When his biology students don’t understand gametes, Brandon Cuffee drops the beat.
“Meiosis dos is similar to meiosis uno, shout out to Gregor Mendel from the garden to the genome,” he raps. Unlike most rappers, Cuffee names 19th-century genetic scientists between references to professional athletes LeBron James and Andy Pettitte.
Cuffee teaches Spanish classes and a biology class for English for Speakers of Other Languages at Gaithersburg High School. Last year, he started recording songs about how to conjugate verbs in Spanish and cell division. When the songs were turned into music videos on YouTube, they went viral.
“The kids are proud, and the kids are sharing it,” Gaithersburg High School Principal Christine Handy-Collins said.
Cuffee said one of his students volunteered to be his marketing director, sending links of his YouTube videos out to news media and local organizations.
All this, Cuffee said, started as a joke.
Two years ago, in his seventh-period Spanish class, Cuffee said he told his students, “If you write a song about Spanish conjugation, you will pass this class.”
He said a lot of his students are talented, and a few are aspiring rappers and singers. One wrote the verse for the song that became his first music video, “Spanish Conjugation.”
In front of a classroom whiteboard and signs with verb endings, Cuffee rapidly delivers his lines.
“When I’m conjugating, I drop the -ar like my top; and if I start with ‘yo,’ then I put an ‘o’ up in that spot,” he raps.
Daniel Lobossau, an 18-year-old sophomore in Cuffee’s ESOL biology class, said he took Cuffee’s Spanish class last year. Cuffee used the “Spanish Conjugation” video as a teaching tool.
Lobossau, a Gaithersburg resident who grew up speaking French in Benin, said the videos helped him learn and speak better Spanish.
“I get more better grades” because of Cuffee, he said.
Cuffee said he learned Spanish in middle school and kept taking classes while he attended Albright College in Reading, Pa.
“My learning style was auditory,” Cuffee said. He said he learned better by creating acronyms to remember facts and figures.
He also studied biology, but a career in education appealed to him.
“I came from a teaching family,” he said. Both of his parents and his sister are teachers. He has been teaching in Montgomery County public schools for three years.
He enjoys freestyle rapping, but “never found an outlet for it” until he started using his skills in class, he said. He calls his genre “edu-rap.”
Cuffee said students have made requests for songs about bullying and getting to class on time.
“The kids learn it verbatim,” he said. “All the love that students have been showing me really motivated me to do more.”
Cuffee has three music videos, including one about meiosis, a process in which cells duplicate.
Mariama Jalo, a 15-year-old sophomore in Cuffee’s ESOL biology class, said the songs help her memorize and understand scientific processes that can be confusing.
“I like the one that’s like, ‘divide and split ’em.’ It’s really catchy,” she said of “Meiosis.”
The meiosis video shows clips of other Gaithersburg High teachers singing “divide and split ’em” while making a chopping hand motion. When Cuffee plays the song in his ESOL biology class, students take out their earbuds and start singing along.
“Mr. Cuffee has a lot of energy, and they like that,” said Handy-Collins, who also has memorized the “divide and split ’em” dance move.
At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, math teacher Jake Scott created songs for his own classes. Scott, known by his alter ego 2 Pi, raps about triangles and the quadratic formula. Cuffee said he met Scott when they were coaching wrestling for the Montgomery school system. The rap duo has a collaboration in the works with the working title “This Is Why I Teach.”
“We have the hook already,” Cuffee said.