Guest Post: A Brand New Year

This week, I will start my 20th year in the classroom, and for the first time, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I should probably explain.

For the first eighteen years of my career, I was a good teacher. My lessons were planned, my curriculum was covered, my grades were recorded, my students were happy and successful. Everything was good, some might even say great. Late in my 18th year, I discovered the flipped classroom. I tried it out toward the end of that year and loved it.

So I dove into it last year. All of my classes were flipped. Students enjoyed the change. I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with each student every day and really help them with their learning. But, one aspect of my classroom hadn’t changed: the learning was still happening according to my schedule. I planned out the unit, decided which videos were to be watched each day, what problems were to be completed and when the test was to be taken. Everything needed to be on a schedule so we could all cover the necessary material before the end of the semester ( or quarter or next vacation). Sure, I now had some flexibility for students to spend a little more time on one topic as long as they were ready when I was ready to give the test.

Which brings me to this year and my original statement. For the first time, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. You see, I’ve decided to take the next step and create a flexible learning environment based on mastery that allows asynchronous progress. I’m giving up the control of the pace and plan to allow students to demonstrate their learning when they are ready and in a variety of ways. In my 9th grade math class, I’ve identified the major concepts from our guaranteed viable curriculum and the common core. I have videos made (from last year’s work) for all the content. I’ve decided to use Crystal Kirch’s WSQ form to help students process their thinking. I have a variety of practice opportunities and projects that have worked well in the past

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But, I want the students to actually learn the math and make connections among the topics rather than just doing the math because it’s what’s next on my calendar. I want them to work at their own pace and continue working until they can demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I want my students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that make sense to them (which might include tests).

I want them to create websites that contain applications of the various math topics from the curriculum ( an idea from Ryan Curtis at flipcon12). I want them to find math problems that are “worth solving” by looking at photos of real objects (an idea based on the work of Dan Myers). I’ve started a collection of photos, but want my students to take pictures to add to the collection.

And so, I have a lot of ideas (some old and some new), but I’m not sure how it’s going to go. Will I be able to manage a group of students working at varied paces in the same room? Will students be able to take the ultimate responsibility for their learning? How will I keep them involved with their websites throughout the semester? Will we find math worth learning in the photos? Will I be able to give tests over a larger window and maintain test security and integrity? And what about grades? How do I reconcile grades if two students are both working at their best level, but one happens to “get it” faster?

I have many more questions and right now, my answer to most of them is “I don’t know” and I think I’m okay with that. I know that I will have to teach my students to take responsibility and coach them throughout the semester. I know that some students will take to this mastery approach more readily than others. I know that this next step in my teaching will help me to ensure that my students are learning and understanding the math concepts. I know that I will have to listen to my students and adjust. I know that I will be learning as I go along. But, I know that it’s the right thing to do. And that makes my uncertainty okay.

John Tague teaches students math in Fairfax, Vermont. He coaches his school’s Scholars Bowl team and advises the Design TASC team.You can follow him on twitter (@jtague252) and read his blog ” Left Handed Educator” at http://lefthandededucator.blogspot.com/

The photo was taken at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia. It represents a solid foundation leading to the unknown.

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