By Mike Fricano
"Who’s going to say, ‘My ideas are like thunder’?" UCLA education grad student and part-time middle-school music teacher Lawrence Grey Berkowitz asks the fifth graders in his music class before selecting a boy named Dakota.
The students are putting the final touches on their song, "We Are Superheroes," and need to lay down a few more vocals on top of their hip-hop beats. After a few tries and coaching from his teacher, Dakota nails it, earning applause from his classmates and a loud "Yes!" from the 24-year-old Berkowitz.
Berkowitz taps his keyboard, and the newest version of the song plays.
Is no way to find success
With an education
You can pass the test
The students bob their heads and sway in their seats as they hear themselves rap their lyrics.
Is as solid as a rock (rock)
My ideas are like thunder
They hit you with a shock!!
Dakota (left) raps his vocal part for the song "We Are Superheroes," which 2013 Rishwain Award winner Lawrence Grey Berkowitz (wearing headphones) helped his class write and record.
This reinvented music class — a blend of songwriting, recording, audio production and self-esteem building — is Berkowitz’s way of keeping the arts in schools despite budget-slashing, and stoking kids’ creativity while also teaching traditional and technological literacy to students in low-income neighborhoods.
"This is the music they love. This is the music I love," he explained. But there is also a bonus in having students write and record their own rap songs. "Schools that have arts programs have better graduation rates than those that do not," said Berkowitz, who teaches at TEACH Academy for Technologies Charter School in South L.A. He also runs his electronic music class at the Children’s Institute, a nonprofit that serves more than 20,000 children and families in L.A. County at three campuses, two centers, 11 early childhood centers and more than 60 family child care homes.
Berkowitz’s work recently earned him one of two 2013 Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Awards
from the Center for Civil Society
in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Sponsored by alumnus Brian Rishwain, a successful entrepreneur and attorney, the awards recognize UCLA students from across the campus who bring an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to social justice work. This is the fourth year the awards have been given, along with a $2,500 prize.
This year’s other winner, Betzabel Estudillo, is a graduate student in social welfare at the Luskin School. Estudillo has been instrumental in providing mental health services and support for undocumented students and youth who suffer from anxiety, depression and substance abuse stemming from their legal status. Estudillo brought the CIRCLE Project
(The Collective of Immigrant Resilience through Community Led Empowerment) to UCLA.
From left: Brian Rishwain, Berkowitz, fellow 2013 winner Betzabel Estudillo, 2012 winner May Thi Nguyen and Bill Parent, acting director of the Luskin School's Center for Civil Society.
This year’s other finalists worked on projects that provided free mental health education and diabetes outreach for the homeless, used classical poetry to teach literacy and spoken-word performance to youth in South L.A., taught literacy to adults via cell phones and assisted Louisiana youths serving a sentence of life without parole sentences.
It was the entrepreneurial component, which Rishwain defined as filling a need that hasn’t been addressed in a sustainable way or finding a new solution to a persistent problem, that helped distinguish the winners.
Berkowitz, who considers himself more of a music producer than teacher, said he taps their creativity by treating them as recording artists and having them serve in roles like "interface master" and learn production terms like "sample." To turn his classroom into a fully functioning recording studio, Berkowitz relies on his laptop, a microphone and software — the company, Ableton Live, provided some free licenses after learning how he was using it at Children’s Institute.
Sara Kersey, Berkowitz's adviser.
The skills that they are learning, including technological literacy, "will be with them for the rest of their lives," Berkowitz said. At Children’s Institute, the kids create their own beats using the computers in a technology lab, while at TEACH Academy they pick up computer skills through osmosis.
To teach songwriting, Berkowitz has the students share their experiences, telling stories about school, their favorite sports and foods, but also about parents who got deported and siblings getting shot. One of the founders of TEACH Academy advised him to focus on songs with positive themes about the power of education and how people can help others going through difficult times.
"I found that my students are eager to prove that they are above the assumptions that society has about them," said Berkowitz, who will graduate this month from the Teacher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
Berkowitz gives each student a songwriting notebook to write his or her story. Then the entire class studies rhyme scheme and rhythmic timing so they can turn their stories into working song lyrics. Then they record.
"In the classroom environment, he encouraged students to be cooperative, inquisitive and motivated in their learning," UCLA lecturer and Berkowitz’s faculty adviser Sara Kersey wrote in her letter of support for Berkowitz. "He developed a learning environment where students could explore curriculum through direct, hands-on experiences, many of which related to music. It was exciting to observe him as he challenged the students, conveyed his enthusiasm for the subject matter and implemented a student-centered curriculum."
Though Berkowitz has been teaching electronic music since fall 2011, his love of teaching began in high school when he worked as a counselor at a homeless shelter through Camp Harmony, a nonprofit program offering a variety of enrichment programs at more than 12 Los Angeles County shelters. "That experience not only affected them, it affected me," Berkowitz said. "There were moments you’d see a rekindling of a spark that’s so easily killed by poverty."
When he enrolled as an undergraduate at New York University, Berkowitz had plans of a career composing and producing electronic music, but a job he took with a company that writes music for commercials felt "soulless," he said.
A friend, who worked at a program that specialized in alternatives to incarceration for teens, recruited Berkowitz to teach music. Berkowitz helped a boy named Asher write a song about growing up in the projects and getting arrested.
Students watch the video they filmed for their song "Boom Snap Clap!"
"He rapped … about going into a park with a friend of his and pulling a gun on a guy, forcing him to hand over his chain," Berkowitz recalled. "I couldn't help but ask Asher why he did that. He was always so intelligent and focused with me that it just didn't make sense. He said he did it because he was bored and didn’t care. Music fights this apathy and boredom through creativity."
Seeing the impact music made on Asher gave Berkowitz a new focus.
"Education would be a way for me to not sacrifice creatively," Berkowitz said, "I’d be helping kids advance, not some ad executive."
When he started the teacher training program at UCLA, he wanted to find a way to continue working with youths. So he approached the Children’s Institute and also left messages at middle schools in South L.A. As a result, he’s working not only at TEACH Academy.
"Lawrence’s program enables youth to utilize state-of-the-art technology," wrote Zully Chan, director of centralized community services for the Children’s Institute, in her letter of support, "while at the same time teaching them that artistry comes from within, and anything can be utilized as their tools of artistic expression."
Berkowitz said that he’s going to use the $2,500 award to help buy new recording software or equipment. This summer he’s going to teach high school students music production in the Young Producers Group he recently founded. If possible, Berkowitz said, he’d love ultimately have those students help him work with students at the Children’s Institute.
"My aspiration to play my music all over the world has only gotten stronger, but now I want to work with kids, too," Berkowitz said. "I haven't given anything up. I've just added more opportunities for me to make an impact."