How NOT to Start a Flipped Class

Every day, I carry a small black journal around to jot down thoughts, changes, and quick reminders to myself. It’s something kids find intriguing for some reason, possibly because I let them read it if they want to. They’re surprised to see how often I think about school and how much I write down about the things they’re working on.

What I haven’t done, though, is carry long-term thoughts around with me from year to year. I have day to day observations and reflections, but those are very quick snapshots of isolated instances, classes, and students. I head into new school years with the past year fresh in my mind. Students working well in a self-paced environment, collaboration is normal, and they are cooperative learners. At the end of the year. I need to start a book of reminders to check at the beginning of each year. I’m going to title it:

“How NOT to Start a Flipped Class.”

Entry number one: Begin with standards based grading from day one. – I say this because it is too much of a functional jump for many students to handle well from the first day of school. At the beginning, I need to structure a smooth transition from “traditional” grading methods (or the appearance of a traditional method) to the SBG system I would prefer to be in. If you’re new to SBG, Frank Noschese did a fantastic piece on simple standards-based systems that I’m modeling this year in chemistry.

Entry number two: Self pace from day one. – Self pacing is another foreign concept to students. They are not used to working for deadlines coming up on a regular interval. Very few students have the capacity to jump into a self-paced class and do well from day one. I need to direct the learning pace and then slowly ease into a self-paced class setting, once they’ve proven their ability to manage time well.

Entry number three: Student-picked groups all the time – Choosing groups is something I like my kids to do on their own, because it is something that helps me learn about the class dynamics. However, this can quickly turn into hang out time if it isn’t regulated well. It also leads to “point prostitution” (coined by Glenn Arnold) where one person does the work and the group benefits from their labor.

Remember, these are ways NOT to start your flipped learning system. I manage to make these same mistakes year after year, and I’m ready to stop the cycle of frustration I put myself in. I’m not losing hope for the year because I’ve seen what flipped classes can look like when everything runs smoothly. I just need to improve the first few steps needed to help students process the change.

What mistakes have you made? What adjustments or policies have helped your students make the adjustment? Leave your thoughts and tips (both what to do and what not to do) in the comments below.

Three Questions

I had a really rough start to the week. I really began to notice the “self-pace = no pace” mindset taking hold in some of my students. It was taking some students 20 minutes or more to even get their materials out, despite constant reminders and checks. I really wanted to switch gears and go back to teaching with worksheets, grades, and no choice. It would have ended my headache, at least for the day, but I would have been compromising my philosophy of teaching and learning.

George Phillip is a middle school flipped history teacher in the area and he invited me out to dinner last night to talk flipped learning.

We talked open an honestly about what struggles we were having. How do we motivate students? How do we really manage the transfer of responsibility back to the kids? How do we keep them accountable for their tasks and for the learning itself?

We agreed on three things, which led me to these three questions for learning:

  1. What tasks have you completed recently? – Learning takes a variety of activities and practice opportunities, especially when the learning is abstract, like chemistry. I don’t require that my students do worksheet A or B, but I do expect them to complete something to practice the skill or concept. This is very low-level accountability for the kids.
  2. What have you learned recently? – Reflection is critical to learning. I wrote earlier about using Google Forms to reflect, and I’m going to keep those, but I think I need to go deeper. This question links back to my performance objectives (or standards) for each chapter. Students need to be able to articulate their learning in this portion. We’re moving into higher order reflection with this question.
  3. What are you planning on doing next? – If I don’t have a plan for the day, it’s not going to go well. I want my students to think the same way about their learning. What does this particular objective lead into? How are you going to practice it? When do you need to finish? These are all questions that I used to dictate, but they’re also questions that we need to ask students if we want them thinking critically all the time. After George and I had been talking for an hour and a half or so, a complete stranger walked up to us and said,

Excuse me, I’m not trying to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but overhear what you were talking about. I just want to tell you that I really appreciate how seriously you take teaching. We need to have more dedicated teachers in schools and I wanted to say thank you for all the hard work you put in.

If you’re in a similar place today or this week, I hope you can take encouragement from this. We’re doing important work, and we can’t afford to forget what’s at stake.

Reflecting for Learning

Ramsey Musallam has great ideas about using Google Forms to assess a student’s understanding of a video after they watched it. I immediately began using his forms as a model to assess whether or not my students grasped the concept. It worked great, and I got a lot of valuable data in the process.

Last year, I did the same thing, but with a slightly different twist: I asked students to rate their comfort with a particular concept on a 1-4 scale. Then, they had to explain why they felt that way and what they could show me to prove their level of understanding. I did this for a couple reasons. One, I could target students that felt uncomfortable or shaky without calling them out in the front of class. Two, it totally changed the grading discussion in class.

Rather than assigning grades, I began discussing grades with my students. They would come with their assessment, and then I would have a very specific discussion with them about why they felt the way they did. More often than not, if they were able to explain their reasoning, show some evidence, and give a plan for improvement or extension, their assessment went right into the grade book. They didn’t feel like I was being unfair, and they knew the expectations for meaningful assessment would be their own.

