ER Lombard pop quiz: what’s the difference between rap music and teaching? If you asked Barry van Neel this question, his answer would be that there’s none.
In his classroom the two go together hand in glove and his unorthodox tools have helped him unlock the mystery of math for many learners.
“A rapper is a teacher,” Barry says. Rappers and teachers both use words to teach, or to educate, or to instill knowledge.
Both convey a message with a goal that’s greater than just the message itself whether you’re in front of a classroom or an audience.
Barry is head of the math department at Ceres Secondary School in the Western Cape and the youngest member of the school’s management team.
His dream is to launch a mathematics academy in the Winelands town because Cere Valley schools are places where dreams die, especially if reading and comprehension of schoolwork starts too late.
Barry (33) knows what he’s talking about. When he was a pupil at Witzenberg Primary School in nearby Wolseley, he made it all the way to Grade 4 without being able to read.
He recalls that when he was in Grade 2, his late father, Bazil, refused to allow him to attend the remedial class, and he was simply pushed through to the next grade, where he was mocked by his classmates for being stupid.
It didn’t take long for the insults to stick and Barry began to believe they were true.
“I know what it feels like not to understand,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be talked to without being seen.”
He recalls a time in Grade 1 when he was made to stand at his teachers desk and read from a book.
“She scolded me because I couldn’t read. I simply couldn’t see what the letters said. And in Grade 2 I still couldn’t read. Things weren’t much better two years later and his confidence took a knock.”
He gradually learned enough to make do then he discovered rapper Eminem.
“Eminem changed my life. I started copying him. I tried saying the things he did, but I didn’t know what I was saying. I recall the funny, vulgar words I said, but of course I had no clue what they meant.”
Fascinated by rap music, Barry began writing down lyrics, so he could understand what was being rapped.
“That taught me to write things down while I was studying, so I could understand the work better and make sense of it and remember it. At first, I struggled with writing and expressing myself. But I thought, How did words originate? How were words put together? A word can’t accidentally be what it is. Later I even started breaking up words to make sense of what they really meant. And that’s how I discovered and developed this dimension of myself.”
Rap and education aren’t often found in the same sentence and Barry is aware of the perception of rap music as the language of the streets.
“The words aren’t pretty and polished,” he says.
But that’s the point of using it in the classroom.
“In my class, I use the same language the kids speak every day. Not big, fancy words prescribed by the government. You speak like they do and that’s how you show them that this sir is cool and math doesn’t have to be a thing to be feared. And that’s how you break down the stigma. The truth is that math is easier to understand when you speak to people the way they speak. In my case, the children absorb more, and they’re more likely to listen.”
One of the go-to songs he wrote is called Education.
Basically, it’s about how education is a way out of gangsterism and poverty, a way to better yourself and rise above your circumstances.
Don’t misunderstand him, though Barry is quick to point out he’s not rapping all day long in the classroom.
“Of course, I’m not! There’s math to teach. But sometimes I use it to motivate the kids because, remember, things aren’t always rosy in a government school. There are children who know poverty and everything that goes with it. ”
Barry, who’s a single dad to daughter Simon (11), says his mission in the Ceres Valley is to create opportunities for young people. Dream big and give the Lord work to do, he often tells his pupils.
Chess is another of Barry’s great loves. His best friend taught him the game when he was in Grade 7, but it too was a learning curve.
“In Grade 8, I was always the last one to be chosen for the chess team, and sometimes I wasn’t chosen at all. But it motivated me. I told myself I was going to make myself sharp.”
He joined the school chess club and was eventually chosen to represent Boland.
In Grade 9 he came top of the class after writing a math test, much to his own surprise.
“I thought it wasn’t possible because I believed that I was stupid. But that day changed my life. After that day, I kept chasing that feeling I had when I got those test results. I ended up passing Grade 12 with distinctions in math and accounting. I was a nerd, but I was a cool nerd. I was a skateboarder and could rap. I was good at math, I was good at accounting, and I was good at computers. And chess. And now I’m here, and I believe I’m making a difference in these kids lives. I know this is where I’m supposed to be because the moment I did my teaching practical here, I knew I was needed here.”
Barry’s commitment to education is valued how he learned in school growing up.
“Children are often overlooked because of their appearance or their circumstances,” Barry says. “But it doesn’t work that way with me. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. That’s how I work.”
Barry has little time for learners who think math is hard it’s not, he says.
“You just need to get your head round it,” Barry said about learning math.
“Its like rap you’re telling a story. And just as I want to convey an important message with my rap, there are ways of making math easier. I can simplify anything complex with rap. Its quite simple, really. I use music to inspire, but not only in mathematics as a human being. I want to show people there’s a better way of doing things.”
That’s one of the things he wants to convey when he opens his math academy one day and to tell young people never to give up on their education.
“So many pupils dreams disappear when they reach Grade 8 or Grade 9. I want to inspire them and to help carry them through, just as I was carried through.”
His other big goal is to become school principal.
“I’m going to keep on using music and language to get through to people.”
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA
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