Sage Salvo, a local poet, economist and educator, likes to connect the dots. And he believes that one point should not be omitted from high school English: kids’ favorite singers.
“The real power of literacy is to understand why the author wrote that way,” he explained. And often, rappers or pop singers structure their lyrics similarly to the writers of times past.
Salvo, with a Ph.D. in economics from Howard University and an MBA from the University of Toronto, is an ideas guy. But he’s also a wordsmith. “I’ve been a poet since I was a little 12-year-old boy,” he said, adding that he used to host open mic nights at Busboys and Poets from 2007 to 2009.
“I took the systems understood through economics,” he said, and combined them with language, “to help develop poetry.”
During the 2012-2013 school year, he worked with English teachers in Anacostia, Cardoza and Duke Ellington high schools and found a topic that resonated. “I would always end up using hip hop,” he said, to show “the literary system at play in the music.”
Take Beowulf, for instance: it’s an epic narrative, which includes a hero, voyage, a battle and a crowned king.
Here’s a study question: Where do you see reflections of that structure in modern music?
The correct answer was Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.” “His entire album is written in that format,” explained Salvo.
Through the Words LIIVE curriculum, teachers are encouraged to “annotate Lamar and then do a close reading of Beowulf,” he said.
At this stage, the website features only Salvo’s lesson plans, but eventually teachers will be able to input their own text comparisons. “One might be using Kendrick Lamar, another might be using Taylor Swift,” he said.
Words LIIVE is collaborating with Prezi to build an API for the text comparisons. That could turn into a key component of his business model, he said.
Through a $25,000 friends and family round, Words LIIVE is creating its first minimum viable product. Eventually, Salvo wants to seek more investments through crowdfunding.
Last Thursday, Salvo launched Words LIIVE officially to the public at SXSWedu, where he gave a talk on Literacy Through Music, Social Media and Coding.
Additionally, Salvo will be using IBM Watson’s API for natural language processing. That new collaboration came about during the Austin festival.
“I’m a city boy,” said Salvo, who was born in the Northeast and grew up in Reston. “I’m into technology by default.” But he also believes that technology should become a subject in school.
“Literacy has more to do with than just literature,” said Salvo. It also involves the new language of coding, which comes with its own rules of grammar. “Why is there a hashtag next to a search phrase that structures a command?”