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Podcast: How to Differentiate Instruction Through Rhymes and Raps with Toney Jackson in NJ on Teachers in America

28 Min Read
Hero Banner Toney Jackson

Photo: Fourth-grade teacher Toney Jackson

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In this episode, we hear from Toney Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher in Hackensack, New Jersey.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom. This year, we are going to focus each conversation on a specific instructional practice or theme but always include their teacher journey.

In today’s episode, we’ll dive into differentiated instruction with my dear friend Toney Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher in Hackensack, NJ. Toney brings his passion for the arts into the classroom as a teacher MC, engaging students in all subject areas through hip-hop and poetry.

Before becoming a teacher, Toney performed spoken word poetry while studying at Rutgers University. He then went on to become a fixture in the local arts scene and a teaching artist. An author and illustrator of multiple children’s books, Toney also writes and records music. He has performed on the Vans Warped Tour, released two albums, and was a winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. He has also been featured in an internationally broadcast Microsoft Windows 10 commercial for his use of poetry, illustration, and technology in his classroom.

Toney has worked closely with HMH as a Teacher’s Corner ambassador and speaker at the Model Schools Conference. And soon, Toney’s rhymes—and voice—will be showcased in HMH's Waggle program. Now, let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey, Toney, what's up? We are going to tell everybody that you and I are friends, and so this episode is probably going to sound like two friends having a conversation. This is my friend, Toney Jackson, a teacher in Hackensack, New Jersey, but I'm going to throw it over to him to introduce himself. Toney, when you introduce yourself, just go right in and describe your teacher journey.

Toney Jackson: Cool. Okay. So yeah, what's up, everybody? As my friend Noelle said, my name is Toney Jackson. I teach fourth grade. I've taught second grade, and I am now in my 17th year of teaching. I'm getting to that two-decade mark, which I'm excited about. I went an alternate route to teach. I was an artist. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, and I was really involved in poetry, and I started doing work in the schools. And so from that, I said, "Oh, I'd like to be closer to this. I like working with kids. I want to do more of this kind of work." I got a couple of long-term sub positions, and then I was just a fit for the elementary school where I actually was a student, and I have been there ever since. And thankfully, as we've talked about a lot, Noelle, I've been able to keep going with my passion outside of the actual physical schoolhouse building as I teach. So, I'm super blessed to be able to do what I do.

Noelle: One of the things that I know drew me to you was your creativity, but I don't think in our conversations I really ever knew that you, too, were a long-term sub, so shout out to the substitute teachers out there.

Toney: Oh, super shout-out. Like all the props, especially in these last couple of years, it is a huge responsibility, and we are always thankful for subs who come in and give it their all, and they're an essential piece in education being able to run the way it is. So yes, definitely.

Noelle: So true. So true. Wherever you are in your teacher journey, just embrace it, enjoy it. However we come into it, we come into it. But describe that moment where you decided, "Okay, I'm going to be a classroom teacher," and then what you realized you needed a little more skill on to make it work.

Toney: Like I said, I didn't go to school to teach, but once I got into poetry and doing open mics, I think it was a part of my personality and the personality of the friend group that was sharing our art with each other, sharing our ideas. Usually, college is that time you think about parties and stuff like that, and we had our own events. We were throwing events and doing shows, so we weren't lacking for that camaraderie and that party atmosphere and stuff. We really went in, but it wasn't the same parties. We were sharing with each other and sharing with other folks. And once I got into the schools and was able to do that, I felt more fed. That's the only way I can describe it because I'm an eternal learner, so I'm always looking to learn more, and to be a part of that journey for younger folks was something that I just really took to, and I probably thought about it for a while before I said, "I'm going to take that jump."

My mom was a teacher, my dad was a teacher, and they were both definitely like, "This would be good for you. This would be awesome." And then I had some moments in the classroom where I was doing these sub positions where I got to really connect. I brought hip hop in. I got to rap and freestyle and stuff like that with classes, not knowing how to do it in a way that perfectly melded with the academic curricula I was implementing. But that was a part of my growth, and it was like, "Oh, cool, I can be this way. I can express this way. Let's see what else I can do."

Jackson incorporates arts into his lessons

Jackson incorporates his passion for the arts, like poetry and puppetry, into his day-to-day lessons.

Noelle: I think it's awesome that your parents encouraged you versus, "Toney, think about something else." When you were growing up, what was your thought about your parents being teachers?

