To get kids addicted to math, a teacher brings rap into the classroom: NPR

A Texas teacher who helped struggling math students succeed by integrating music into the curriculum is now teaching the method to other teachers.


Now we have the story of a teacher who struggled to find ways to get students to love math. But Thomas Mayfield found a way through music. And as NPR’s Mia Estrada reports, now Mayfield is also helping other teachers interact with their students.

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

THOMAS MAYFIELD: Oh, you know, I’m not good at adding. I don’t know how to pool or borrow. I’m not good at subtraction. Or I don’t know my facts yet and I’m in fifth grade. You know, they might say, I don’t know my multiplication facts.

ESTRADA: These are phrases he has heard repeatedly from students. He took what they were saying to heart and knew it was important to try something new, especially since most of his students struggled outside of the classroom as well.

MAYFIELD: Single-parent homes, incarcerated parents, poor financial stability – there was a lot going on.

ESTRADA: Mayfield teaches in Title I schools, where more than 40 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. He grew up attending these types of schools in Fort Worth as well. He wanted to reach students in a familiar and inviting way. It was then that he had the idea of ​​bringing rap music into the classroom.

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


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

ESTRADA: It’s Mayfield and some of his former students. They rap and make music videos about multiplication, decimals and motivational songs like passing the big year-end exam called the STARR test.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We’re going to take the STARR test in the spring, show the world what we mean. So watch out.

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

MAYFIELD: State scores have gone up. Student growth has increased. Productivity has increased. Children began to care more about coming to school. Attendance has increased. The parents were really excited about coming to different events when we didn’t normally see them.

ESTRADA: The Mayfield District acknowledges that it’s been so good at engaging students that it’s now training teachers at another Title I school in Fort Worth. Last year, he even reached students across the country by creating jingles for teachers so they could engage students in the Zoom classroom. Here’s one he made for a history teacher in Texas.


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

ESTRADA: Paris Morehouse (ph) is one of Mayfield’s former students. She’s now in 10th grade and loves old-school rapping. Prior to fourth grade, Morehouse disliked math and struggled with it, but pairing the difficult subject with music was a game-changer for her.

PARIS MOREHOUSE: Because I remember being at home doing my homework and singing the song in my head, helping me figure out, oh, I know what that schedule is. I know – oh, five times five. It’s 25. Like, it was a really great way to help me do well in math.

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


MOREHOUSE: (Rapping) Maybe a future politician because, you see, we’re on a mission. Scholars and athletes from heels to cleats.

It was a really, really amazing classroom and an amazing space.

ESTRADA: Mayfield says students will produce work if you reach out to them where they are and take notes about what interests them, whether it’s music, shoes or sports.

MAYFIELD: This is one of my greatest accomplishments. Many teachers say, how does Mayfield get 90% of his kids to pass? And half of them, you know, come from broken homes and this and that. I said, hey, you know, you gotta spend some time getting to know them.


MAYFIELD: Let’s go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Rapping) OK, OK, OK. I am in fifth. No time to play. I work every day to be able to live differently.

ESTRADA: Some of Mayfield’s videos have thousands of views and he’s been featured on national television. Songs about Black History Month and the magic of little girls have helped students gain confidence that will carry them well beyond elementary school.

MAYFIELD: These types of staples are intervening in the student’s mind and psyche that they can do whatever they want to do and they don’t have to have it – and I use that quote a lot . Your dreams must come from broken dreams. Your dreams are your dreams. So if dreams before you may have been shattered, yours need not be.

ESTRADA: He preaches, hard work turns into labor of the heart before you know it. Next on his list is an upcoming music video about students with goals.


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

ESTRADA: Mia Estrada, NPR News.

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