Sunday, September 30, 2012

How I Tried To Successfully Start A Flipped Class Year

There have been a couple great posts in the past week by Brian Bennett and Glenn Arnold about how to NOT start your year with a flipped class. Cheryl Morris wrote very openly about issues that she has had with her flipped English classes this year. It is always great when teachers are willing to put themselves out there, the way Glenn, Brian, and Cheryl did, and openly air their struggles and why things aren’t working for them. It makes them better teachers, but by publicizing their blog posts it makes me a better teacher too.

By no means do I pretend to know more about flipping classrooms than Glenn, Cheryl, or Brian. All have flipped longer than I have. I am in my first year in a self-paced flipped world history class; all of them have done what I am doing for years. But as I read their thoughts, I thought over the choices I made to start my year. I figured I might as well share them.

So how do you prepare ninth graders, who have at least nine years of ‘this is how school works’ beaten into them, for a self-paced mastery-based environment? They know school where teachers control the pace and structure of the learning of students. Where students lack choice in gaining or demonstrating their understanding. Where creativity is drilled out of them.

So what’d I do? Again, I make no claims to knowing what I am doing. (I do, however, make the claim to knowing less Brian, Glenn, and Cheryl.) But the more information that is out there for teachers looking to flip - or to move into a self-paced flipped environment - the better. Without further ado:

I spent my first six weeks not self-paced. We focused on the skills students will need to be successful in my classroom. I focused on collaborative skills as well as some intense literacy and historical thinking skills done around multiple conflicting textual accounts of historical events. Finally, I tried to build my students’ comfort with and knowledge of the technology pieces they would be using over and over during our two years together. This focused around Google’s tools, particularly collaborative projects using Presentations. Students also learned to use Blogger and became more familiar with using Google Forms to submit answers or feedback to me or URLs for blog posts they had written.

My early screencasts for my students dealt exclusively with explaining the technology tools I mentioned above. They were non-threatening (well, in a content way) and relatively straightforward. Also, before I sent students out to watch screencasts independently, we watched a screencast together in class. We talked about what I would be looking for from them to prove that they watched the screencast - notes, a Google form, etc. I also created a ‘how to watch screencasts’ video that my students will watch and add their own ideas to.

Several times in the first six weeks I talked openly about how things were going to get ‘weird.’ We discussed self-pacing and what it would look like on multiple occasions. Students saw the first unit plan - and the three week stretch of ‘worktime’ that was ahead of them - multiple times before they received a physical copy of it. I also made every attempt to reinforce the positive things I saw in my room - groups being on task and collaborating well together, people asking good questions, groups pushing beyond the bounds of what I was asking for and delving into new areas - things that students would need to do in order to be successful in my classroom once they took full control of their own learning.

When students finished their collaborative tasks early in class, they got worktime on other homework. A few times, groups got solid chunks of free worktime at the end of their history class. I wanted students to get used to occasionally using history to do work for other classes. Again, if I am going to trust a student to take control of their own learning, I need to trust their judgment that at any given moment their English homework is more important to them than work they can do anywhere, anytime for my world history class.

Students have gotten (more) used to using technology in class. Slowly, students are becoming comfortable having their phones or iPods out on their desk and using them to look up information they need. (Yet another thing they need to unlearn - or learn: using all available tools to learn should be encouraged, not repressed.) I still occasionally have students ask questions then look blankly at me when I tell them to look it up. But slowly they are getting used to the technology mantra of ‘if I see it I assume you are using your phone/iPod to get smarter’ - students are getting used to my assumption of positive intent around their technology usage in my classroom.

I didn’t assign homework for about five weeks during this introductory period. Again, I wanted my students to get used to doing their thinking in class, not in at home. We talked as a class about part of my job being to cut down the ‘stuff’ they had to do, to figure out how to get them to think deeply in my classroom and then get rid off the superficial aspects of my class that pushed tasks into the homework space.

