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Published: 7/20/2008

Students get shot at stardom - and math gets a good rap

BY MEGHAN GILBERT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
From left rear, Taylor Heer, 15, and Jessica Monosmith, 13, and, front left, Kennedy Haithcock, 14, Chanelle Carr, 13, and Aspen White, 11, rehearse for the upcoming video. From left rear, Taylor Heer, 15, and Jessica Monosmith, 13, and, front left, Kennedy Haithcock, 14, Chanelle Carr, 13, and Aspen White, 11, rehearse for the upcoming video.
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V. Juan Boyd, 14, left, Aspen White, 11, and Danielle Daniels, 14, are among the Smart Shorties 
rappers and dancers who will spend three weeks in New York next month fi lming a video. V. Juan Boyd, 14, left, Aspen White, 11, and Danielle Daniels, 14, are among the Smart Shorties rappers and dancers who will spend three weeks in New York next month fi lming a video.
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Math is going to make these kids superstars.

They're musicians, having recorded an album with a multi-platinum music producer, and actors currently rehearsing for a movie written and to be directed by professionals in the entertainment world.

"For some of the kids, it's really changed the course of their lives," said Christine Smith, the brains behind the operation. "They're already stars and they don't even know it."

So have you heard of the Smart Shorties?

If not, listen up and you'll say you knew them when.

In a new age spin on the classic School House Rock education tool, the Smart Shorties rap, sing, and dance to today's hip hop hits. Only these musicians sing about math, specifically multiplication.

Take the 11s song, "Double Double," and instantly notice the familiar beats behind the Chris Brown song "Kiss Kiss." But instead of a song about girls, it says that when you multiply a number by 11, it's always twice the second factor (11 x 9 = 99).

"It was an experience like no other," Calvin Hodges, 12, a seventh grader at Toledo School for the Arts, said about making the album. "I was like, whoa, that's me? I can't believe how I sound and I wrote that?"

"He's a little comedian," added mom Audra Wilson. "And now he's got this creative outlet and didn't feel stifled."

Calvin is one of the about 40 students from Toledo's public and charter schools involved in the CD - and one of 28 who are in the upcoming movie.

All involved will get royalty payments with music and movie sales. And they should be compensated, Ms. Smith said, since they did a lot of the work writing the lyrics, recording the songs, memorizing their lines for the film, and even coming up with the name Smart Shorties.

The CD, "Smart Shorties Hip Hop Multiplication," was completed in February and has been on sale since April.

The youngsters will spend three weeks in New York next month to film the movie, which should be finished by October. Although it will be theater quality, Ms. Smith said, it will probably go straight to DVD because of the expense of promoting a film on the big screen.

Just two years ago, Ms. Smith was a math teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar Academy. Now she's the chief executive of her own company, Spark the Mind, based in Maumee.

"Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and say is this really happening?" Ms. Smith said.

It is with the help of her friend, Alex Nesmith, known as Al E.Cat in the music business. He's worked with artists such as Keith Sweat, Dru Hill, and Outkast.

Ms. Smith noticed her students in fourth through seventh grades didn't have their multiplication tables memorized, which is third-grade curriculum.

"I thought it was just my kids, but it's a global problem," she said.

Then one day her whole class came in singing along to the same popular rap song and a light bulb went off. If they can memorize those complicated lyrics, maybe a good beat could help them do the same with their math facts.

So she and Mr. Nesmith set out to make a cool song the kids would like about the 12s, the hardest to memorize.

"It's been a challenge, but in a good way, like how am I going to make something as boring and mundane as math multiplication and make this fun and exciting, and hip and cool for kids," he said.

They did and ended up with songs for numbers 0 through 12.

So far it's working, if you ask the kids involved.

Ashley and Aspen White star in the upcoming film, and Aspen raps on almost every song. The sisters, 14 and 11 respectively, seem like shy girls and say they weren't the best math students, but once the music gets bumping, they don't miss a beat as they run through the multiplication.

"Oh yes I have trouble in math," Aspen said, laughing. "But I like it better now."

Ms. Smith conducted a pilot study in Washington with one of the lowest performing schools, and she said there was a 67 percent improvement in three months of using her CD and workbook.

"Achievement tests went through the roof," Ms. Smith said.

The Ohio Department of Education is supportive of arts in education as more and more research shows it helps with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, said Nancy Pistone, arts consultant in the department's office of curriculum and instruction.

"The arts help us to think and learn but also help students to learn about themselves and each other," she said, adding that there's so much self-expression in the arts. "In that way, they help students to learn about themselves."

And soon Smart Shorties and Spark the Mind will be introduced to teachers throughout the state and country with a new partnership with Scholastic, a children's publishing, education, and media company, Ms. Smith said.

Not to mention a full-length film. Some of the artists sampled for the CD, such a rappers Mims and Soulja Boy, have expressed interest in cameos in the movie, Ms. Smith said.

"At the end of the day, it's not just, oh, cool celebrities," she said. "It's that these celebrities are stepping up to help kids."

And putting classroom learning aside for a minute, the experience of auditioning American Idol style - and getting to know the entertainment professionals - was a huge confidence builder for the students.

"I'm all for anything positive for her and the kids," said Chevella Dowell, whose 13-year-old daughter Chanelle Carr is one of the Smart Shorties.

"She needs to be around positive people and positive activities. Other children are going to look up to her. Words can't express how grateful we are."

Contact Meghan Gilbert at:

mgilbert@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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