Students at SAY Detroit Play Center are using a program called Rhymes with Reason that allows them to learn vocabulary words by using lyrics from today’s Top 40 hits.
Once the 40 participating students successfully learn the words, they can be awarded prizes from the Detroit Pistons, anything from swag, like backpacks, to game tickets. The students, ages 8 to 18, have been using the online program every day for about 15 to 20 minutes since February.
“They really love the music part of it,” said Malcolm McCants, 27, of Redford, director of education at SAY Detroit Play Center, an after-school program at 7 Mile and Van Dyke on Detroit’s east side.
The center is under the umbrella of SAY Detroit, which was founded by Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom in 2006. SAY Detroit works to help the city’s neediest residents access shelter, food, medicine, education and other resources by partnering with organizations.
“I founded SAY Detroit because I saw so many problems in our city that had practical answers if only the funding and staffing could be provided,” Albom said in an email.
McCants said children are influenced by music, so it’s important for them to know what artists are talking about.
“Being able to connect the dots on some of the stuff that they hear in music, and that they may have questions about, and then … actually (going) through the prompts, it really gives them a better understanding of how that word was used, and what the artist meant by those lyrics,” McCants said.
Austin Martin, the owner of Rhymes with Reason, is the grandson of Detroit school teachers. His parents also went to Detroit public schools, though Martin lives in Boston now.
His web-based program gives students a place to build language skills and learn new words by using music to encourage retention.
“I think it has potential to become like a utility. What I mean by that is not just a program, but something that is integrated into everyday life for young people,” said Martin, 26, who said he eventually wants the program to become every Generation Z-er’s favorite learning resource.
Erika Swilley, vice president of community and social responsibility for the Detroit Pistons, said Rhymes with Reason is “meeting kids where they’re at.” She said the basketball team finds organizations to partner with that are impacting the community, and they use the team’s resources to amplify that work.
“We look at fun and unique ways to teach kids and we thought that (Rhymes with Reason) was definitely one of them,” Swilley said. “We also know that reading and math are two things that (Detroit public schools) focuses on with their students, especially with the pandemic; these are the two areas that kind of have been hit the hardest. We also know that kids learn when they’re having fun.”
Growing reading skills
Martin launched the San Diego-business in 2017 and he already has some success stories from his users. There are about 230,000 students using the program, with about 200,000 of those coming from a contract with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The program is being utilized by school districts as well.
“There’s a fifth-grade cohort in San Diego. In a span of two months, 60% of the cohort grew in reading,” Martin said. “I would say the biggest thing that we just hear and continue to see over and over is students doing this outside of school hours.”
The program’s content is organized into different sections. Students can take part in a college prep program, which teaches vocabulary that is typically present on standardized college entry tests. The fundamentals section is for upper elementary students. Then there’s the Young CEO section, which teaches students about words related to entrepreneurship.
Martin gave an example: If a participant is learning the word “aesthetic,” the program will take the student to a portion of a song (“Just Like Magic”) by artist Ariana Grande.
“They hear it in the portion of the song where it has that word, and there’s mini games, retention exercises, matching — all kinds of different learning opportunities that revolve around the artist’s usage of that word in the contents,” Martin said.
As students go along, they can earn badges and tokens. This is where the Detroit Pistons come in.
The partnership allows participating students at SAY Detroit Play Center to cash in their badges and tokens for that Pistons swag or game tickets or a surprise appearance from a basketball player.
“We know that kids are attracted to our players, our product on the court, and so we’re able to sometimes push messaging that parents or teachers can’t,” Swilley said. “Because we know we have this unique platform, we make sure that we use it, but we also know that we want to pour in and develop our next generation because we are trying to create a pipeline.”
The students at SAY Detroit Play Center attended a Pistons game April 8, where they were featured on the Jumbotron to highlight their achievements. McCants said some of their improvements can be seen in their reading comprehension, utilizing sight words and the pronunciation of words.
“With students being able to look over vocab words, and use them in a sentence, and write a rap with it, I think that helps a lot, bridging the gap between not being up to grade level and reading,” McCants said. “We do have a big population of students who are in underserved and underperforming schools, so reading literacy is something that we really want to really focus on, that we really want to invest more throughout the next few years. This has been a big help for us in that goal.”
Getting the program started
Martin has ties to Detroit through his immediate family members who are all from the city. He launched Rhymes with Reason while in his freshman year at Brown University in Rhode Island. The idea for the Rhymes with Reason came about as Martin looked at his own experiences with academics. He had difficulty focusing as a student, but he loved hip-hop music and would gravitate toward the lyrics that Black and brown artists were creating.
When he heard music coming from artists who presented authenticity and creativity, he was able to learn things faster and easier.
“In school, some of this information would go in one ear and out the other, but then when NAS or something like that was talking about history, or when certain artists were using vocabulary, it just stuck,” said Martin.
He researched vocabulary words that were common on the LSAT, a standardized test for students entering law school, and of those top 100 words, he found that 67 could be found in popular hip-hop songs. Martin then looked at 1,000 common words, and suddenly he was “basically creating an archive of vocabulary that is aligned with academic standards, that is also in music that kids listen to every day.”
In 2020, Martin was recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, which eventually led to his getting connected with the Pistons.
The Pistons “took a look at Rhymes with Reason in June 2021,” Martin said. They went public with the collaboration in January.
Martin’s grandparents were teachers in Detroit public schools and his parents attended Detroit schools, so he wanted to bring the program to the city in which his family was raised.
He’s now an education master’s degree candidate at Harvard University and his business is growing.
“I’ve been very fortunate to receive education at a high level, and I want to just give that to the next generation,” Martin said.
“With this opportunity with the Pistons it’s putting education, technology, music and sports together.”