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After a Texas teacher saw his students struggling with math, he turned to rap music

Thomas Mayfield poses at the entrance of J. T. Stevens Elementary School.
JerSean Golatt for NPR
Thomas Mayfield poses at the entrance of J. T. Stevens Elementary School.

Thomas Mayfield had a major problem to solve in his fifth-grade classroom.

"I'm not good at adding. I don't know how to regroup or borrow. I'm not good at subtracting. Or I don't know my facts yet, and I'm a fifth-grader," Mayfield's students used to tell him.

The 42-year-old math teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, took their frustrations to heart. He knew it was important to try something new, especially because most of his students were also struggling outside of the classroom.

"Single parent homes, incarcerated parents, low financial stability — a lot of that was going on," he said.

Mayfield teaches at Title I schools, where at least 40% of students are economically disadvantaged. He grew up going to these types of schools in Fort Worth, too.

To reach students in a way that was familiar and inviting, he brought rap music to the classroom.

"It's built confidence," he said. "It helps to build a less traumatic experience, and they feel like they're invited and welcomed into the classroom."

"Kids started caring more about coming to school"

In one of Mayfield's videos, he plays an instrumental beat to Luniz's song, "I Got 5 on It." He gets his students pumped. Then they start to rap about decimal point places.

"Now let's break this thing down," raps Mayfield and students in the video. "Let's start with the tenths/ Like a dime to a dollar, there's 1 out of 10/ Then we move to the hundredths, one part out of many/ One out of 100, we call that a penny..."

They rap and make viral music videos with thousands of views about multiplication, and motivational songs like passing the big end-of-year exam called the STARR test.

Mayfield said learning math through music has been a successful strategy, and he saw results within a school semester.

"State scores rose," he said. "Student growth rose. Productivity, it went up. Kids started caring more about coming to school. The attendance went up. Parents were really enthused about coming to different events when we normally didn't see them."

Last year, while working at the Leadership Academy at Como Elementary, he even started engaging students nationwide by creating jingles for teachers so they could capture students in Zoom class.

Mayfield's district recognizes he's been so good at engaging students that he got promoted for the 2021-2022 school year to coach teachers at another Title 1 school in Fort Worth, J.T. Stevens Elementary School.

"A great way to help me make it through math"

Mayfield chats with two former students, Sophomore Pareece Morehouse (left) and 8th grader Jailah Williams, who performed in his Rosa Parks tribute video that was done for Black History Month this year.
/ JerSean Golatt for NPR
/
JerSean Golatt for NPR
Mayfield chats with two former students, Sophomore Pareece Morehouse (left) and 8th grader Jailah Williams, who performed in his Rosa Parks tribute video that was done for Black History Month this year.

Pareece Morehouse, one of Mayfield's former students, is now in tenth grade and loves old-school rap.

Before Mr. Mayfield's class, Morehouse didn't like math and struggled with it. But pairing the difficult subject with music was game-changing for her.

"I can recall myself at home doing homework and just singing the song in my head, helping me understand, 'oh, I know what this timetable is. I know - oh, five times five. That's 25'," Morehouse said. "It was really a great way to help me make it through math."

Morehouse has been featured in music videos by Mayfield like "Queens" and "Raise The Bar." With songs like these, she said Mayfield inspired her to do better in school.

"It was a truly, truly amazing classroom and an amazing space to be in," she said.

"Hard work turns into heart work before you know it"

Mayfield said students will produce work if you reach them where they are and take notes on what they're interested in, whether that's music, shoes or sports. It's important to use things that resonate with them.

"That's been one of my biggest accomplishments," he said. "A lot of teachers say, 'how Mayfield get 90% of his kids to pass? And half of them, you know, coming from broken homes and this and that.' I said, 'hey, you know, you have to spend time getting to know them'."

Songs about Black History Month and Little Girl Magic have helped students build confidence that will carry them far beyond elementary school.

"Those types of staples interject into the student's mind and psyche that they can do whatever they want to do," he said. "And I use this quote a lot, 'Your dreams don't have to be from broken dreams.' Your dreams are your dreams. So if dreams before you may have been broken, yours don't have to be broken."

He preaches: "Hard work turns into heart work before you know it."

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