Alumna educator's rhymes school first-generation students
The song emerged whole, as if she’d downloaded it from some celestial version of Spotify. Bathsheba Smithen '06, then a first-year student at Virginia Tech, was hanging out in her friends’ New Residence Hall room, pretending she didn’t have to study. “Sheba, don’t you have a final tomorrow?” one girl cajoled her.
She did. That’s when a rap started running through her brain about the subject matter of her biology test. Twenty years later, she can still bust it out:
I'm thinking biologically through osmosis
The pituitary gland lets down oxytocin
I’m jamming to this beat
Makes me want to dance
Because I feel it coming from my mammary glands.
She passed the final — and changed the direction of her life. “That was the beginning of merging education with entertainment,” said Smithen, who’s now an Atlanta-based educator, motivational speaker, and founder of an edutainment company called Cage Free Voices.
The artifacts of her high-octane creativity — a song she wrote, a play — are Smithen's primary tools for teaching. She'll drop a rap about cell biology as easily as tell you her name. A 2021 virtual college-prep boot camp she led for the low-income, first-generation students of Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative (CAC) program included a burst of spoken-word poetry that made even jaded teens snap in appreciation:
Sleeping Beauties arise
No longer will greatness be frozen in time.
As she does in any venue, whether on a stage, in a podcast, or online, Smithen ended the CAC session with her personal self-esteem mantra: “Remember to see yourself even if the world is blind.” In other words, know your own worth, no matter the naysayers.
It’s what Smithen learned to do to pull herself through her own hardscrabble childhood as the fifth of nine kids raised by a single mom. Though they lived in a Newport News public housing project, $10,000 a year in public assistance didn’t go far.
Luckily, trips to the public library were free. Among the stacks, Smithen fell in love with the likes of Encyclopedia Brown and Amelia Bedelia and later took inspiration from Maya Angelou to begin writing her own poetry and songs. To improve her reading, she studied the King James Bible front to back. She collected cash from the pastor of her storefront church for defining SAT words and earned the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma in high school.
No one in her family had ever gone to college, but Smithen won a scholarship to Virginia Tech in 2002. The transition was rough. Her mom implored her not to go. She went anyway. On her own in Blacksburg, she found community by taking the mic at poetry slams and rapping at local churches. “All of that was kind of building something within me,” she said.
After earning a degree in biology from Virginia Tech and a Master of Science in health systems management from George Mason, Smithen found herself teaching English at a charter school in Washington, D.C. “I had been running away from my true calling to teach since I was young,” Smithen said. At last her gift for educating grabbed her by the heels and wouldn’t let go.
Smithen's teaching philosophy is that music, poetry, and performance unlock learning. For a classroom mock trial based on "To Kill a Mockingbird," she assigned students to act as lawyers and witnesses, parents and teachers to serve as jurors. “One child turned his whole academic career around after doing that,” she said. “He was not doing well in English class, but once he was able to demonstrate what he knew with performance-based learning, he came alive.”
When she started tutoring kids after school in her home, one girl insisted on freestyling her reading passages. “Fine,” said Smithen, “as long as you pronounce the words right.”
Spoken-word poetry. Original songs. Podcasts. Tutoring. Acting. Speaking engagements in faraway places like Nigeria and Dubai. Her teaching took so many forms that in 2014 she created an edutainment company, Cage Free Voices, as an umbrella for it all. Soon her educational empire included CFVOnlineLearning, a K–12 and adult digital learning platform launched shortly before the pandemic. In recorded online lessons, Smithen raps, sings, and thunders her own poetry, like a high-speed barrage about the Cold War:
Victory over Germany
Truman doctrine is debuted in this climate
Communism was a threat
No time for that
We stepping up to the bat
And we’re coming out swinging.
Another rap about phonemes got a kindergartner’s braids bouncing:
AR makes the -ar sound
In 2021, one of her videos crossed the desk of Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for college access at Virginia Tech. Sanders had mentored Smithen as an undergraduate McNair Scholar and knew her tough background. Immediately she invited Smithen to speak to the high school students in College Access Collaborative, a program inspired by Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) for teens like Smithen, poised to become the first in their family to make it to college. “Sheba, our students need to hear your story,” she told her. “They need to know that they can succeed because you’ve come from a similar background.”
For CAC’s First-Generation Bootcamp in June 2021, Smithen laid out her story in a PowerPoint slide that said, “How it started: Raised in poverty. Neglected, abandoned, and abused. Used writing as a means of escape.”
On the next screen, for the “How it’s going” part of the meme, she showed a photo of her younger sister’s college graduation. Smithen may have been the first in her family to go to college, but she wasn’t the last. Two sisters, as well as the two brothers she took custody of when she was 24, have all graduated. “I started this fire,” Smithen told the CAC students. “Look at how you can start a flame with just one spark.”
Working with CAC students prompted Smithen to beta launch yet another addition to her educational empire: a mobile game called FirstGen Pioneers. Players are astronauts ready to blast off to college, but first they must answer questions about how to make it through. For instance, “You are a dependent and your parent or guardian refuses to complete the parent portion of the FAFSA. What are your next steps?”
Smithen’s 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, will never have to wrestle with that particular conundrum. But other first-generation Hokies might. “I really empathize with first-generation college students,” she said. “This is the additional layer of support that's needed for them.”
Everyone can learn, Smithen believes. As a teacher, she just wants students to see what she sees in them: someone who has it in them to live their wildest dreams.