Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme

By David Hill — January 17, 2001 21 min read
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It’s early morning, and inside the Northgate Center here—a former elementary school now used as a staff-training facility by the city school system—about 30 teachers are munching bagels and sipping coffee, waiting for a professional- development workshop to begin. They don’t know it yet, but Harriett Ball, today’s presenter, is about to rock their world.

This is no ordinary workshop. Harriet Ball is sassy, brassy, and utterly captivating.

Ako Kambon, the president of the Visionary Leaders Institute, a Columbus-based education foundation that is sponsoring Ball’s visit to several of the city’s schools, offers the teachers a hint of things to come when he warns, “This is not your typical workshop.” By way of introducing Ball, Kambon explains that, thanks to television, students today have much shorter attention spans than they used to. Consequently, old methods of teaching simply won’t work anymore. “But television entertains,” he says, “and it maintains the interest of children. So we’ve got to learn how to use that strategy and bring it into the classroom to reach today’s young people. And with that, I want to bring on the master in using this skill. ... I give you Miss Harriett Ball, of Houston, Texas.”

Ball, a tall African-American woman dressed in a black-and-white pinstriped suit and outrageously accessorized with five large gold rings, several gold bracelets, gold-colored high heels, and rhinestone-encrusted designer glasses, stands up and starts clapping her hands to a four-beat rhythm: Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!

“Clap your hands,” she says, her voice booming as she moves about the room. “Then repeat what I say.” The teachers, somewhat startled, put down their coffee cups and join in.

Sounding like a cross between Mahalia Jackson and an Army drill sergeant, Ball shouts out, in call-and-response style, “I don’t know what you can do!” The teachers answer back, “I don’t know what you can do!”

“I came to do my best!”

“My best!”

“I came to pass the test!”

“The test!”

“I can read charts and graphs!”

“And graphs!”

“I came to do my best!”

“My best!”

Kambon was right: This is no ordinary workshop. It’s a full-blown revival meeting, and Ball is preaching up a storm. She’s sassy, brassy, and utterly captivating.

Within minutes, the teachers are transfixed by this retired 54- year-old elementary school teacher, who crisscrosses the country training educators to teach math and language arts using her instructional system. She describes it as a “multisensory, mnemonic, whole-body teaching technique” designed to “propel at-risk students toward excellence,” though she insists her method works for all children. In simpler terms, she calls it Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme.

Ball and her unorthodox methods have helped inspire two nationally acclaimed charter schools—one in Houston, the other in New York. Called the KIPP Academies, the schools have been featured on the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” and during his presidential campaign, George W. Bush often cited KIPP as a model for what public schools are capable of doing. Ball, however, is rarely mentioned in all this hype. The KIPP founders sing her praises and credit her with transforming their teaching, but the media have almost completely overlooked her.

“Now, you’ve got to get out of your adult modes,” Ball commands the teachers. “Go to the child mode! You’re my children today!”

With that, she says, “Now, let me hear you say your nine-times table.”

Ball asserts that most students learn most naturally through play, songs, patterns, movement, imitation, imagination, and rhythm.

At first, the voices are confident and in unison: “Nine! Eighteen! Twenty- seven! Thirty-six.” But things quickly fall apart, and the teachers break out laughing.

“All right, watch this,” Ball says. “Lay down your pencils, and don’t write anything.” She wants the material imprinted in their brains, not scribbled on a piece of paper.

At the blackboard, Ball draws an upside-down T. On the right side of the vertical line, at the bottom, she writes a zero and says, “Remember, zero is your hero!” (If you forget to start with zero, the chart won’t work.) Then, moving up the vertical line, she writes the numbers one through nine. On the other side of the vertical line, she writes a nine at the bottom, an eight on top of that, and so on, until she gets to zero. As she writes, she’s careful to keep the numbers on the left side lined up with the ones on the right. In fact, she offers a little saying to remind the students to do just that. “Now, I want you to ‘keep it lined up,’ ” she says, writing “KIL U” on the board, “or it will kill you.”

The result is a nine- times table, with the number nine (written as 09) on top, 90 on the bottom, and all the other two-digit multiples of nine in between. Ball has similar lessons to help kids learn all the multiplication tables.

“That’s awesome!” says one of the teachers as Ball quickly erases the chart. She draws it again, but this time, she has the teachers tell her how to do it. After that, she allows them to take out their pencils and do it on paper.