Toney: I always thought it was cool. My dad taught for 17 years, then he went into the ministry, and he was a pastor for 30 years. My mom taught for 40 years, so she was teaching in the high school when I got to high school, and I was just so used to it, Noelle. She knew my teachers. She was in the district, so if I was studying for something and I was having trouble, she would come home with the book because she'd be like, "Oh, okay, here, you can check this out." She knew the teachers and knew the administrators, and I saw the relationship that she had with her students, and that was closer than I was with my teachers. So she had something, and my dad too, it was like a magic that they had, and it was my first view of relationship building and how essential it was for teachers without knowing it then, well, I was just getting it and experiencing it, and they would come over.

It was a different time. She'd have scholarship application parties. They would go on all kinds of trips, whether in or out of the classroom. So I was just like, "This is what it is." Education is not just the building, it's the relationships, and that was always a part of me. So I think when I got to come in and experience that for myself as a teacher, I was like, "Oh, okay." I was like, "Yeah, this is more than if I had just gone through an education program, [there are] pieces that I definitely got when I went back." But that was something that I'm thankful that they gave me.

Noelle: Now, when you think about seeing your mom specifically, how she embraced far more than just the academics, would you agree that it's about seeing each student from their optimum potential and who they are as a human being?

Toney: Oh, totally. We're like pop culture enthusiasts, you and I, and so, I think of all of the teacher TV shows from back in the day, like from Head of the Class to Boy Meets World, Welcome Back, Kotter even. And I always remember thinking about it in terms of the characters. I thought about the different characters. And granted, that is just a piece of storytelling to develop your characters, but there's so much truth to what you're saying and how I would see that in watching those shows. I'd be like, "Okay, I can see he's the class clown, or he's got those aspects to him, but this kid has this passion, and this kid is really funny sometimes, or this kid likes to do this, they're talented in this way." And I feel that's how I see things now. But I know that kids aren't beholden to just one archetype, but it definitely helps me to see all of the character that the kids have inside of them. So I won't say that TV made me a better teacher, but I'm not saying that it hurt.

Noelle: No, it totally does not hurt. It's also a way to see some potential strategies and connections, and also just conversation. Just throw in a line or throw in a lyric or make a connection to a character. There are things that students embrace, and then they begin to see you as a human.

Noelle: Hey, teacher friends, if you're an HMH user, did you know you have access to Teacher's Corner on Ed? Included with every HMH program, Teacher's Corner is a community of teachers, learning experts, and instructional coaches gathered in one place to support you with a new kind of professional learning: Bite-sized, teacher-selected, and teacher-driven. With on-demand sessions, lesson demonstrations, program support, and practical resources, Teacher's Corner lets you choose how you interact with our content. I like to think about it as inspiration on demand.

Noelle: I want to think about after you have met your students and you're making that transition from culture to really digging into the academics. When you take a deep breath, and you look at your data, or you've just taught a lesson, and you're thinking about the formative assessments that you embedded, what's your approach to then differentiating and making that work for you and your students?

Toney: So I feel like differentiation has been something that I kept in mind from the time that I started teaching without knowing the term for it. I think, as teachers, we do a lot of that. We do certain things or certain strategies and techniques without researching them or knowing what they're called. I think some of them are from experience and learning in different ways, but as I started, I always tried to give of myself and say, "I want to make sure that my students are seeing who I am and not trying to be phony." And so, I wanted that to come through as authentic as possible. And then, as I was able to become more comfortable in that myself, I was able to learn more about each student that way. And so, like you're saying, that first bridge is definitely always being built, and that's the direct relationship, the personal connections.

And I think through that is how you learn in terms of their academic needs, in terms of their strengths, in terms of struggles, all of that, and that was what I was always looking towards. So when I went back to school, I went alternate root and got my teaching certificate, and then I went back for my master's in differentiated instruction because I wanted to know how to do that, not just experiential aspects of what I'm doing in the classroom, but I wanted to know the technical pieces, I wanted to know specifically what were some strategies and techniques that I could learn. Everything from how we group students to how we meet with them and confer and how we get certain resources, what's going to be best and most effective. So it's always been something that I've been really interested in learning more about and making sure it's a part of the classroom.

Noelle: It seems like you're differentiating to get to those strategies and best practices for who your learners are, is it fair to say that you first start with reflecting on your delivery?

Toney: Yeah, I would say that's definitely how I first started. Early on, I made so many missteps and mistakes as a young teacher, but I do feel like that was the first avenue that I had was just I wanted to show them my authentic self and be real because those were the teachers that I connected with as a student. And then, as I learned more about content and as I learned more about the process of learning, and what kind of products students would create to show this learning, I started being able to put all of that into my practice as well.

