This week, high school students across New York City will take the dreaded Regents Exams. In order to graduate, all high schoolers in the state of New York have to pass five Regents Exams, covering math, science, global history, U.S. history, and English. The tests are tough; here are a few questions from a mock exam given to students to study for the global history exam:

Which group used the stirrup, skilled horsemanship, and siege warfare techniques to conquer much of Asia and part of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries?
1. Japanese 2. Vikings 3. Persians 4. Mongols

During the rise of capitalism in Europe, merchants and bankers began to establish:
1. systems based on bartering 2. rules that forbid loans to the wealthy 3. quotas to control production 4. insurance companies and joint stock companies

Which situation came first?
1. Spain introduced the encomienda system. 2. Portugal claimed Brazil. 3. Spain and Portugal competed for colonies in the Americas. 4. Columbus arrived in the Caribbean region.

Not surprisingly, many students fail one or more of the exams, and a number of students fail the tests a number of times. In 2011, just 56 percent of the city's students passed the global history exam. Students have failed the test as many as five times, but they're allowed to take it as many times as needed until they either pass or age out of high school, but passing the exam is required for graduation. Now an innovative new program in some New York schools is proving successful at helping students pass the exams by speaking to teenagers in their own language—hip-hop.


In 2009, the Urban Arts Partnership, a performing arts teaching collective formed in the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, started a new program called Fresh Prep. The goal of Fresh Prep was to help students who had previously failed the Regents Exams prepare to take the tests again, with performers using rap and role-playing to drill students on the test topics. The initial Fresh Prep program started in a single classroom of 29 students at New Design High School, in Manhattan; all of the students had failed the Global Regents Exam at least once, and some had failed as many as five times. But after 12 days of Fresh Prep, the students took the exam again and 79 percent passed. Fresh Prep has since expanded to 21 classrooms in nine high schools throughout the city, with sessions focusing on the world history, U.S. history, and English exams.

In December, I visited Mr. Flanagan’s global history class at the High School for Health Careers in Washington Heights. As the class started, a dozen students interacted with four Fresh Prep performers, Jamel Mims, Shyvonne Sanganoo, Imani Shanklin Roberts, and James Miles. Roberts began, “We’re gonna go back thousands of years.... You are now your great, great, great, great, great grandfathers and mothers….”

Over the course of the class period, the performers and students presented an interactive overview of the history of civilizations, without once opening a textbook. An inflatable globe that doubled as a talking shell/mic got tossed around the room, and through rhymes (“What makes a savage civilized?/Is it when our government is centralized?/Our social class and labor is organized?/Communication and religion is organized?”) and role-playing (the students were divided into teams of growing civilizations), the Fresh Prep performers taught the test in a way the students seemed to grasp.

Kiara Delgado, 15, who said her favorite rapper is Drake, said Fresh Prep helps her remember facts about the French Revolution, namely what the Third Estate was. (Don’t lie: Do you know what the Third Estate was?) Gelyanne Rivera, 15, whose favorite “rappers” are One Direction, summed up the appeal of Fresh Prep for her and her classmates. “It’s a lot of stuff when you’re sitting in a class for 45 minutes,” she said. “I get bored. With this, I’m participating and asking questions.”

As anyone who's witnessed or taken part in impromptu rap-along ciphers at clubs or concerts can attest, hip-hop is a memorable and memorizable medium. It's also, on a word-for-word basis, the most lyrically dense musical form. "It's based off of Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which states that children learn in more than one way," said Miles, a comedian and actor who's been with Urban Arts since 2008. "Fresh students learn the content logically in a book, linguistically in a rhyme, musically from the original hip-hop songs, and kinesthetically moving the body to the music allowing for mastery of the subject. In class, students listen to music, memorize the music, perform the music, and pass the test because of the music."

