In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Thomas E. Mayfield Jr., campus instructional coach for Fort Worth ISD, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about using music to help students better understand math.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Marcheta Fornoff: What do you remember from your experience going to school as a kid? 

Thomas E. Mayfield Jr.: My father was a former principal for Fort Worth ISD, Thomas E. Mayfield Sr. I remember I lived in a low socioeconomic neighborhood. Though I had both my parents and we were pretty financially stable, I did attend a lot of Title I schools. I had a lot of friends growing up that made poor choices and some made some great choices. I had to decide which was best for me, but it was hard at times to pick between doing right or wrong because I had these influences around me.

I credit a lot of the teachers I had growing up, as well as my parents, to keep me on the straight and narrow. I learned a lot in school that sort of grounded me and helped me to be able to instill in kids what I’m doing today. 

Fornoff: Can you talk a little bit more about some of those teachers? What was something they did that really left an impression on you? 

Mayfield: Shoutout to Mrs. Barbara Cabbil, my seventh grade reading teacher at Morningside Middle School. I was pretty good in reading, but I wasn’t living up to my full potential — my expectations that my parents had for me and myself as well. She would often stay for tutoring with me. I know that she was giving a lot of sacrifice. She had young boys and they were doing sports. And I can remember her staying multiple times during the week just to help me out. That was important. 

Fornoff: What made you interested in getting into education yourself? 

Mayfield: My father. He was a big, big, big part of my wanting to be a part of education and wanting to give back to kids. And I wanted to make sure that I was able to get our students to live up to their full potential, give them opportunities that they would not normally get.

I wanted to make sure that I approached them with education a little bit differently, too. I knew that growing up, even though I learned pretty quickly, I know that all kids don’t. I wanted to make sure I had a correct medium to approach them and make sure they were engaged in class. 

Fornoff: What was your experience like as a teacher? 

Mayfield: My first year was pretty rough. I dealt with a lot of different home makeups, different types of students, different types of colleagues. And I had a lot of support, but it was still daunting at times. It was frustrating, but rewarding.

I ended up doing pretty well with the scores with our students. My first year I was a fourth-grade math and science teacher, at M.I. Logan in the Stop Six area of Fort Worth. I started developing music as a form of teaching math in ’07 at that same campus. And it took off.

I credit good support from the community, from the district I worked in and just being able to have administrators that let teachers teach out of the box and make sure that we’re reaching the kids. 

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Fornoff: Talk to me about the first song you decided to use in your classroom. Do you remember what it was? 

Mayfield: It was a song by Young Money. It was way back in the day, we talked about factors. (Sings), “I can find your factors.”

We’re looking at developing vocabulary usage along with just great, engaging songs. I wanted to make sure that I give my kids the opportunity to see words in different fashions of different lights — a lot of synonym usage. I put a lot of emphasis on syllables and how we write songs and why the lyrics are relevant. So they resonated with it. 

Fornoff: What were your colleagues’ reactions to that? 

Mayfield: Some are supportive, but I’m not going to lie, some were skeptical about, you know, something that was so brand new. It wasn’t a wave at that point. I had to step out on faith and do what I thought was best for my kids and get them where they needed to be.

Fornoff: Did any of your teachers ever rap for you as a kid? 

Mayfield: I wasn’t fortunate enough to have any bars spit in the classroom by the teachers, but I want to think I influenced a lot of teachers here in Fort Worth. One of my colleagues, Jeffrey Vinson, was using hip hop and lyrics to sort of talk about reading comprehension, context clues and citing evidence within text, which is groundbreaking.

But there were some who were skeptical and thought that it was just a gimmick or the kids weren’t going to be able to retain the information. And to this day, I have students that still remember those songs. And because of that, they remember the skill, and it’s sort of ingrained within their mindset. 

Fornoff: Is there one that they particularly reference? 

Mayfield: Well, this was a song by Roddy Ricch. “The Box” came out maybe two years ago. We did a song using that particular beat, about X and Y coordinates in fifth grade. That was one they liked a lot, primarily because the beat in the song was so popular. It hit Top 100 on Billboard, so they knew what the song was. We took our spin on it with lyrics. They just ran with it and I loved it. 

Fornoff: How do you decide what songs (to use)? Are you looking at the Billboard list? 

Mayfield: I’m a songwriter outside of being a teacher, so I listen to music a lot. I’m very familiar with different artists, working with the kids — they keep me current. So I’m up on the lingo and everything is appropriate as far as the lyrics. So, “Hey, you know, that line was about math. That line is cool. It has some drip.”

I want to make sure that the kids are feeling at home when they listen to the music, but at the same time, I’m getting my point across, which is to help them understand mathematics. But yeah, I sort of monitor the music and monitor the songs and see how hot they are at the time and go forward from there. 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on
Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...