Noelle: I am curious—when you think [about] the different ways about grouping, do you think about grouping as you're delivering the instruction, or are you thinking about grouping post the instruction happening and then what you're going to do next based on their response to the instruction?

Toney: Definitely both. Definitely both. I have some students that inevitably, when I'm doing a lesson, if I'm doing a whole class lesson, they might be flying, and they might be like, "Okay, I got it. Good. I'm ready for the next page, and I'm ready to go on." And sometimes you can see that really clearly because they’re vocal about it. And so in those times, I'm taking notes, whether mentally or actually physically jotting things down, and then I'm making changes based on that. But I also do reflect afterward and see beyond just that part of the lesson, once the kids are on their own, once they're working, once I'm going around the classroom checking in with them, "What changes do I need to make?" So it's definitely both for me.

Noelle: Have you come across a student who, despite all ways of having conversations with them, encouraging them to come into the group, just does not like to be in a group? Whether it's collaborative, whether it's a part of your Tier 1 instruction, or it is intervention, or it's very specific practice, do you just have students who like, “I’m not into grouping”?

Toney: Yeah. Yeah. I absolutely have. Sometimes they will be vocal about that and let me know right from the get-go. Sometimes aspects of it may change as the year goes on, but I have had students who, for the large majority of the year, that's not the way that they really wanted to roll. I thought that I should say I saw that there were times where I would see them connect with other students. It was about observation, and I'm looking at, "Okay, what are they connecting on? What is the point of connection here, and how can that possibly transfer to when we're in a different context?" So maybe it's like when they're having a snack or when they're really comfortable doing something that they love, and they're connecting with a partner or just talking to a friend. I'm like, "Okay, there's something that I can see, and let me see if I can modify how I was doing this assignment here."

I had a student who the modification that we made was instead of working in a physical group, I set up groups online on a video platform, so sometimes they would meet together. It wouldn't be for a really extended period of time, but they would do a lot of work, and then they would record themselves and then make comments on each other's videos there, and there was a lot of dialogue. There would be tons and tons of videos and tons of comments, but they just preferred that to physically sitting in the same space and working that way.

Jackson connects with his students

Jackson checks in with students to be able to modify instruction and grouping.

Noelle: Let's bring this differentiation conversation around to also differentiating within professional learning.

Toney: Oh, definitely.

Noelle: When you go into a professional learning setting, how do you prepare yourself to get something even if you're questioning, "Is this for me? Do I really need to be here?"

Toney: It's so interesting because, just in terms of the language, I'm so used to professional development being the phrase versus professional learning. Even though I know that it's just two names for the same thing, I always felt like that's so interesting because I look at it differently when you say professional learning, honestly. I feel like professional development makes me feel more like something active is supposed to be happening, and I feel like professional learning is a little bit more nebulous, so I'm actually more comfortable with that. I'm going to start using that more than PD, so thank you for that. I'm sorry. That hits me differently.

Noelle: I transitioned to that, and we've also transitioned to that at HMH because professional learning is, "Here are the goals. Here's how we're going to interact in the learning experience. Each teacher, who are you? Where are you in the journey? What do you need?" And it's your learning.

Toney: Yes, exactly.

Noelle: I noticed, well before the pandemic, that professional development teachers were beginning to think something was being done to them versus with them.

Toney: Yeah. I feel like going into those situations, and this is what something I've been thinking about lately is what has been transformative and innovative in education in the past 5, 10 years. And I really think about that a lot. I want to have that conversation with my colleagues. I want to have that conversation with my admin, like the district office-level head. I want to know what people think has been transformative and innovative because I don't think that there's a lot of energy that goes into those two things. I don't think there's a lot of time, speaking from my experience, that goes into being innovative and being transformative. And I think that we go around that, and we try to do a lot of making the same thing a little bit better.

Something like this, and I say this seriously, I think this podcast and the act of doing things like this is something that is innovative. It's something that is transformative. Because I've listened to it. I've gotten up in the morning and had an extra hour and listened to an episode and been affected by the way that someone explains their own development. And that has moved me, and that has made me say, "Oh, you know what? Let me do a little bit more research about what they're saying here. Let me dig into these resources." And I think that's slept on as how innovative and transformative it is to have platforms like this doing this.

So, I have a deep appreciation for it because it's not to say that I never walk into a professional learning situation and come away with something, but I feel like I'm expected to take away exactly what they want me to take away from many times when I go in there. And it's like, "Okay, this is what you're going to get. Here's the objective. Here's what you got," as opposed to having a little bit more freedom and saying, "Wow, there are so many different ways I can be affected by someone's story. There are so many different ways I can be affected by the way that someone reaches me. There are so many different ways that I can be hit by content from different angles.”

