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To get kids hooked on math, teacher brings rap music into the classroom

MILES PARKS, HOST:

We have a story now about a teacher who used to struggle to find ways for students to like math. But Thomas Mayfield found a way through music. And as NPR's Mia Estrada reports, now Mayfield is helping other teachers engage with their students, too.

MIA ESTRADA, BYLINE: Mayfield is a 42-year-old elementary school teacher from Fort Worth, Texas. In 2010, he had a major problem to solve in his classroom.

THOMAS MAYFIELD: Oh, you know, I'm not good at adding. I don't know how to regroup or borrow. I'm not good at subtracting. Or I don't know my facts yet, and I'm a fifth-grader. You know, they might say, I don't know my multiplication facts.

ESTRADA: Those are phrases he heard repeatedly from students. He took what they were saying to heart and knew it was important to try something new, especially because most of his students were also struggling outside of the classroom.

MAYFIELD: Single-parent homes, incarcerated parents, low financial stability - a lot of that was going on.

ESTRADA: Mayfield teaches at Title I schools, where more than 40% of students are economically disadvantaged. He grew up going to these types of schools in Fort Worth, too. He wanted to reach students in a way that was familiar and inviting. That's when he got the idea to bring in rap music to the classroom.

MAYFIELD: It builds confidence. It helps to promote a less traumatic experience, and they feel like they're invited and welcomed into the classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYFIELD: (Rapping) Now let's break this thing down. Let's start with the tenths. Like a dime to a dollar, there's 1 out of 10. Then we move to the hundredths, one part out of many. One out of 100, we call that a penny.

ESTRADA: That's Mayfield and some of his previous students. They rap and make music videos about multiplication, decimal point places and motivational songs like passing the big end-of-year exam called the STARR test.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We're going to pass the STARR test in the spring, show the world just what we mean. So look out.

ESTRADA: Learning math through music has been a successful strategy, and Mayfield says he saw results within a school semester.

MAYFIELD: State scores rose. Studen growth rose. Productivity, it went up. Kids started caring more about coming to school. The attendance went up. Parents were really enthused about coming to different events when we normally didn't see them.

ESTRADA: Mayfield's district recognizes he's been so good at engaging students, he's now coaching teachers at another Title I school in Fort Worth. Last year, he was even reaching students nationwide by creating jingles for teachers so they could engage students in Zoom class. Here's one he made for a Texas history teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYFIELD: (Rapping) Let's go. Yo, wake up in (unintelligible). Start your day with a song. Ms. Skyler's (ph) in the house. It's going down, no doubt. Yeah. Seventh-grade science, Texas history, too. Adjust your screens to her point of view.

ESTRADA: Paris Morehouse (ph) is one of Mayfield's former students. She's now in the 10th grade and loves old-school rap. Before fourth grade, Morehouse didn't like math and struggled with it, but paring the difficult subject with music was game-changing for her.

PARIS MOREHOUSE: Because I can recall myself at home doing homework and just singing the song in my head, helping me understand, oh, I know what this timetable is. I know - oh, five times five. That's 25. Like, it was really a great way to help me make it through math.

ESTRADA: She's been featured in music videos by Mayfield and credits him for inspiring her to do better in school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOREHOUSE: (Rapping) Might be a future politician because, see, we're on a mission. Academics and athletes from heels to cleats.

It was a truly, truly amazing classroom and amazing space to be in.

ESTRADA: Mayfield says students will produce work if you reach them where they are and take notes on what they're interested in, whether that's music, shoes or sports.

MAYFIELD: That's one - been one of my biggest accomplishments. A lot of teachers say, how Mayfield get 90% of his kids to pass? And half of them, you know, coming from broken homes and this and that. I said, hey, you know, you have to spend time getting to know them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYFIELD: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Rapping) OK, OK, OK. I'm in the fifth. No time to play. I'm grinding each and every day so I can live another way.

ESTRADA: Some of Mayfield's videos have thousands of views, and he's been featured on national television. Songs about Black History Month and little girl magic have helped students build confidence that will carry them far beyond elementary school.

MAYFIELD: Those types of staples interject into the student's mind and psyche that they can do whatever they want to do and they don't have to have - and I use this quote a lot. Your dreams have to be from broken dreams. Your dreams are your dreams. So if dreams before you may have been broken, yours don't have to be broken.

ESTRADA: He preaches, hard work turns into heart work before you know it. The next thing on his list is an upcoming music video about students having goals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Rapping) For the future Obamas and MLKs...

ESTRADA: Mia Estrada, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.