Montgomery high school teacher engages students by putting math lessons to rap
By Donna St. George,
On the video, the rapper known as 2 Pi reels off rhymes as teenagers in classrooms and hallways sway and bop to the music.
It’s upbeat. It’s catchy. It’s . . . math.
We solve triangles
one by one
We know the laws
and the angle sums
The voice belongs to Jake Scott, a teacher at Montgomery Blair High School who brings rhythm and cool to the mind-bending labor of math. On YouTube, he is “2 Pi,” with six videos, including favorites “Triangle Experts” and “Quadratic Formulatic.”
Scott, who overcame a childhood of adversity to graduate from college, has made a life’s work in helping those behind him.
In his Silver Spring classroom, the 38-year-old teacher is focused one recent day on properties of linear functions. He wears jeans and an orange collared shirt, looking like the wrestler he once was — broad-shouldered, muscular — and speaking with the ease of someone content where he is.
For 90 minutes, Scott poses questions and invites problem-solving. Students call out answers, volunteer to write on the board, take notes. This is Algebra 1, and the students are not native English speakers. “Do you understand?” he asks a girl near the front who has been quiet.
No one falls asleep.
“He makes it easier for us to learn,” says Abdullah Ibrahim, 18, who once lived in Iraq and recently arrived in the United States. He says he was a virtual “zero” in math in September, “and now he’s telling me to go to honors this summer.”
The rap videos are not part of the daily routine, but Scott weaves one in if there’s time.
“He sees there is a different way to teach students,” says Alazare Bati, 15.
“I think it’s genius,” Ibrahim says.
For Scott, math rap was something of an accident — an idea that emerged as he sought to spark interest and “take the edge off of math.” Music goes a long way, he says. “If you put a beat to it, students will memorize it.”
Scott’s videos are not the first to meld rap and math. But with student engagement a goal in schools across the nation — and the use of technology an increasing emphasis — his approach and overall teaching have been singled out.
Montgomery County’s branch of the NAACP, in collaboration with the school system, honored him as 2011 teacher of the year. More recently, he was one of 102 “superstar” teachers nationally invited to join Microsoft’s Partners in Learning 2012 U.S. Forum.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has tweeted about his work. “Truly awesome video by Blair HS teacher Jake Scott and his students about triangles,” Starr said in January.
“He’s reaching students in a medium they respond to,” said Lucy Hayes of the Montgomery NAACP.
Renay Johnson, principal at Blair, called Scott “a high school principal’s dream.” At the campus of 2,800 students, the county’s largest high school, he is the wrestling coach, National Honor Society adviser and founder of a “boot camp” to help students pass state exams required for graduation.
“When students see they have him on their schedule, they say, ‘Yes! I have Mr. Scott!’ ” Johnson said.
Scott’s dual persona has produced a few double takes.
Every so often, he said, his students recount showing one of his videos to their parents.
“That’s your teacher?” several have asked.
Scott grew up the youngest of 17 children — including four step siblings — in what he recalls as a drug-plagued neighborhood of Capitol Heights. His mother was disabled by polio, and his father eventually went blind. From sixth to ninth grade, Scott’s grade-point average was lower than a D. He was no stranger to out-of-school suspension.
Tenth grade marked his turning point. First, Scott met Santo Chase, then a wrestling coach at Suitland High School and a major in the Army reserves. Chase was a disciplinarian, and Scott needed structure.
Chase saw him as a standout.
“Jake looked like a short, dark Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Chase, now a retired Army Reserves colonel, who recalls Scott as a scholar-athlete and soften-spoken team captain so powerful as a wrestler that he earned the nickname “Kill Dozer.”
The next year, Scott took classes with John Forrest, a teacher who helped him discover his passion for math. Scott had been an accountant of sorts for his father, whom he says lost all eyesight when Scott was 12.
Forrest encouraged him. “He kept it entertaining and inspired me,” Scott said.
A top wrestler by his senior year, Scott won a scholarship to American University, becoming the first in his family to go to college. There, he was a standout and at one point ranked 10th nationally in his weight class.
After graduating, Scott’s teaching career took hold quickly.
In recent years, Scott has focused on students who speak English as a second language. He is convinced that math can offer them a path to college and a career, as it did for him.
“Math is fun, it’s interesting, it’s exciting,” Scott said. “I want students to love math. I don’t want them to be afraid of it, and I want math terminology to become a part of their vocabulary.”
His great hope, he said, is to help close the achievement gap. “If we truly want to be about closing that gap, we have to be creative, we have to be deliberate in our efforts,” he said.
Three years ago, Scott founded a summer program with full-credit math courses at Blair, hoping to prevent the learning loss that sets in during idle months when school is out and to position more ESOL students for advanced courses down the road.
The first year, 13 students came. The next, there were 30. Last summer, 112 students participated, taking math and reading courses.
In the same period, he looked to music. At first he was thinking animation. It didn’t pan out. Neither did an idea to involve a nephew to perform rap.
“So a career was born,” Scott says, laughing.
On the four-minute video titled “Triangle Experts,” Scott math-raps about the Pythagorean theorem, the concept of Soh Cah Toa and the laws of Sines and Cosines, invoking Kris Kringle and Muhammad Ali, among others.
See, the triangle is the mother of all polygons.
If you can solve her then your math game is tight like LeBron’s
But if you can’t solve triangles, then you’re a rookie, my friend.
You’re gonna drop the ball, you can say that again.
His students from the summer program are featured in many video shots — dancing and working math problems — and a former student, who calls himself Chico Brillo, raps in Spanish. Scott reminds: “We solve triangles on our way to diplomas.”
The video has been viewed 8,000 times — a mere blip on the screen compared to anything by, say, superstar Jay-Z — but Scott’s mission is math. His most recent video, called “B SMaRT,” is about the Blair summer program.
“I’m just trying to create a movement where students take math and love it and realize how important it is to their lives,” Scott said.
This appears to be working, by many accounts.
“When they listen to his rap, they want to sing along,” says Elshaday Beyene, 17, sitting in algebra one day. “And when they sing along, they learn.”