And I feel like that connects what we're talking about because that's how I try to be in my classroom with my students because there are lots of different things that I'm trying to do, and I'm never going to settle in and say, "This is the way that I'm going to be each year," because the students that are in front of me are going to be different every single year, so I have to keep changing as well. I feel like that's my journey, and I hope that there's a little bit of clarity in there because I know that it sounds scattered as it's coming out of my mouth.

Noelle: Scattered is the new order.

Toney: There we go. Let's go.

Noelle: People used to come into my classroom, and I remember them always saying, "There's a lot going on in here." And I would ask them, "Can you describe to me what you mean?" And they're like, "How did you plan this? You have students doing so many different things." And I really struggled with that for a while. And I finally just said, "This is controlled chaos." And then they were like, "Where are your lesson plans?" And I did have to turn in things in an orderly form. But Toney, my lesson plans were on Post-it®, on a piece of paper as an outline. So yes, I think everybody should embrace some scattering, and that's a strategy, and it is also very organized because the amount of creativity in somebody is just as orderly as somebody who puts it in a well-organized—

Toney: Oh my gosh. I'm sorry to cut you off, but that is just differentiation to me like this is a T-shirt/hoodie design too. I could see that. I could see controlled chaos. I could see differentiation, 10 ways written, and they're all different. One is very tightly knit together. One, all the letters are floating around because that's what happens. And when I feel the least comfortable in my classroom is when I feel like I'm expected to be or needing to be on the same page as the class next door, or giving the test on the same day, or having all of my students expected to hit the same average on their scores. That's when I feel the least comfortable because differentiation, as huge of a term as it is now, it's just a way of being. We know that with ourselves. And so, that's always been something that I think just hits me when I'm in a setting, which is, "I'm comfortable because I feel like I have some freedom here, and I want my students to feel that too."

So if it means I have different levels of books that they have the option to read, if they have different ways that we're going to create this assessment, it shouldn't all look the same. I think from the top down, people say that; people say that it's not one size fits all, but I think when it comes down to the classroom level, a lot of the times, that's not what we get. We still get the same tests that we're expected to give; we still get the same goals that we are expected to shoot for. And so, I really appreciate and admire when administrators are able to see those things and those needs for the teachers and the students who are not all going to hit the same thing in the same way.

Noelle: Exactly. It's like mic drop moment.

Noelle: We're going to bring this back to technology. So 1995, we're talking about the initial like differentiation was coming into the classroom through technology. Remember Oregon Trail and—

Toney: Yes.

Noelle: —different things that you could have. And I remember watching the importance of this with my students and the technology driving a lot of how they were getting that personalized instruction. Now we're talking so much faster. I'm not going to try to talk in gigabytes and speed and all of that, but let's just say in 2023, it's so easy to get to that precise point of what a student needs in the moment that you're in. One of the great things you've been doing with HMH is bringing your skillset, your experience with differentiation, your love for math, which I definitely want to let everybody know, I see Toney as a full-scale teacher who loves every subject, but you've always had this passion for math.

Toney: I do as an adult. I feel like, as a kid, I wasn't ever somebody who said, "I hated math," but I was always so into the arts, and I didn't have a connection at the time between art and math that was strong. And that's one of the things that I try to make sure I do for my students is to show them the connection across all disciplines. I'm an MC. I love music, and so I'm always having my kids find the patterns in songs, whether it's the beats, whether it's the lyrics, the measures that the song is arranged in. And then we do the same thing when we're doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, division; we're always searching for patterns constantly. And so that's why I think that (this is my math passion coming out right now). I love it because I see it everywhere. And I want my kids to have that. I want them to know that it doesn't just live on the page; it doesn't just live on these problems. You see it everywhere.

Noelle: Seeing it and hearing it, probably students are like, "What? Math?" But you've worked on a project with HMH where you've been bringing some lyrics and rhyme into our program, Waggle, which is designed for differentiation based on standards and students’ needs; you can tie it to a lesson, all that. I'm not trying to do any commercial, but this is important for people to understand that even in today's technology, there are ways to continue as the technology gets better. And we also at HMH are so passionate about teachers being a part of our creativity and content. So do you mind sharing with us a little bit about how you came into what you've worked on with HMH and what it's felt like and been like?

