by Martin Rand III, CNN
(CNN) – Music has often been used to teach kids complicated concepts. Shows like “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Sesame Street” showed that music can help kids digest lessons, whether it’s how a bill makes it through Congress or words that begin with the letter Q.
Now, Columbia University Professor Christopher Emdin is taking that same logic and applying it to high schools in New York City. But rather than Mr. Chips or Elmo leading kids in sing-alongs, enter the Wu-Tang.
Along with Emdin, Wu-Tang member GZA and the founders of the hip-hop lyrics website Rap Genius will announce a program that utilizes hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools.
“Everything has already been tried,” said Emdin, an assistant professor of science at Columbia’s Teachers College. “We’ve already done a pilot, and it was successful.”
According to Emdin, during the project’s trial period, attendance, interest and graduation rates all rose after hip-hop was introduced into the classroom.
Science has been one of the harder subjects to teach to black and Latino students, who make up 70% of the city’s rolls, according to New York’s Independent Budget Office. The 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress said only 4% of African-American seniors were proficient in sciences, compared with 27% of whites.
All of the schools participating are predominately African-American and/or Latino, Emdin said.
While Emdin and GZA will attend a few schools on a regular basis to check progress, science teachers will learn how to incorporate hip-hop into the lesson plan.
The process is simple, Emdin said. After learning the material, students will have to create rap songs relaying the material back to the teacher. This can be done individually or in groups known as cyphers, where people stand in a circle and take turns rapping.
“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Emdin said in an interview with The New York Times. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.
However, this isn’t a place for nursery school rhymes. According to Emdin, GZA says “the rhymes can’t be corny or wack.” Students will have to show that they not only know the curriculum, but also that they can create intelligible rap lyrics out of the material.
Along with other grades for the class, students will be graded on the content, lyrics, storytelling ability, flow and the complexity of their metaphors.
“The teachers will be trained on the cultural hip-hop,” Emdin said. “They’re open to anything that will help the students improve and learn the material.”
However, the project is about more than trying to teach the students science. It’s also about relating to the urban youth’s interests and keeping them engaged.
“It’s already a win-win because we know it works,” Emdin said.
As he explained, it’s not so much about grades increasing but keeping the students in school using a tool “that most of them have used all their lives.”
According to The Times, GZA will look over the students’ raps. The best ones will be posted on the Rap Genius website for the hip-hop community to see.
Rap Genius received a $15 million investment last month by Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want to see the site’s Wiki format applied to other musical genres and historic texts, including “poetry, literature, the Bible, political speeches, legal texts, science papers," a post on Rap Genius states.
The project, which will target grades 9-12, will cover sciences ranging from biology to physics.
According to Emdin, all the boroughs of New York City will be represented with the exception of Staten Island, which is ironic because most of Wu-Tang’s members, including GZA, are from the borough.
GZA, who was born Gary Grice, also goes by the nickname "Genius" because of his deep lyrics and heavy reliance on metaphors. His band mates have referred to him as "a fountain of wisdom," and he was invited to speak at Harvard University's Black Men's Forum last year. He also spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year.
The official announcement for the program will be next month, and the program will start during the spring semester in January 2013.