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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

That's a Rap!

When Michael Bonner's 2nd grade students were failing their reading tests, he didn't give up on them. He made a music video.

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In January 2017, Ellen DeGeneres broadcast nationally what Michael Bonner's South Greenville Elementary students already knew—that Bonner was a life-transforming teacher. DeGeneres had been moved by Bonner's efforts to infuse music and pop culture into lessons for his 2nd graders, many who had grown up in poverty and were struggling academically. Along with several corporate sponsors, The Ellen DeGeneres Show provided Bonner's North Carolina school with computers, technical equipment, and financial support.
Additionally, DeGeneres flew Bonner's entire 2nd grade class to Los Angeles in 2017, where they recorded a professional music video with artists such as Ice Cube, Ty Dolla Sign, and Lin Manuel Miranda.
Bonner believes in the power of creative teaching to reach students who are struggling with poverty, disadvantage, and trauma. Here he discusses how he used music lyrics to inspire and improve his students' learning.

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Photos by Paris Silver

Even though I am an African-American male who works at a school that is 98 percent African American, there have been plenty of times when I have found myself not being able to relate to my students. Our skin tone is the same, but we've had very different experiences. Some of the students that I serve come from single parent homes and have dealt with numerous adverse childhood experiences. Although I was not born into money, I was fortunate enough to have both of my parents in the household and to grow up in a stable environment. South Greenville Elementary, where I teach, is a Title I school that has a 100 percent free and reduced-lunch participation rate. Poverty runs rampant throughout the community, and the issue of homelessness is not unfamiliar to the students or staff. Trauma and anxiety are common.
Misbehavior and disruptions happen often in the classroom, and as a new teacher I did not know how to deal with these outbursts. I remember the first time I had a student who simply refused to learn. She had been moved into my classroom because my colleague could not "handle" her. I tried handshakes, hugs, and all of the usual de-escalation steps. But she refused to complete the task at hand. When she began to throw chairs, the administrative team and I had to physically remove her from the classroom—something I remember vividly.
Later, I reflected on her outburst. Could it be that her behavior was a cry for help? Was her irrational behavior a symptom of an unseen issue? I began to challenge my own mindset towards education and expectations for how students should conduct themselves. I examined my own explicit and implicit biases, the thought patterns that determined my actions towards my students.
I realized that, in most cases, my students' defiance probably came not out of disrespect, but rather from an inability to handle traumatic adverse childhood experiences. Therefore, it was my job to understand the struggles they faced, both to improve their educational experience and to break through the barriers that kept them from learning.
That is when my creative muscles began to flex. I was determined to deliver experiences in my classroom that would transcend any negative educational experiences that were embedded into my students' psyches.
Music was the first tool that came to mind.
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Learning from the Lyrics

When I gave my first English language arts summative assessment to my class in September 2016, only two students passed. The students had a difficult time differentiating between the "what" and "why" comprehension questions. I could not decide the best way for them to remember the difference between the two. Surely there was a better way than placing the items on an anchor chart.
Inspiration struck while I was watching television. A commercial came on featuring a popular song by O.T. Genasis. My students loved to listen to that song during their independent work time in class. I knew that music was something that reached my students and transcended social divisions. What if I could get my students to engage with the content they were learning through music?
My students are aware of every new dance or popular song that is released, so it made sense to simply remix music with educational content to engage them. I started jotting down lyrics that mirrored the standard I was trying to teach—the "what" and "why" of reading comprehension. My songwriting abilities weren't necessarily the best at first, so the next day I shared what I'd done with my students to get their feedback. While they loved the idea of making up a song, they thought that some of the lyrics were too lengthy and threw off the tempo. I gave them time in class to collaborate on which lines should go and which should stay. When the timer had gone off, the students had come up with these lyrics, set to the beat of "Push It" by O.T. Genasis:
Reading helps us learn information for school, So we can answer questions and we can be cool, 'Who' is for animals, people, and things, 'What' is for what's happening in the story man, 'When' is the time the story took place, 'Where' is for where the action happens 'Why' is for what the problem is, 'How' is for how the problem is solved now.
This may not be the greatest marriage of words and beat that the world has even seen, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that my students thought it was. It was a product that they created that would help improve their learning and engagement in the classroom. It was theirs, and they sung it with pride every day before guided reading stations. I promised them that if the majority of the class passed the assessment next time, we would record a music video of the song, and they would be the stars.
When I gave the next summative assessment on the same standard, 14 out of 20 students passed. We created a music video, as promised, and uploaded it to Instagram and Facebook. Later that evening, I checked my Facebook page, and the video had been shared almost 1,000 times! Local news channels called for interviews over the following weeks, and then the story went national.
Shortly after CBS aired a story on how we had infused music into our lesson to achieve high engagement and academic success, I received a phone call from The Ellen Degeneres Show. She wanted me to come on her show. My entire school and city were overwhelmed by this beautiful opportunity. Most important, my students got the acclaim they deserved; they became the superstars I always knew they were.