“By teaching this way,” Ball tells them, “you’re grabbing all the kids, the visual learners and the auditory learners and the tactile-kinesthetic learners. What I do is supply them with crutches that are disposable.” In her self-published Fearless Math manual, which she sells for $35 a copy, Ball asserts that most students, particularly those at risk, “learn most naturally and best through play, songs, patterns, movement, imitation, imagination, and rhythm.” Her method incorporates all those elements. Rote memorization of facts and details has been out of fashion for some time, but Ball insists there’s nothing wrong with drills—as long as they’re presented in a fun and engaging manner. “Drill won’t kill,” she likes to say. “Boredom is the killer.”

Eight years ago, Ball was teaching 4th grade in relative obscurity at Houston’s Bastian Elementary School. Over the years, Ball, a natural-born performer, had mastered her multisensory teaching technique, which she used not only to teach math but also grammar, spelling, geography, science, and other subjects. She had done a few workshops here and there, but, for the most part, she kept to her classroom, “minding my own business,” as she puts it. Word about Ball got out, though, and every now and then, visitors would come knocking on her classroom door. Inevitably, they were amazed by what they saw, and particularly by the test results Ball got with her students, nearly all of whom were from low-income minority families. Some, however, dismissed her style as a “black thing.”

David Levin disproved that theory. Fresh out of Yale University, he signed on with Teach For America and ended up teaching 6th grade at Bastian. “I was struggling immensely,” Levin says. “The other teachers were betting on how long I was going to last. Some of them didn’t think I’d make it until Christmas.” He happened to notice what was going on inside Ball’s classroom and one day asked for help. “I sort of begged her to be my mentor,” he says. “And she agreed. I spent every single free moment hounding her, trying to learn her techniques. Once, she came into my classroom and taught my students in 45 minutes what I had been trying to teach them for three weeks.”

“He was hungry,” says Ball, adding, “He couldn’t hold a tune in a house, let alone in a bucket.” But that didn’t stop Levin from successfully adopting Ball’s unorthodox style, and the next year, he was named Bastian’s “teacher of the year.”

Levin’s roommate, Michael Feinberg, also fell under Ball’s influence. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Feinberg had also gone through Teach For America’s training program but had been assigned to a different school. “I was a crappy, struggling teacher,” he says. “David kept telling me about Harriett. He said: ‘You’ve got to come and see my mentor teacher. She’s unbelievable.’ ” Feinberg did just that, and soon he was using Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme in his own classroom at Garcia Elementary School. “You’re talking to a white Jewish boy who never had much rhythm,” he says. “But I’m able to employ her strategies.”

Some visitors were inevitably amazed by what they saw in Ball’s classroom, and particularly by the test results she got with her students, nearly all of whom were minorities from low-income families.

Levin and Feinberg went on to start their own schools: KIPP Academy, first in Houston and then in the Bronx in New York City. The academies are charter schools, and both are located in tough urban areas and serve predominantly poor, minority students. Yet their success rates, as measured by test scores, have been phenomenal. Liberals and conservatives alike have praised the KIPP Academies for demonstrating that all children, no matter what their socioeconomic backgrounds and previous educational experiences, can succeed at the highest levels. “That’s my vision for public education all around America,” Bush said in October, touting Houston’s KIPP during the first of the fall presidential debates.

At the two KIPP schools, children and their parents sign contracts pledging to live up to high expectations. Classes begin early in the morning and last until late in the afternoon. (Students must go to school on Saturday as well.) Two hours of homework each night is the norm. Discipline is no-nonsense: In Houston, students who misbehave are allowed to speak only to teachers and must wear their KIPP T-shirts inside out.

At the heart of the schools’ rigorous curriculum is Harriett Ball’s teaching method. Indeed, “KIPP” stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, which comes from one of Ball’s patented chants: “The more I read, the more I know/ The more I know, the more I grow/ The more I talk, the less I know/ Because knowledge is power/ Power is money/ And I want it!/ You’ve got to read, baby, read!”

Levin calls Ball’s technique the foundation of KIPP. “There would be no KIPP Academy if it hadn’t been for Harriett,” he admits. And in her Fearless Math manual, Ball refers to KIPP as her “brainchild.”

