LOS ANGELES – The class of eighth graders at a Los Angeles middle school tap their rulers and nod their heads to the rhythm of the rap video projected on a screen. It's not Snoop Dogg or Jay-Z.
It's their math teacher, LaMar Queen, using rhyme to help them memorize seemingly complicated algebra and in the process improve their grades.
"It gets stuck in your head," says Cindy Martinez, a 14-year-old whose math grade went from a C-average to a B.
Queen, 26, is now known at Los Angeles Academy as the rap teacher, but his fame has spread far beyond the 2,200-student school in this gritty neighborhood. He's won a national award and shows teachers and parents how to use rap to reach children.
"Math is a bad word in a lot of households," he says. "But if we put it in a form that kids enjoy, they'll learn."
Queen is doing what many veteran educators have done — using students' music to connect with them. Where teachers once played the rock n' roll tunes of "Schoolhouse Rocks" to explain everything from government to grammar, they now turn to rap to renew Shakespeare or geometry.
"Rap is what the kids respond to," Queen says. "They don't have a problem memorizing the songs at all."
Queen's math raps came about by chance. Two months after starting at LA Academy in 2007 — his first teaching job after graduating from college — he was stung when kids told him his class was boring. They told him he resembled singer Kanye West and challenged him to rap.
Little did they know Queen has been rapping since the seventh grade. Back then, he'd throw together rhymes as he walked home from school in Carson, a city neighboring Los Angeles.
His students' challenge on his mind, Queen pushed aside work on his lesson plans and wrote a rap song 'Slope Intercept.'
Word of his rapping soon reached the school's main office. Eyebrows raised, Principal Maria Borges went to investigate, and came out smiling. "It engages the kids," she says. "Kids seem to know all the rap songs, but they can't seem to remember different math rules."
None of his raps are in the Top 40, but "Mean, Median, Mode and Range," "Polynomials," and "Quadratic Formulove Song" are chartbusters here.
"Some kids who aren't even in Mr. Queen's class go around singing his songs," says Kejon Closure, 13, who went from a C-average to an A.
In the raps, Queen defines a math concept and works through sample problems step by step. He follows up with more traditional class work on the whiteboard, maintaining a fluid banter with his students.
Queen also tries to inspire them. His lyrics exhort students "to be a math sensation," "to get As on your papers," and even "be respectful. Listen to your parents." Sometimes the students appear in the videos as a reward for good grades and behavior.
Queen says making learning fun is key for kids who often seem burdened with adult problems — there wasn't enough food to go round at breakfast, they couldn't sleep well in overcrowded homes or they have to serve as translators for Spanish-speaking parents in difficult circumstances.
When they leave those troubles at home, they arrive at a school that's more fortress than learning sanctuary.
The campus is surrounded by a steel-bar fence and padlocked gate. Teachers conduct uniform checks to make sure students are not wearing local gang colors of red or blue. "I try to get them to leave their problems at the door," Queen says.
There was a point last year when he thought he might not be able to continue at LA Academy. He was laid off as an untenured teacher, but he returned to the school as a long-term substitute to continue to teach his students as he hoped to get his staff job back.
In April, he won a national award for outstanding math achievement from Get Schooled, a pro-education initiative launched by media giant Viacom and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He's also been honored by school district and county educators.
He's now hoping to make rap math a business and launched a website, MusicNotesOnline, with a colleague to market his rap CD and DVD, and expand the use of rap in education to other academic subjects.
During a recent class, Queen dons dark shades, sets his laptop to play a driving hip-hop beat and starts rapping about solving equations as he grooves up and down the aisles.
"Let's talk about slope intercept.
I don't mind if you interject,
Just don't disrespect.
I say, you have a question for me?
What's y equales mx + b?"