Episode 16: Eradicating Illiteracy With Hip Hop and Education Technology

Hello listeners! Welcome back to another exciting episode of Tech Forward. This week I spoke with Sage Salvo, artist, scholar, social entrepreneur, and founder of Words Liive, LLC. Named among the top 3 EdTech startups at the 2016 South by Southwest Education Conference, Words Liive is a 21st century education technology firm dedicated to eradicating illiteracy across the world — particularly in marginalized urban and rural districts. The Words Liive app, currently in beta, is a “platform as a service” (PaaS) technology which allows for the instantaneous development, discovery, and sharing of literacy-based lesson plans that integrate popular music.

Upon entering the teaching world as part of a PhD program, Sage noticed many of his students lacked necessary skills in business and communication. In an attempt to find the root of the problem, he began volunteering with local high schools and fell in love with the teaching process. At the same time, he saw how tying student performance to educator incentives left students at a critical disadvantage. Words Liive grew out of these experiences, and started out as a low-tech partnership between Sage and the teachers. Working closely together, they created lesson plans that gave students the chance to, in Sage’s words, “perform their brilliance.” Though they had success with these strategies, Sage knew it was necessary to pivot to the world of tech in order to scale.

Sage built the beta by working with a team of talented computer science and engineering majors at Harvard Innovation Labs, but chose to implement in the DC area. “There’s a pervasive thought that you have to physically pack up and go where the investors are. That’s a distraction. At the end of the day you need customers. That’s why we came back to DC — for the relationships. It made more sense to iterate with customers than to relocate to a place where I might get a seed investment.”

Currently focusing on literacy, the Words Liive algorithm matches concepts from songs with district-level and even individual classroom-level curriculum to generate a lesson plan. “Contemporary songwriters have evolved from Shakespeare, from T S Eliot and Edgar Allen Poe. They’re using the same techniques.” While the platform leans heavily towards hip-hop due to the genre’s intense literary roots, it features extensive customization options. By polling students on their musical preferences at the classroom level, teachers can responsively repackage lessons as needed.

Moving forward, Sage plans to partner with educators on a statewide level for a larger roll-out, and anticipates a complete product release to hit app stores in mid-2019. For all of you educators out there listening, you can participate in the ongoing beta here. Sage, thank you so much for the work you’re doing, and for coming on the show. Thanks also to my listeners for tuning in. See you next week!