But her contribution has often been neglected. Of the many articles about KIPP, few have mentioned the teacher by name, even when they quote Ball’s chants verbatim. A 1999 Texas Monthly article was typical. Titled “No Shortcuts,” which is one of KIPP’s slogans, the piece implies that Levin and Feinberg conceived of KIPP on their own, seemingly from scratch, after deciding that “the typical school program didn’t do enough to help the kind of students they were teaching.” Even “60 Minutes” neglected to cite Ball’s inspiration.

Levin—who remains close friends with Ball—says he mentions Harriett whenever he’s interviewed, but the message doesn’t always get through. “Harriett definitely hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves,” he says. Last summer, when Levin and Feinberg were asked to speak at the Republican National Convention, Levin insisted on citing the influence of Ball and several other teachers—even though GOP officials said there wasn’t enough time. After Feinberg led a group of KIPP students through some Harriett Ball-style math drills and the “Knowledge Is Power” chant, one “KIPPster” told the delegates, “These lively lessons were inspired by the life work of master teacher Harriett Ball.”

“I was so proud when I saw David at the Republican Convention,” Ball says. “I said: ‘That’s my baby, right there! And they said he couldn’t teach.’ ”

Ball insists she has no ill will toward Levin or Feinberg, and she defends them when friends try to convince her that they stole her ideas. She, too, blames the media for overlooking her role in the KIPP success story. Besides, she had the chance to get involved with KIPP, but chose not to. “They begged me to go with them,” she says, “but I didn’t want to go that route. It wasn’t my dream.” Divorced from her first husband and widowed after the death of her second, Ball had four children to feed and a mortgage to pay. She needed job security, not the uncertainties that come with starting a new school.

And Ball did give Levin and Feinberg permission to use her methods. “I said: ‘Go ahead. Make it work, baby, make it work.’ And that’s what they did. They have validated that what I do is usable, for the long term, that it’s not just a fluke, and that it works for any group of kids: Puerto Rican, Mexican, Jewish, polka-dot, stripes, whatever.”

Born in Rosenberg, Texas, Ball grew up in poverty in Houston’s 3rd Ward, where she lived with her mother, brother, and three sisters. “We were poor,” she says, “but I didn’t know it because there was love at home.” Her parents were divorced, and Ball’s mother had to make ends meet by herself. During the day, she worked as a seamstress in the laundry room at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, and when she came home, she would do her friends’ and neighbors’ hair in the makeshift beauty shop she had set up on the porch.

From an early age, Ball wanted to be a teacher. Her role model was her mother’s sister, Frances Harris, known as Aunt Frank. “She always drove a Cadillac,” Ball says, “and she had wall-to-wall carpet in her house and central heating. She wore nice clothes, and her hair was real pretty. To me, she was the epitome of a teacher. I wanted to be like Aunt Frank.”

‘She’s God’s gift to the classroom. She’s poetry in motion.’

David Levin,
KIPP Academy
Bronx, N.Y.

When Ball got her first teaching job, she figured she’d be driving a Cadillac, too—until she got her first paycheck. She called her aunt and asked how she managed to pay for all those nice things on a teacher’s salary. “She told me that the big money came from her husband, who worked at the ship channel,” recalls Ball, laughing. (Now that Ball is doing pretty well herself as a consultant, she drives around Houston in either a Lincoln Town Car or a Plymouth Prowler, depending on her mood.)

In 1985, Ball was teaching 3rd grade at Houston’s Fairchild Elementary School when she had an epiphany. “My students were struggling to read numbers,” she says, “and I was determined to help them. I was standing at the board one day, and all of a sudden it was like a Ouija board. God spoke to me, and I started writing down a rhyme that explained how to change a written number to a numeral.”

Ball had used some chants before to engage her students, but this was the first time a lesson had come to her in the form of a song. “It blew my mind,” she says. “The kids got it right away, and from then on, I started teaching like that.” Other rhymes started popping into her head, sometimes in the middle of the night.

“They were revelations from God,” says Ball, who was raised a Baptist but now attends a Methodist church. “A lot of people don’t hear me when I say that, but it’s true.” Later, someone told Ball that there was a hard-to-pronounce word— mnemonics—for what she was doing. But to her, all that really mattered was that it was working.

“When I teach,” she says, “I employ the eyes, the ears, and the touching need, the movement need. There’s rhythm, and there’s singing. I also use wholesome competition. But I don’t allow any putdowns; I don’t allow the students to laugh at one another.” It helps, she admits, to be “a natural ham” to teach her way, but you don’t have to be. “Not everyone can teach like I do,” she says, “but I can be a springboard for doing something different.”