I pushed students to excel and think more deeply about class assignments, but since so much of the thinking I was asking students to do was skill-building, I didn’t grade their work using a mastery/standards-based system - I was looking for completion. How I get them used to mastery-based grading is the subject of another post... But I didn’t try to institute that from day one. Or even month one.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I built support for my flipped-mastery classroom with my administrators - at a summer meeting I called to explain to them what I would be doing and so I could answer their questions - as well as with the parents and guardians of my students at Back to School Night.

And now? Well, now here goes nothing. My classes will get the outline for my class through the end of October tomorrow. Hint: it says ‘worktime’ a lot on the plan for any given day. We shall see how things proceed from here...

My board on Back To School Night - how I introduced my flipped classroom to parents

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


"No Homework" from Flickr by SA_Community
Thanks to some thought-provoking blog posts I read this summer, I have coupled my move to a full self-paced, mastery-based flipped classroom with a desire to eliminate homework for my ninth grade world history class. I thoroughly thought through my rationale and got administrative backing for my no-homework (well, very little homework) class. Parents were enthusiastically supportive when I explained that I believed it was my job to carve out the less meaningful parts of my curriculum to make room to do the critical thinking that is so much a part of history class in the classroom and not at home in the form of homework.

The first six weeks went well - students had two small homework assignments that they needed to complete in the first week of school, and most got these done in a relatively timely manner. I did a small simulation Friday that necessitated a reflective piece for all classes. Unfortunately, this needed to be done at home - reflecting in class on Monday would have been, in my opinion, less useful than reflecting more immediately. (Yes, I’m aware that some students may have done the homework on Sunday night, making this argument somewhat less relevant.)

I was intrigued to come to school today: how many of my students would do the homework over the weekend? I had heard from other teachers that my freshmen hadn’t shown a great motivation to complete work outside of class, but I had asked for very little out of class work from them. Well, I got my answer: 58% of my students did their 10-15 minute reflection over the weekend.

This was the only homework I had asked my students to do over the last month. Looking back, I should have tried harder to fit in the simulation earlier in the week and allow my students time in class to process what had happened in the simulation. I still stand by my no regular homework stance: if my students use their class time well, I don’t anticipate my students doing out of class work until late October. And I think that is how it should be.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

Publicizing student work!
So in an attempt to do several things, all very sneakily, I had my students create collaborative Google presentations that defined the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. Students then had to offer a couple solutions for places to retreat to before finally concluding with one ideal location to head to to survive said apocalypse. It was an attempt, through a high-engagement topic, to get them more comfortable with collaborative Google tools, introduce a watered-down version of citing sources, learn to get copyright-friendly images, and to start, very loosely, weighing arguments against opposing arguments.

It went well - students were certainly engaged. The feedback I got was good - more is still coming in, but see below. Also, as a bonus, I learned that Flickr, a great site to get copyright-friendly images from, was blocked at our school. After talking to our IT guy, I was able to get it and almost all other websites at our school unblocked. Not Facebook or YouTube (but I’ve got a YouTube workaround that works) yet, but progress.  

Check out the project description here and the final products here. Enjoy them!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

History #flipclass Discussion

I was lucky enough to get to hang out on Google+ tonight with David Fouch and Tom Driscoll and talk about what the early year in a flipped history class has looked like for us. We also talked a bit about what flipped-mastery looks like in our classrooms. Some cool ideas and questions came out of this discussion. Check it out below!

Friday, September 14, 2012

I'm Excited

Why? Several reasons, actually.

First and foremost, by all appearances I have had the privilege of receiving a group of freshmen that are willing to engage in intellectual work and are willing to put their conceptions of a history class aside and engage in history. Those are excellent signs - I’m excited!

My students have completed five of the six weeks of my introduction to history unit. They have been introduced, on a basic level, to the critical thinking strategies and some of the technology tools that they will need to be familiar with in order to succeed in my class. It seems their conceptions of what a history class is are starting to swing away from their previous experiences - also exciting.

I’m excited that we are currently immersed in a week-long mini-unit/project that has students collaborating to create the context of a zombie apocalypse that threatens their safety, then weighing the pros and cons of escape locations. Students are engaged and are learning to collaborate more effectively in person and online. They are increasing their competency with collaborative Google tools and (excitingly) turning to each other for tech help, not me. This last one is kind of awesome, because it has happened organically in a couple of classes, without my pushing students to ask each other before they come to me with a tech problem or question.

