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In 2017, data from the state Department of Education showed 75% of black boys residing in California did not meet state reading requirements, with nearly 80% not reaching those requirements as early as the fourth grade. Twenty-four-year-old Austin Martin has been going across the Untied States for more than five years trying to help fix this problem by "making word acquisition and literacy acceptable to all people, regardless of socioeconomic status," he told REVOLT TV.
His solution? Hip hop lyrics.
Rhymes With Reason (RWR) is a web-based curriculum Martin created that teaches and tests kids' vocabulary by highlighting certain academic words used in hip hop songs. On a digital flashcard, students are presented with the word, tense, definition, and lyrics in a song where the word is used; and they have the ability to stream the lyric to get context of how the word was used. Afterward, there are exercises where students are asked what the artist more than likely was trying to convey by using the word. So, when Drake said, "They got me feeling alienated" on More Life track "Two Birds, One Stone," students using RWR would have to figure out which of the four words presented as multiple choice options best matches what Drake meant.
"They already know these words because they're in the Drake song, or the Kendrick [Lamar] song, or the J. Cole song. We're just showing them that these same words that you listen to and know are words that you need to know for standardized tests and will make you a better reader," Martin said.
Martin developed RWR at 19 years old as a freshman at Brown University. The Southern California native can attest to the students' exposure to extensive vocabulary via hip hop because he was once one of those kids. He admits to growing up and not being naturally interested in academics, a disposition usually associated with either lack of intelligence or delinquency. But, Martin wasn't interested in academics because he didn't see himself reflected in it.
"I didn't see a real connection to my culture. As a young black boy growing up, I didn't see traditional academics having a connection to me and what I cared about," Martin said. "What did have a natural connection was hip hop music, and I became a student of hip hop music."
The educator said he would go home everyday from school and research all of the lyrics from his favorite artists like Lupe Fiasco and JAY-Z. He would "study hip hop music the way I should've been studying for school." He knew who John Rockefeller was in history class because JAY-Z's record label. Those experiences were the impetus behind his current push to help kids translate what they already know into academics. So far, the proof is in the rhyme.
With Reason, LLC
Austin Martin (left) observing a student using Rhymes With Reason
RWR got into its first school in 2014 as a pilot program at Hope High School in Providence, Rhode Island. In the program, Martin conducted an experiment where only half of the students used traditional flashcards to study, while the other half used a prototype of RWR. Those prototypes included electronic flashcards with YouTube links embedded in them, as well as word definitions and lyrics. "The kids who had the prototype Rhymes with Reason did way better. We gave each of them the same quiz and [the kids with Rhymes with Reason] had better scores than the students who used traditional flashcards by quite a bit."
Quan Neloms, a Detroit public school teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy has been using hip hop to teach with his program Lyricist Society since 2009. He used Rhymes with Reason in his classroom for 10 weeks in 2017 and saw the percentage of his students that passed go from 15% before RWR to 100% after using the program.
The Boys Academic Leadership Academy of Los Angeles, using RWR, had a vocabulary rap battle for fifth through seventh graders who had to work three vocabulary words into a rap battle to begin the school year. The words were "alienate," "resilient" and "obsolete" from songs featuring Drake, Migos and Rihanna. "After we did this, the teachers told me that for weeks the kids would not stop saying those three words every five seconds. Instead of saying they're going to 'bounce back' if they got a bad grade on a test, they'll say, 'I'm going to be resilient.' They were working it into everyday conversations."
These success stories have Martin aiming to make RWR the "first educational streaming service," charging schools $12 a year, per student, with a 30-student minimum for a full year subscription. With the subscription, teachers are able to track students' performances, access lesson plans geared around lyrics, and more. But, its success wasn't overnight, nor is it a finish line. Teachers from across the United States helped Martin frame RWR, making sure it checks off the boxes. Harvard Graduate School of Education students also helped with the methodology. That's why the program is aligned with Common Core curriculum, as well as the SATs and ACTs.
Currently, RWR is being used in more than 65 schools with plans to be in more than 100 schools by the 2019 - 2020 school year. Martin was also one of the 34 social entrepreneurs selected for the 2019 Echoing Green Fellowship; which gives him funding of up to $90,000, training, and support for two years to help him bring RWR to more schools.
Martin said the program will be updated with new features, songs and artists in the fall. There's a future where RWR can present mock SATs and ACTs, where students will be able to study for exams that can determine their college admission by using hip hop. There's already a few teaching modules dedicated to college preparation. This means that in the future, you’ll be able to study for the SATs using rap lyrics because hip hop is more than entertainment.
Martin closed: "Black music is one of the greatest expressions of genius. What Rhymes With Reason does is show how black music is genius in a real mainstream representation of what genius is considered."
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