Vanessa Ellis: Teaching Economics One Rap Song at a Time

Sixth grade social studies teacher Vanessa Ellis is probably the most enthusiastic teacher you will ever meet.

“I am fired up every day I pull up to work and step before my students,” says Ellis, who teaches at Fort Service Learning Magnet Academy in Muscogee County. “I get so excited the night before I introduce a new activity that sometimes I can’t even sleep!”

Ellis draws her enthusiasm from three areas: a passion for her subject, a passion for her profession and her personal passion for music and movies. Put those three things together and you get one of a kind teaching tools like a rap song on economics, or a simulation on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) where students take on different economic roles, or researching the GDPs of different countries because “the President needs their help.”

“Immersing students in the learning and making them the central part of the lesson tends to be the most powerful of my strategies because students are actively involved, not just passively absorbing it,” she says.

After graduating from Columbus State University with degrees in history and secondary education, she was hired in 2011 at Fort Service Learning Magnet Academy as a seventh grade social studies teacher, and switched to sixth grade two years ago. For both grades, she immersed herself in the then required Georgia Performance Standards and came up with creative methods to teach those standards. One way was through rap music. She makes a list of all the vocabulary and concepts students must learn and then writes a song incorporating all of those words. She makes a recording of it, and has her students learn the words by watching her. She has designed eight of these rap songs, which cover various subjects in social studies. The “Imports and Exports” rap contains the GPS-based terms for economics.

“Vocabulary is a big part of economics, and my students are generally not on grade level in terms of reading, and struggle with comprehension,” she says. “This helps them understand and remember.”

To learn about NAFTA, she uses a simulation activity she learned at a GCEE workshop. Students assume different roles and carry out functions of NAFTA as it applies to a fictitious multi-national aerospace company. For each country, students walk into the classroom to the national anthem of that country. When they are in Canada, they design the airplane. The wings and tail of the plane are made in Mexico and the plane is assembled in the United States.

“I want my students to be challenged, engaged and to have fun,” she says. I also want them to develop a passion for learning.”

While her students are learning and having fun, they are inevitably being prepared for their future as producers, consumers and workers.

“It is my hope that even though my students are only in sixth grade, my introduction to economic concepts will provide a foundation that will be built upon throughout their education,” Ellis says.