Flippin’ Fantastic

I am both challenged and inspired by the principles of Mastery Learning and the Flipped  Classroom. As the COETAIL cohort video-conferenced (via Google Hangout – move over, Skype!) with Brian Bennett on this topic, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his  incredible personal journey and his insight. Here is a very young teacher who speaks like a seasoned vet, challenging me to re-think my whole approach to teaching. Not just re-think it – REVERSE it! On top of the fascinating troubleshooting process he negotiated with Jeff Utecht as they re-jigged the video connection to work around a Taipei typhoon (no less!), it struck me that his own story completely denied me the usual escape clause: “Well, that just wouldn’t work in my classroom.” He has, after all, developed his flipped classroom/mastery learning techniques in a Korean international school setting, and seems now to have successfully  transferred this to an American public school in Illinois. His pedigree certainly prompted me to listen closely as he shared with us an updated version of his EARCOS conference 2010 presentation.

On the one hand, the basic principles of reverse instruction seem to have evolved organically in my own practice. The idea that students do individual work at home (read the assigned novel chapters and answer the questions; read the textbook and take notes on a graphic organizer), and then spend classroom time in collaborative group work or some kind of dynamic classroom-only discourse … this makes perfect sense to me.

Instruction becomes the homework = CONTENT/CONCEPT DELIVERY happens at home.

Homework becomes classwork = PROCESSING & PRACTICE of these concepts happens in the classroom.

I can see how my classroom has turned around, particularly since this year we have adopted a new textbook for our new history course and, thank goodness, they don’t make textbooks like they used to! Our new Ancient Civilizations text from Holt McDougal is not simply a digital rendering of the hard copy, page by page. It includes multimedia presentations, videos, primary source-related materials, activity-maker software, interactive maps, tutorials, graphic organizers for reading comprehension and writing in a variety of genres, and other materials to extend the learner “beyond the text.”

In addition, it is becoming increasingly common for me and my colleagues to call on the MS IT Coordinator or the Librarian to create “how to” files (PowerPoints, pdfs with images, screencasts – all sorts!) for the classroom projects we undertake. Either the specialist or we, the classroom teachers, introduce the information, but now that we are several years into our 1:1 laptop situation, we have become used to the vast majority of our students being pretty tech-savvy, with just a fringe group of newbies needing the extra prompting. For most kids in our middle school classrooms these days, it would be a waste of time to take a laborious, repeat-each-step-after-me lecture on how to set up a blog, or use PhotoStory/MovieMaker/CamStudio.

With such rich resources, one question I have about the Flipped Classroom is this: When would it be appropriate to turn the vodcasting over to the students? In many cases, they would be re-creating something that already exists in a more professional form – either by our IT/IL Specialists or the textbook company! This is a wonderful problem to have, and it is a luxury of our full-scale adoption of technology for anywhere, anytime learning. In the meantime, perhaps I could start by adding a step to the homework – to the initial content consumption. Perhaps, I could ask students to respond to the homework lecture/instruction/reading via video. Although this could be just as readily achieved with a group discussion first thing in the next class…

In any event, I definitely like the importance that the Flipped Classroom places on teacher-student interaction – that this approach actually frees up classroom time for conversation and individual teaching/learning. It certainly flies in the face of concern that computers will take over from teachers. The emphasis is entirely on enriching the individual’s learning experience, not replacing one kind of learning experience (teacher-student interaction) with another (computer-student interaction).

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So, instruction is definitely in a state of irrevocable reversing for me. Although I can (and want to!) continue this trend of flipping homework and classwork, I know that the environment I am teaching in has set me down a path of reverse instruction that will naturally continue anyway. No worries there. And with a new schedule this year that has me teaching 45-minute classes instead of 95-minute classes, I am finding that class time is just evaporating before my eyes. So, in order to move from content instruction to launching into discussions and activity, I really need to set students up to read and prepare at home, ready for doing something with that  content in class the next day.

BUT: here comes the other hand.  It is the Mastery Learning element that really hounds and confounds me. At this point, the 24/7 access has not necessarily led to increased differentiation in my classroom. Student learning has not yet become personalized. Performance objectives are not yet the standard of assessment in my classroom. Certainly not anywhere near as much as Bennett illustrated with his own model of teaching. For the most part, I still have students working all together at a pace I have set for them, in the order I have set for them, and it is only to a minimal extent that there is choice for the topic, type, or medium of assessment.

