Austin Martin, a junior at Brown University, stands in front of an eighth-grade class at Community Preparatory School in Providence, R.I. He's here to test out the website he developed, which he hopes will help junior and senior high school students learn the vocabulary they'll need for their college entrance exams.
He starts the class by connecting his laptop to a projector, and then he veers off the traditional path, away from rote memorization — and toward rap music.
A short song clip plays over speakers: "So rude that your mentality is distorting your reality."
Martin zeroes in on the word "distort."
"OK, so in this example," he says to the class, "When they say 'so rude that your mentality is distorting this reality,' what do you think he means?"
The program is called Rhymes with Reason. He's using rap lyrics to teach vocabulary, in the hope that some will connect more to popular music than they do to static words on a page.
This undergrad isn't the first to think of using hip-hop in the classroom to engage students. The Hip-Hop Education Center, founded by New York University professor Martha Diaz, lists hundreds of programs that use hip-hop culture as a teaching tool.
But Martin says aggregating his lessons on a website for kids to use anywhere — at home, on their phone — sets his program apart.
Hip-hop, Martin says, is full of words students might need to know for the SAT or ACT. He's amassed more than 450 examples so far.
"I just got out of high school. My sister is in high school," says the 20-year-old Martin. "I'm in tune with that climate."
In the classroom, most of the kids seem to understand that "distort" means to alter or change.
And then, like many English teachers, he asks the class to use the word in context. But not in a sentence. He wants them to write it in their own rap lyrics.
Here's what student Tiffanie Pichardo comes up with: "You're always distorting my brain, making me insane, the way you cross your arms and give me attitude, why don't you go somewhere and don't be rude."
Micah Walker takes a different approach: "I went to court, but my opponent started to distort what I was saying, in fact they started fraying, from what that was the truth, and as a result, I came out with a broken tooth, but it's OK 'cause it's my turn to step into the booth."
Grace Jordan raises her hand with another rhyme: "People think that I'm no good but their views are distorted. I'm the best; they're wrong is what I retorted. Their minds are warped; they're not in their right mind, 'cause smart people know I am the best. I'm the best that people can find."
After the exercise on "distort," the class moves on to "meticulous," "complex" and "domain."
They keep rapping right up until the bell rings — some want to keep going.
Eddie Moyé, the teacher in this eighth-grade class, says this enthusiasm isn't unusual; the kids took to Rhymes with Reason right away.
"They were saying, 'This is so much fun!' " he says. "They were saying, 'Not to dis you, Mr. Moyé, but we like what Austin is doing with us,' and I said, 'I don't have a problem with that.' "
Although he's in an Ivy League college now, Martin says that he struggled in school. He was smart, but he says the things he was really intellectually curious about weren't valued in the classroom.
"I knew every last thing there was to know about hip-hop and basketball," he says. He could tell you incredibly detailed facts about rappers and NBA players.
"My favorite NBA player was Allen Iverson," says Martin. "I could tell you what points-per-game average he had in 2004." (It was 30.7.)
So why not tap into that enthusiasm to help kids like him, who might be turned off by traditional schoolwork.
He's hoping Rhymes with Reason will do the trick.
After the class, Martin says he's happy with how it went, particularly the way the students responded to their everyone else's lyrics — saying "ooh" and "aah" when they heard a good rhyme.
"It's really good to have that validation in the classroom for something you generated from your own mind," he says.
Martin says Rhymes with Reason is still in the testing phase. It's used in only a handful of classes, and he doesn't yet have reliable data to show that it actually improves test scores or vocabulary.
But if the kids in Eddie Moyé's eighth-grade class are anything to go by, Austin Martin is on to something.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What motivates scientists and inventors? NPR's Joe Palca has been exploring the power of the creative brain. And today, as part of his series Joe's Big Idea, he has the story of a college student and entrepreneur. His online program uses hip-hop to teach vocabulary to teens.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The program is called Rhymes with Reason, and it's the invention of Austin Martin. Martin is a junior at Brown University. He's invited me to go with him to a class at Community Preparatory School in Providence, where he's testing the software.
