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Teaching With Rap


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Are your students more interested in the radio than reading? Educators from California to New York say that raps lively lyrics, meaningful messages, and familiar beat can be powerful tools for learning.

THE RAPPIN' MATHEMATICIAN

"It was my first year of teaching, and I was sinking," recalls Alex Kajitani. "All that preparation, all those diplomas, and I could not get my middle school students to sit down and pay attention. I felt disrespected and frustrated that I couldn't get them to remember what I had just taught the day before."

Even more frustrating was the fact that these same middle school students could easily remember every word of the new rap song on the radio, which was packed with references to violence, drug use, and the mistreatment of women.

"And then one afternoon, it hit me. Instead of turning off their radios, I needed to offer them a different station," Kajitani explained. "I went home and made up a rap song about the math we were learning at the time, which was adding and subtracting decimals, and called it 'The Itty-Bitty Dot.' I practiced it all night, peppered it with clever phrases, and rapped it over an authentic hip-hop beat I'd found online. I remembered my own love of rap in its cleaner youth and imagined how impressed my students would be with my cool factor for my way with a rhyme."

Early the next morning, when his class entered the room, Kajitani performed his mathematical rap for the students. The results were disastrous. The students laughed hysterically, and their teacher felt anything but "cool." So it wasnt until lunchtime, when something amazing happened.

Math teacher Alex Kajitani isn't afraid to release his inner "rapper" to reach his students Credit: Photo courtesy of Alex Kajitani

"As I walked by the lunch tables, the students were singing my song," said Kajitani. "The next day, they eagerly ran into my classroom, saying things like, 'Mr. Kajitani, are you going to rap again? Yesterday was the best day ever in math class! Are you going to be on MTV?'"

From that pivotal moment on, Kajitani observed a shift in the classroom. He had connected with his students on their level, using language they understood to get his message across.

"I had gotten them laughing. It didn't matter if it was at me, because it meant they were present and comfortable, which is no small feat in the often dangerous neighborhood my students live in," Kajitani stated. "By changing my approach, I had gotten them excited to come to school, excited to learn, and excited to have me as their teacher. The students' behavior improved dramatically, and their test scores began to match, and then outpace, their more affluent counterparts."

Kajitani dubbed himself "The Rappin' Mathematician" and started rapping about all of the math concepts he was teaching. He allowed his own innate, wacky humor to flow and packed his raps with positive language and messages about making good decisions, believing in oneself, and the importance of education.

"The songs quickly became legendary throughout the school and district," shared Kajitani. "Encouraged by my fellow teachers, I recorded them on a CD so other teachers could use them in their classrooms. Now teachers throughout the United States use the songs, and I have received many e-mails and phone calls from parents and educators telling me that, for the first time, their students love math."


Rap Makes
Math Relevant

"As a culture, we have let it be okay to 'not be good at math,'" says Alex Kajitani. "We need to stop that, and insist that it is not okay. Being good at math is a necessary means for survival, and success."

Kajitani believes that the number one way to successfully teach math is to connect it with the students' lives. He advises teachers not to introduce a math concept without somehow connecting it to the world around us -- or even better, the world our students' live in. Raps are one way that he reaches kids in a mode they understand.

"Whenever I notice that my students are struggling to grasp a concept, I try to think up a clever rhyme that will help them remember the main concept of what I am trying to teach," advised Kajitani. "Then, I build the rest of the song around the 'easy to remember' main part of the song. I also try to include where and how that math concept is used in our every-day lives."

Kajitani's eighth grade mathematics students at Mission Middle School in Escondido, California, now know to expect him to rap. He was recently named 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and he speaks nationally about "Making Math Cool." One mother even told him that "The Rappin Mathematician" CDs are the only music her entire family can agree to listen to in the car. Kajitani's Web site, MathRaps.com, offers audio clips of some of his math rap songs.

"I think the all-time favorite rap [among the students] is Test Tiiiiime!!!," observed Kajitani. "The students go absolutely crazy when we play it, and it actually gets them excited to take the test. In fact, my students now insist that I play it before they take a test. It really has changed the culture of test-taking in my class. The students now see tests as a way to demonstrate their knowledge, and see it as something positive."