Toney: Yeah, absolutely. I have been privileged to work on a couple of different sides of things that HMH has done from Teacher's Corner, and I think that Waggle is, I say this seriously, it's one of my favorite creative projects that I've been able to be a part of, and I've been creating since forever, but I just love this. One, it's a part of my pedagogy as a teacher; it's a part of what I like to do. I want to make sure that things are engaging when I'm teaching so that it comes across to my students. And that was at the forefront of this whole project was creating something that would engage learners but that also was heavy in terms of the content. And I don't mean heavy like dense, but every line, every lyric, even to the visuals are created to help learners. Every aspect of the project to me was done with learners in mind, and that was the part that I completely fell in love with being a part of it, so I'm super thankful to have been.

And the conversations that we had leading up to before I started writing were great. Felt like I got to get my math geek on and my hip hop geek on and be like, "Oh, that's so cool. Okay, so we're talking about shapes; we're going into geometry. What kind of sound would that be?" And then, they would give me ideas about the visuals that they wanted, and then I would try to work to match that. I have only seen one of the videos created, but I am super proud of everything that the whole team did, and I know where it came from. Well, like you said, it's not a commercial. I can only speak from my experience with it. And it was everything that I dreamed that I can do in the classroom that they were able to put together. So they're awesome.

Noelle: When I listened to it, I was listening to just it in complete awe. Did you have a favorite line, or did you have a moment where you're like, "This is going to be the hook, and there's going to be thousands of kids singing—

Toney: I can say that I had a lot of fun. At least one of them has different characters that are voiced.

Noelle: The shapes, the geometry.

Toney: Yeah, exactly. That is the stuff I like to do in my classroom. So for my process, you would've seen me in my basement bending my voice a million different ways, trying to come up with which one is right. What's the attitude of this character? And those are the things, again, that I want my students to see me doing so that when they're writing a story or when they're trying to come up with a way to show what they know, they have these tools and these techniques. I would say that my favorite things were definitely the choruses. I really like coming up with the choruses because, for teachers, I think that's really important. How can you encapsulate the big idea so that it's digestible within a phrase? And that's what a chorus is, that I think that's where music and whatever the other academic curricular is, that's that connection. If I can get it down to a sound bite and a phrase that my kids can repeat and get, and it makes sense, then that's a huge win.

Noelle Morris: Totally.

Jackson is featured on Waggle

Jackson's rhymes—and voice—will be featured in HMH's Waggle program, which offers personalized practice and instruction for students at all levels.

Noelle: Toney, I'm already picturing and hearing all these classrooms where a new call and response is going to be like, 'We're all different, and that's all right."

Toney: I hope. That'll be awesome.

Noelle: I'm telling you, mark my word, and I can't wait for our audience to hear a little bit and agree. So those of you listening in, let us know. And Toney, you're so creative, such a joy. As we wrap up this episode, what's your advice when you're asked, "How are you differentiating?" What's your advice to teachers to take that question and enjoy it?

Toney: So going back to what you said about professional learning, I think about how I receive things, I think about how I receive content in different ways, I think about my own process and the way that I process things, and then the way that I can create something to show that. I enjoy those three things. I enjoy learning about the what, the how, and then how I can share it with somebody else. So, where I think of differentiation, I think of those things for my own student. Is there something about the content that I can shift or change or show them a new perspective on? Are there different ways of the process that I can change up this process so that it hits them in the right way that's right for them? And then there are so many different types of products that they could create as something to show that they understood. And when I think about it that way, it doesn't feel like another thing to do; it feels like a way of being.

Noelle: Toney, I ask every guest, “What is your walk-up song?” I totally believe, I think everybody that listens to the episode knows that I believe teachers are rock stars, they are superstars, they're like the top athlete on any team, and everyone has a walk-up song. So you're walking into your classroom, you're about to start class, what music is playing when you walk up in front of your students?

Toney: Oh gosh, I only get one. All right.

Noelle: I'll give you two. I'll give you two.

Toney: Oh, yes.

Noelle: Okay.

Toney: Okay. Awesome. So, then I'm going to go with “Definition” by Black Star, one of my favorite groups and one of my favorite songs from my favorite group, really super driving boom bap hip hop feel. And then “I Feel Good” by James Brown because it has the swagger, it has the feeling, it has the attitude that I want when I get in there, and I feel like it's timeless.

Noelle: So timeless, and I can already see your classroom fashion, the spin in front of your class, your students anticipating.

Toney: Oh, you know it. You know it.

Noelle: Totally your next move. Thank you so much for being here. We appreciate you.

Toney: Thanks so much. I loved it. It was awesome.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Be the first to hear new episodes of  Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting The link is in the show notes.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!


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