Nan Austin

August 6, 2014

Nan Austin: Teacher shares rap-based strategy for tackling students’ math gap

Keynote speaker Alex Kajitani’s signature style of merging music with numbers to reach young students and improve their math skills was shared Wednesday at the After School Summer Institute, hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

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‘Just line up the dot, and give it all you got! Just line up the dot, and give it all you got!” Picture that beat-punctuated line repeating as math problems appear on the screen, numbers hopping sideways until digits and decimal points stand in orderly rows.

Welcome to math rap, Alex Kajitani’s signature style of merging music with numbers to reach his middle school students. Kajitani shared his methods and his motivation Wednesday as keynote speaker at the After School Summer Institute, hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

The conference included workshops on topics such as learning to tailor Google searches by reading level, career exploration for kids and a Modesto Symphony program on musical instruments.

Kajitani, the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, said he saw major improvements among his Escondido eighth-grade algebra students when he added a beat and a rhyme to key math concepts. Decimal points were his first foray into rap video.

“What I realized was, rap music can make anything cool,” he told about 200 attendees at the two-day conference. A fan from way back, Kajitani said he did a little research and found the musical style has a bad rap. Though the stereotype is that only minority youths listen to it, Kajitani said, “The most sales are to white kids in the suburbs.”

Kajitani has taken this year off from teaching to take speaking gigs and to promote his book, “Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of your Roles as a Teacher Today.” The title is his second, having written “The Teacher of the Year Handbook” in 2013.

He approaches his subject with passion, noting 70 percent of eighth-graders can’t do grade level work and being bad in math has become a joke in our society.

“Imagine telling someone that you ‘always hated reading, and were never good at it,’ and how relieved you are that you never have to read in your job,” Kajitani wrote in a column for Reaching At-Promise Students Association.

Eighth grade is where most students take algebra or a prep course. Algebra, it turns out, is the course the most dropouts have failed, according to a Los Angeles Unified study, Kajitani told the group Wednesday.

“It’s something that we’ve got to turn around,” he said.

The No. 1 problem he sees with math instruction today, Kajitani said, “is lack of real-world relevance. We sit in math classes all day long and, up to this point, they have no idea what this has to do with anything.”

The point in time he referred to is this year’s shift to Common Core, which advocates learning math and reading skills by solving real-world problems.

Kajitani also urges capitalizing on kids’ love of technology, building skills on sites such as, and

To help incoming students be ready for algebra, Kajitani joined a math program at a high-poverty grade school and discovered math gaps can start early. Fourth- and fifth-grade students could not do basic multiplication. In third grade, where kids learn multiplication, teachers said they spent much of the year on addition and subtraction. First-graders, tasked with tackling addition, arrived not knowing how to count or even recognize numbers.

Kajitani decided to focus on multiplication tables, turning to rap tunes to make them stick in his “Multiplication Nation” campaign. The program really took off, he noted, when the after-school program started using it.

Teaching by doing works well at after-school programs, where sports, games and crafts long have been the best part of a long day for many students.

Today, some 4,500 schools have after-school programs, said Michael Funk, director of the California Department of Education After School Division.

After-school programs started with safety concerns, he said Wednesday, “but we’ve matured over the last 15 years to some really sophisticated types of learning.” Junior high programs, for example, organize around a club model, embedding academics in projects such as cooking, robotics and videos.

“Making a movie feels more relevant than an assignment in an English textbook,” Funk said.

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