Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#FlipCon12, Day 2: Leaving Motivated and Energized

So any sort of huge reflective piece out of #FlipCon12 is an absolute impossibility at the moment. A couple pieces will come as I have more time to digest what happened these last three days in Chicago. To ruin any chance of a surprise coming out of any of those posts, I’ll let you in on a little secret: a whole lot of awesomeness happened. I’m going to focus on my immediate experiences and reflections today at #FlipCon12. Assessment was the theme today for me – Jen Gray and Marc Seigel led great sessions about what assessment can (and should?) look like in a flipped classroom. Also, a second consecutive working lunch, with history flippers this time, happened. Networking – love it!

My view of Bergmann/Sams keynote
One aspect of today that I’m not going to write about is Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann’s keynote – I have a feeling this post will run a little long on assessment as it is, and there was just so much in their keynote. All I’ll say about it is once it goes up online, watch it – it is really an incredible speech. I love the cutting board analogy!

I started today hanging out with Jen Gray. I loved some of the organizational and metacognitive strategies she shared. The charts she uses in her classroom include learning targets – in student friendly language – and show multiple ways student could show proficiency in a certain learning target. Additionally, these charts also included columns that had a suggested completion date for this learning target, as well as a place for the actual completion date. Her daily goals sheet – what do you want to accomplish today and what did you accomplish today – are great accountability pieces for students as well. Both sound so simple, right? I love stealing things like this from smart people! Saves me from having to do the thinking later…

Jen also emphasized metacognition around tests for students. She pushed the idea of creating a place on tests for students to say whether they are confident or unsure of the answer they gave on a test question before they turn the test in to be graded: yup, love it. I also really like the test corrections structure in her class: test corrections earn you the ability to be able to retake a test. I am moving to written short answer questions, which students will receive at the beginning of a unit, as the majority of each summative unit assessment next year (with a couple multiple choice questions sprinkled in – darn state test prep). I am hopeful that I can do a few tweaks to her idea (which included classifying why you got a question wrong – simple mistake, wording of the question, just didn’t know it), like maybe test corrections on the multiple choice section of the test earning you a verbal retake of the short answer questions.  In addition to conventional test corrections of errors, Jen also has her students reflect on what helped them master content they got correct – whether students mastered the content because they taught a friend/family member, made a flow chart/concept map, rewatched a video, or an in-class assignment for example. 

After my history flippers lunch and Aaron and Jon slaying their keynote, Marc Seigel finished up my #FlipCon12 experience. His early words about our classrooms being vehicles for critical thinking, not content regurgitators immediately struck a chord with me, for this is how I view my history classroom. Marc also asked us to think about what we would name our class based on how we assign grades in our class – should your class be called ‘history test taking’ or ‘history writing and research’? He also encouraged us to consider if our assessments allowed for creativity and/or choice, and pushed us to consider problem- or inquiry-based assessments. Clearly, lots of great things to ponder.

But, in my mind, Marc’s most important message dealt with the intersection of assessments and learning standards: in any classroom, but particularly in a flipped classroom, we must design our assessments around learning standards and be sure not to force already existing assessments onto learning standards. Coming on the heels of Aaron Sams’ question on the end of his keynote asking us what we would do with all our classtime in a flipped classroom, Marc’s point about learning standards being the basis for assessments and not vice versa is an extremely important one for me to look at this summer as I give assessment in my classroom a serious rethink.

Keynote stylized in Snapseed
In summary, wow. I can’t believe the face-to-face part of #FlipCon12 is over – what a spectacular experience. So much thinking (and collaborating) to do!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#FlipCon12, Day 1: Drinking from the Firehose

Sorry for the cliché, but that is where my head is at right now, 3 hours after the end of the sessions on Day 1 at #FlipCon12. I got a chance to listen to and network with a hugely talented and dedicated group of people today, and I’m just trying to make sure it all sticks in my brain. Some highlights:

Brian Bennett’s points in his opening keynote were great – the challenge to have teachers radically reconceptualize how they use classtime was a good one to hear. Despite the common misconception, a flipped classroom is not about the videos! His push to have teachers be clear with their students about their expectations and flexible with how students use classtime was well received. Oh, asynchoronous classrooms. When will I have the guts to go there in my classroom?