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RAPPING THEIR MINDS

"We use rap and music in our classrooms every day. Everyone loves music, and when you can incorporate it into your lessons, your students will love the lessons as well," says Ron Clark. "At the Ron Clark Academy, we teach a very rigorous curriculum, and it can be a bit overwhelming for students, but if you find a way to put passion and energy into your lessons, then students really come to life and love the learning process. Using music is an easy way to accomplish that."

Last fall, while Clark's middle school students were learning about the election in Atlanta, Georgia, they investigated every facet of the campaign -- from issues dealing with off-shore oil drilling to health care to the Middle East crisis and relations with Iran. They soon began discussing the issues from the Republican and Democratic sides, and because of their strong connection to the issues, their debates became quite heated.

"At one point they said, 'Mr. Clark, these debates are almost like art, and it would be cool if instead of speaking our minds we were rapping our minds,'" Clark recalled. "They started writing small raps about the issues, and their raps turned into a song called, You Can Vote However You Like."

The students paired their lyrics with the tune of rapper T.I.'s "Whatever You Like." While they performed their rap at a breakfast speech for the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, someone filmed the group and put the video on YouTube. Before Clark and his students were even made aware that it had been published on the Internet, the video had taken off with millions of hits. The students' catchy lyrics, the passion with which they performed, and the level of understanding that they showed for the material made the song an international sensation.

"The kids performed on Good Morning America and CNN, and were on television shows all over the country," Clark told Education World. "Schools around the world, including ones in China and Australia, performed the song and placed their versions on the Internet as well. As millions of people listened to the song -- which told them to make sure they were aware of the issues before voting -- our students glowed with pride. They realized they were having an impact on the election."

With this success behind them, Clark's students decided that they would write a song for the incoming president, whoever he might be. Upon his election, children were invited to write to Barack Obama and tell him what they would like see from the new administration.

"Well, our students were all over that!" reported Clark. "They wrote nine versions of a song that would also serve as their letter to President Obama. All nine versions were a little weak, so the students finally said to me, 'Hey, Mr. Clark, we have an idea. We are going to combine a little bit of each song into one big song.' I thought, 'This is going to be a crisis,' but it actually brought me to tears when I first heard it. It was so sincere and beautiful; the students did a phenomenal job."

Math teacher Alex Kajitani isn't afraid to release his inner "rapper" to reach his students Credit: Photo courtesy of Alex Kajitani

The song, entitled Dear Obama, gained national attention, and the students were invited to perform at numerous inaugural events in Washington, D.C. While they shared the stage with some big-name performers, the high point for the students was seeing the impact of their song on the millions of people who heard it. Clark reports that the students were treated like celebrities and couldn't walk more than a few feet without being recognized as the "Obama Kids."

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HIP-HOP HEADLINES

"We started The Week in Rap last September to help students get connected to current events," Blake Harrison recalled. "We know that a lot of students aren't picking up the newspaper every day, and so we wanted to create something that would help engage young people with the world around them. We try to make our songs informational, humorous, and thought-provoking. At Flocabulary, we've created raps on everything from Shakespeare to world history, so tackling current events seemed an obvious next step."

It isn't possible to fit a full week's worth of news into a two-minute song, so Harrison, a founder and creative director of Flocabulary, and co-founder and CEO Alex Rappaport select a dozen headlines that they feel are the most relevant and appropriate for students.

"We try to cover at least one story from international news, politics, science, arts, and sports," explained Harrison. "For each of those headlines, we'll write a few rhyming lines that briefly explain the story. By providing links in the lyrics to the newspaper articles, we hope to encourage students to dig further and learn more about each topic."

The election of Barack Obama inspired a favorite track for Harrison and Rappaport. Performed by soul singer April Hill, the song embodied the excitement and energy that the world witnessed during the inaugural week. The response of the online audience was overwhelming, and they were even invited to perform it live.

"Many teachers have said that they can see their students immediately engaging with the news after watching the video, and in many cases, that engagement leads to critical writing and debate on the issues," shared Rappaport. "Teachers have attributed that sparked interest to the new medium (Internet video) and the fresh voice that a rap song brings."

Teachers have used The Week in Rap as a model for interdisciplinary projects in which students create their own news videos and even write their own songs. Rappaport characterizes this as a "dream scenario" because the students can make the leap from social studies to music to film, while creating a single, powerful project.

"We encourage teachers to give the videos a try in class," he added. "Students often say that they're interested in the news, but don't feel as though they have easy access to it. We created this project to provide more access and, hopefully, help students have fun in the process."

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