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Teaching With Rap:
The Rappin' Mathematician


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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.

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

"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.


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."

"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."

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. (See audio bar above.) "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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