Tech + Creative

Doing Good While Doing Well: Flocabulary

Our new series, “Doing Good While Doing Well” highlights companies who are looking to make a difference.

Beats, rhymes and education can be heard coming from 55 Washington Street. That’s where you’ll find Flocabulary, a company that creates hip-hop music and curricular materials to teach academic content in grades K-12.

We spoke with Flocabulary co-founder and CEO, Alex Rappaport about how they use hip hop to engage students in the education process.

What is Flocabulary?

Flocabulary produces educational hip-hop songs and videos for students in grades K-12. It’s sort of like Schoolhouse Rock, but we rap instead. All of our songs and videos are featured on an interactive site that teachers, parents and schools can subscribe to. Our goal is to help students make connections to academic content and motivate them to achieve in the classroom and beyond. We think school should be fun, engaging, accessible and effective, and this is our way of shaking things up and trying to make a difference.

What inspired Flocabulary?

The concept is fairly simple. Most people find it easy to memorize the lyrics to their favorite songs but difficult to memorize the definition of an SAT word or the year the Boston Tea Party took place. So we write songs that use and define those vocab words and tell the stories around those dates (For example: It was the winter of 1773 / the British had a monopoly on selling tea). We have found that students not only memorize the content easily, but also get really excited about the learning process. Listening to a rap song about the Boston Tea Party is much more exciting than reading about it in a textbook. But we don’t advocate throwing the textbook away. The secret of Flocabulary’s success is that we get kids engaged with our music and then back that up with more traditional resources like written exercises and tests.

How did the current state of education have an influence on how Flocabulary came about?

When we started performing at schools back in 2005, we were shocked to see the lack of engagement in classrooms. We realized that a motivated student is inherently a more successful student, and we found ourselves in a position to really help with that motivation issue through our music. 25% of students entering 9th grade this year will not graduate from high school. That’s a serious social issue. We have been criticized for “lowering the bar” too much with our pop culture approach, but the status quo is troubling. I’d rather see more organizations experimenting, taking risks, trying new things. Leave the idle chatter to the critics. We’re inspired by the fact that we have an opportunity to run a business that is taking action to solve a problem.

Have you been able to track how Flocabulary has impacted student achievement?

Back in 2008, we did a national pilot to show that using Flocabulary would not only lead to greater vocabulary proficiency but also have an impact on state reading tests. State tests are truly high-stakes in our education system. Not only can they determine a student’s academic path, they also influence teacher evaluations and even pay. Needless to say, we knew it would be a major coup to show an effect of state reading tests, and we’re very proud to say that our vocabulary program, was shown to increase scores by an average of 25%. Seeing that kind of result made it clear that we had an opportunity to do something significant with this program.

While this data was truly instrumental in the development of our business, the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is the emails and tweets we get from teachers and students. We have heard that our music has reinvigorated teachers with the profession. Students tell us they can’t get enough of our videos. This kind of response on its own is enough for us to call the program a success.

How do you see Flocabulary evolving?

Ideally, we would like to reach more kids and be able to donate the program to struggling schools more often. We’re a for-profit, but our social mission is essential to us. Making our content available online has already made regular donations more feasible. I also have this dream of collaborating with more artists and educators and really turning this into a larger movement. There is this classic idea that a business evolves from idea to product to platform, and I think Flocabulary has achieved our own version of that trajectory to some degree. But down the line, I’d love to see ourselves as a catalyst for something bigger, a movement that values creativity and innovation in educational media, a movement that demands innovation and helps all kids learn at their highest potential.

And since this is a Dumbo.is interview, I have to quickly mention how important DUMBO has been to the growth and success of Flocabulary. We moved here from Manhattan in the summer of 2008 and it quickly became apparent that this little neighborhood had an infectious energy all it’s own. You can soak up that energy just walking to get a sandwich or getting off the F train in the morning. I think DUMBO attracts innovative businesses, and the result is this kind of buzzing, collaborative hub. We hope to be here for the long haul, and we hope to bring a lot more jobs to DUMBO by continuing to build our business.

Alex Rappaport is the co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary. You can learn more at flocabulary.com or follow Flocabulary on twitter or facebook.