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This class is learning to its own beat

An assignment to write rap songs on civil rights heroes has enhanced lessons for Scott Sayre's students. It's also led to a recording experience.

March 12, 2007|Angie Green | Times Staff Writer

It's after school, but about a dozen Jackson Elementary School students are prepared to stay as long as it takes to get this assignment done.

Dome, dum, dum a bass drum sounds. They bob their heads, their knees bending at the sound of each beat. They grin and glance at one another as their teacher, Scott Sayre, looks on. For this day, their Altadena classroom has been turned into a recording studio.

\o7"Gandhi!"\f7 they rap in unison into the microphone as they stand in front of a synthesizer. \o7"The freedom fighta, the freedom fighta."

\f7

Sayre, a pianist, wanted to give the sixth-graders an unconventional way to learn their reading material and suggested that they write a rap song. In exchange, their research paper assignment would be shortened.

His songwriting idea has led to the students recording their second single on a recent afternoon.

"It's their media, it's their love, it's their genre," said Sayre, who believes that some students remember information better by singing it, similar to how youngsters learn the alphabet. "We frequently teach the linear side but forget about" other methods of teaching.

After the students wrote the lyrics, he asked a friend who owns a Sherman Oaks-based music company to compose the music and record the students.

At a recent recording, the boys and girls could be heard from the outdoor hallway as they belted out what they had learned.

\o7See Gandhi was a person would always fast,

And he helped people break the caste.

The English told him to just beware.

See he was beyond it. He didn't care, \f7one boy rapped as the other students stood around him in a half-circle, waiting to chime in at the chorus.\o7

\f7At first, the class broke into groups to research and begin the songwriting process. Eventually, the groups came together to create the first two songs.

The lyrics are grounded in their reading material, which focused on civil rights leaders around the world who took a courageous risk to stand for justice. Their songs include such figures as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.

Many of the students said their ability to grasp the biographical material was enhanced by writing and rapping the songs. They read additional literature and articles because the more details they knew, the more words they had to choose from to rhyme.

"When I started rapping history, it made me want to read more history so I could rap about it," said 11-year-old Shellie Robinson, who said she started making up rap songs about her reading material in fourth grade. "Sometimes when I read, I rap it because I forget it."

"I like to read because I get new information, but it's kind of boring," said Lourdes Contreras, 11, who added that she sometimes gets sleepy when she's in front of a book. For her, rapping a song keeps her alert. "It's a little bit more funnier."

The sixth-graders, who don't take a music class, said the assignment gave them much-needed variety in their normally book-based class.

"It's fun to sing and try new stuff," said Cristela Gomez, 12. "I'm really shy," she said. "It helps me get rid of the shyness."

Hanging on the wall of Sayre's classroom is a chart outlining Harvard education professor Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which asserts that students grasp material best when it's presented to suit their strongest intelligence.

"For some children who love music and have musical intelligence, the use of music in school is a great motivator," Gardner said in an e-mail. "For others, the actual thinking involved in working with music may transfer to other subjects. For example, mastering rhythm in music can be useful in learning metrical concepts."

Traditionally, schools' teaching methods have been tailored to those with strong linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligence, but Gardner's theory suggests that there is also visual, movement and musical intelligence.

Although the theory has drawn criticism, some teachers have tried to implement it in their classroom instruction.

Sayre's students plan to make a complete album with eight to 10 songs. They want to continue writing songs about leaders, such as Cesar Chavez, and those who suffered without freedom, such as Anne Frank.

"It's a theme that resonates," said Sayre, 52. "We have really worked to understand why it's important" that people are free.

The class is also reaching out to children who are poverty-stricken. It plans to adopt a child in the world who suffers from hunger. The students are giving up small treats -- such as chips, candy, even nail polish -- to raise money for that effort. So far, they have raised $17.

"I have learned from people who take risks," said 12-year-old Dean Trevino, who researched about Gandhi's efforts to end segregation in India. "Taking a risk means you should stand up for somebody and defend them."

The class is selling its first single, "Taking a Risk for Justice," for $2.50 to pay for the production costs of the album.

"I'm proud of my kids," said Sayre, who has the single uploaded to his iPod. "It's contagious. It's got a contagious beat. It's full of hope."

*

angie.green@latimes.com

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