8th grade rap

I’m not an eighth grade teacher in any regularly scheduled kind of way. I make guest appearances, but the kinds of issues I need to consider with these visits are much different than those of the dedicated junior high school teacher. So, I feel a bit of a fraud when I’m teaching those future teachers or working with those who are already in the classroom. Even though I think I’m doing the right things for these teachers, I disclose freely what my strengths and shortcomings are, and I trust that colleagues are filling in for the gaps in their other courses.

Yesterday I hosted a lab for five different classes of eighth graders. Not the most peaceful epilogue to a semester of classes, but I like doing sound experiments with kids, and I like to have these additional experiences to see if the kinds of things I may preach and teach have any merit at all. I come from a philosophical foundation that “management” of a classroom should be done via the curriculum and getting the students themselves to be engaged with it — rather than creating strict rules that must form the structure of the course first, later making sure the curriculum fits within. I’ve seen Karyn do this successfully, and certainly the classrooms that are the most successful in my estimation have this inherent focus on the students and their responsibility and desire to engage in the material. Surely, there are many many ways that this has been done poorly, too, and so I’m both eager and trepidatious in seeing how well this actually works when I’m the teacher. (There are lots of other variables in any of these cases, so again each one of my experiences is some part of a grant meta analysis of my own practice.)

The visiting group of inner city 13- and 14-year-olds was engaged in different things, most of which had to do with sound and seeing the waveforms of sound show up on a computer screen when they did different things with a microphone. Some of these kids were more interested in beating on each other with meter sticks, and some were interested in seeing how different pieces of equipment could be manipulated to make giant phallic symbols. For the most part, though, they were actually interested and engaged, and I got to enjoy walking around, talking to people about what they were doing, what they were thinking, and only occasionally fixing something that had broken.

One group was particularly enthusiastic, partly in what kinds of waveforms they could make on the screen, and partly on just being themselves. In perfect combination, they started seeing what their rap beats — the spitting and the thumping to simulate the bass and the snare — would do for these waveforms. And then one thing led to another and as I came by they asked, emphatically, “Do you rap?”

“What?”

“Do you rap? You know …” and they launched into laying down a beat.

I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I somehow said something that was in concert with their backing. But I stopped short, interested in what they were doing with the physics equipment. They protested, asked me to keep going, and as they begged, I made them a deal: “If you can produce this waveform,” pointing to a sample wave I’d drawn on the board, one that would require some weird harmonic that I could only imagine, “then I’ll bust a rap.” I wasn’t really sure what I was saying, nor what I was committing to.

And so the challenge was on. I kept walking by, seeing what they were doing, and each time I was surprised to see that they were still on this mission to create this impossible sound wave. Each time they thought they were close, they asked if it was good enough; and each time I told them that it had to be perfect if it was going to get me to rap. And so they continued.

Imagine my surprise and delight when they did it, and I had to admit that they had done the very thing I challenged them to do, and that I would, in fact, rap. And so it went like this, more or less, as best as I can remember, with appropriate rhythm and syncopation. My art, I should say, transcends the visual medium and is best experienced in the moment. Too bad you weren’t there:

Yo! I am
a scientist
You don’t want
to mess wi’ dis.
With eighth grade
I study sound
We like to
keep it round.

Backing me up, keeping it real, was a table of inner city eighth grade boys, spitting and thumping out the accompaniment. The rest of the physics lab quieted as we got going and gave a rousing round of applause to close out the session. I wasn’t thrilled with the “keep it round” part, and I am sure I don’t even know what that could mean. But I was pleased about my “mess wi’ dis” rhyme with “scientist.” And, I was pleased that in this strange intersection of space and time, I was getting a group of eighth grade boys to do some physics, on their own, the way they wanted to shape it; and my white-boy-self got a chance to rap in the lab. And it was good, in its own, curious, weird way.

And now today I need to fix an invoice and reconcile an account and edit a flier and schedule an event. You can’t be a rapper everyday, I guess. However, just to remind me that this really did happen, I got the following email from the teacher of these physicists, who happened to be a former student of mine. She says:

The whole bus ride home i had students begging me to rap as well as my professor. You are definitely their favorite. Too bad I missed it 🙂 thanks for all you do

I’m just doing what I do. Keepin’ it round, yo.

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