Five of Flocabulary’s videos were accepted to the Innovation Math Challenge – read about the winning team and their creative process through this interview with Alex Rappaport, Co-Founder, CEO.
Flocabulary co-founders Blake Harrison and Alex Rappaport in their Brooklyn, NY headquarters.
Tell us about yourself. What sparked your interest/drew you to the challenge?
Flocabulary was born in 2004 out of a realization that kids find it easier to remember song lyrics than definitions of vocabulary words. Blake Harrison (co-founder) and I started writing songs for SAT vocabulary as a kind of nerdy experiment. We were fresh out of college and thought there really had to be a better way to study than flashcards and word lists. We recorded a demo and were pleasantly surprised by the responses from teachers, students, publishers and the hip-hop community, so we set out to make more songs as a result.
We started to travel around the country and visit schools, and came to the conclusion that student engagement was sorely lacking in many classrooms. Flocabulary emerged out of a mission to revolutionize curriculum and make learning engaging and effective for students of all backgrounds. Today flocabulary.com features nearly 500 songs and videos that span across all subjects and grade levels, K-12.
We were drawn to this challenge because we have a great deal of respect for PBS and WGBH, and because teachers and students need more places to find high-quality content online.
What is your music background and how has Flocabulary’s music evolved?
I studied music in college and am a trained composer with experience in production and engineering. Blake is a writer and lyricist. Our skills complemented each other.
After getting the business off the ground, we assembled a group of talented people to really bring Flocabulary to life. We have a team in the office and a large group of freelance artists, ranging from rappers and producers to animators and illustrators, who help create the songs and videos. We have always felt it’s important to find a balance with respect to music and education. Our music is created at a professional level – we work with rappers from New York and Atlanta who are out on tour with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. And while our primary goal is educating kids, we love that we can create this unique opportunity for artists to contribute to something that makes an impact in the lives of kids. We have Grammy winners who want to work with us and reach kids – that shows that this is bigger than an educational publishing company.
How have you seen the content evolving over 10 years?
There has been a shift toward even more standards-based content for us, so our units are now closely aligned with initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. This alignment helps us focus the program and ensures that it meets the specific needs of teachers.
How has the hip-hop/rap genre changed from when you started 10 years ago?
Rap music seems more popular than ever. It seems like just about every pop song has rap verse and every rap song has a sung chorus. It’s rare to find a student who doesn’t listen to rap or enjoy it on some level, and that’s true on a global level. Rap’s popularity is one reason Flocabulary works – it’s relevant.
From a pedagogical standpoint, rap is the most logical genre for teaching. For one thing, a typical rap song has so many more lyrics than any other genre and you can really pack in the content. Rap also brings a natural focus to words and lyrics, so a listener is closely attuned to what the rapper is saying. This presence and accessibility is what really makes Flocabulary successful in terms of engagement, learning and retention. And teaching with rap is an extension of what researchers have known for years: rhymes and music are among the most ancient and powerful learning tools we have.
Explain your brainstorming/creative process.
We usually start with the standards around a topic. For example, if we’re creating a song for elementary science, we take a look at the standards and create notes for a specific topic – say pollination. Sometimes the music and lyrics are written together, though they are often separate. We work with producers for instrumental beats and then the artists write the songs based on the notes from our curriculum team. From there illustrators and animators bring the song to life visually. As many as ten people could collaborate on a single Flocabulary unit – it’s an amazing process.
We also work with a large community of teachers to get feedback on our existing units and input on new content we should take a look at. Our goal is to create standards-based content in the most engaging and effective way possible, and to make it easy for classroom teachers to use. So our community of educators is crucial in the creative process.
What were your impressions of math when you were younger?
Like many kids, I felt like math was a little dusty and often couldn’t see the real world applications. Now as someone who runs a business and sees math every day, I wish I paid more attention or took more relevant classes in college.
What do you think would make more kids interested in math?
Putting math into a voice that is engaging and can show real world applications, particularly around things like business, engineering, design and technology. Math is everywhere, but kids often think it’s only academic – a school topic rather than a life topic. We believe that school topics are life topics – it’s all about how you approach them.
Our math videos are among my favorites because of the way we use both auditory and visual exposures to the concepts. This multisensory approach is one of the strategies that sets us apart from traditional curricula. It’s very powerful to hear the word “hypotenuse” while you’re seeing a diagram of one in a video. That kind of exposure makes it stick.
How do you suggest teachers introduce Flocabulary to their classrooms?
We see our product as a flexible resource that can be integrated at various points in a teacher’s lesson sequence – introduction, enrichment, test prep, review. We see it as an overlay to the traditional curriculum – another tool in the toolbox that can engage students on a new level and fundamentally change the classroom dynamic.
Do you have any advice for people creating educational media?
Kids matter most – it’s not always front of mind for media professionals or people who make curriculum decisions, but if you can’t reach that kid with your media, you’re not ultimately teaching that kid. Our goal is to not only engage students in the classroom but to foster lifelong learning by showing kids that education can be fun, accessible and empowering.
To see more of Flocabulary's songs and videos, visit http://www.flocabulary.com.