Relating—and Learning—through Music

The following year, with a new 2nd grade class staring at me from their desks, it was time to see if my musical approach could work again. Sixteen out of my 20 students were on kindergarten or 1st grade reading levels at the beginning of that year. I knew I had to engage them and deliver high-level instructional content. But would my method work again?
The answer was soon clear. We went to work, and my new students were soon elated to be in my classroom. I used concepts from whole-brain teaching, helped them create songs filled with instructional content, and asked students to teach lessons to each other in small groups. The focus of my techniques was not to create viral social media content, but rather to make fun content that engaged and challenged my students. We repeated this process for months, and over time we began to see positive results.
Not only did my students meet my expectations, they produced data that had my school's administration smiling from ear to ear. In North Carolina, two levels of growth count as a full year worth of learning. My class that year averaged 4.4 levels of growth from the beginning to the end of the year. Some students were growing between five and eight reading levels. Behavior problems in the classroom decreased as well, due to high levels of engagement throughout the lessons. I firmly believe these data can be attributed to finding creative ways to use music and other educational tools to our advantage in the classroom.
I've found that using creative, playful methods in lessons not only improves engagement but, particularly in the case of trauma-affected students, enhances their ability to grasp the content. In our brains, we have a pair of emotional processors called the amygdalae. When a person experiences a traumatic situation or chronic stress, the amygdalae go into overdrive. Research indicates that when the amygdalae have been activated, it is nearly impossible for the brain to process any new information.
As educators, we need to be aware of this and give our students opportunities for "brain breaks," shifts in learning that energize different pathways in our brains. As I've discovered, these kinds of breaks seem to bypass the stress reactions of the brain and can be as simple as reading aloud, acting, and charades, or—yes—singing a song.
This not only supports the argument for teachers having an electric learning environment, but it also speaks to how we can begin to be effective with students from disadvantaged backgrounds through creativity. By being flexible in our teaching and providing different ways for students to engage, we give them ways to succeed—and have fun at the same time.
As I continue to teach, I will keep trying to find new ways to engage my students, both through the arts and creativity and through other means. I already have new ideas. Instead of taking the lead on every project, I am going to allow my students full creative control for both the musical content and the educational videos we create. This will help them build leadership skills. I have also made a commitment to assign at least one STEAM project every week. Incorporating engineering with arts and science will push my students' thinking and help encourage a positive learning environment.
Using creativity and arts may cost you time and energy in planning your lesson and rethinking your teaching strategies, but the exponential return we receive by investing in our students' futures will go further than we'll ever know. Embrace it and go for it.

2nd Grade Rap Superstars

View Michael Bonner's class in action in their original "Read It" music video and the professional studio recording.

End Notes

1 Willis, J. (2016, December 7). Using brain breaks to restore students' focus. Edutopia. Retrieved from www.edutopia.org/article/brain-breaks-restore-student-focus-judy-willis

Michael Bonner is a 2nd grade teacher at South Greenville Elementary in North Carolina and the author of Get Up or Give Up: How I Almost Gave Up on Teaching (Post Hill Press, 2017). 

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