Austin Martin wants to help kids struggling in school find their way the way he wished he could have – through lyrics and music.
“I think all students want to feel more engaged and feel like what they’re learning connects to what they’re interested in,” said Martin, 27, who recently earned a master’s degree at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I was that kid. And I know I’m still that person. When a message is put through a song, it sometimes is still more digestible.”
Martin, a San Diego native and 2020 recipient of a “Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education,” is the founder and owner of Rhymes with Reason, a web-based educational technology company that helps students learn literacy and gain academic excellence through their favorite music.
The company employs seven people and its learning tools are currently available to 215,000 students as part of larger groups as a B2B.
The majority of its offerings are through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, but RwR is also used locally at San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools as well as The Monarch School.
In mid-February, RwR will be available at Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo as part of a health and wellness literacy module at the healthcare provider. Martin hopes to expand to other Kaiser facilities moving forward.
“There are new statistics that came out last October from the NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) that report that across the United States, including California, reading is declining significantly,” Martin said. “Particularly in big cities. The post-pandemic learning loss and kids missing school has been part of that. With reading getting worse, we need more solutions. There’s more of a need for something like this than ever before.”
Always a big music fan – his father is jazz musician Herb Martin, who played in a group called Herb Martin & Friends – Austin Martin said, “school didn’t come naturally, but music did, particularly the lyrical element.”
The idea to bring together learning and music to help educate students came to him not long after he graduated from Francis W. Parker School in 2013. Two years later, while he was a 20-year-old attending Brown University, he said he had that “aha” moment when “I knew then I was on to something, the connection of words and music.”
RwR’s patented technology improves literacy, vocabulary and reading levels for students, particularly fifth-through-ninth-graders, Martin said.
Users take a placement test to get started and are first introduced “to new words they probably do not know,” Martin said. The program shows how words are used in the context of songs and then students listen to licensed audio clips, getting a breakdown of lyrics, inferences, context, matching analogies and more.
“There are little mini games that drill down word meanings and reading skills and building on back,” Martin said.
A big fan of rappers and songwriters Lupe Fiasco, Lil Wayne and Drake – all of whom Martin says “are masters of words and putting words together in a witty way” – Martin said that while at Brown he realized that 67 of the top 100 SAT words can be found in recognizable hip-hop songs.
He said he has long followed those particular musicians because he felt that “growing up as an African-American kid, I could relate culturally to them as well,” and that studying their lyrics and music helped him “as a reader, as a writer and as a communicator.”
“I was into lyrical music and that’s what made me a great student and helped me get into Brown to study business,” Martin said.
At Brown he was able to build a prototype of his product. He said by 2018, schools had started purchasing it and since that time, 200 different schools use it, or have used it.
He has also teamed with professional organizations like the Detroit Pistons and the group SAY Detroit, which reward students’ performance through the RwR program and offer incentives like tickets to basketball games.
“Kids have a deep interest in music and they love their local sports teams,” Martin said. “We figured how to put these things together in a productive way and help them learn, grow and develop.”
Martin has partnered with Chance the Rapper’s nonprofit charity SocialWorks, to make the “Chicago Learning Playlist” for 1,000 students in the Midwest.
Martin said many of the students RwR seeks to reach are those who come from typically marginalized areas who may not learn in traditional ways.
“The way that we learn in general is slanted toward the white majority, unequivocally,” Martin said. “It’s why a young person like myself gravitated toward education through music. Music is more relatable to the average American kid nowadays in terms of the voices being expressed rather than the old school way of teaching pedagogy.”
Martin said the content remains fresh at RwR so its participants have a natural incentive to stay with the program. “I’m trying to even the playing the field,” he added. “Historically, this type of work hasn’t been seen as important or as necessary, but it is. I want more for somebody who is like myself.”