Teacher taps hip-hop to teach STEM

Amity Lutes uses hip-hop beats and songs to teach math and science at Chesney Elementary in Duluth.

Amity Lutes uses hip-hop beats and songs to teach math and science at Chesney Elementary in Duluth.

In 2002, Amity Lutes began bringing rap music into her Clayton County classroom. The elementary teacher tapped into the rhythm to get the attention of her students, especially when it came to math.

“I used those tools to get my students wanting to learn to help them remember things,” said Lutes. “I even wrote my own songs and shared them with other teachers. But I really got interested in the idea when I started doing my dissertation at Valdosta State.”

As part of that project, Lutes discovered “hip-hop education” that encourages students to learn material to the pace of beats. “Songs, dancing and rap battles with beats that go back and forth can all be used and tied together,” said Lutes.

Three years ago, as a fifth grade teacher at Chesney Elementary in Duluth, Lutes used her musical expertise to create a four-week unit featuring hip-hop education in some part of each day. Five teachers taught math using the unit, and students answered surveys and questionnaires about their attitudes toward the subject. The results added to her dissertation research and led to her publishing “The Effect of a Hip-Hop Based Education Unit on Fifth Grade Students’ Math Achievements” in the International Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Learning.

“I’m now trying to publish a guide for teachers showing different ways they can use this approach in every subject classroom,” said Lutes. “Some teachers still use those same rap songs and PowerPoints that were part of the study, and they’re recorded so they can be played anytime or put online.”

In her own classroom, Lutes uses rap beats to signal students that it’s time to move from math to science.

“They know when the music starts, it’s time to go from one lesson to the next, and the music stops, it’s time to be silent,” she said. “Right now we’re learning about cells, and I have a song to the beat of ‘Old Time Road’ that we’re learning. I try to use songs kids will recognize, and once we get going, we’ll be having rap battles in class.”

Besides being a cool way for kids to learn, Lutes says hip-hop infused teaching can easily transition from one course to another.

“It’s really helpful for sciences and social studies, where there are a lot of facts,” she said. “You can explain things all day, but students don’t memorize that George Washington was the first president. But without being able to show that knowledge, they can’t pass the test. A rap song can help them remember. It also helps when we’re adding and subtracting fractions: I have them do our rap song in their heads. They can memorize the music.”

In addition to sharing her research, Lutes last year facilitated one of the Ready, Set, Science courses for Gwinnett County Public Schools, and she wrote, edited and revised the district’s science curriculum. She was recently named one of three Teacher of the Year finalists at her school. As with much of her work, it’s largely driven by a passion for music.

“I’ve always loved music, and I’m actually a huge hip-hop fan,” she said. “It’s funny because I’m a white girl who grew up around white people, but I fell in love with hip-hop at 16 when no one at my school was listening to it. When I started teaching, I realized that’s what kids were listening to and they knew every song. This was how to pull them in and get them excited about learning. I even have students from years ago who still know the songs.”

SEND US YOUR STORIES. Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.