By SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: August 11, 2011
The team of six high school girls new to America sat frozen waiting for the next missing lyric, whiteboard and marker at the ready. They glanced toward their classmates, who sat nearby, in two competing teams.
One of their instructors, Sam Sellers, otherwise known as Rabbi Darkside, started a beat. Then Jamel Mims, otherwise known as M.C. Tingbudong, began rapping the lyrics of a song whose rhymes did not contain the familiar curses or boasts, but the vocabulary that New York high school students need to pass their Regents test in American history.
“Follow along closely so it won’t get convoluted,” Mr. Mims, 25, rapped, flicking his wrist to the beat. “The supreme law of the land is called the ...”
He paused. The girls conferred in their native language, Spanish, scrambled for the marker, and hoisted their whiteboard into the air. “The Constitution!” they shouted in English, reading off their answer.
“Righteous,” M.C. Tingbudong said.
In the realm of dry high school material in New York City, perhaps nothing is drier than Regents exams. The multiple-choice questions often read as if they are straight out of a 1950s textbook — and in fact, the language, showcased in the state’s extensive test archives, has remained essentially the same for decades. If there was an opposite of contemporary urban street culture, it might go a little something like this Regents classic:
“Which idea did the founding fathers include in the Constitution that allows Congress to meet the needs of a changing society? 1) federalism 2) separation of powers 3) the elastic clause 4) states’ rights.” (The answer can be found below.)
But instead of treating street culture as something that has no place in a classroom, it is being used as a vehicle to deliver instruction. That is the idea behind Fresh Prep, a program run by the Urban Arts Partnership that is trying to help hard-to-reach students pass the history Regents tests, which they must do to graduate.
“Linguistically, as far as the communities I work in, there is certainly bias toward them in these tests,” Mr. Mims said after a review class recently. A native of Washington, he also teaches Mandarin and got his rap name while studying rap culture in China. “It’s an effort to bridge the engagement gap,” Mr. Mims said.
Rap is also lyric-intensive, and its rhymes can be used as a device to help with memorizing facts. So the organization, which has attracted $400,000 in donations to develop and implement an arts-based Regents review curriculum, reached out to Mr. Sellers (whose rap name comes from being “the Jewish kid in our group of friends” growing up in Buffalo) and Tracee Worley, a history teacher, performance artist and curriculum designer.
Mr. Sellers, 33, had also taught history, so he was on familiar turf when coming up with two dozen rap songs with rapid-fire lyrics to review global history and American history. Students are given a 250-page workbook in which to fill in the blanks and write answers, and they are supposed to download the songs onto their MP3 players and memorize them at home.
So far, Fresh Prep has shown strong results in the high school where it started with 30 students in 2009 — significantly more students passed that year — and promising results in some classrooms at seven high-poverty high schools where it was used last year, the organization said. But there are still some problems, in part because hip-hop as a review method is hard to teach to a neophyte teacher. Now Urban Arts is revising its strategy to make sure a Fresh Prep artist instructor is always in the room.
“What we found is that when we had instructors who come from a hip-hop pedagogical foundation, the program is implemented with more fidelity,” said Tauheedah Baker-Jones, 33, the manager of the program.
This year, Mr. Sellers and Mr. Mims are teaching a summer class at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics in Washington Heights, a school for Spanish-speaking immigrants who are so new that they learn history in Spanish, not English, and take a Spanish-language version of the exams.
It is their first time trying Fresh Prep in a classroom of students who are still learning English, and on a recent visit, the energy in the 90-minute class was high, but the vocabulary was tough, and the songs moved quickly:
“First Amendment, that’s freedom of speech, needed that desperately
Freedom of expression, plus church and state separately
Right to bear arms the deuce, Third the quartering of troops
Four: protection from search and seizure unless a warrant is used.”
Too fast for some, even though they were given the written lyrics.
“It’s difficult,” said Yurinda Acevedo, 16, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in May 2010 and looked slightly embarrassed as she tried to follow along. “The English is not a piece of cake.” She also did not like the music, and had a suggestion: why not set the history to meringue, or perico ripiao, a Dominican form of that art?
But Wilny Estrella, 17, who has been in the United States for two years and, like most of the students in the class, failed her Regents in June, stood up at the end of class to offer a shout-out of recognition to the teachers. “I wasn’t good at history, but in the days I have been here I have learned a lot,” she said.
Saulio M. Tuero, a bilingual social studies teacher, kept score in the fill-in-the-blank lyrics game — which ended in a three-way tie — and helped out in Spanish, translating the concepts for the students. (The answer to the Regents question above is No. 3.)
Normally, Mr. Tuero said, he reviews material in Spanish, and focuses on teaching test-taking strategies. Because the Regents are so predictable over time, “I know every single question on this test,” he said.
It is an experiment for him to try out Fresh Prep and its curriculum, in part because as the Department of Education teacher in the room, he is the one who will be held responsible if the students fail when the history Regents is given again next week.
But half of the 20 students in the class also have yet to pass their English Regents, which includes an essay. And in that sense, he said, the hip-hop history review was playing a double role. “I’m not that worried about getting them to pass this test eventually, but the one thing they don’t get enough of is English,” he said. For his students to even read along with the intricate lyrics, he said, “just doing that is like a major advancement.”