The Rhyming Lesson

The Rhyming Lesson

Traveling educator stops in Alexandria, raps with kids.

For Erik Cork, teaching young people to write well is a goal that demands winning their hearts and minds. To accomplish this, he uses popular music — translating the lyrics of songs that are familiar to students into lessons about words and their meanings. For example, he changes the lyrics of 50 Cent’s hit song from a paean celebrating prostitution to a pneumonic device explaining an indispensable device of the English language.

“I don't know what you heard about me, but a b— can’t get a dollar out of me,” is the 50 Cent lyric — one known by scores of middle school students. Cork takes advantage of this familiarity by twisting its words to serve his purpose.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me,” he told students at Hammond Middle School earlier this month. “But I use ‘like’ or ‘as’ for similes.”

The substitution is a success, Cork moves on to the next song — using the tools of popular culture to cut into the consciousness of young audiences. His purpose is to get children to expand their vocabulary, avoiding “illegal words” like “happy” in favor of their more descriptive words such as “jubilant,” “elated” or “exuberant.” Cork is a human thesaurus, ticking off synonyms with lightning speed as Hammond students sit transfixed in the school’s auditorium.

“If the students are not learning the way you teach, you need to teach the way they learn,” Cork said during the lunch break. “There’s a lot of music and laughter, but we’re going over the content areas.”

Leslie Ridley, sixth-grade assistant principal at the school, has been a Cork fan for years. She said that his annual visits to the school are legendary, with teachers chatting about his unique methods in the teacher’s lounge for months after each visit.

“The kids are totally into it,” Ridley said. “He’s energetic, entertaining, engaging and informative.”

Principal Randolph Mitchell said that he was extremely impressed with Cork’s performance. He said that walking into the auditorium where he was teaching children was an electrifying experience — one that reinforced his belief in the power of popular culture as an instructional tool.

“I was a little overwhelmed to see how excited the kids were,” Mitchell said. “It has the atmosphere of a rock concert.”

A NATIVE OF HOUSTON, Cork graduated from Madison High School in 1980. He worked for Shell Oil for several years before taking a job at a law firm. After he became editor of “Houston Style Magazine,” Cork developed an infectious love of language — one that he wanted to use to help kids read and write with more proficiency.

“I noticed that all my daughter’s friends knew all the words to every song on the radio,” Cork said. “So I wanted to do something to put lessons to a beat.”

When he volunteered to teach a class at Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Missouri City, Texas, he had no clue what he was getting himself into. Twenty-two years later, he had honed his unique style into a full-time job — crisscrossing the country to appear at schools near and far. Sometimes he is paid for his sessions and sometimes he does them for free. For Cork, it’s a labor of love — one that he hopes will influence the future of the young minds he tries to engage in auditoriums across the country.

“It’s like building a house,” Cork said. “If the foundation is not strong, then everything starts swaying in later years.”