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Reading with a Rapper program helps underserved youth with literacy

Posted at 5:19 PM, Oct 19, 2021

HOUSTON, Texas — Sixth graders at Fleming Middle School are learning to read and write by studying Bun B's lyrics. Bun B is a professional rapper.

“You get to understand, like what they are saying when they are rapping, sometimes like when they are going too fast you can slow it down,” 6th grader Kinnie said.

Jarren Small and I’m Douglas Johnson, and we are the founders of Reading with a Rapper.

“Reading with a rapper is a cultural conduit to understanding Black culture,” Small said.

Small and Johnson started Reading with a Rapper in 2018 to help bridge the gap between culture and education for youth in underserved areas of the U.S. Right now the program is in Houston, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia and Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s on the brink of expanding across the country.

“New York is on the list. Chicago, L.A., D.C." Small said.

“All we're doing here is trying to give children the information they need in a way that we think they can consume it easier and that it stays on a frontal lobe long enough for them to be able to apply it in real-time, things that stay with them throughout their life," Bun B said. "Hip-hop is a choice they made culturally, and they're not going to stop listening to the music, but maybe they can start listening to it differently."

Small and Johnson say they’re working with Pepperdine University this Fall to get data that shows how impactful the program really is. Literature experts say success and self-motivation come when kids find reading and writing fun.

Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services in the information school at the University of Washington.

“If that kid is really excited about sharks, you just pull up every shark book,” Martin said. “Looking at how kids interact with music and rap and spoken word in their communities and being able to bring that into the classroom rather than saying you need to check that at the door - that is a way to really get kids excited about their learning and about literacy.“

Often the kids say the class is their favorite part of the day.

“[I like] the rhymes, the beat and that you get to dance,” 6th grader K'yron said.

Bun B says rap was the entry point into a culture of music he could actively participate in.

“Hip-hop is just where I ended up," Bun B said. "But if hip hop had already been there for me to help guide me, there's no time where I may have ended up. At that point, I could have ended up a political science student, electrical engineer, anything, right? Because I would have seen the world, and I would have had a more broad worldview.”

Bun B says he’s grateful for his life of opportunity and ready to share his knowledge with youth.

“Now, I'm actually in a position to take everything I've seen, learned, and done and give it back to the culture and to the next generation of people who hopefully fall in love with it the way that I did,” Bun B said.

That way, the kids can use their literacy skills as a stepping stone to pursue their passion.

“I want to be a YouTuber — play games, make music, and make vlogs so I can get money to help my family,” K'yron said.