Teachers helping their kids learn through hip-hop is truly one of my favorite things. Just this summer, Brooklyn author and arts educator Erica Buddington uploaded a video to Twitter of her class going absolutely ham to a geography-themed remix of "Bodak Yellow."
And now, we have Terrance Sims, Milwaukee native and 6th grade math teacher at Milwaukee Excellence Charter School. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because earlier this year Sims put out a grad school project called "Representation Is Key," which highlighted the importance of lifting up prominent black figures in history. A portion of it, based on the 2016 film Hidden Figures, ended up going viral. Even Taraji P. Henson, who starred in the movie's leading role, caught wind of the project.
Fast-forward to this week, and the 28-year-old Sims has put together yet another incredible project for his kids to be a part of. This time, he went the music route. After finessing Tee Grizzley's "First Day Out" beat, Sims came up with "Excellence First!"—a track executed by two of his natural-born-rappers/students, Aryn and Savannah. It sounds like Nas' "I Can" on steroids, in the best way possible. You can hear the two girls absolutely destroy the song, and see cameos from their classmates, in the video up top.
Among the most memorable bars: "Michelle Obama showed me how to do it/So I'ma get it, educated, motivated, melan-ated, elevated." Also: "In the year 2028, from a college I will graduate," which made me feel so, so very old.
Sims spoke with Complex about how these bars of flames came together, and what pushes him to come up with creative, pro-black projects for his students.
How long have you been at Milwaukee Excellence?
This is my first year; I've been there for two months now.
How's it going?
It's going well. I'm having a good time there. I'm actually staying there because they are giving me more creative control over what I do with my students. I do four different classes of sixth-grade math, and then at the end of the day, I do an hour of performing arts.
What does that entail?
It actually just started this week, but a lot of the stuff that we were doing, like the music video, a lot of the planning will go on there. Then, we will be doing things like yearbook club, photography, things of that nature. It will be a bunch of things.
When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?
Well, I actually graduated from college as a pre-med student. I took a year off to study for the MCAT, and I picked up a job at Milwaukee College Prep, and I never left. I had all my stuff ready for med school, but I loved teaching so much that I stayed.
Let's talk about "Excellence First!"—how did it come together?
I wanted to be able to get my students excited about being in my classroom this year. I looked at it as more of a first day of school welcome, and the kids really latched on to the song, and started adding different parts. So, it was really a small thing, and the ball just kept rolling, and we just kept adding to it. Literally, one day we finished a lesson early, and I wanted the kids to go up and do the parts, and Aryn was one of the ones who went up, and the way she spit it was so cold I was like, "We have to get this recorded."
Which one is she?
Aryn is the first girl. She was at Milwaukee College Prep with me for three years.
The other young lady, her name?
Her name is Savannah. So, we had some extra time at the end of class, and they were going up one by one, and just rapping the song, and then those two specifically did it so well that we decided to get it recorded. Then, my best friend from high school does videography, so he brought his equipment and me and him brought all the kids to school on a day off, and recorded the video.
How did the song itself come together?
It started with one verse. I wrote the first verse as a welcome, and they started jumping in like, "Oh, Mr. Sims, we should add this line. We should add this line." So, we took a bunch of the lines, and worked them in to make it all flow together. Aryn's entire first verse was all in the welcome. Then, when Savannah starts rapping, that was moreso me and the kids putting everything together.
What are your favorite bars from this song?
"Michelle Obama taught me how to do it," then jumping to, "educated, motivated, melan-ated, elevated." That's probably my favorite part.
So, had they ever rapped before? Because it lives in them—they are, like, natural-born rappers.
That's a good question. I probably should ask that. [Laughs.] Aryn, she's a really good singer. So, that's why I knew she would probably do well at this. Savannah, I just met her this school year, and she just jumped up and decided to rap. Both of them are really high academically, so maybe it's just a good match overall.
What made you choose the "First Day Out" beat?