I buy into on a theoretical level. I want to do it. And I am envious of how quickly it seems that Bennett was able to switch his organization and approach to enable it. I know I can be easy on myself and just start with baby steps. That’s what kindly teacher mentors have been saying forever about change in education. Just make a start. Just do it!

But I am daunted by the thought of setting up all the procedures. I know that I want to provide the opportunity for learners to take responsibility for their content. And I know that kids will probably be almost as challenged by the idea as I am, because they can no longer just get by “playing school” as Bennett described it. I like the idea of “flipping” to  provide time for learners to explore, explain, and create meaning of the content.  It means I can focus on providing context instead of providing content. Starting with the objectives of a unit and working backwards to create the activities which will give the students the opportunity to show their mastery – objective-based assessment self-evidently empowers students to take charge of their learning.

But it is definitely going to take a lot of planning to implement this in my history classroom where standards and benchmarks are not so black and white, and learning is enriched through more of a shared journey – discussion, debate, multi-party simulation, etc. And then it’s going to take some really slick time management strategies to walk around talking to every single kid (1:1 interactions) – working ahead/behind, helping to keep them with the rest of the class as needed, but giving time to go back and practice or surge ahead in their own good time. To a point. Because I will still need to follow the school’s grading schedule, of course.

Nevertheless, Bennett shared some highly practical points that made this approach seem more concrete and do-able. He said that his units took about 3 weeks and that he prepared about 3 assignments per week for students to complete. To avoid procrastinators waiting until the last day to suddenly come up with assignments, and overwhelm the teacher with the sudden surge of individual consultation time that this would necessitate, he tells students they can only get one objective checked off on the last day of the assignment.

Bennett gives himself some leeway with quizzes; some are completed orally (one-on-one) while others are written. He has a bank of questions with which to quiz students, and some students will only need a few – because they get them right without hesitation or prompting, while others will demonstrate simply that they are not yet ready for the quiz. (He has developed a nifty rubric for this purpose: for a full score, for example, students would need to respond concisely and accurately – without prompting by the teacher – using unit vocabulary fluently in the discussion, etc).

Meanwhile, other students are working on other projects. Students can frontload or backload to meet weekly expectations, but Bennett does chase up kids who complete less than the required amount per week. Because he is keeping track of everything on a one-page Excel spreadsheet (see image) that he keeps with him as he circulates in class, he is able to keep tabs on everyone – that being a total of 100 kids at the moment (just like me!) with about 5 kids that he reckons he works intensively with (i.e. resource students who have IEPs).

In fact, I was particularly impressed with Bennett’s point that this highly personalized Mastery Learning approach ensures that teachers really talk to ALL students … because, if we are honest, we would probably have to admit that there are students in our classrooms who are not actually getting the individual attention that good teaching calls for – for one reason or another, an act of deliberate or unconscious omission. This point hit home for me.

One of my colleagues asked a good question as the video conference wrapped up. What are the characteristics of things that work well flipped? It was generally agreed around the room that the subject material would preferably be algorithmic in nature. Discrete information, concepts that students can pick up quickly, and review independently. But, once the subject territory becomes more philosophical in nature, the videos may well be less powerful as teaching tools. Too boring, maybe. Simply not so flipping fantastic.

Interestingly, on the site devoted to the “Flipped Classroom and Pre-Vodcasting” concept, described as the “brainchild of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams who are pioneers in the field of using vodcasts in the classroom,” they list specific subjects for which “flipping” is particularly appropriate – and it does not include the Humanities: “Thus far, teachers and students using the Flipped Class model have been very successful in mastering science, mathematics and foreign language. ”

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So, how often is Bennett, a science teacher, still traditionally delivering content? About once a week in biology. But he is not doing the talking. Students are – sitting in desks facing each other. He calls it “the forum.”

I hope that’s the subject of his next EARCOS presentation, because anything with his name on it would get my attention now. In the meantime, I should work with the #flipclass hash tag to follow more teachers using a flip model. More for me and you can be found at The Flipped Class Ning site: groups of people by content area and discussion forums for collaboration and idea sharing.