Troy Cockrum's session
Troy Cockrum’s session on writing workshops in a flipped classroom was a great one – after spending so much time around math and science teachers (no offense – y’all are great, and heavily numerically dominant at #FlipCon12), it was great to hear from a Humanities flipper. Troy emphasized using the Explore-Flip-Apply framework, championed by Ramsey Musallam, for flipping writing instruction. I’ve got a good idea of how I want to use this framework to teach content in my classroom, but even after today I’m still trying to figure out what this looks like in terms of teaching skills, particularly writing, in my world history class. I’m looking forward to mulling it over, but also getting to talk to Ramsey about it in August at CUE Rockstar.

Google master Andy Schwen
Andy Schwen absolutely blew my mind with the work he has done with scripts in Google docs and how he leverages free tools from Google to run his flipped math classes. I need some serious time to go back over and digest some it. Check it out here.

Working lunch on standards based grading – very stimulating to get to pick the brains of smart folks over lunch. I’d love to go completely to standards based grading, but I think I need to get my flip down next year before making that plunge.

Jac de Haan’s session on interactive YouTube videos opened up a whole new set of ideas for me. I am having a hard time at the moment, 5ish hours out of his session, trying to figure out widespread uses in a high school history classes. I think getting students to create a project using an interactive YouTube video would be great: find a momentous decision in history and go over the pros and the cons of each possible decision a person was faced with. After a contextualizing of the problem in the initial video, the video could branch to the discussion of the pros and cons of the different options this person was faced with. The video could conclude with the actual decision made and the impact this decision had on the world.

Finally, to end the day, it was very rewarding to get to hear a small student panel discuss their experience in a flipped classroom. Their positive, eloquent remarks about the flipped classroom were a great way to remind us about why flippers are taking this plunge: it’s all the kids!

Student panelists

So much to mull over – and day 2 is tomorrow. Can’t wait!

Monday, June 18, 2012

#FlipCon12, Day 0

Jac de Haan stepping in for Dan Spencer, Snapseed photo edit
There is something to be said for learning from folks for months and months on Twitter and then getting to meet them in person – it is a pretty cool thing. I was lucky enough to get to spend today at the #FlipCon12 pre-conference polishing up my lackluster Camtasia 2 for Mac skills. See the finished product here – make sure to keep your expectations low… (Background noise, cluttered desktop, etc etc etc.) It was neat to get to spend the day learning from Dan Spencer, Kristin Daniels, Jac de Haan, and Brett Clark, people from my PLN who I finally got a chance to meet, talk to, and learn from in person.

Takeaways from day 0? There was a lot of great energy today, and there were only about 1/3 of the number of folks as there will be at #FlipCon12 tomorrow – can’t wait for that energy and those ideas to triple! And despite the shabbiness of the video I added here, I am way more comfortable with Camtasia. And finally, the coolest idea from the day – screencast your feedback on student writing: do this as you read their submitted Google doc. This will hopefully let me provide the feedback I would have given my students in writing, but in video form. I hope this technique will allow me to leave more, and more detailed, feedback in a similar amount of time to the current amount it takes for me to give feedback in writing. I’m psyched to give it a try in my classroom in the fall!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why I am in Chicago for #FlipCon12?

Ah ha – a great question. If you told me a year ago that I’d be leaving the Bay Area in my second week of summer vacation to go to a conference about flipped classrooms, I would have found your statement intriguing. If you would have told me that I would be supremely excited for this conference, well, things would have gotten just a little weirder. But here I am, psyched for #FlipCon12. How’d I get here?

I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in the Making Education Relevant and Interactive through Technology (MERIT) program through Foothill College this past year. Under the supremely capable leadership of Rushton Hurley and Diane Main, a cohort of about 60 mixed age level teachers and administrators were led through a very hands-on year of intensive educational technology training. I have written previously about the tremendous positive impact MERIT had on my teaching, and I am looking forward to the ways Rushton and Diane’s ideas on technology integration and engaging all students will continue to challenge me.

