Learning through Lyrics

by Austin Martin '17
August 11, 2015

Austin is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow. He has developed Rhymes with Reason, an interactive platform that teaches academic vocabulary to inner city students using hip­hop lyrics. This summer, he is piloting Rhymes with Reason in Inglewood, CA, San Diego, CA, and Detroit, MI.


This June, I kicked off a summer-long pilot program for Rhymes with Reason at an All-Boys reform school, Frederick Douglass Academy, in inner city Detroit. I am particularly proud of this experience in the city of Detroit, because of Detroit’s symbolism in my journey. I am the first person in my family who was not born in inner city Detroit. I strongly believe that avoiding the misfortune and tribulation that faces many children who grow up in America’s most struggling inner city gave me a leg up that has contributed to my success today. During my time introducing Rhymes with Reason in several classrooms at Frederick Douglass Academy I connected and worked with students who I, very easily, “could have been” if my parents didn’t make the fateful decision to move out of Detroit a short time before I was born.

After the students received Rhymes with Reason, I witnessed the distance between myself and these fellow young black men in this reform school become even less significant. already knew that I “could have been” any one of these young men if it weren’t for good fortune, but after seeing these students use Rhymes with Reason I found out that conversely, they could “be me.”

In a single hour, I was able to teach students 12 new SAT vocabulary words using Rhymes with Reason. During this hour, students were completely engaged, and having fun learning as they listened to their favorite rappers utter high level vocabulary words in various songs. Students even got to come up with their own freestyle raps where they very craftily incorporated the given SAT word into the rap. Through this activity students were able to exhibit correct usage of the word, applying their own unique context to the words they learned. At the end of the hour, I went around the room and asked students the meanings of each word that we taught. Students, essentially in unison, correctly identified the meanings of every single word explored in that lesson. By the activity’s end, I found myself so surprised by students' amazingly positive performance in the classroom. The listening, and attention in that room resembled a college class. The next day students about whom teachers told me “getting them to study is like pulling teeth," approached and told me that they went home and spent time studying via Rhymes with Reason on their own volition.

This entire experience showed how students can shine and excel when their interest is piqued. Seemingly every student that I met at Frederick Douglass Academy had the natural ability necessary to attend college, but they just needed to see an example of academia in their language to feel the confidence to go study, and to feel that excelling in school is actually attainable. I am by no means saying I am the standard for young black males attending college but I know that there are many more students who can “be like me” if they are given the chance. Rhymes with Reason will be a force that gives students that chance.