Last week I had the fantastic opportunity to talk to Jason R. Levine, AKA (also known as) Fluency MC.
Jason is an English teacher and an expert in motivation and learning English through repetition and… hip hop.
Check out his website here.
I talked to him about using hip hop in his English lessons, how to stay motivated, how to relax when learning and what time period he’d like to live in.
The video is below, but if you’re interested in different parts, you can jump to the part you want:
00:00 – background on Jason
04:05 – how Jason started using hip hop in his English lessons
06:46 – why his video went viral
07:43 – a fun story from his travels
09:18 – advice for learners to stay motivated
12.15 – advice on how to relax while learning
13:22 – Jason’s plans for the future
14:08 – which time period Jason would most like to live in
Click on CC for English subtitles.
If you’d prefer to read, click below for the transcript.Click here
GABRIEL: Nice to meet you.
JASON: It’s nice to meet you, too.
GABRIEL: Great. I’ve got a first question for you here. Very simple: Can you introduce yourself and tell us three interesting facts about yourself?
JASON: Sure. My name is Jason R. Levine, but most people know me as Fluency M.C. That’s the name I used for the songs and videos I make for language learners and language teachers to use with language learners. And… I live in Paris, France, but I’m originally from the US. I’ve got a lovely wife and two children here. And, mainly, what I do is – besides making songs and videos – I go to middle schools, high schools, sometimes universities, as well, and do two things: Either I’m there to do a student workshop, where I perform the songs that I’ve written with the students at the school and the other thing I do is teacher development workshops, training, at schools and also online. One more thing I do is I have an online English practice programmes focussing on speaking practice. It’s called the Weekly English Workout. So I work with students around the world who join my programme. And I just published an activity book for teachers to use in the classroom with my songs and videos. So I do work online and also going to different schools to do workshops.
GABRIEL: OK, great. And what’s this activity book?
JASON: I’ve been really fortunate to reach a lot of students through their teachers who’ve used my videos from YouTube in their classrooms. But I also have teachers who contacted me wanting something more structured, so I made a book that has ideas for what teachers can do with 12 of my most popular songs and videos and they can get the book as a PDF download and there’s also a media pack with song downloads – they can get mp3 songs and a private area on my website where they can work with me with the videos.
GABRIEL: Do you have any quirky or interesting things about maybe where you grew up or anything like that?
JASON: I worked in a fish market. I worked in the music business in New York City. Let me see, one more… I was in a PhD programme in Psychology.
GABRIEL: Wow, OK. Those are interesting.
JASON: A lot of different things. So those are three things that I’ve done. I hope they’ll be interesting to your listeners.
GABRIEL: That is interesting, definitely. My next question is related to what you’ve just said. How did you get into using hip hop in your classes?
JASON: Well, like many teachers, especially language teachers, English language teachers in particular, I used music almost right away when I started teaching and that was back in 1998. And there are obvious benefits to using music in teaching and learning. So I started to bring hip hop songs in because my students were curious about hip hop. I was teaching in New York City, where hip hop began. Internationally, hip hop is known everywhere, really. Not just known, but every country, there are young people who are involved in the culture. So the last piece of that is that I grew up with the music and I’m a hip hop DJ, so they were curious also because their teacher was in the culture. So I started using hip hop songs that were out there already to talk about the culture and the US and the language. But I started writing my own songs when it became clear that there were some problems with using hip hop in the classroom. And so that’s why I started making my own songs and I made them with hip hop. If I’d grown up playing acoustic guitar or jazz piano, I would have done it that way, but because hip hop is what I did… And then I realised, as I went, that there also is an advantage of doing it with the hip-hop style – such a rhythmic music, the most rhythmic of all, so it’s more like teaching conversation… and once you start controlling for the content, like I was, as an English teacher, then you’ve got the best of both worlds. You’ve got the language they need to repeat in a way that is going to prepare them better for listening and speaking in conversation.
GABRIEL: Cool. So it was like a natural marriage of your social life or your spare time and your work.
JASON: Exactly. That’s really it, yes.
GABRIEL: Your viral video – the verb one, verb two, verb three rap – why do you think so many people liked that? Why do you think that video appealed to so many people?
JASON: That’s a great question. I think it’s because everybody recognises the importance of learning irregular verbs, but I think it’s also the novelty of a teacher getting up and doing um ah the way I’m doing it. But then also maybe because it’s… A student made the video on their camera. A lot of videos that you wouldn’t think would be popular because they’re not slickly produced, actually become more viral. So it was very natural. It wasn’t something we set up to do so much. It was something we were doing in class already. A student wanted to film it, so we…
GABRIEL: OK. So the reality TV vibe about it…
GABRIEL: It looks like you do a lot of travelling. You travel a lot for your workshops. Have you got any cool stories from any of your travels? Any travel stories?