Honestly, that was my favorite song at the time, and I knew it was real hot in the city at the time. So, I just picked it, then, it matched: "First Day Out," first day of school.
I know that you have done other things creatively for your students—particularly, black-centric things. Have you ever run into issues putting together this kind of material?
The only issue I have ran into is time. In the past, if I wanted to work with kids from different classes, making schedules work, a lot of the stuff would have to happen outside or on the weekends. But other than that, the parents in the community are completely down. The students love putting in the work. This school—that hour block I have at the end of every day—I don't have to hustle around and figure out schedules. I can just get it done piece-by-piece at the end of the day.
Can you talk to me about "Representation Is Key"?
All of that was a part of my last project for grad school. It was just involving African American representation when teaching black students, and Hidden Figures was one of 30 pictures that went crazy on the internet. It was all a part of one bigger project that took a lot of attention.
What inspired you to put that project together?
It started with my fourth-grade class. We were just talking about Black History Month, and what it meant to us, and the kids were a little shaky on their black history. So, I had them all go look up somebody, and they did little projects and talks about the people. And I told them for the face on the project, we would recreate the posters of the people they chose in the background, and them kind of modeling what their chosen figure was doing.
That was the basis of it, and then once word got out, parents got excited. The Tuskegee Airmen poster, those three were brothers. So, the mother had all three brothers do a project together. Then, there's a couple posters where the kids literally look like the figures. So, I pushed them to learn about them so we could make the poster work well, too.
The Hidden Figures post though, those students were third- and first-graders. Since my push last year was to get girls excited about math and science, that just kind of worked out that Hidden Figures was out, and then the girls mirrored those actresses. So, they didn't do a lot of background work, seeing as they are first- and third-graders. They did a little learning, but that post really pushed the academic piece of math and science with the girls. The other ones did a lot of research on the figures.
You're from Milwaukee originally, correct?
Yep. Born and raised.
What is it like to be a black man in Milwaukee?
Exactly how all stereotypes call it. It's difficult. It's a lot of stereotypes that you have to work through, and then me being young and also having tattoo sleeves, it's almost like you're living in a stereotype. But it is also a blessing because you're walking in the footsteps of a lot of amazing people who have done amazing things in the city. With me getting a degree and coming back to the city, there's work that I have to do to make sure that I am living up to the expectations of being a black man in the city. I think it's both bitter and sweet, but the good thing about it is that the expectation is so high that you enjoy every minute of it while having to live with some of the unfortunate aspects of it.
Did those existing stereotypes ultimately influence you to work with young black children and do these kinds of projects?
Always. I've obviously been in a lot of black spaces, and the stereotype that we have—especially in the city of Milwaukee—is so wrong. I wanted to make it a point that I fought those stereotypes with the kids, that I teach that. Me and my experiences, I've been able to grow a pretty thick shell despite what other people may say.
But I know that that does not always exist with kids growing up and discovering their identity. I wanted to make sure I played an active role in them discovering who they are, and loving it in spite of what others may think. So, in my classrooms, we do a lot of identity talk. We talk a lot of privilege, and what it means to have privilege, or lack that privilege, and also talk about loving yourself in spite of what others may think. So, we look into stereotypes and really talk about it so they know what to expect, and figure out how to love themselves in spite of.
Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Yes: all this stuff, I was doing it for years. But I really pushed it into high gear when my father passed in February. Everything I do is a part an organization I put together in memory of him, called Sims Strong. He passed away from cancer after a four-year battle. So now, I push this to honor his name because that is what he would want.
Also, "Excellence First!" is just the kick-off. We will be doing this for the whole year. We'll be throwing it back to some old-school Outkast to new stuff. We will be all over the place.
Any secrets about the next one that's coming?
We're doing the "International Players Anthem" with UGK and Outkast. We are going to knock that out of the park. It's about a kid who studied for a test in a week, and some of his friends want to play but he tells them, "Nah. I have to study," and that's what he's talking about for the whole song.