Rhyme and Reason: Teaching With a Hip-Hop Beat

Imagine Eminem, Jay-Z or Busta Rhymes tutoring students for the all-important SAT exam. The sessions would be intense, full of energy and speaker-rattling rhythm. But would it help your child perform better on the test?

It sounds rather nontraditional, but that is exactly the approach that two young men who love hip-hop have taken to educate a growing number of students across the country.

After meeting in California, Alex Rappaport, a graduate of Tufts University, and Blake Harrison, a University of Pennsylvania graduate -- combined their love of hip-hop with their desire to educate a struggling segment of the student population. They call their groundbreaking method Flocabulary, and since 2004 have worked to bridge the gap between academic culture and hip-hop culture.

"How can I memorize every single word of my favorite rap album, but I struggle to memorize simple lessons in class?" said 25-year-old Harrison as he thought back to how he wrestled with certain subjects during his high school days. "So I brought hip-hop and my studies together, and the union helped me tremendously."

Harrison is also known as Emcee Escher. He does the rapping for Flocabulary. Rappaport, 26, is the duo's producer.

The pair produces hip-hop music to foster literacy and promote academics with CDs, a Web site and a live workshop called Shakespeare's Hip-Hop School Tour.

The workshops combine a live performance, demonstrations and audience participation to show students the importance of bringing passion to the classroom. By using the rhyming patterns of hip-hop, the Flocabulary concept improves students' memorization skills, the duo said.

To get their point across, Harrison and Rappaport use lines like "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492." But the sessions often get much more creative.

"We tell the students 'Don't be afraid because it's Shakespeare,'" Rappaport said. "And it's really the same idea as 500 years ago. What Shakespeare and other poets did was take their love of the spoken word and use it as a way to teach."

Flocabulary caught the attention of Arva Davidson, assistant principal for instruction at Menchville High School in Newport News, Va., when she saw a report on the program on MTV last November

Menchville is one of the most decorated secondary schools in the country, twice named a Blue Ribbon High School by the U.S. Department of Education. So why would its students need a program like Flocabulary? Because, Davidson said, their previous curriculum was just plain boring.

Davidson wanted to reach a potential group of scholars who she said were underachieving under traditional approaches to learning.

Harrison and Rappaport visited the school the following spring with what school officials called very positive results.

"All groups of students commented that they felt we were finally in tune with their needs," Davidson said. "Teachers from all disciplines took the idea of engaging students through rap and clearly saw a difference in student engagement."

Engagement wasn't the only area in which there was a difference. Menchville High reports that the average SAT writing score for 11th graders in August 2005 was 420. In April 2006, after Flocabulary was introduced into the curriculum, the average score rose to 477.

"I can't say Flocabulary was 'the' factor," Davidson said. "But they were an impact variable."

Flocabulary's first venture, "The Hip Hop Approach to SAT Vocabulary," has so far sold more than 14,000 copies since its commercial release in April. The project defines 500 SAT vocabulary words on 12 songs.

But is hip-hop the way to teach literacy to students? Although it is one of the best-selling and most popular forms of music, it has often been dismissed as an illegitimate art form laced with bad grammar and anti-social attitudes, such as glorification of violence and degradation of women.

"We're aware that there's a stigma that exists in certain communities in this country," Rappaport said. "But hip-hop is not misogyny and violence all the time. You can find positive hip-hop in every country and every community around the world."

Administrators who have used the program said they have seen initial resistance from teachers and parents, but it usually subsides.

"I think most people understand that there are some rappers who produce music that reinforces negative stereotypes," said Ayela Shakur, executive director of the Boston Learning Center in Boston. "But when you explain that rap will be used as a way to teach vocabulary, they tend to view it much more positively."

The first Flocabulary project has been received so well that the pair is already set to release its second endeavor, called "Hip-Hop U.S. History." It will take a narrative approach that will encompass the nation's founding fathers and other historical figures in the group's school tours.

"Say what you will about the approach," Rappaport said. "But the fact remains that there's an educational crisis in some communities, and we would rather take action with a nontraditional approach than sit back and do nothing."