JerSean Golatt for NPR
Thomas Mayfield had a big problem to solve in his fifth grade classroom.
“I’m not good at adding up. I don’t know how to regroup or borrow. I’m not good at subtraction. Or I don’t know my facts yet and I’m a fifth grader,” Mayfield’s student used to tell him.
The 42-year-old math teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, took her frustration to heart. He knew it was important to try something new, especially since most of his students struggled outside of the classroom as well.
“Single parent homes, imprisoned parents, low financial stability – there was a lot going on,” he said.
Mayfield teaches in Title I schools where at least 40% of the students are economically disadvantaged. He also grew up in such schools in Fort Worth.
To reach students in a familiar and welcoming way, he brought rap music into the classroom.
“It built trust,” he said. “It helps build a less traumatic experience and they feel invited and included in the classroom.”
“Children care more about getting to school”
In one of Mayfield’s videos, he plays an instrumental beat to Luniz’s song “I Got 5 on It.” He inspires his students. Then they start rapping about decimal places.
“Now let’s break this thing down,” Mayfield and the students rap in the video. “Let’s start with tenths/ Like a cent to a dollar, there’s 1 in 10/ Then we move on to hundredths, a part of many/ One in 100, we call that a penny…”
They rap and make viral music videos with thousands of views about multiplication and motivational songs like passing the big year-end exam called the STARR test.
Mayfield said learning math through music was a successful strategy and he saw results within a school semester.
“Government grades have gone up,” he said. “Student growth increased. Productivity increased. Kids were more interested in coming to school. Attendance increased. Parents were really excited to come to various events when we don’t usually see them.”
Last year, while working at Como Elementary’s Leadership Academy, he even began engaging students across the country by creating jingles for teachers to capture students in Zoom classes.
Mayfield’s district recognizes that he was so good at motivating students that he was promoted to coach teachers at another Title 1 school in Fort Worth, JT Stevens Elementary School, for the 2021-2022 school year.
“A great way to help me make it through math”
JerSean Golatt for NPR
Pareece Morehouse, a former student of Mayfield, is now in tenth grade and loves old-school rap.
Before Mr. Mayfield’s class, Morehouse disliked math and struggled with it. But combining the difficult subject with music was groundbreaking for her.
“I can remember doing my homework at home and just singing the song in my head, which helped me to be like, ‘Oh, I know what that class schedule is. I know – oh, five times five. That’s 25’,” Morehouse said. “It was really a great way to help me get through math.”
Morehouse has appeared in Mayfield music videos such as “Queens” and “Raise The Bar.” She said Mayfield inspired her to do better in school with songs like these.
“It was a really, really amazing classroom and an amazing space to be in,” she said.
“Hard work becomes heartwork before you know it”
Mayfield said that if you reach them where they are and take notes on what interests them, whether it’s music, shoes or sports, students will produce work. It’s important to use things that resonate with them.
“That was one of my greatest achievements,” he said. “A lot of teachers say, ‘How does Mayfield get 90% of his kids to pass? I said, ‘Hey, you know, you have to spend time getting to know her’.”
Songs about Black History Month and Little Girl Magic helped the students build confidence that will carry them well beyond elementary school.
“These kinds of staples teach students that they can do whatever they want,” he said. “And I use this quote a lot: ‘Your dreams don’t have to come from broken dreams.’ Your dreams are your dreams, so if dreams are shattered before you, yours need not be shattered.”
He preaches, “Hard work becomes heart work before you know it.”