Through MERIT I also gained access to a ton of resources I just didn’t know about – I learned the wonder of Twitter (best PD in the world) and got to go to EdCampSFBay. This got the ball rolling towards #FlipCon12, though at the time I wouldn’t have known it. While at EdCampSFBay, I happened to sit next to a tall gentleman with a shaved head at lunch.  This guy was talking about flipped classrooms, which I knew nothing about. I was lucky enough to hear Ramsey Musallam speak that day as well as several other times throughout the year, and his ability to so lucidly state both the theoretical reasons to flip your classroom as well as what the practical aspects of what a flipped classroom looked like was deeply thought-provoking.

My exposure to Ramsey’s ideas around the flipped classroom eventually moved me into the Twitter-sphere, more specifically into the best PD of my week. Every Monday, from 5-6pm PST, the #flipclass chat fills my timeline with successes, struggles, and most importantly ideas for what a flipped classroom can do for the learning of all students. Without the impetus of so many honest, energetic practitioners of a flipped classroom, I would not be heading to Chicago for #FlipCon12.

So there you have it: MERIT + Ramsey Musallam + #flipclass = #FlipCon12. I’m beyond excited for what these coming days will hold for me, and more importantly the positive impact it will have on my students.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflections on Year 4: Changes for Year 5

As I look back on my first four years in the classroom, like every teacher, I have had success and failures. For every Socratic discussion where I could sit and listen to kids think and create meaning together – sometimes without saying a word for 60 minutes – there has been an also present inability to reach kids, an inability to eliminate the achievement gap in my classroom. However, looking back on my four official teaching years, and this past year in particular, my biggest struggle involved a seeming malaise that ran through many of my students that precluded them from really trying to reach their potential in my classroom.

So, how to go about building a culture where students know that their best is expected at all times? That there is not a time when it is okay for them to just skate by and do average work? To start with, it deals with my expectations of their use of classtime. I believe that I need to be clear about what the expected standard of behavior and participation is in my class – which I think I do an okay job at – but also be certain to hold all students to this bar of acceptable behavior every day, from the moment they enter my class to the time they leave it. Not just on days when I am well rested, or in a good mood, or full of energy. Every day, every student, every minute they are in my classroom. This will certainly be a challenge to enforce all the time, with the all the time being the important part. However, if I can provide meaningful time for thought, exploration, and collaboration while my students are in my classroom, then I believe that I will be closer to reaching this goal of creating a culture where the best from everyone – myself included – is expected every day. And I need to be sure to hold all students to that standard all the time.

I will also allow more time at the beginning of a unit for students to wrestle with an essential question. A brief note to differentiate essential questions from unit questions: unit questions are more specific in referencing, in my case, a historical time period, while essential questions are asked broadly about the big ideas of a unit. For instance, an essential question for a unit on imperialism might ask, “What is the best way for an oppressed people to try to gain their freedom?” while the unit question would ask, “What is the best way for an imperialized people to try to gain freedom?” By giving students time to work around these more general big ideas and questions from a unit, and doing it collaboratively, I hope to have students both activating relevant schema they have regarding the big ideas from the essential question while also allowing time for kids to teach each other and build each other’s schema around the ideas a given unit is based around.

On a different note, I will never lecture about historical content ever again. This will become a post later, but through the exposure I’ve had to the ideas behind the flipped classroom this year I believe that my classtime can be better used for other things than lecture. Hopefully, this will open up even more space for historical exploration and creation within my classroom, as well as more time to connect the ideas of a unit to current events. These ideas of a flipped classroom as well as the time for students to actively and collaboratively explore the big ideas of a unit were based on time I got to spend learning from Ramsey Musallam about both flipped classrooms, but also his ideas on Explore-Flip-Apply framework for a flipped classroom (the Explore section, as I currently envision it, is the previous paragraph).

I also plan on consistently giving students as much choice as possible in how they express knowledge to me. Will I still be emphasizing learning how to write in some of my assessments? For certain. More on that – and the changes my Humanities partner and I are planning – in the next paragraph. I had great success this year in asking for students to demonstrate their knowledge in any way they saw fit. When provided with a rubric and a general outline of the thinking I wanted to see from them, it was amazing what they were able to dream up. I look forward for more opportunities for students to be creative in expressing their knowledge.