Sickened by Cyberbullying

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I just read another long, sickening news story (New York Times, December 4) on cyberbullying. There’s plenty of them out there – both cyberbullies and headlines about them. And it’s plain to see that one anecdote after another follows a horrifyingly common pattern:

  1. …Parents notice their child has become withdrawn, miserable; grades drop; skips school.
  2. …Parents prod and student doesn’t communicate.
  3. …Eventually parents dig up the cause: cyberbullying.
  4. …The medium is a social networking site like Facebook or instant/text messages
  5. …The method maximizes the anonymity of the internet and the ease with which identities can be forged; the tyranny of the majority mobilized in a psychological savaging of the victim, unbridled by individual inhibitions
  6. …The cyber-content is sneering, hurtful, obscene; mob mentality quickly escalates the situation.
  7. …The cyber-evidence is unimaginably gruesome, and particularly chilling because it is perpetrated by peers, other young people, often known to the victim, some supposedly friends of the victim; whole groups of peers are attracted by this opportunity to “get in on the action.”

In their own words (article excerpts):

“It’s not the swear words. They all swear. It’s how they gang up on one individual at a time. ‘Go cut yourself.’ Or ‘you are sooo ugly’ — but with 10 u’s, 10 g’s, 10 l’s, like they’re all screaming it at someone.” – Inspector Brunault

Fat bitch.” – someone comments about a 9-year-old girl on her teenage brother’s Facebook wall.

About the proud Facebook photos posted by a 13-year-old New York girl, another girl comments: “hideous” and “this pic makes me throwup a lil.” If she had to choose between the life of an animal and that of the girl in the photos, she continues, she would choose the animal’s, because “yeah, at least they’re worth something.”

At least I don’t take pics of myself in the mirror like a homosexual midget.” Also, “you smell weird.” And “ur such a petaphile.”- Facebook tauntings issued from an impersonated profile.

  1. …When the victim’s parent sees this, the parent is shocked and beside themselves.
  2. …Seeking outside help presents a daunting prospect: Schools seem either impotent or unwilling to handle off-campus matters. The police make very slow, hard work of investigation, if they deem it worthy of the effort at all; prosecutions are rare for “first-time offenders.” Direct contact with website admin or ISPs can  yield disappointing results.
  3. …Parent-intervention or efforts to stop the cyber-bullying may be met with an escalation of the bullying.
  4. …Addressing the perpetrators, if they are discovered, results in anything from dismissal & shoulder shrugging from bullies and the parents of bullies, to pointed fingers at the victim.
  5. …Further investigation reveals the victim has tampered with or deleted crucial evidence, and/or retaliated themselves under the veil of internet anonymity so that the line between victim and bully is blurred and parents are left bewildered and helpless about how to move forward.
  6. …Parents strive but struggle to keep a closer watch over their children’s internet use. All the young people, victim and bully, resent parental monitoring.
  7. …Kids find a way around any barrier erected by their parents. And the vicious cycle continues.

It’s like Lord of the Flies – a fight for survival amongst children who lost their innocence way back in the jungle somewhere. And when the adult arrives to rescue the little savages and bring them back to a world of law and order and civility, his arrival is greeted with bewilderment and tears of grief. Nothing can ever be the way it was before they all came to the island; and the trouble now is that the surprised officer has, himself, lost sight of the ship that would get them off the island.

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It all just makes me sick – physically sick. I don’t plan to offer any pretty platitudes to wrap up this post. I’m guessing there are plenty of unhappy endings.

For Better and/or Worse

“Teachers have always had a responsibility to help their students grow out of youthful isolation, digital or not, and became intellectually curious about the wider world around them.”

The digital world is a challenge to me, to other educators – and to our students – but it is also one that we must adjust to, according to Carol Jago, President of the National Council of the Teachers of English. In a September interview, Jago said that “the digital world offers benefits but also pitfalls for education at all levels.” (Listen to the interview with Carol Jago: Download)

While our focus as educators should clearly be on enhancing our curriculum with Web 2.0 tools and other “edtech” innovations, we still need to be mindful of what students are doing with technology aside from our curriculum work, because it certainly has an impact on the quality of the work.

