'Music-head' professor uses love of hip-hop as a teaching tool

By Jessica Buterbaugh
November 19, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The second floor of CEDAR Building on the Penn State University Park campus is nothing special. The long corridors are lined with gray walls and doors to faculty offices. But on the door of Room 210, students are greeted with lyrical inspiration.

Hanging on the door to Jonté "JT" Taylor's office is a simple dry-erase board. But the words on that board are anything but simplistic.

"I try to write motivational quotes or quotes that are just really poignant to get students thinking, thinking about what's important in life," the assistant professor of education (special education) said.

Each quote is actually lyric excerpts from hip-hop songs because, Taylor said, growing up in rural Mississippi, he always loved music of all genres but had a special affinity for hip-hop.

"I always felt like hip-hop got a bad rap," he said. "And I want to show that there is more to it than just what is negatively portrayed."

Taylor also shares the quotes on Twitter with the hashtag #hiphopquoteoftheweek and hopes his followers find inspiration in the quotes. After all, he said, music is an important part of life and an important part of his personal and professional identity.

Hip hop quote of the week

Each week, Jonté "JT" Taylor posts the #hiphopquoteoftheweek on the whiteboard outside his office and shares it with his students and Twitter followers.

IMAGE: Jonté Taylor

Teaching with music

Before joining the College of Education in 2012, Taylor spent 10 years as a special education teacher in Alabama and Mississippi. Throughout his career, he has worked with diverse groups of students, including children with autism, teenagers in juvenile detention centers, and even adult learners with intellectual disabilities. During that time, he also was a professional disc jockey and worked as a producer with various artists.

"I've always had a love for music and always used music as a teaching tool," he said. "When you work with students, especially students who display challenging behaviors, it is important to connect with them on a personal level. Music has always been that connector for me."

"I'm a firm believer of incorporating what you love into your work, and with music it is easy," he said. "It was never a secret to my students, no matter what kind of environment I was teaching in, that I was a 'music head.'"

And he used that to his advantage, integrating music into lesson plans in various content areas, including using the lyrics of "Under the Sea" from Disney's "The Little Mermaid" to teach prepositions to at-risk youth.

"These kids were 'tough' kids so when they heard we were using this song, they thought it was stupid," Taylor said. "But, they all knew the song — you don't make it through your childhood without knowing that song — so by the end of it the kids were singing and enjoying it."

A self-described "data guy," Taylor said he was able to collect data on the successfulness and advantages of incorporating music into his lessons. Because he was seeing such positive learning outcomes among his students, he created the TUPAC (Teaching and Using Popular music Across Curriculum) method. A primary goal, he said, was to make his students better consumers of information.

"I was able to do so much with music to teach these kids and address where they have needs," he said. "I used Rihanna's 'Umbrella' to teach kids with autism about friendship because, no, the song is not about rain, and 'Cry Me a River' doesn't actually mean we are crying a river." These lessons were important because students with autism often have difficulty with idioms and figures of speech, Taylor explained.

He said he was able to use the songs "Diamonds" by Rihanna and "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" by Kanye West and pair them with the Nelly song "Nellyville" to teach a science lesson about precious gems, including rubies, diamonds and emeralds. The lesson then expanded into a geography and economics lesson when the class discussed where diamonds come from, what is a blood diamond, and why diamonds are expensive.

He said with music he was able to teach students to use critical-thinking skills to analyze what each song represents and apply those meanings to their personal experiences and real-life situations.

In more recent years, Taylor has promoted the TUPAC method as a complement to project-based learning, a teaching technique that allows students to identify a real-world problem, create and follow an investigative plan, and produce an outcome or product. With project-based learning, the teacher facilitates students as they work to complete the project.

"Research shows that students learn best when they experience and solve real-world problems," Taylor said. "I started using project-based learning and aligning it with the TUPAC method to help students with challenging behavior be more successful in the classroom."

While working in schools in rural Alabama throughout the early 2000s, Taylor taught students who dealt with a number of behavioral challenges. During one class discussion, a student said that he had contemplated selling drugs in order to earn money.

"It was clearly a terrible idea but he asked his question from a legitimate place during class and it became a discussion about­­­ the pros and cons of selling drugs," Taylor said, adding that the student's classmates quickly pointed out that he would not be successful in this venture because he lacked the necessary math skills.

The student, Taylor said, wanted to earn money so that he could take a girl he liked out to dinner.

"This group of kids was also into music so I created a project for them where they had to create their own album," he said. "They had to write their own songs, develop a business plan, design the album cover, and learn how to use the equipment and software to record and produce the album. I told them that if they met some academic and behavior goals, and completed the project by a certain date, I would go to Atlanta and get copies of their album professionally pressed."

The project was very successful and students were able to do presales for teachers and classmates, Taylor said. And, just as important, the student got his date.

"It helps to establish a connection between you and your students, if they see your passion. It helps to humanize you in their view. It makes you real to them, you're a human being — just a regular person."

— Jonté "JT" Taylor

From the classroom to the Kennedy Center

Taylor said he loved working in the classroom and even remained in the K-12 setting after earning his doctorate in 2009. In 2010, his career shifted to higher education when he was offered a postdoctoral position at the University of Iowa.

"I knew there was more that I could do on a broader scale for students with disabilities and the opportunity to grow as a professional was extremely appealing to me," he said of his decision to work in higher education.

But no matter where his career took him, Taylor said he always tried to blend the two things he loved most — music and teaching.

"I pride myself on taking alternative paths because most of my students have been alternative students," he said.

Those alternative paths quickly made him popular among the student body, and they also have attracted attention from those outside the classroom. In 2014 Taylor, who serves as the faculty adviser for the Penn State Council for Exceptional Children, presented his TUPAC method at the annual Pennsylvania Council for Exceptional Children conference in Philadelphia. After his presentation, Taylor was approached by representatives from the Kennedy Center.

"They just came up to me and said they viewed TUPAC as an art-related approach. I never thought of it that way," he said, adding he was surprised that they had attended his session. "I'm a special education teacher and I was just using a hobby of mine to help my students learn, so they really opened my eyes to the fact that it is arts-related."

Taylor was then invited to present about TUPAC at Intersections, an annual conference sponsored by Very Special Arts, an international program that is part of the Kennedy Center and provides arts and education programming for students with special needs. Since then, he has presented at two other national Kennedy Center-sponsored conferences and will be a keynote presenter for another conference in December.

Taylor said he hopes that his examples can help other educators better reach students in both special and general education classrooms.

"I like to think that my approach to teaching is universal and that some elements can be taken and incorporated into one's own personal style and used to positively affect the outcomes for all students," he said.

As a faculty member, Taylor still tries to infuse music wherever possible.

"About five or six years ago, I created a Spotify playlist that only includes songs and artists suggested by Penn State students enrolled in my classes," he said. "It started as part of my class introductions when I would ask students to share their favorite song or artist."

The playlist, known as "Super Crazy Awesomely Random Student mix (or S.C.A.R.S. for short), now has more than 600 songs and continues to grow with each semester.

Taylor said he does not get as many opportunities to utilize his TUPAC method with his graduate and undergraduate students as he did when teaching in the K-12 environment. But, he said, he still tries to instill in them the importance of blending what you love with what you do for a living.

"It helps to establish a connection between you and your students, if they see your passion," Taylor said. "It helps to humanize you in their view. It makes you real to them, you're a human being — just a regular person."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 19, 2018