By ANDREW W. GRIFFIN
Oklahoma Watchdog, editor
Posted: June 8, 2010
OKLAHOMA CITY – Is the Oklahoma City Public School district really going to spend $97,000 on something called “Flocabulary”? Particularly in the midst of a painful budget crunch?
While it may have escaped the attention and scrutiny of a lot of Oklahoman readers this past Friday, there was a story in the state’s “paper of record” that addressed a program called “Flocabulary.”
Ever heard of it? Well, if you’re in Oklahoma, probably not.
Nevertheless, Oklahoman reporter Megan Rolland’s article, headlined “Flocabulary merges rap, academia,” introduced us to Blake Harrison, a co-founder of New York-based education company Flocabulary.
Harrison, nicknamed “Escher,” was at Justice Alma Wilson SeeWorth Academy in Oklahoma City last week groovin’ and rappin’ with a roomful of at-risk youth.
Was it play time? Well, according to the article, it was time for learning … mixed with a little fun.
And that is the point of Flocabulary, an unconventional teaching method that is hitting home with increasing numbers of teachers and their troubled students. These kids, they say, are not interested in school and conventional ways of learning. Introduce a little rap-n-rhyme and a dope beat, their eyes light up and they’re suddenly engaged.
It happened at SeeWorth Academy, a charter school, and will happen at more public school sites in Oklahoma City. This summer, Flocabulary envoys will return to Oklahoma City and “instruct teachers on how to use the Flocabulary curriculum.”
Attempts to get a comment from SeeWorth Academy Vice-Principal Tarrance Rodgers were unsuccessful.
In the Oklahoman article, Harrison teaches the at-risk youth about rhyming words like “vain.” And music teacher Henry Rice defends Flocabulary by saying that “hip-hop is the universal language of music today.” One of Rice’s students, Shay’Quase Jenkins told the reporter that she really likes Flocabulary and noted, “It helps you memorize words.”
Perhaps this is true, but do the students really understand what those words mean? The context in which they are used? This is not as clear from information related to Flocabulary that Oklahoma Watchdog has researched.
“Hip-hop in the classroom” is the way Flocabulary is described. On the site Flocabulary.com, it describes how Harrison, a rapper, and Rappaport, a musician, both “wondered why it was so easy to remember lines to … rap songs but so difficult to memorize academic information.” This led to the creation of Flocabulary, as a way to help struggling students prepare for the SAT and other tests.
That was in 2004. Since then, Flocabulary has grown and spread to 12,000 schools and hundreds of thousands of students. It has been embraced in article s in papers ranging from The New York Times to the Chicago Tribune. Radical leftist thinkers like Howard Zinn and Cornel West have noted that Flocabulary is “extraordinary” and “necessary.”
And now it is coming to Oklahoma City, and just today, the Oklahoma City Public School District announced they are cutting the district’s budget by $17 million and “recommending cutting hundreds of jobs and closing three schools,” according to KFOR.com.
Yet in March, funds – federal funds, $97,000 worth, it is noted – were available for this program that is not yet a decade old. More teachers? More books? More money for repairs? This is not clear. We do know, according to another Megan Rolland article, published today in The Oklahoman, that “118 teaching positions will be cut” – a 6 percent revenue cut for 2011 – Flocabulary, at least for now, will remain, introduced at 12 school sites in the city, sites that, according to the article, “serve at-risk students.”
The Oklahoman article notes that “Oklahoma City’s adoption of the program for next school year will be one of their largest. The district plans to use the curriculum for topics ranging from reading, writing and Shakespeare, to math, science and social studies.”
Last month, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson wrote an article about Flocabuarly titled “Why Do Educators Keep Putting Dunce Caps On Our Kids?”
Writes Carlson: “…Flocabulary has a distribution deal with textbook giant Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, and about 300,000 students across the country use the program. In more than 12,000 American schools, kids are rapping about English, history, science and math. By most accounts, they love it. And why wouldn’t they? Singing’s more fun than studying.”
Carlson then notes that Rappaport, the other Flocabulary co-founder, told the Boston Globe in an interview that “We encourage students to trust their own use of words and understanding of vocabulary, rather than focusing on what some old dictionary says.”
Indeed. To some, dusty old dictionaries are boring, especially when you can rap and groove to raps about “the tragedy in Haiti and another one about the Holocaust,” as Rolland noted in her Oklahoman piece.
Oklahoma Watchdog called Flocabulary’s offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and spoke with Vlad Gutkovich, vice-president of the company. He could not answer our questions and told this online newspaper that Alex Rappaport would return my call and answer our questions. As of press time, Rappaport had not returned our call.
