I am a 31-year-old mom. I recently experienced my first old lady backache. I have been referred to as “Ma’am” at Starbucks, and I look to my younger siblings for fashion advice and the latest news on celebrities. So it was an odd scene when I recently found myself, garbed in summer dress and ballet flats, rapping to math facts in a seventh-grade boy’s basement, laying down tracks and beats with my student, while he pounded out the backup on his drum set.
Let me back up a bit. I don’t normally rap or know the slightest about playing a drum set. However, in my work with students I have been amazed by how differently our brains process information. Each child is unique, and many do not learn in the traditional way reinforced by our modern education system. This student struggles to memorize or apply many academic concepts, yet he can coordinate both feet and both hands to play drums with the best of them. His songs are complex; I spent enough summers in my early 20’s at concerts to know that he is heading for something great. He just needs some help along the way to tackle his learning disability.
Rhythm, music, rhyme, melody… Research has shown that all can enhance learning, from a young child trying to learn how to decode basic consonant-vowel-consonant words (CAT) to an older student trying to remember latin roots so he can later apply them when reading words he doesn’t understand. We do it naturally with our toddlers and preschoolers to teach early literacy skills: singing songs at library time, developing rhymes to get through the toothbrushing routine, singing “Humpty Dumpty” at swim lessons. But as our children get older, we sometimes forget how critical that rhythm and beat can be to learning. A child struggling to process in a “typical” way often has strengths in other areas. We just have to find them, and then use those strengths to help them learn.
And that is how I found myself down in the basement, chanting multiplication and division facts with my student, trying to stay on beat. In the span of an hour, he had memorized all the facts. Three weeks later, he still knew all of them. While I peppered him with questions, his hands and feet moved to the beat inside his head. We’ve since made up raps to rehearse new vocabulary words, discuss Greek and Roman history, and talk about the rock cycle. Who knows, maybe someday they’ll be “Top 20” hits.