It's fourth period at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., and students are filing into a classroom at the end of a long hallway. Jake Scott, who doubles as both varsity wrestling coach and math teacher, calls his algebra class to order, but some students are more orderly than others.
Keeping control of the class is one thing, but holding their attention through complicated calculations and theorems is another challenge altogether. So Scott gets a little extra help from his alter ego, 2 Pi.
About three years ago, Scott started infusing rap into his lessons. His alias comes from a math formula, and as 2 Pi the rapping math teacher, Scott makes learning math cool, while also developing a connection with his students.
"Students are bored so quickly," Scott tells NPR's David Greene. "You know, the videos that they watch — they see one person on the screen for more than five seconds, and they're like, 'I'm tired of this guy already,' you know? So I think that I gotta jump around [and] include commercials in there where I'm addressing their personal behavior, I'm addressing relationships, [and] I'm addressing respect for their parents. And I think that all those things have to happen in order for me to maintain the students' attention."
Montgomery Blair is a large suburban high school with a diverse population. Students come from various neighborhoods in the district, some rougher than others. Many students struggle when they first start, as Scott did when he was younger.
"I mean, from seventh through ninth grade, those were lost years," Scott says. "I grew up in Capitol Heights, Md. Status quo there, you know, was you sold drugs, we stole cars. It was just normal. ... I mean, I remember being pulled over for riding on a stolen motorbike, kneeling down on the gravel, just waiting for my parents to come and identify who I was for me to be released. But I mean, that was normal; that was fun."
Scott says his life began to change direction after he joined his high school wrestling team.
"For me, it was wrestling that transitioned my life, when I finally joined a sport and there was a connection," Scott says. "I didn't know what it felt like to be in organized sports. I mean, we played pickup basketball and football on the streets, but, you know, being a part of a team, getting a uniform, getting a physical — I mean, those were huge things. It felt surreal, like, 'Man, I'm with the Redskins now; I got a real uniform!' "
Scott grew up the youngest of 17 children, and both of his parents had physical ailments. His mother was born with polio, and his father went blind when Scott was still a child. Ironically, his knack for math was a result of his tough upbringing.
"You know, when my dad lost his sight, I started doing accounting for him, and math was the one area that I was able to succeed in," Scott says. "Because of my time in the streets, my vocabulary wasn't very extensive, and so I shied away from English. I was bored to death by history. Math, on the other hand — I didn't need to know how to speak well in order to do well in math, so that was very helpful, when I look back. It helped me to grow in my appreciation for numbers."
Scott says that one of his most important goals as a teacher is to make meaningful connections with his students. This drive to connect with the kids in his classroom influenced him to begin rapping as 2 Pi.
"I mean, I think that we can preach to kids until they turn blue and we turn blue, but if there's no connection, then there's no response," Scott says. "I mean, I constantly search for ways to connect with students — with the language, with conversations, music. Some students are more difficult than others, depending on what they have at home. The interesting thing is, once we have those conversations, that's a connection. And they feel like they've given me a piece of them, and I feel like they've given me a piece of them, and I respect them more. And they respect me more."