Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Word Up: Putting the Flow in Vocabulary Instruction
We recently spoke to Alex Rappaport and Blake Harrison, founders of the innovative educational company Flocabulary, about how they were inspired to infuse challenging vocabulary and educational content into rap music. In this interview you'll learn more about why they feel rap music is the perfect medium for their mission... and you'll get to sample one of their flocabulous videos.
VT: How did you come up with the concept for Flocabulary?
Blake: The idea for Flocabulary came to me when I was a student in high school, and it was at a time when I was studying for the SAT. I was really struck by how difficult it was to memorize the meanings of challenging vocabulary words, and at the same time, how easy it was for me to remember song lyrics.
So I had the idea that someone out there somewhere should create songs that teach SAT vocabulary. I didn't really think that that person would be me, but after college, I met Alex out in San Francisco. We were both trying to pursue creative careers, and I mentioned this idea to him. I had mentioned the idea to a lot of people, but he was the only one who said, "Why don't we try it?" And so a few weeks later, we had a demo recorded, and I think late, late one night sitting in my back yard, the name Flocabulary came to us.
Alex: We always thought about Flocabulary as the combination of two distinct or unique things. And so it only made sense to use a portmanteau for the name of our company, bringing "flow" and "vocabulary" together for the first time.
VT: When you envisioned this idea, were you specifically thinking about lyrics from hip hop or rap?
Blake: Yes, I was. I was thinking about rap. Not only was that the music I was listening to the most in high school, but also I thought there was something unique about rap music that made it a great genre for this project. No other musical genre is as focused on the lyrics themselves and their meaning. Rap music gives you a lot of opportunity to be creative, to teach, to make someone laugh.
Think back to the first ever hip hop radio hit, "Rapper's Delight," when the rapper's rapping about how he's going over his friend's house to eat, but the food just ain't no good – "the macaroni's soggy, the peas all mush and the chicken tastes like wood. " Those lyrics paint a picture that's hard to forget. Not only are you smiling at that image; it's really etching itself, the image, in your mind. And for me, at least, rap has always been the most powerful musical genre for creating that kind of an effect.
VT: When you say "etching in someone's mind," you're saying that rap is a memory aid because of its imagery. What other ways do you consciously try to incorporate memory aids for students so they can more easily learn new words?
Blake: A lot of it is based on the power of rhymes. Rhyme has been used for thousands of years as a mnemonic device. We teach our children the alphabet using rhyme. We sing them songs and lullabies in rhyme. We use rhyme to remember that I comes before E (except after C). We use rhyme to remember how many days are in the months of the year. So there's certainly nothing new about the idea of using rhyme. I think that rap music, of all the musical genres out there, places the most emphasis on rhyme.
We loved Schoolhouse Rock. A lot of those lyrics are certainly still stuck in my head, and I know they are for millions of people out there. But we wanted to try something a little bit different and maybe reach a slightly younger audience.
Alex: The other key to what we do is the idea of motivation. That goes beyond just remembering the lyrics themselves. Our songs and our videos are really engagement tools and are designed to start the learning process. We use the song as that engagement piece and then build in resources, exercises, and assessments that are more rigorous and a bit more traditional in certain ways. So we're combining something that's really different and really fun with the kind of proven research-based strategies that you see in other learning programs.
VT: And when you first created Flocabulary, did you have videos?
Alex: No, we started with a couple of songs for a partnership with SparkNotes. Our first project was a CD that taught 500 SAT words. Our idea back then was to come out with something that was, in a way, the anti-flashcard. We were still young enough to remember the pain and tedium of looking at flashcards to remember SAT words. And so we wanted to do it with songs, and that first project did well and was next to the Kaplans and the Princeton Reviews in the bookstores. But it became clear right away to us, after about a year of being just another SAT prep program, that there was just so much more that we wanted to teach and that we could teach effectively with this approach. So after spending about a year with the SAT words, we jumped into US history and then started working with younger students as well.
VT: How has video enhanced your project or your mission?
Alex: Video brings the ideas to life even more. I think that's especially true with stories from social studies and history. To see depictions and images of characters from history is a really powerful thing. But beyond that, I was just speaking with an ELL teacher recently who talked about how the use of video and images helps students who haven't quite mastered the English language. With our vocabulary videos that are just starting to come out for the Word Up Project, we're seeing those words animated in an engaging way to really help the learning process.
VT: Do you ever encounter educators that have a knee-jerk reaction to rap because they associate it with disturbing content? Do you have to end up convincing some educators that all rap's not bad?
Blake: It's true that we do get that reaction occasionally. Our response to that is — take a listen to some of our programs, some of our songs. Look at some of our videos. Click through one of our units and then tell us your reaction, because it's true that maybe the word "rap" or "hip hop" conjures up some really negative ideas for certain people, or they associate it with some things that they don't support. That's not at all what we're about.
So, for us, the way to fight those attitudes or that sort of prejudice is by exposing them to what we're creating. And we like the fact we're working with a lot of different artists, artists who make music about all kinds of different subjects and topics. But we really like that we're able to work with them to create something that's positive and that is helping students. I think certainly 99 percent of the people that we talk to realize that and see the value in it.
Founded in 2004, Flocabulary creates award-winning educational hip-hop music and curricular materials for grades K-12. Flocabulary's programs are used in more than 15,000 schools and reach a weekly audience of 6 million students. They are proven to raise scores on state reading tests. More information is available at www.flocabulary.com.