I’m excited because initial feedback from parents at Back to School Night and in emails about the changes I am trying to make in my classroom has been positive.

But I’m most excited to start (in a week) the all-in flipped mastery democracy and revolutions unit that I’ve been scheming about for most of the summer. (Yes, I’ve also thoroughly schemed my Industrial Revolution unit.) I’m psyched to try out applying Ramsey Musallam’s Explore-Flip-Apply framework in a history class. I’m curious - and very optimistic - that time spent in the Explore phase will create some desire to know and understand our democracy and revolutions unit, and that the thinking done in the Explore phase will create some great schematic hooks for the remainder of our unit.

I’m excited to see my students really start to own their learning, and to be held accountable for mastering what they know. I’m looking forward to more intentionally and explicitly integrating current events into every unit I teach. I’m anxious to see what sort of creative products my students create this year when they are given the opportunity to show their learning in diverse ways.

It’s a good place to be in. Am I low on sleep? Yes. Will there be struggles as freshmen start to deal with autonomy in the classroom for the first time in their lives? Most certainly. But I’m excited to learn with my students, and to keep thinking about how to best challenge and engage all of my students.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Definition of Learning

Thanks, Snagit!
My mom visited my classroom on Friday. She came in and watched my second period class start a structured academic controversy about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was racist then stayed and got interviewed by my advisory about all sorts of things. Most questions were along the lines of “What bad choices did Mr. LS make when he was in high school?”

Towards the end of the period the questions got a little slower and my mom asked my advisory a few questions. One of the things that she asked my advisees was if they were learning anything yet in history. Only one student answered the question, but his answer was no.

I wasn’t overly invested in what my students would say in response to that question - I didn’t know my mom was going to ask it. And I’m not tied up in my students seeing the value of the work we’ve done in my classroom - YET. We just finished our third week of school and we are halfway through a six week introductory unit. Given that the focus of my two year world history class is based around inquiry, with students doing the work of historians in class as much as possible, there is a pretty reasonable chunk of skills that need to be introduced: metacognitive and history-specific reading strategies and processes as well as embracing the ambiguity of history have been the focus of my class thus far.

Instead of being offended or angry that this advisee didn’t feel like he had learned anything in history class in three weeks, I’m sad. (Sorry, but I don’t think it is possible for him to have learned nothing in three weeks - there is no way he was effectively using metacognitive strategies to talk to the text, or that he knew about sourcing or contextualization or how to effectively look for possible bias when attacking a source.) Look at what nine years of school has done to this student - unless he is learning discrete facts he thinks he isn’t learning.

But then on the other side, look at the climate he has gone to school in: high stakes testing has been a concern of all of his teachers, who (most likely) did some pretty serious Freireian banking in order to ensure that their students learned the state-proscribed facts that could appear on the state test. So it isn’t really his fault at all. But it sure is sad as hell.


While defining racism with my fifth period class, I shared a story about my time in Namibia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My students had quickly laid out a definition of racism involving negative actions about people based on their race. This class seems to really like to think, so I decided to see where the story drove the discussion.

For two years in the Peace Corps I was the only white person in my village. Some of the residents of my village assumed that because I was white that I was rich. This was a race-based assumption, but it was positive. Was that racism? For about fifteen minutes the discussion flowed around the room. We brought over my students’ English teacher, who had a prep that period, and she shared her thoughts. My student aide, a junior and former student, shared her thoughts.

As the discussion was drawing to a close, a student said his head hurt. This is exactly what I hope to make happen in my class every day. And I bet my advisee, were he in that class, would have said he didn’t ‘learn’ anything in that discussion.

It’s early in the year for my freshmen. And I have them for two years. But it looks like I need to do some reframing on what real learning is and how that compares to memorizing faces. Because having your head hurt from a complex discussion - without any factual content gained - should be the kind of learning all of our students look forward to and see as valuable.