After Levin and Feinberg got KIPP About an hour into her workshop at the Northgate Center in Columbus, Ball, her face dripping with sweat, calls for a break. She asks for a glass of water and then takes a load off her feet at a table near the front of the room, where Patricia Price has been taking notes.

“I know what I do is a gift from God,” says Ball, who was raised a Baptist but now attends a Methodist church.

She put the word out that she was available to conduct workshops during the week, not just on weekends as she had been doing, and—slowly at first—the phone calls started coming in. “It was always somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who saw me,” says Ball, who charges in the neighborhood of $1,500 a day for her services. (She has been known to work for less than that, and even for free.) Seventy percent of Ball’s workshops are in math; 30 percent are in language arts.

After several schools credited Ball with boosting students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, Ball became known as the ‘TAAS Buster.’

After several schools credited Ball with boosting students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, Ball became known as the “TAAS Buster.” Indeed, the Lone Star State’s obsession with test scores has proved to be a boon for Ball. Some schools and districts hire her for the sole purpose of increasing scores. In 1999, the city of Galveston proclaimed September 14 as “Harriett Ball Day” and recognized the teacher “for generously volunteering her time and efforts to help the children of Galveston to succeed on the TAAS test.” Stewart Elementary in Hitchcock, Texas, initially turned to Ball for a quick fix of low test scores. “We’d been doing pretty well with our math scores, but then they dropped,” says principal Robert Tomlinson. “So we were looking for some help.” A teacher at the school had heard about Ball, so last spring, Tomlinson gave her a call about three or four weeks before the test.

“Our scores went up over 20 percent overall in math,” Tomlinson says, “and I attribute a lot of that to Harriett Ball.” The reaction of students and teachers was so positive that he decided to bring her back again this year, and not just to pump up the school’s TAAS scores. “I want her to have a more lasting effect,” he says. “I want her to be a catalyst for change.”

Ball is proud that her methods have helped students do better on standardized tests, but she insists that her methods go beyond test scores. “Mnemonics,” she asserts, “stimulate and enhance the learning of concepts, strengthen the attention span, and bolster self-esteem.”

That may be true, but Ball’s theories haven’t been evaluated or tested. And they’re certainly not universally accepted. In math, for example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has long argued that “computational proficiency alone” is not enough for students in the early grades. Learning the basics is important, the organization contends, but students must also develop a conceptual understanding of math so they can use what they know to solve problems they’ve never seen before.

Ball, however, shrugs off such highfalutin theory. “Math is abstract,” she says, “so what I do is make it concrete so they can relate to it.” And many school districts—particularly those with a large number of at-risk students struggling on tests—take Ball at her word. In recent months, she has led workshops in Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among other cities. Sometimes she’s away from home for up to three weeks at a time. And that’s just fine with Ball; she truly believes she’s on a mission, so she has no choice but to go where she’s needed. At the same time, she also dreams of having her own training center in Houston, where teachers can come to her.

Ball and her fans say that despite her work nationally, she’s underappreciated in her hometown. Anne Owen, a Houston businesswoman who hired Ball to tutor her daughter, Abigail, says: “She is such an extraordinary person, but she has not been utilized here in Houston. Every single teacher in this town should be exposed to her, but she just hasn’t been marketed correctly. She’s an artist- teacher—she’s not a great self-promoter. That’s not part of her deal.”

Ball agrees. “I don’t go looking for jobs,” she says. “I just answer the phone. It’s always been word of mouth.” When Houston school officials want training, she says, they look for outsiders. “People think, What we have here isn’t good enough,” she says. “It’s Biblical. They say a prophet in his own country is not recognized.”

About an hour into her workshop at the Northgate Center, Ball, her face dripping with sweat, calls for a break. She asks for a glass of water and then takes a load off her feet at a table near the front of the room, where Patricia Price has been taking notes. Price is the principal of Heyl Elementary School, and most of the teachers attending today’s session teach there. Last summer, when Price began working at the school, she was stunned by the students’ abysmal performance on the math portion of the Ohio Proficiency Test. “Only 8 percent of the 4th graders were at the proficient level,” she says, “and it was consistent, for three years in a row. I thought, we can do what we’ve always done, and we’ll get what we’ve always got. But that’s like malpractice. That’s unacceptable.”