JASON: I have a lot of great stories of students from different countries telling me how it’s helped them. I guess… The one story that comes to mind, though, is really crazy. I was in a very small town, Reggio Calabria in Italy and it was really late at night and I was walking to a hotel from the train station – I got in really late. And I heard someone say, “English teacher! English teacher!” I was on a small street. It was really dark and it was very strange. I looked and there’s a girl, like 13 years old, with her head out of a taxi cab. And I thought is she trying to get me to come in this taxi. And I went over. Her mother was driving the cab; her mother was a cab driver. That’s already kind of unusual in Italy, to have a woman driving a cab. So her mum’s driving the cab and this girl, who could barely speak English, recognised me from YouTube. So that’s the great thing about having a viral video, I guess.
GABRIEL: Yeah, the recognition. Cool, OK. You’re all about motivation. It seems to be your main thing.
GABRIEL: Can you give our readers three tips for what to do when they feel like they’re losing their motivation?
JASON: For me, I see learning a language as learning about the language, practising the language, and using the language. So learning about the language is studying grammar, looking at some meme on Facebook that talks about the difference between “fun” and “funny”, or countable and uncountable, or whatever. And learning about a language is important, but that’s usually what we do most, spend most of our time on. And then we try to jump from that to using, which is going out in the real world, or even in the classroom, doing some kind of communicative activity that requires confidence, motivation. And the only way to be confident and motivated in an activity like this in the classroom or in the real world with a conversation partner or at a job, I think, is if you feel confident enough that your accuracy and fluency is at a level that you’re enjoying using the language and you’re not feeling ashamed and stressed and embarrassed. And, most people do not get enough practice, that middle piece, in order to go from learning about the language to using. So they may be able to get a perfect score on a quiz about the present perfect, but they’re not using the present perfect with accuracy and fluency, and that’s because they’re not getting enough repetitive exposure and practice. If you don’t get enough repetition with what you’re learning about, you’re not going to remember it; you’re not going to use it with accuracy; you’re not going to have the confidence to have it come out and you’ll lose motivation. It’s a vicious circle. So I feel one reason for this is that repetitive practice can be very boring – traditional repetitive practice. There are ways of getting repetitive practice that are actually really fun and interesting and natural – songs are the most powerful, in my opinion. I mentioned earlier that if you enjoy a magazine article that has great target language that you enjoy in real life, you’re not going to read that article 15 times. The truth is that if you really wanted to use what’s in that article or in that book, you’re gonna have to get repetitive exposure. So I would say find things you like to repeat – you know, videos, scenes, play games in English – and the more you repeat the materials like this, the more likely that language is going to stick and you’ll be able to use it and as a result you’re going to feel much more motivated.
GABRIEL: The main tip would be “finding something you are happy to repeat.”
JASON: Yes, exactly!
GABRIEL: Also one of your slogans on your site is “relax, repeat and remember.” Relaxing – one piece of advice for relaxing.
JASON: To me, relaxation includes being entertained. Being interested. So it’s finding something that you like to repeat meaning that you’re interested in and that you’re relaxed. I don’t mean you have to be relaxed in some special way. I mean more that you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it, not because somebody told you you had to for homework. You’re not stressed. So that’s what I mean by relaxed. If you’re in a state where you’re into what you’re doing especially if you don’t look at it as work, and you repeat that, then you will remember.
GABRIEL: So everything seems to come back to this idea of repeating something that you enjoy. I guess that if we can condense the advice in this interview into one sentence, that could be it, right?
JASON: That is absolutely it.
GABRIEL: “Repeat something you enjoy.”
JASON: That’s right.
GABRIEL: Two more questions.
GABRIEL: First one: Do you have any plans for the future? What are your plans for the future?
JASON: Well, I would, this year, like to focus as much as I can on doing workshops in schools in France and Belgium so I’m closer to home. But I would like to travel – I’m hoping to go to a few places during the year. This year and beyond I’d like to build more relationships with teachers in schools through the songs and videos. I’m making this book I mentioned earlier to try to get my materials into more schools around the world and also to do more online.
GABRIEL: Great… cool. OK fantastic. And the last question: If you could go back in time to any period, when would you go?
JASON: Any period in history at all?
GABRIEL: Any period in history at all.
JASON: Well, I’m a big hip hop person. I can times in ancient history that would be really cool to go back to, but I have to say – maybe I’m thinking about this right now especially because I’m watching The Get Down, which is a Netflix series about the beginnings of hip-hop in the Bronx. But I would like to go back to the early ’70s in New York City… I’m also thinking about things like ancient Egypt right now, but anyway, I’d like to go back to that time to be there when all of it was starting to happen and gel and move from funk and disco into hip hop and it was all being created and that would be pretty cool.
GABRIEL: I thought that might be your answer. Great, well thanks a lot.
JASON: Thank you, man.
GABRIEL: Nice to meet you man.
JASON: Take care