AUSTIN MARTIN: So guys, how are you guys doing?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Good.
MARTIN: Cool. So today, we're going to get into another lesson with Rhymes with Reason.
PALCA: Martin has attached his laptop to a projector so the class can see what he's doing.
MARTIN: I think we might jump around a little bit just to get some, like - some fun words in there.
PALCA: Martin decides to start out with the word distorting. He calls up a webpage with a music clip. He clicks the link.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) Glue it, to my heart I do it huge. And your attitude just blew it. So rude, it's your mentality; it's distorting your reality. Actually, the more you speak make me think where I'd rather be.
MARTIN: OK, so in this example, when they say so rudely your mentality's distorting this reality, what do you think it means?
PALCA: Most of the kids seem to get it means altering or changing. Then he asks the class to use the word in context. But not in a simple sentence like we used to do but in a rap lyric, and this is where things get interesting. In a few minutes, hands start to shoot up.
TIFFANIE PICHARDO: You're always distorting my brain, making me insane, the way you cross your arms and give me attitude. Why don't you go somewhere and don't be rude?
MICAH WALKER: March 31 I went to court, but my opponent started to distort what I was saying. In fact, they started fraying...
GRACE JORDAN: People think that I'm no good but their views are distorted. I'm the best; they're wrong is what I retorted. Their minds are warped. They're not in their right minds because smart people know I'm the best that people can find.
PALCA: That was Tiffanie Pichardo, Micah Walker and Grace Jordan.
EDDIE MOYE: Great job.
PALCA: Eddie Moye is the regular teacher in this eighth grade class. He says the kids took to Rhymes with Reason right away.
MOYE: And they were saying oh, this is so much fun, this is so much fun. And they were saying well, not to diss you, Mr. Moye, but we like what Austin's doing with us. And I said I don't have a problem with that.
PALCA: Although Rhymes with Reason inventor Austin Martin is now in an Ivy League college, there was a time when he struggled in school. He did excel in two subjects - hip-hop and basketball. He says he could tell you every last fact about every rapper, every NBA player.
MARTIN: My favorite NBA player was Allen Iverson. I could tell you what points-per-game average he had in 2004.
PALCA: It was 30.7, in case you're interested. Anyway, Martin figured he'd take that kind of passion and use it to good advantage.
MARTIN: I wanted to find a way to finally make it so the intellectual engagement in hip-hop was rewarded in academic setting.
PALCA: He's hoping Rhymes with Reason will do the trick.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Oh, I'm so excited.
PALCA: The class has moved on from distorting to other words. The students try making lyrics with meticulous...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: When I spit my bars, people think I'm meticulous. It comes naturally - OK, I lied. It's ridiculous.
PALCA: ...Or complex...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Rapping is complex. For example, all I can think to rhyme with complex is the word Rex.
PALCA: ...Or domain.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: I am sick of people coming at my domain. I'm from Pawtucket - yeah, I'm repping the name. Best city in Rhode Island. It puts the rest to shame. Better keep up 'cause I'm in the fast lane.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Ooh....
PALCA: The kids seem reluctant to stop when the period is over.
MOYE: OK, ladies and gentlemen, please collect home books. Put them back in the home book locker, please.
PALCA: After we leave the school, I asked Martin whether he thought the session went well. He said yes, particularly the way kids responded to each other's lyrics.
MARTIN: Seeing them - like, everyone say ooh and ah when they come up with a good rhyme - it's really good to have validation in the classroom for something that you generated from your mind.
PALCA: Martin says Rhymes with Reason is still very much in the testing phase. It's only being used in a handful of classes, and he's not got reliable data yet showing it actually improves test scores. But if the kids in Eddie Moye's eighth grade class are anything to go by, it looks like Austin Martin is onto something. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.