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Classrooms: Amherst teacher uses rap music to engage students

  • Amherst Regional Middle School English Language Arts teacher Michael Lawrence-Riddell talks with seventh graders Alvin Phin, left, Alexandra Katsoulakis and Emily Grybko on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lawrence-Riddell uses rap music to teach his seventh grade English Language Arts class at Amherst Regional Middle School one day last week. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lawrence-Riddell raps to his original song, “A God-Fearing Man in a God Barren Land”, which incorporates quotes from the American abolitionist John Brown, during his seventh grade English Language Arts class at Amherst Regional Middle School on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School English Language Arts teacher Michael Lawrence-Riddell assigns his seventh grade students a longer-term learning target to write original song lyrics using facts and quotations about a specific person who resisted slavery. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-grader Luke Ross joins a discussion in an English Language Arts class taught by Michael Lawrence-Riddell one day last week. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh-graders Kathryn Carvel, left, and Francesca Polino take part in a discussion in an English Language Arts class taught by Michael Lawrence-Riddell one day last week. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh graders, from left, Nate Mills, Kathryn Carvel, Francesca Polino, Mia Sedrakyan, Alexandra Katsoulakis (partly obscured) and Alvin Phin have a discussion in the class. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lawrence-Riddell talks about teaching his seventh grade English Language Arts class at Amherst Regional Middle School on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School seventh grader Geir Hartl discusses an assignment with English Language Arts teacher Michael Lawrence-Riddell, left, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Lawrence-Riddell and his seventh grade English Language Arts class at Amherst Regional Middle School read lyrics on screen while they listen to a rap song in class one day last week. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@amandadrane
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

“Truth is powerful and it prevails,” read the words on the projector screen in Michael Lawrence-Riddell’s seventh grade English class.

The quote from abolitionist and local hero Sojourner Truth introduces the class to a unit on the book, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”

Lawrence-Riddell — Mr. L-R, as he’s known around Amherst Regional Middle School — is perhaps most in line with his own truth when using his skills as a hip hop artist to help students learn.

In this recent class, he asked students what they thought Sojourner Truth meant by the words.

“The truth has always been correct,” said Nate Mills, 13. “The truth always came out and the truth always led to the right outcome.”

Speaking of the word truth, Lawrence-Riddell said, “she chose that name for herself.”

“Does anyone know what a sojourn is?”

Sojourn is a synonym for journey, he and the students established, and so the activist’s self-ascribed name means: one who journeys for truth. The book, he tells his students, is no “joyful romp through history” and so some context is necessary.

“What does it mean to resist?” he asks.

“To go against,” says a student.

Indeed that’s what it means, Lawrence-Riddell affirms before segueing into a spoken word song about radical abolitionist John Brown.

Spoken word songs, he said, typically either have no background music, light, or acoustic beats to accompany his lines. Hip hop more commonly comes with pronounced background beats.

“Eventually you’re all going to write your own songs,” he said, instructing them to follow the lyrics with an eye to construction.

Performing the song he wrote, Lawrence-Riddell moved around the classroom, emphasizing his lines with a slide of the hand.

“I came here to liberate slaves and was to receive no reward — I’ve got a rifle, and a bible, my sons, and a sword,” he rhymed.

The first line was a direct quote from Brown, while the second was his own. The students looked at the lyrics and at their teacher, transfixed.

“In repsonse to our actions I was hunted and caged. However, my hand was forced and I had nothing to choose. God spoke, I had to act, or a piece of my soul I would lose,” he poured out.

“There’s a lot of research that went into the writing of this song,” he said. “Look at the lyrics and find a line that resonates. Find another you have questions about.”

The students fingered through the lyrics, reading aloud as they identified their standouts. One student asked what a noose is. “John Brown was hanged for treason,” Lawrence-Riddell said, explaining that noose refers to the rope with which Brown was killed.

“I don’t understand — why not hung?” asked another student. It does sound strange, Lawrence-Riddell agreed, but it’s an irregularity that is difficult to explain.

Another student asked about the opening lyric written by Lawrence-Riddell: “The physical condition of the slave is the same as the moral condition of the free,” it reads.

Lawrence-Riddell explains the line underscores how free people were “morally bankrupt” for living in a society that enslaved people.

Lyrics grab attention

In another song, he rapped about the tribulations of Nat Turner against the backdrop of an updating historical timeline on the projector screen.

“He’s a really, really good lyricist — he really brought his spirit to life.” Mills said of his teacher’s song. “It makes you really want to come to ELA (English Language Arts).”

Students in the class said Lawrence-Riddell’s lyrics grab their attention and make them think.

“It’s really cool that he can incorporate music and teaching because a lot of kids our age really connect with music,” said Kathryn Carvel, 12.

“It makes the class more interesting,” agreed classmate Francesca Polino, 13, adding learning things in song “also helps you remember.”

And “when you’re more interested in something, it makes you think about it more,” Carvel said.

That’s the dream, Lawrence-Riddell said. He said he first thought about blending his love for teaching and music in college, but it didn’t click until more recently, after a friend who teaches in New York City asked him to come perform for their students.

“A couple years ago I felt this gap in my creative soul,” he said. “I had this realization I could combine the two things I was passionate about.”

The songs he wrote for class he’s also compiled into an album, which he’ll perform during a show on Friday at the Parlor Room. He also gathered annotated lyrics to the historical lines into a classroom aid illustrated by local illustrator Michael Axt.

Lawrence-Riddell says he feels it’s his mission to bring more of the arts into day-to-day curriculum. He calls the mission, which he plans to turn into a small business, “Mind Your Music.”

“Ultimately I want to see this music in the hands of teachers and students,” he said. “I want to see students and teachers push beyond ‘you write an essay about the things you learned about.’”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.