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