The students in Mr. Flanagan’s class hadn’t taken the Regents Exam yet. They were using Fresh Prep as a means to avoid having to take the dreaded test twice. Around the corner in Mr. Soriano’s global history class, the stakes were significantly higher. Each of the kids in this class had taken the exam at least once. Mr. Soriano was sanguine about the difficulty of the exams. “It’s too much for one kid to understand. It’s too much to remember. A lot of kids are bilingual, or grew up in the Dominican Republic.” And while Mr. Soriano was justifiably proud of his own teaching acumen (a 1982 grad of the same high school, he’s been teaching at his alma mater for 25 years), he was also open to the innovations of the Fresh Prep program. “At the beginning I was a little…I’ve been a teacher 25 years, so I know what I’m doing. But they bring good ideas. It’s a different attitude.”

For Gino Mota, 17, who scored a 61 when he first took the global test last June, four points beneath the 65 needed to pass, Fresh Prep and Mr. Soriano represent his first exposure to world history in the classroom. “My first year I didn’t have a teacher. They were trying to fire the one I had so we had substitutes.” Of Fresh Prep, Gino said, “It works. It’s a slow-moving pace, but it helps you understand, reading the lyrics while listening to the music.” Added Manael Hilario, a.k.a. MC Lambon, 16, who scored a 62 when he first took the exam, “They keep you interested in the way they teach. We listen to songs every day.”

The political consciousness—or lack thereof—of rap's current stars is a matter of some debate. But Fresh Prep makes it clear that hip-hop as a medium still has the capability to do tremendous good. "Hip-hop is the music of the world," said Miles. "It is the voice of youth, the voice of change, and the voice of the underrepresented. To be able to channel that voice into the educative framework of test prep, puts students in the driver's seat of their own learning."

The dreaded Global History Regents Exam is given this Tuesday. If you know a New York State high schooler, pray for them!

"Ancient Civilizations"

Intro

Well, history is always told in the eyes of the conqueror, isn't it?
If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be his-story; it would be our-story
And what is more fearful than the savagery of our story?

Chorus

What makes a savage civilized?
Is it when our government is centralized?
Our social class and labor is specialized
Communication, religion is organized

Verse 1

Now this a story all about how
The way people live turned upside down
I’d like take a minute, just sit with me
I’ll tell you how it went down in 4000 BC
Before the world was all hunters and gatherers
Then they started farming, raising domestic animals
And this led to a surplus of food
They start to settle down and not really move
Cities began to rise, jobs were specialized
Technology developed—you call them civilized
Y’all call this time the Neolithic Revolution
From hunters and gatherers, to farmers not moving
Traditional societies, the first in the beginning
Passing on traditions from parents to children Farming only enough for the fam’: subsistence
Didn’t use money they traded in barter systems

Chorus

What makes a savage civilized?
Is it when our government is centralized?
Our social class and labor is specialized
Communication, religion is organized

Verse 2

Water is life, life water delivers
So people settled in fertile valleys near rivers
Egypt had the Nile where they worshipped Osiris
Mesopotamia had the Euphrates and Tigris
Droughts and dry crops led to starvation
We left Central Africa: the Bantu Migration
Villages grew to cities, population grew higher
Spread and control the land, making an empire
First was Babylon, they got their battle on to grow
Babylonians were ruled by Hammurabi’s Code
You know, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’
Same code of the streets ‘round me and you
Empires come and empires going
Babylon, Greece; after Greeks, then the Romans
Greeks contributed in math and astronomy
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, they wrote philosophy

Chorus

What makes a savage civilized?
Is it when our government is centralized?
Our social class and labor is specialized
Communication, religion is organized

Verse 3

In the Greek city-states, the rule of people was the policy
They say the Greeks were the world’s firstdemocracy
And Athens was its birthplace
And yes, Sparta was a military state
And Greece expanded to Persia with a man a commander named Alexander the Great
Hellenistic culture influenced all
Rome rose after the Greeks would fall
Romans built roads, thickened their walls
Governed by Twelve Tables: their first written laws
Pax Romana was peacetime for Rome
Emperor Justinian made Justinian Code
A legal code nations would later model
It said Christ was the God Rome would follow
Rome fell when nothing else seemed hopeful
Byzantine rose from Constantinople
Located between Europe and Asia
Goods and ideas were exchanged by traders
Ancient civilizations saw changes
Laws laid the foundation for the Middle Ages

Chorus

What makes a savage civilized?
Is it when our government is centralized?
Our social class and labor is specialized
Communication, religion is organized