Thursday, October 4, 2012

Flipping OUT

My flipped classroom journey began about six months ago. What a long, strange trip it's been!

First, let me give you some demographic information about my school.
  • Our school contains about 950 students in PreK-6th grade
  • I teach four blocks of math, 29 students per block
  • Each block is 80 minutes long
  • Our Free-Reduced lunch rate is under 20%. (The achievement gap between our high- and low-income students is what inspired me to do this in the first place.)

Last spring, a friend who teaches college math told me about how they are using the flipped classroom model at UAH. I was immediately intrigued because I'm always looking for new ways to be innovative. I feel like my high achieving students are doing well, but the struggling students are falling more and more behind. I went to Dr. Coman, our instructional partner at Mill Creek, the next day for resources. She had already been collecting articles about the model and happily shared with me. Over the summer, I continued to let the idea stew and read as much information as I could on the topic. I knew I was going to do flipped classroom, but I wasn't sure how.

I found lots of evidence of flipped classrooms in colleges and high schools, but not in a middle school setting, and definitely not a sixth grade in an elementary school. I know from experience that the key to starting something new is to model and provide scaffolding, so I started there.

I would caution anyone trying something new to not be afraid of jumping in head first, but also know your limits. This year, we have not only adopted Common Core, but we have a new textbook series as well. I figured with all the changes, my old lesson plans were moot anyway, might as well start fresh! However, coming up with nightly videos was more than I was willing to take on at the time. Do I want to create my own cache of videos? Of course. Everything I've read says teachers who create their own videos see much more growth than those who use stock videos. I believe it, and hope to be creating my own. I've researched and downloaded great apps for the iPad to implement it, but I am still in the overwhelmed-barely-treading-water part of the school year. Maybe next semester. Until then, I love the Khan Academy videos. I almost hesitate to say that because it's so cliche, but "Sal" teaches the way I do. The terminology is the same, the technique is the same, in short, the expectations are the same. Oh, and the kids like the Khan Academy app. Several of them have created accounts and are actually engaging in it on their own, earning badges, doing extra practice problems, etc. I love seeing kids excited about math so much they do extra work! There have only been a couple topics so far (writing and solving expressions) that were too complex for the level of my students. I found videos on TeacherTube that were appropriate.

Instead of just sending kids to Khan Academy and telling them to search for a specific video, I provide links to them on my website. This is supposed to help prevent confusion about which video to watch, since many of the topics have multiple videos with varying difficulty. I still have kids watch the wrong video occassionally, but that's because they don't follow directions.
Note-taking is a skill that we focus on in sixth grade. In the past, I would say, "WRITE THIS DOWN," or provide outlines for students so the most important information is obvious. Taking notes at home, I knew the quality of notes would vary greatly unless I was very specific in my expectations. I created an outline (see below), copied it on bright green paper, and gave every student a copy. I spent one day in class watching a video with the class and showing them how to take notes. I am happy to report that this process solved the "how to take notes" challenge. It's surprisingly been an non-issue, but I really credit that to modeling and scaffolding. If I had just said, "take notes," I know it wouldn't have worked.

 A lot of teachers hesitate because they don't think the students will watch the videos. I handle that just like if they didn't do their homework. We use a "red form" (see below) in sixth grade. The student has to fill out what assignment they're missing, sign it, I sign it, and their parents have to sign it that night. I mark in my grade book who fills out red forms and whether or not they return them signed the next day. The red forms are great documentation for us for PST or parent-teacher conferences. As with the first six weeks of school every year, I had many, many kids not watching the videos for a variety of reasons. They didn't write their assignments down, they forgot to check their planner, they forgot their binder at school or at home, whatever. At first I wasn't having them fill out red forms and I was getting all sorts of ridiculous excuses, "My mom was on Facebook so I couldn't use the computer," or "My brother was on his PS3 for so long it broke the WiFi." As teachers, we get frustrated when kids go home and tell ridiculous stories to their parents, and then their parents believe it. We always make the deal that we won't believe what they tell us about home if they don't believe what they hear about school. I had one student write on his red form that he couldn't watch the video because, "I had no time to do my homework." Mom wrote back, "He did have time to do homework. I made jelly that night and he wanted to help. I did let him help and once we were done it was time for bed. I reminded him in the morning to do his homework but there was not enough time before the bus came. I told him to go to the lab in the morning to do the homework but he did not do this." It made me laugh. Now that I'm enforcing the red form policy, the excuse is usually just, "I forgot," or "I left it at home." We're now happily into week 7 and I may have five or six kids a day not have their notes done.

