They call themselves the Depew-Tang Clan.
Depew middle school teacher Joe Cena has found a creative way to combine two of his biggest passions: Getting kids to read — and the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan.
It started in a moment of desperation during pandemic teaching last year when Cena realized fewer than half of his eighth graders were completing independent reading requirements.
To try to boost motivation, Cena created a Wu-Wall, where students earned a hallowed place every time they completed an assignment and online quiz.
He ordered a bunch of Wu-Tang magnets and stickers for special certificates, took photos of the students and used an online Wu-Tang name generator to give the kids special names. “As silly as it is, it definitely increased their motivation to read books,” Cena said.
A few weeks later, Cena took it a step further as he came up with a new rule for student participation. Rather than raising their hands, students needed to give him the Wu-Tang “W” sign. Like a secret handshake, it caught on immediately — throughout all his classes.
As part of a poetry unit, Cena turned to Wu-Tang lyrics to explain how rhyming can be creative and take different forms. He used a verse from the song “Triumph” with colorcoded words on the video to show the intricacies of rhyme scheme and how rhyming doesn’t have to be at the end of a line.
Hoping to give Cena a big surprise, student Aleigha Sharpe secretly reached out to members of the legendary group to let them know how the Wu-Tang activities had made their class so much fun. “As everyone knows due to COVID-19, school hasn’t been the same,” Sharpe wrote.
“But my English teacher has put so much effort to make this year for his students the best and memorable.”
While Sharpe wasn’t sure if she’d get a response, she was shocked to get a personalized video message from Method Man himself.
“I want to shout out Depew-Tang Clan ... and also especially Joe Cena, AKA Excessive Gallant,” Method Man says. “I love what you are doing over there. You’re keeping learning fun and you’re including Wu-Tang.
Salute to you, brother. Hats off!” Cena couldn’t believe it when the kids presented him with the video message. “I knew something was up because they were recording me watching the video on my phone,” he said. “One of the students said, ‘I think he’s going to cry.’ And she was right! It was the coolest thing ever.”
When a local television station asked for permission to use the video, Sharpe wrote back to Method Man to get his approval.
“It’s cool,” Method Man texted back. “As long as they make it about Joe and not me! I’m good with it.”
When classes resume this fall, there’s no doubt the Wu-Wall will be back. Cena is already planning more Wu-Tang inspired activities, including a random acts of kindness project.
After Cena wrote a thank-you message, Method Man said there were no thanks needed. “I love the work that you’re doing and hopefully this inspires other teachers to be as innovative ... our children are worth it!”