At a leadership-training institute for new principals, Price met Ako Kambon, who happened to mention Harriett Ball. And the more Price heard, the more she wanted Ball to come work with Heyl Elementary’s staff. Still, she was concerned about how teachers would react. “I worried that they might see this as just one more dog-and-pony show,” Price says, “someone else telling them what to do.”

‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference!’ could be Harriett Ball’s motto.

“You did right,” Ball reassures her. “They’ve caught the fever.” She plans to visit the school in two days to work with some of the students. Then, it will be up to Price and her teachers to decide what to do with all this rap, rhythm, and rhyme stuff.

One first-year faculty member, Bobette Ryan, is already making plans to incorporate some of Ball’s methods. “She’s given me some new ideas to go with,” Ryan says during the break. “I think some of the other teachers will go back to Heyl and say, ‘I’m going to stay with my own way.’ Some will go back with a few ideas, but they may not do it exactly how it was done today. And some will go back and be gung-ho.”

For the next several hours, Ball keeps the teachers enthralled as she shows them how to teach, in the most entertaining way possible, basic math concepts: adding, subtracting, and multiplying fractions; multiplication tables; weights and measures; and the like. At 3 o’clock, she’s wiped out, like a singer at the end of a concert. Still, she takes some time to sell a few Fearless Math books; some teachers even ask her to sign their copies.

Kambon drives Ball back to her downtown hotel, and on the way she nods off. “She always does this,” he says.

At 8 o’clock the next morning, when Kambon arrives at the hotel to pick her up, Ball is full of energy and ready to do it all over again. This time, though, she’ll spend the day working her magic with students, not teachers, at three Columbus public schools.

At Franklin Middle School, in the heart of Columbus’ black community, 6th grade teacher Debbie Williams is finishing up with a group of top-track students when Kambon and Ball walk into her classroom. Williams, who is white, is standing at the board working through a math equation while the students, who are mostly African-American and wearing blue-and-white uniforms, sit at their desks doing worksheets. As Ball takes a seat in the back of the room, she notices the students have calculators. “What is this?” she whispers to herself.

The students file out of the windowless room, and several minutes later, another group of 6th graders trickles in. These students are struggling to learn basic mathematics, and Williams is turning them over to Ball today to learn some new ways to get through to them. “Good morning. My name is Harriett Ball, and I’m from Houston, Texas. I’m going to do some fun things with math today. All eyes on me. Say, ‘Try Big Mac tonight!’ ”

The kids have no idea who this strange-looking lady with the fancy clothes and the long hair and the costume jewelry is, but they quickly get into the groove, repeating her chant: “Try Big Mac tonight.”

“C’mon, now!”

“Try Big Mac tonight!”

“Say it again now!”

“Try Big Mac tonight!”

“All right,” Ball says, “guess what? You just learned how to read a 15-digit number.”

The students, baffled, look at each other as if to say, “What’s this lady talking about?”

Ball steps up to the blackboard and writes a 15-digit number: 426,804,392,774,903.

“OK, what’s that number?” she asks. “Don’t everybody raise your hand up at one time.”

One boy makes a half-hearted attempt and then stops.

Ball says, once again, “Try Big Mac tonight,” and the kids repeat the phrase. Then Ball writes on the board “TBMT.”

“See those letters?” she asks. “That’s trillion, billion, million, thousand. Try Big Mac tonight. Trillion, billion, million, thousand.”

Something seems to click inside the students’ heads.

“OK,” Ball continues, “when you see a number, don’t be afraid of it. All you have to do is this: Count your commas and label. Say what?”

“Count your commas and label,” the students reply.

“How many commas do you see?” Ball asks.


“So who is this?” she asks, pointing to the first comma.


“Who is this?”


“Who is this?”


“And this?”


Eventually, Ball leads them through the number step by step, showing them how to use the easy-to-remember “Try Big Mac tonight” chant as a tool to figure out the place value of a multidigit number. The students, mightily impressed with this new information, give Ball—and themselves—a round of applause.

Ball goes on to demonstrate her trick for creating a multiplication table by drawing an upside-down T. She even shows them how to use the numbers on a clock for the same purpose, which leaves the kids flabbergasted. “Now you can cheat by looking at the clock!” she tells them, pointing at the timepiece hanging above the blackboard, next to the banner that says, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference!”

The phrase could be Harriett Ball’s motto.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Rap, Rhythm, and Rhyme


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