31: Tales from the Rappin’ Mathematician

31: Tales from the Rappin’ Mathematician

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Tales from the Rappin’ Mathematician

Hip-hop is supposed to uplift and create,
to educate people on a larger level and to make a change.

~Doug E. Fresh

It was my first year of teaching, and I was sinking. 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; yet, they could easily remember every word of the new rap song on the radio. Of course, the other problem with this was that they would come in each day singing about violence, drug use, and mistreating women, which frustrated me even more.

And then, one afternoon, it hit me. Instead of turning off their radios, I needed to offer them a different station. I went home, and made up a rap song about the math we were learning at the time (adding and subtracting decimals), called “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 my class came in, I performed it for them….

The results were disastrous. The students laughed hysterically, and I felt anything but cool—more like a complete flop. Now, not only were they not paying attention, they were laughing at me. Later that day, I trudged off to lunch like a loser from The Gong Show. And then it happened. As I walked by the lunch tables, the students were singing my song! 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 moment on, everything shifted. I had connected with my students on their level, using language they understood to get across what I was trying to teach. I got them laughing—it didn’t matter if it was at me, because it meant they were present and comfortable (no small feat in the often dangerous neighborhood my students live in). By shifting my approach, I got them excited to come to school, to learn, and to have me as their teacher. Their behavior improved dramatically, and their test scores began to match, and then outpace, their more affluent counterparts.

I began calling myself “The Rappin’ Mathematician,” and started rapping about all the math concepts I was teaching, letting the wacky humor flow (realizing that “cool” really was just being myself, as we often tell our students). Unlike the songs on the radio, I used language that was positive, and included messages not only about math, but about believing in oneself, making good decisions, and the importance of school. The songs quickly became legendary throughout the school and district, and, encouraged by my fellow teachers, I recorded them onto an album (and the next year another, and a workbook the following year) so other teachers could use them in their classrooms. Now teachers throughout the United States use my songs, and I have received many e-mails and phone calls from parents and fellow educators telling me that, for the first time, their students love math.

In the end, I may never make it to MTV, but as a result of my “math rappin’ epiphany” in those first desperate days of teaching, students are getting excited about learning. And that, in my book, is a much bigger success.

•••

“No way!” erupted several teachers last November when I suggested we take our eighth graders—all of them, even those on academic probation—on a two-mile “walking field trip” to the California Center for the Arts to see a renowned, educational hip-hop dance troupe. “This neighborhood is too dangerous to leave the school!” one teacher said. “There’s no way I’m bringing xx, he’s been suspended twice for tagging the bathroom—just imagine what he’ll do at the Arts Center!” another colleague chimed in.

That’s when I made my case. Yes, our school’s Latino immigrant neighborhood is “rough”—with one of the most rapidly growing poverty rates in California and a strong gang presence. And we’ve spent countless hours discussing how to get parents and community members to support our school, and come onto our campus. Yet we’d never spent time getting our school out into the community. Above all, as teachers in this community, we are visitors; we don’t live here. If we truly want an interconnected community and school, which we all agree we do, we can not be afraid of taking our students into the world, their world, and going into it ourselves. We also can’t be afraid of taking a chance on our lowest-performing students; giving them something positive (like some music education) could make a tremendous difference for them.

So, the teachers agreed to do the trip, with the entire eighth grade, and to call it, “My Neighborhood… My Hip-Hop!” We invited parents and community members, such as local police, firefighters and business owners, to chaperone. Even members of our school’s office staff, normally confined behind their desks all day, excitedly volunteered to help. With our students, we examined maps of the neighborhood and discussed routes that should (and, as students pointed out, should NOT) be taken. I supervised the months of planning, but teachers, students, parents, staff and community members become engaged and empowered.

On the day of the trip, as we walked down the streets of our school’s community, one student exclaimed, “Mr. Kajitani, we’re getting a lot of funny looks from people in their cars—it’s like they’ve never seen students before!” Exactly, I thought to myself. Students proudly pointed out their homes, or where their parents worked. They smiled and greeted people on the street. During the show, they chanted “Mission! Mission!” at the appropriate time, showing a school pride I’d never seen in three years of teaching at Mission Middle School. One normally sullen and quiet girl, who was failing her classes, danced spectacularly on the stage to the cheers of her peers; it was the first time I ever saw her smile. After the show, our parents and community volunteers, and the theater staff, all commented on how well-behaved and friendly our students were. And when we left, there was no tagging in the bathroom.

~Alex Kajitani
2009 California State Teacher of the Year
2009 National Teacher of the Year Finalist
Math teacher, grade 8

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