Lam: Is it important that a song is not cheesy?
Ramos: Definitely. We pride ourselves in trying to maintain the authenticity. Our ultimate goal is to engage the students and build literacy across the curriculum. It's not going to be effective at building their reading, listening, writing, speaking skills if we don't make it engaging for them. In our songs, we make sure we try to reflect the students’ interest.
Hip hop is a big part of that. It's a global phenomenon that transcends race, class, everything. That's the first part. But we're also doing some really cool things to make it really authentic, what we have launching for back-to-school our own rap platform. We call it WRAP—writing rhymes with academic purpose. We just thought: How cool would it be if we could get students to create their own rhymes? I went and did a guest rap lesson at a Los Angeles school recently, so basically everything I do I had them mimic. They wrote some of the most incredible rhymes. This is teachable, and we can enable other people to use the same strategies.
Lam: I asked about cheesiness because I think that's such a challenge. If something is too cheesy, sometimes kids won't engage with it.
Ramos: Because I'm a hip-hop artist first, I didn't want to disrespect the culture. I understand if we're doing something for kindergarten, first grade or second grade—you need to alter your tone a little bit because that's a different age group. But for third, fourth, fifth, and especially for sixth through twelfth, they will sniff it out if we change our tone and it's too childish, and if the beats are too corny.
I'll tell you one thing they told me from the very beginning: Write these rhymes like you're writing for your peers. That's what really stuck with me. The only thing that's really changing is the content. The authenticity, tone, delivery—everything else I've been able to just maintain. The only exception is for kindergarten—they're constantly exposed to sing-song music so it is appropriate to alter it for them. For upper elementary or high school, I haven't changed my delivery or approach and that's what kids like. It sounds like something they would hear on the radio.
Lam: I find that so interesting, that kids just really resist being talked down to.
Ramos: That's something Flocabulary has mentioned to me. When we're debriefing a song, they'll say “let's not make this preachy.” Another song I wrote was about bullying, since we've been tapping into developing social and emotion learning skills. How do you talk about bullying, empathy, active-listening in a way that's not preachy and not corny? I wrote it like I was writing for my peers. I let the students know through the song that this is something everybody goes through. I gave examples of it. But the beat was a modern-day East Coast beat, and a lot of it has to do with the inflection of your voice.
If you're like “Hey kids! Bullying is wrong!” It's automatically corny! But if you're saying “Hey, bullying is this...everyone goes through it, but it doesn't make it right.” A lot of it is tone. Even in song, they don't want something that sounds like talking down or babying them.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a SAT exam proctor, an improv teacher, and a software engineer.