We know, for example, that young people absorb themselves for hours and hours at a time with online chatting, video-gaming, and variously dabbling with digital devices. A Kaiser Family Foundation study cited by Jago found that “people between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day “plugged in” to digital devices.” Of course, this is going to get in the way of studying and homework. Jago echoes Prensky’s solution: teachers must figure out how to transpose those things that make gaming, texting, and Facebooking so fascinating into our instruction, (although she stops short of Prensky’s opinion that turning lessons into video games will go a long way to solve the problem).

Digital distractions are disparaged for another two-pronged problem they create. Not only do they distract from the time students have to sit down with a book and read, but as Jago worries, Web-based reading may also discourage deep, analytical reading.

But technology seems to be Janus-faced – for every problem created, a plethora of possible solutions open up. A Scholastic study released at the end of September found that many kids want to read books on digital devices and would do so more frequently if they had access to e-books. The findings from a survey of more than 2,000 children ages 6 to 17, and their parents, highlights the potential of e-readers, computers, and mobile devices for encouraging digitally-savvy students to read more.

Kids have embraced this technology ahead of their parents. The statistics showed many more kids had used e-readers than adults, and many more were interested in doing so. Obviously, young people viewed the same tools they use for socializing and gaming as opportunities to read.

Still, many parents worry. This study aligns very much with my own conversations at parent-teacher conferences over the past couple of years (and coming up again next week!). Parents really worry about whether their “modern multi-tasking adolescent” has the perseverance to get through an entire novel. They worry whether their sons and daughters have developed stunted attention spans, too engrossed in fast-moving ideas to voluntarily restrict themselves to recreational reading.

I am certainly sympathetic to these concerns. I guess my best response is to present research findings, such as were reconfirmed by the Scholastic study, that parents can still have a big impact on their children’s reading lives by providing interesting books to read at home and also by setting limits on time spent in front of the computer – particularly with the goal of ensuring kids get adequate sleep.

But there’s still more to worry about.

The report confirmed what many of us already suspect: that children are altogether too trusting about information they find on the Internet. The alarming statistic = 39 percent of children ages 9 to 17 said the information they found online was “always correct.” Obviously, this needs to be addressed through collaboration between library media specialists and classroom/core teachers in efforts to raise information literacy. We can’t just assume that somebody else in school is taking care of this – the alarming statistics are a salient warning. Better to reinforce website evaluation skills, for example, every year than assume another teacher or subject has got it covered.

How else is technology, or more specifically, social networking impacting our students’ lives? Well, again, both for better and for worse. The double-edged sword of perpetual connection was chronicled in an Associated Press-mtvU poll, released October 7. It showed that 57% of students said that life without technology would be more stressful, and yet a significant 25% said it would be “a relief.” The pressure to keep up with text messages and Facebook communication causes a lot of stress – this according to a majority of respondents. Waiting for replies to a message is also stressful, as is the process of interpreting messages. Nearly half of respondents worry if the messages they receive are jokes.

News stories grab headlines with worst-case-scenario stories of cyber-bullying and suicide, but these are a drop in the ocean compared to the low-level but perpetual stress that comes from being tethered to technology.

On the other side of the equation, though, sites like Facebook provide new and increasingly popular avenues for seeking emotional support. Yet, the very public nature of social networking means that cries for help come at both the advantage and disadvantage of exposure. Young people are both more visible and more stressed about it because they can’t always control the information about themselves that’s available online.

More statistics from the study provide evidence that social networking is both a blessing and a curse. They show “a window into a world where 8 in 10 students say their lives are happy—yet 6 in 10 say they’ve recently felt too stressed to hang out with friends, an increase over the past two years. Similar numbers say they’ve been too agitated for school work. Twenty percent say they have a friend who has discussed suicide over the past year, and 13 percent say a friend has tried to kill himself or herself. Nine percent have considered it themselves.”

These are the complex forces at work in the minds and bodies that come into my classroom every day. I feel for these kids who don’t have the advantage of anonymity that we had. Flippant remarks I may once have made are lost in time (I like to think!); yet, they are permanent digital footprints for our students. Things that we used to say verbally are now online – permanently “out there” – and searchable.

The following video reinforces the point that kids have to think twice before posting anything online. I will use it in conjunction with the second video, which was greeted by stunned silence and then a very excited discussion last year when I shared it with my classes:

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Once again, I am reminded that educators are responsible for more than just their curriculum – the success our students show with our curriculum is utterly impacted by what is going on in their very public private lives. So their real and virtual lives are very much our concern as well.