Want to understand Shakespeare and other classic literature better? Listen to a little hip-hop.
That unusual idea sprang from an unusual man-Sage Salvo, a poet and artist who hosted a popular open mic in Washington, D.C., for songwriters and other word lovers. Salvo, or Gilbert Newman Perkins as he was known away from the mic, earned an MBA from the University of Toronto and a MPA from Harvard Kennedy School.
"By using my stage name, I'm able to constantly remind myself that I'm still both artist and entrepreneur and also signal outward that I'm both," he says. "It gives me a cool little back story when I introduce myself as well."
During his time as university professor, he was astonished at the poor level of writing in his students' essays. So, he went to the root of the problem: the nearby low-performing school district. He found high school students sitting glassy-eyed as their teachers explained similes, metaphors, and other literary concepts.
As a poet/Ph.D. who shreds boundaries in his own life, Salvo felt the answer was to tear down the walls between cultural styles. "Street artists experiment within the confines of metaphor just like Shakespeare did," he said.
Words LIIVE, Salvo's innovative program, bridges the divide with a software platform that integrates song lyrics into classroom assignments. Teachers select a text from the classroom literature as well as a literary concept they want to teach. A patented algorithm provides a list of music that matches the learning objectives for the text. The teachers can download a slide presentation, along with activities, guiding questions, and quizzes.
Imagine a teacher who wants to focus on Beowulf, an epic narrative poem from the 10th century that has a hero, voyage, and a battle. The algorithm might pull up "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," an album from rapper Kendrick Lamar that follows a similar structure. When students see the text from the 1,000-year-old Beowulf, side-by-side with familiar lyrics from Lamar's present-day songs, light bulbs go off.
Salvo has seen the powerful impact of adding a sound track to the classroom assignments. One student, who had a speech impediment, sat silently in class when the teacher conducted lessons with traditional texts. However, the student raised his hand and sprinted to the front of the chalkboard to annotate the song lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur because the approach resonated with him so strongly.
"I am a great believer in kinesthetic learning," Salvo said. "When the kids are moving and bobbing their heads, they are more attentive." He calls this process "revealing unexamined genius," a testament to the unexplored potential so many students have.
Today, only about a third of U.S. students are able to read at their grade level. Salvo's lofty mission is to bring three-quarters of U.S. students to grade level literature by 2040. While teachers immediately warmed to the idea of Words LIIVE, Salvo's biggest challenge was getting administrators to think beyond traditional approaches to pedagogy. He said that Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature helped open up the idea that song lyrics can be a powerful teaching tool.
"The platform is meant to augment and open up the cannon, not replace it," he said. "This is the opportunity to push the envelope, tear down the wall, and treat all authors on the same spectrum."
As he looks to make an even bigger impact, Salvo continues to approach things with an equal mix of the right and left-brain thinking. Words LIIVE was selected for AT&T Aspire Accelerator, a four-to-six month program designed to support promising education technology (edtech) startups. "Having access to the executives of such a dominant telecomm like AT&T has really stretched our thinking about our scale strategy and finding new ways to reach the people we are in service to," he said. "With our forthcoming commercial roll-out in January, I know our 2019 impact will be largely assisted by the business resources and connections we've made at and through AT&T."