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Dissecting success: Middle school teacher who sets science to rap music is honored

LA School Report | April 26, 2016

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Middle school science teacher Tunji Adebayo was honored by Teach For America at Monday night's benefit.

Middle school science teacher Tunji Adebayo was honored by Teach For America at Monday night’s benefit.

Science lessons set to rap music. Aspirations in envelopes pinned to the ceiling. And a commitment to live alongside students.

Tunji Adebayo, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science at Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Middle School, was honored Monday night for his innovation and dedication at Teach For America’s “Celebrating Changemakers in Education.”

“Tunji’s dedication to his students is limitless, especially to young black males,” Lida Jennings, executive director of TFA LA, told the 350 guests at the Petersen Automotive Museum gathered for the group’s third annual benefit dinner.

Adebayo, 25, who was born in Nigeria one month before TFA was launched, is in his third year of a profession he hadn’t planned on. A TFA representative reached out to him while he was studying dietetics and nutrition science at the University of Georgia, and he’s never looked back.

“I’m staying in education no matter what,” he told LA School Report before receiving his award Monday night.

After his first year teaching and commuting into South LA from Long Beach, Adebayo moved to the neighborhood, around 51st and Vermont. For him, “It’s essential to live in the community,” he said.

He often sees his students in the area, particularly on weekends when he is at the farmers market, which is near a mall with a movie theater.

“It’s a blessing to live and understand some of their struggles on a daily basis. It makes it more real, to become a part of the community.”

The middle school, one of 12 operated by the Inner City Education Foundation, serves 264 students in grades 6-8, and 74 percent are African Americans, compared to 8.4 percent in LA Unified. The school’s student population identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged stands at 77 percent, the same percentage as LA Unified students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. And 13 percent have disabilities.

His commitment to helping other African Americans started in college, where he noticed that other “young black males didn’t accomplish what I did because the expectations and support weren’t there.”

His parents, who both have masters degrees, brought him to the United States at age 5 and always stressed education.

“It’s not that Nigeria doesn’t have great schools, but a college degree from the U.S. has respect,” said Adebayo, the youngest of nine who grew up inspired by motivational speakers. “I was expected to achieve greatness, so that’s what I did.” The other young men he saw, “They weren’t pushed.”

Pushing for greatness is part of his mission as he teaches biology, chemistry and physics at the charter school to about 35 kids at a time using a blended learning model. He has his students set goals monthly, holds “Motivational Mondays,” goes over assignment grades as a class and notes when students have gone the extra mile.

“I let them know I appreciate them when they go out of their way” in their work. The key is love, and caring. “Most are deprived at home.”

But when he knows they can do more, he calls them on it. A notation he uses to challenge students is “DCE,” for “didn’t care enough” to get an assignment done on time. “My students can make up everything,” he said. “I want them to have a work ethic. If you work hard enough, be creative enough, you can aspire” to greatness.

Another motivation are the lyrics he sets to popular songs and records for his students. He calls them “lyrical dissections.” The lyrics include science definitions and lesson content. “They ask, what does this mean, and it clicks in their minds” when it’s set to music.

At first he wrote all the lyrics, but now, “I write the hook but make them write the verse.” It’s an alternative assignment; other students might choose drawing or making something. “Do whatever you can to make them engaged.”

Listen to Tunji Adebayo’s science-driven rap lyrics, including “Who Do You Love” and “Get Your Force Up.”

Some of his students don’t have computers at home, so he makes his classroom and technology available to students before and after school and during lunch.

“But I don’t baby them, because in high school no one cares about your excuse, they care about results.”

Pinned to the ceiling in his classroom are envelopes, Jennings said, containing the students’ goals. “They only need to look up to see their visions and ambitions,” she said.

“Tunji has a lot of tricks up his sleeves,” she added, describing how he once “gave himself a time out, and the class respectfully waited for him to collect himself and get back on track.”

“I never would have been a teacher without Teach For America,” Adebayo said.

What makes him stick with it? “Prayer,” he said. “God told me I have a lot more to learn and give. So here I am because I am still learning and still giving.”

His advice to new teachers: “Be creative. There’s always a way.”

Other “Changemakers” honored at the event included LA Unified school board president Steve Zimmer, who joined TFA in 1992 working as an ESL teacher at Marshall High School in Silver Lake. Jennings said she has met monthly with Zimmer in her three years as executive director. She said they don’t always agree, but “Steve has welcomed me into this community.”

The leadership team of KIPP Raíces Academy, which last year was the only LA Unified school to win a National Blue Ribbon award, received the “School Changemakers” awards: founding principal Amber Young Medina, principal Chelsea Zegarski and assistant principal Yesenia Castro.

Alissa Changala, who teaches at USC Hybrid High, received a “Classroom Changemaker” award alongside Adebayo, and Karen Heilman, TFA LA’s advisory board chair, received the top honor of the night, the “Regional Changemaker” award.

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