Finally, the last big change will involve the writing process. Similar to in years past, the English teacher that I work with sat down with me last week and we plotted the scope and sequence of writing instruction we will do over our two year loop with our shared students. It is an ambitious agenda, but certainly do-able. Two big changes for next year: first, we will be explicit in the new skills that we are teaching in each of the Humanities papers we collectively assign. This will help our students to know what aspects of the writing process they are expected to have grown comfortable with, as well as which skills we are introducing. We are hopeful this will make more clear what skills our students should have developed early stages of mastery – or at least comfort – in and which skills they should still feel comfortable about struggling with. We will also be asking students to blog about their writing process throughout the year by reflecting on what aspects of a particular writing assignment they are proud of – with copied and pasted proof from their paper – as well as what aspects they are still struggling with.

However, the coolest part of this blogging we will be asking our kids to do around writing involves the creation of writing groups. These writing groups will be tasked with reading each other’s writing blogs and commenting on the progress they have seem within their writing groups. We also hope that this asynchronous reflective process will let students reflect on their writing when they are ready, not at the drop of a hat in class when we ask them to reflect on their writing successes and struggles. Hopefully, this will lead to more of an exchange of drafts of papers through Google docs and will help to push our students’ writing.

Rereading this, it seems like a lot to tackle in a year. However, such is life – if you don’t love teaching enough to really challenge yourself to improve your craft or the education of your students, well, I’m sure there is a more lucrative career option out there for you, right?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reflections on Year 4: Problems

As I said in the previous post, some things worked well in my second two-year loop with students: Humanities assignments challenged all students, the increased use of technology engaged some students, allowing freedom for students to differentiate their products of assigned projects produced positive results, and students left my class feeling more confident attacking and digesting text. However, there were struggles. One struggle stood out about all others as THE thing that needs to get fixed in my classroom next year.

The biggest area I struggled with was with a malaise that seemed to overcome my students: there were very few students who were willing to put in the time and effort to do their best. I understand that it involves taking a pretty big risk to go into a school and try your hardest – if you try your best and fail at the goal you set, there is a blow to your psyche involved. However, that fear is not one to be universalized and regardless shouldn’t preclude a student from really trying – or working more to reach their full potential – in a classroom. To digress briefly, this gets into the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation of students, which is a topic for another day. But, this lack of a desire by my students to really try and challenge themselves was frustrating, for it ran from kids who should be in the upper tier of students to mid-skill level students to low-skilled students.

So… Reaction to problems like this can go several ways: blame the kids – it is their fault. They should work harder – I work hard and try my best and take pride in my work. Why can’t they do the same? Or blame the reality students exist in: kids are dealing with so many things – family issues, friend issues, poverty, drugs – how can they be expected to show up at school and engage the materials their teachers have created on any given day? This type of discourse – labeled type I discourse and written very eloquently about by Eubanks, Parish, and Smith here – isn’t productive for it removes any onus from a teacher to reflect on their teaching and improve their craft. Nor is it entirely productive to stand and say I did a bad job – if I could have reached and engaged more students then kids would have been more willing to try their best.

As with most of life, the desire to make this a black and white issue – it is entirely my students’ fault OR entirely society’s fault OR it is entirely my fault – just doesn’t work. However, I strongly believe that I could do a better job of creating motivation within students – and maybe even move some of this extrinsic motivation into more intrinsic areas. And if motivation starts to tick up, and students feel empowered and successful, well, then some things can happen.

Because things need to change. It can be frustrating coming to work, putting in the time that teachers put in, and knowing that way too many of your students aren’t interested in working up to their potential on a consistent basis. Let’s just say that I’ve got some thinking to do this summer.

And though I’ve got ideas for next year, I’d love thoughts on how you try to challenge your students to do their best on a regular basis.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Reflections on Year 4: Successes

I am incredibly lucky – I work at a school I love with an incredibly passionate and dedicated group of teachers who routinely go above and beyond in supporting their students. Additionally, I believe that the smaller learning community (SLC) structure that my school uses creates opportunities for more students to succeed than in a normal comprehensive high school. I am blessed with a supportive administrator who believes in me and supports my teaching. I was lucky enough to get hired four years ago onto the same SLC team as two good friends from my graduate school class. But. You knew that was coming. But…

I just completed my second two-year loop with students – my sophomores are moving on and I get a new group of freshmen in the fall. And, despite the efforts of myself and my team, things did not go well. Did things go horribly with no success? Absolutely not. Some things worked well.