Tierney Cook, a spokesperson at Oklahoma City Public Schools, said she would have someone call Oklahoma Watchdog to explain further what the funds would be specifically be used for relative to Flocabulary. That was not done.
Going through the four sample pages on Flocabulary.com dealing with “vocabulary/reading,” “writing,” “social studies,” and “math/science,” it is interesting to see what is emphasized. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is the one featured on “Hip-Hop U.S. History.” Anything on Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan? Again, this is not clear.
Regardless, it is coming to an Oklahoma City public school near you.
Britt Pumphrey, a Kansas City, Kan. fifth grade teacher, has a testimony published at Flocabulary.com touting the program’s effectiveness in his classroom, made up of “predominantly Hispanic immigrant children.”
Pumphrey agreed to talk to Oklahoma Watchdog about Flocabulary. He said he picked up on Flocabulary it while teaching at a school in Manhattan, Kan. and took the supplemental rap-education program with him to a school in Kansas City.
“I personally purchased the US History portion to supplement my social studies curriculum,” Pumphrey said. “It’s used more as an engagement piece.”
This year, Pumphrey used it in five units of study.
Pumphrey said “it was a great way to (use) a lot of the vocabulary to teach, especially in social studies. I picked up some of the workbooks on vocabulary, one on science and one on social studies.”
Asked about the raps, Pumphrey said, “The raps are good quality. I guess students get used to cheesy raps. These are good. Students enjoy them. One song covers a lot.”
Asked just how engaged and interested his students are during a Flocabulary lesson, Pumphrey said he is “seeing a higher level of engagement in the content.”
“They were engaged in the song because it was cool, I guess. They’re engaged and they listen,” he said.
Has he seen an improvement in their ability to learn concepts and facts and words over time?
“They are picking up a lot on the content covered,” Pumphrey said. “I have seen an improvement. With analogies, similies … a better understanding. But I don’t want to overstate the impact.”
Continuing, Pumphrey added: “I think it connects with a handful of students that I otherwise couldn’t have connected with. I think hip-hop reaches a segment that are into … rebellion.”
Pumphrey said that before the school year ended, they studied American Revolution, incorporating Flocabulary. He said that while they may not use Flocabulary raps in future classes, he suspects when teachers lecture about that topic in a future class, “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I remember that.’”
Asked directly if he is aware of criticism of Flocabulary and whether or not “it’s part of the dumbing down” of education, Pumphrey said the content is “spot on” and “it’s definitely not dumbing down.”
Pumphrey added that for him, Flocabulary is strictly supplemental and that he doesn’t see how if “can be an all-inclusive curriculum.”
“I don’t think it dumbs down content, unless it was the only text you were to introduce to students,” he said, adding, “From my experience it’s been a positive thing in my classroom.”
UPDATE: Today, June 16, 2010, eight days after our original story ran, Oklahoma Watchdog received a comment about the Flocabulary program from the Oklahoma City Public School district.
Responding via email was Tierney M. Cook, media relations manager. The questions are in bold and the answers follow.
How will we monitor and confirm results:
There are pre and post testing materials included in the curriculum and there are daily assignments that will show instructors how well it is working. Because flocabulary involves memory and repetition, we expect to see improvement and implementation in ALL subjects.
Who will use it?
Flocabulary will be used in OKCPS alternative education programs which serve a little more than 5,000 students. When we say alternative students, this can be anyone from a student who is hospitalized or students in juvenile detention; we serve all these students despite their situation they still need to be educated. This program will serve students in alternative education in grades 3-12 and be used in all core subjects, (math, science, reading history etc.)
How is the money used?
Included in the curriculum are microphones, headsets, software and instructional guides for teachers to use to help with implementation.
So, the Flocabulary program appears to be continuing on without question. And we still have yet to hear back from the good folks at Flocabulary. If we do, we will update this story.
UPDATE: June 23, 2010
Kathleen Kennedy, the executive director for communications for OCPS, did finally contact Oklahoma Watchdog and cleared up a couple of things. First, since federal funds are being used for the implementation of the Flocabulary program, it won’t be cut since it is state funds that would be held back. So, Flocabulary is going ahead in Oklahoma City public schools.
Kennedy seemed almost defensive when questioned about the program, particularly when asked why a trendy, hip hop teaching program would be used rather than “conventional” teaching methods.
With her voice somewhat raised, Kennedy replied: “You can’t use conventional methods to teach children these days.” She said programs like Flocabulary are used to reach children who otherwise might not be reached.
“This is not traditional,” Kennedy said. “Some people may not like it but it is effective.”
Copyright 2010 Oklahoma Watchdog