“Are you a rapper?”
“Are you a rapper?”
Without fail, this is the first question students ask me when I visit classrooms that use Flocabulary.
It also happens to be a question that nobody asks me, ever, at any other point.
We make educational hip-hop videos—like a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock—and when teachers tell their classes they’ll be getting a visit from Flocabulary, kids are itching to see the rappers. I’m a product manager, which is not the simplest role to explain to children. So here’s what I tell them, when dashing their hopes that I'm a rapper:
“An important part of my job is getting out of the office and into classrooms, so I can learn about how you use Flocabulary, and make it better for you. After I leave today, I'm heading right back to the office and I'm going to share your suggestions with the people who make the website and videos… and the rappers.”
And then suggestions start flying in. “Let’s slow down the videos.” (On it!) “Give us geography videos.” (Check!) And one sweet little girl requested that we put more hearts in our videos. I shared that with our animators, and later that day, a video had a few hearts in it.
But the most valuable part of the visits, by far, is simply crouching in a small desk in the back of the room and watching teachers and students interact—and occasionally struggle—with our product. It yields immeasurably useful insights and new ideas about how we can make our product better, in little and big ways. I’m always violently taking notes and adding tons of stories to our backlog when we get back.
The lean startup ideology underscores that you need to get out of the building. And if you’re working in education technology, you need to get into classrooms. Here’s why:
Classroom visits build empathy: I’m a former teacher, but it’s still easy to forget that what seems like a negligible website issue on a 27-inch retina display with fast Internet connection can be a huge problem when the site is malfunctioning due to low bandwidth in front of a class of increasingly impatient kids.
Classroom visits boost morale: In addition to useful product insights, the visits are great for my morale. I work at Flocabulary because I want to make learning exciting for kids. When I come back to the office after watching a roomful of 2nd graders dance and sing one of our songs—and really understand the scientific method—I’m recharged and energized to keep working hard.
Initially, it was just me and our curriculum director visiting classrooms. But it occurred to me that seeing our product in action could be inspirational for all members of our team, across departments.
Classroom visits generate ideas for improvement, from varied viewpoints: And it’s more than just inspiration. The different viewpoints of different team members have led them to see ways to improve that I never would have noticed. A software engineer watched the load time lag on a page he had built projected in front of the classroom—and headed back to the office to work on that specific issue. Our UI designer noticed that all the students were clicking on a page element he had removed for an upcoming design; he added it back in. Our curriculum director noticed that students always asked about our content creation process, so she spearheaded a video about how we create our weekly current events video.
And they are a recruiting draw! We now have an official company-wide classroom visit program in place, where each member of the company is encouraged to visit at least one classroom per year. We visit classrooms multiple times per month, and have developed great relationships with teachers and administrators at schools all over New York City. (And it helps with recruiting! We’ve found that discussing company-wide classroom visits always piques candidates attention in interviews, too.)
Regardless of where your company is based, there are schools nearby. Here are five tips to get a school visit program started:
I started by emailing local teacher users a complicated survey with date and time slots to sign up. I got one response. I then tried again, and said “Simply respond to this email saying ‘I’m interested in a visit!’” Twenty teachers responded. If you work in an office, you are less busy than teachers. (I’ve done both; I know.) So take the burden of scheduling on yourself.
I started organizing the visit program, but now Molly Cronin, our community manager, who is in contact with teachers near and far, leads the charge. No matter who it is, someone should own the moving parts since there are a lot of them. Scheduling visits for multiple members of the team at multiple classrooms requires some time investment. It can often take several days and email and phone exchanges to nail down a visit date. It’s also important to take note of what your staff might need to bring (like an ID) and how to find the teacher when you get there. Be patient and organized.
Once you’ve seen a teacher and students in action, you’ll have a lot of questions. To respect the flow of the school day and not pull teachers out of class, we’ve found our visits work best when we schedule time to talk right afterward. If you can’t do that, try to schedule a phone call with the teacher for later that day or week.
When I’m in the classroom, there is so much to see, and I’m constantly taking notes; I find that my notebook is littered with new ideas for product features or curricular ideas based on everything I observe. If a group from your office is visiting a classroom, debrief on the way back to see other viewpoints. And create a central repository to gather ideas and observations so they don't get lost after the excitement of the day.
It can be really emotional to see someone struggling with a part of the website in a real live classroom, and it’s tempting to come back and want to prioritize your idea or issue from your visit day immediately. Instead, use the visit as an impetus to investigate how other users may be reacting. And then check back in with that teacher for feedback when you're working on the feature inspired by the visit.
Any questions about setting a classroom visit up at your company? Feel free to get in touch!