog or through the college’s course management software. Students can then download the file to their computer, phone, or music player and start writing. Tech-savvy students may even choose to record their lyrics over the beat, using an iPhone app such as FourTrack or a DAW such as Sonar, Garage Band, or Audacity. We have found in past classes that many students greatly enjoy performing their songs live for the class, and so we have built that possibility into the prompt as well.

            We hope that instructors will adapt our ideas as they see fit to match the needs of their classes. Instructors who may be reluctant to use rap as the song genre (or who want to enrich the assignment by providing additional genre options) may find it productive to use country and/or blues, two musical genres that also feature strong narrative structures that rely on autobiographical details. We are excited by the potential of bringing sound into the writing classroom, and hope this article serves as a guide to one way this could be done.



Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, What up, it’s your boy KP holdin’ it down, keepin’  it real. I want to dedicate this song to the Houston OCD Program, those cats saved my life.  Without all of you I don’t know where I would be right now.  Y’all legit.


When I think back to my 10th year when my OCD began, tryin’ on my socks marked left and right was for my just-right plan.  Unbeknownst to me my life was overcome with symmetry, checkin’ and re-checkin’ and that re-responsibility.  It was back in college in a class they called Psych 101, I was learnin’ info that was ringin’ loud just like a gun-shot.  I did not understand and think it was to worry me, if I knew then what I know I would have set myself so free.  My destiny, survival mode I held it down for two years, Kevin’s days were sacrificed to deep anxiety and fears.  In the month of March, I hit rock bottom and I crashed and burned, out of work for days, it left my family and friends concerned.  Benjamins on therapy for months and years with no relief, depression, no functioning had caused my wifey plenty grief.  Turnin’ to the innanet I found help in the H-Town, Texas was the state where God placed me with Dr. Angel Brown.


Anxiety is a part of me, CBT has set me free, Houston Castle Court is the place, for ERP to habituate.


My man Jelani keeps it real straight knowledge on his iPhone, Sue is earnin’ street cred rollin’ on the Swagga Wagon Chrome.  No one claims the foot ‘cept for Kim buried in her laptop, Rachel makes for sure that right on time the group room T.V. stop.  Marinated Chicken and that hot grilled green asparagus, rollin’ in the van with John feelin’ just like a shortened bus.  Melony and Brandon show at ten to only go to sleep, on the futon in the office plus they hardly make a peep.  Even tho’ she’s pregnant Ginny likes to sport the high heels, Keri’s mostly right on time she keeps her sessions nice and real.  If I did not drop your name or mention it up in this song, please don’t have your feelings hurt I know to miss your name was wrong.  All of you are special and you helped me out in every way, pill exposures at the park and rides to Borders every day.  Even though my Houston Treatment was done by a dream team, for some extra help I caught some dap from Mr. Osteen.  (What-up Joel)




Nate was smellin’ sweeter than a plate with extra hummus, there was not a crazy resident who lived among us.  OCD was stuck up in our minds and it is not fair, all of us in question how the hell it fuckin’ got there.  Callin’ out for help ‘cause we need freedom from this prison Bea, OCD is strong and it’s our life that we are missin’ Geeg.  Medicines may work but you must keep up with your refills, treatment centers will le-leave your pockets with some deep bills.  Seven large a day for one-on-one and whole-group therapy, CBT plus ERP equals more time with family.  I am thankful for the brick house nestled in the Montrose, neighborhood of orange cones and concrete construction roads.  Getting healthy is a fire that burns deep down within my soul, spread the truth of OCD within this song that is the goal.  Never lose your hope keep your head up like 2Pac always said, exercise and mindfulness each day before I lay my head. 


Kevin “KP” Putman: Lyrics, Vocals; Mark “Rev. Dr. Fury” Blaauw-Hara: Producer; Jen “Sweet Soul Sista” Schaap: Hook; Drew “Driggity” Baar: Facts, Cowbell; Bea Frances Putman: Get Help; Copyright July 2010  

                                                                        Works Cited

Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis. “Introduction: Multiliteracies: The Beginnings of an Idea.”

Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. Ed. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. New York: Routledge, 2000. 3-8.

Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the

21st Century.” Domestic Grantmaking: Digital Media and Learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2006. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

LeCourt, Donna.  "Performing Working-Class Identity in Composition: Toward a Pedagogy of

Textual Practice." College English  69.1 (2006): 30-51. Print.

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