The Humanities projects my students do – I teach in close collaboration with the English teacher who shares students with me – continued to challenge all students. Since the grading of these projects is split between my English colleague and I, the time that we can spend tailoring our feedback and challenging all students regardless of the place they are at worked well.

I also spent this past year at Foothill College participating in the Making Education Relevant and Interactive through Technology (MERIT) program, which pushed my thinking and teaching in several positive ways. First, more projects that I assigned had a technology component embedded in them. Students enjoyed experimenting with the various technology tools and many used them in projects later in the year. Though I only have anecdotal proof, the number of students submitting projects with a technology component increased a bit over other, more straightforward writing assignments.

A second positive that came out of the MERIT program was student choice in the product they created in various projects. Instead of providing guidelines for the product of a given project, I provided students with a rubric and told them to show me they learned or knew something in any format they desired so long as the rubric criteria were fulfilled. And while some wrote letters or created Google presentations, others created beautiful art pieces or three-dimensional models. This creativity was highlighted by a project on our Israel/Palestine unit where a student created a paper version of a Facebook page with “Like my status (LMS) for a truth is” page: she was able to creatively express deep knowledge of Ariel Sharon, the Second Intifada, and Palestinian hunger strikers (among other things) and do it in a way that I couldn’t have even begun to imagine. Differentiating around product was very successful, with students showing creativity and intelligences that they don’t (unfortunately) usually get to show in a typical classroom.  Additionally, this was more successful than explicitly integrating a technology component into a project in terms of submission of completed projects. Unfortunately, again I have only anecdotal evidence of this, not hard numbers.

The final positive came out of exit interviews with my students and dealt with literacy. Two summers ago I was able to participate in a professional development series put on by WestEd around Reading Apprenticeship. This PD emphasized talking to the text and making the processes that advanced readers use to deconstruct and create meaning from text explicit. Students had good things to say about how their textual literacy skills improved and how they felt more capable and confident attacking text.

My struggles? They’re coming up next…

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Blog?

And some context

So why am I writing this? Why start a blog? Several reasons, actually. This is an entirely selfish venture – I am writing this for myself. I believe that one of the best ways to become a better teacher is through reflection, purposeful thinking about what you did in the classroom, how it went, who was learning, and maybe more importantly, who wasn’t learning. This is a place for me to do that: to reflect on what I have been doing in my classroom, and to try to get better. Always better. Always.

What is my classroom? I teach world history in San Mateo, CA.  I am lucky to get to loop with my students: I get them as ninth graders and keep the same students as tenth graders. This group of common students is shared with three other core teachers – English, math, and science – for the two-year loop. Then we get a new batch. This smaller learning community (SLC) structure emphasizes personalization, which meshes well with my personality. I just finished my second loop with students and will receive a new group of freshmen in August.

My class is unique in a couple of ways: first, I collaborate extensively with my English colleague in an attempt to discuss similar topics in both my students’ English and history classes. For example, they will read All Quiet on the Western Front in English while we study World War I, or Cry, the Beloved Country while we study South Africa. Large Humanities papers and projects are markers of progress throughout the two-year loop.

The second way my classroom is unique is the literacy and evaluation of history focus. I was heavily influenced in these areas by being able to study under Sam Wineburg, who believes that students should be reading and interpreting history, not being fed a narrative without the ability to question it. In short, students should be doing the work that historians do. This is a big difference from what my students are used to in history, and is able to engage them in a way they are not used to in history class. I absolutely love the emphasis that this pedagogical style has placed on critical thinking and interpretation of history. Additionally, I was further influenced in my literacy emphasis by a training I was able to do with WestEd that emphasized the explicit teaching and modeling of the reading processes expert readers use to students.

Finally, I was lucky enough to participate in the Making Education Relevant and Interactive through Technology (MERIT) program through Foothill College this past year. This yearlong experience focused on getting teachers knowledgeable of and comfortable with educational technology resources, as well as creating a supportive network in which to learn and experiment in our classrooms.

This push to integrate more technology into my classroom – not at the expense of the critical thinking focus but to allow for more of it – combined with completing my second loop of students has given me a lot to think about this summer as I reconfigure what my classroom looks like. And here we are again, back at the beginning: this is why I am starting this blog.