First, I created a simple Google form. If you’re doing this for the first time, be sure to include a space for their last name and class hour for sorting purposes. I forgot class hour once, and it was a bear to work through.

Second, keep your ranking system on an even (2,4,6 etc) scale. In odd scales, kids tend to rank themselves in the middle. Sometimes this is because they don’t want to grade themselves too high or too hard. I don’t feel like I got 100% honest assessments that way. An even scale forces them to choose on the higher or lower end.

Third, the form doesn’t do everything. You need to be sure to talk with your students as often as you can…at least three times a week. Otherwise, they’ll begin taking advantage of the system because they figure you won’t be checking too often. It’ll save yourself some trouble.

Fourth, encourage them to set improvement plans and then reassess for a higher grade when they feel ready. It’s up to you if you want to wait for a quiz or other check, but I encourage them to reevaluate their learning frequently.

This year, I’m going to try and include the blogging process more. I might add a box for them to paste a longer, weekly reflection of their learning on their blogs.

The most important thing is to promote reflection in learning at every stage. Kids are trained from year one in school that learning happens in discrete little chunks that begin with something fun and end with a test. We need to work hard to change that mindset, and one way to do that is through promoting a regular self-evaluation like this one. It isn’t perfect, but it has worked well for me in the past and I’m hoping that you can take something away from this as well.

If you have another way to check student learning through reflection, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Essential Tools for Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about tools and space lately. What digital tools work well in my class? What analog tools are necessary for chemistry? What teaching tools work the best to communicate concepts to my kids? All of these questions led to: “What tools are essential for learning?”

Ira Socol and I have had some interesting discussions in the past regarding technology. I remember one of our first discussions was over what “technology” is. I focused on the digital alone. Ira came with the belief that everything we use, tables and chairs, pens, notebooks, are all a form of technology. Truth be told, I left that discussion feeling frustrated and a little irked that he focused so much on the “boring” stuff of schools. To me, the difference between a pen and pencil as tools made zero difference.

As I teach longer, I continually add tools to my arsenal. I’ll learn or develop new functions of spaces in the room. I’ll re-purpose my walls or my spare pencil box. We’ll use blogs rather than writing on paper. Or, other days, we’ll pull some paper out and write with pencils. The line between digital tools and analog tools is blurring every day. Which ones are essential? Which ones simply make the learning process more streamlined?

I have some thoughts:

  1. No single tool is essential – I can teach with or without a whiteboard. I can make adjustments on the fly if need be. No internet? No problem…let’s sit in groups and discuss why water is neutral. The day we begin to rely on a single tool in teaching is the day we close our minds to improvement.
  2. The space is more critical than the tools – I’m not saying all of our classrooms need to look like Will Chamberlain’s. (On a side note, you should really check his class out. It’s awesome.) But, our spaces need to encourage learning. Varied seating arrangements are a big plus. If your desks can move, then move them around. Don’t let them get stuck to the floor from immobility. Encourage kids, even high schoolers, to fill the walls with art and their own work. Give them room to fail with dignity and learn with support.
  3. Supportive environments are more critical than space – While the space is important, I definitely recognize that some spaces are not flexible at all. Instead, build an environment that celebrates breakthroughs in learning. Emotional and physical safety are extremely important, but I think we forget about cognitive safety. So many kids are afraid to take guesses because they’ve been trained to be right. all. the. time. It’s unrealistic and any teacher worth their salt knows that. Foster a cognitively safe environment so students can see the value in being wrong once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have some favorite tools that really make teaching easier and more fun. Changing class up with digital and/or analog integration is a responsibility, not a gimmick. Don’t get too bogged down, though, by relying too much on your bag of supplies.

I’d love to hear about what you use in your teaching in the comments.

photo credit: Double–M via photo pin cc

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Special #Flipclass Chat Monday, Sept. 10

Monday, September 10th is the 25th weekly #flipclass chat. After beginning back in March, we have had a great team of moderators form and had increased participation on a weekly basis.

One thing we discovered this summer was that live discussions using Goole+ Hangouts On-Air were a great way to bring in experts in flipping from all over the world to discuss best practice and give tips on how flipping works for them. Stories are one of the best tools for learning, and we want to continue to embrace your stories.

For this broadcast, we’re going to highlight classroom norms that work well for us. The beginning of the school year is a time where we get to know kids and learn about our class cultures, but it is also a time to build good habits and set community expectations. When you change the way you think about teaching and learning, that process can become very difficult. We’re hoping to give a broad view of teachers who want to share what norms work for them. At the same time, we’re all looking to learn some new tools from others.

While we can’t all spend time together in the hangout, the audience will have an active role in the discussion. After brief introductions, I will serve as the voice of Twitter to the panel to encourage some Q&A and continued discussion.

photo credit: kino-eye via photo pin cc