Side note- My husband tells me I'm not allowed to complain until the eight week mark about the kids being irresponsible, disorganized, or immature. They always are. I always do.
Dealing with students who don't have Internet access is another barrier to overcome. It started with asking my administrators to make supervising the computer lab my morning duty station. No problem. I surveyed everyone the first week of school and found fewer than ten did not have a computer or Internet at home.

The first couple weeks, the excuse language was TERRIBLE. I had too many kids making up reasons just to come to the computer lab.The alternative is sitting the gym,so I know why they wanted to come to the lab instead. I simply instituted a rule that said if they're not on my list of students without Internet, they have to have a note from a parent stating why they couldn't watch the video at home. It's worked well. More of the kids are getting it done at night, and the times when they have computer or Internet issues, they still have a back-up plan. I also gave everyone my home email so they can get ahold of me if there are issues. I haven't had anyone need to use it for that reason, but the support is there. I keep a clipboard for the students to sign in each day. Again, I feel like documentation is key so no one can come back and say the support wasn't there. I've actually had kids try to claim they went to the lab and no one was in there. I have a clipboard full of names that says otherwise.

The problem now is because most of the students who don't have Internet at home have to eat breakfast before they come to the computer lab, they arrive about the time I need to go upstairs to supervise the rest of the students, who have now been released from the gym. So far it hasn't been an issue because I've had a student intern do it for me, but next week she's moving on to her next placement. I don't know if I can trust them to just come up when they're done? I certainly can't leave the rest of my students upstairs and trust they'll do their morning work. It's only a couple students in the lab, and for the most part they're pretty responsible. We'll see.

Creating a working structure for the class period was the next hurdle. I've fiddled with it a bit and I like what we're doing. My class period goes like this: When the students come in, I have a standardized test problem for them to work on the board independently that is relevant to our unit of study. I let a student do the problem on the board. Then I assign 10 minutes to work on the group challenge. This is usually four to six word problems relevant to the previous night's video. While everyone is working, I check their notes to make sure they're done and to check for understanding. We use a 1-4 numbering system. One means I didn't watch the video, two is I need help, three is I understand the lesson, and four is I can teach the lesson to others. They write the number on the top right-hand corner of their paper so I can do a quick check without interrupting. I record their scores in my gradebook for my information. At the end of ten minutes, I do the group challenge problems on the board. This is my instructional time. Usually by the end of this short instructional period, anyone who was a two is now a three. Some of them just need to see me do it to understand. Next I give about twenty minutes to work on the traditional homework problems. It's usually ten standard practice problems and two or three word problems. I circulate the room, working with groups or pulling students to my table to help when they're struggling. I save fifteen to twenty minutes at the end of class to go over the answers and take questions. If a student has a question, they have the choice of doing the problem on the board, having me do the problem, or having a peer do the problem. It's usually a pretty even divide between the three. In the last five minutes, they have to summarize the essential question and provide an example on an index card. We call this the "tweet" of the day. Likening it to Twitter is a gimmick to keep them interested. I don't grade it (although they can get in trouble if they don't do it), but they are allowed to keep their tweets on their desk during a test, which provides one more incentive to do a good job and keep up with it daily.

You'd think since I'm not standing up front and teaching, it'd be less work on me, but it's not! I feel like I'm running a sprint pace in a marathon distance. It does make the day fly by!

It's too early to have data to see if it's making a difference, but I feel like it is. We just took a test on multiplying fractions. Ordinarily I'd still have students incorrectly multiply the whole numbers, then fractions instead of changing to a mixed number. I didn't see that very often, which is encouraging.

To be continued...