Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Confessions of a Failed Flipper

As I shared in my earlier post, I learned most of what I know today about the flipped learning approach from the disaster that was my first year flipping my tenth grade English classes.  I'm over-selling it, but not by much.  Here, take a peek:

Introduction to The Kite Runner

What student is going to spend 40 minutes watching a Prezi on the introduction to Afghani history?  I created it, and I don't want to watch it all the way through!  It took my failed first year of flipping to learn what works and what doesn't when flipping my high school English classes.  Over the course the last year, I have both failed and found success with the flipped learning approach, and I have learned a great deal from both.  But today, learn from my mistakes.  So here it is - my confessions of failed flipping:

1) It's Not About the Videos

I thought it was about the videos. It is not about the videos. In fact, it's really, really, really not about the videos. I have been live streaming my English classes since 2009, opening up access to absent students and parents so that they might join us virtually for class.  So when I started to hear more about "flipping your class," it made sense to me.  I am a firm believer in the power of transparency, in the power of opening up opportunities for students to engage in learning when and wherever they can. And, since I was already recording my classes, this flip wouldn't be so hard, right? Wrong.

My first semester of more intentionally using the flipped/blended approach had me sitting in front of my computer screen creating more and more presentations to screencast.  And this is not ordinarily how I teach.  I don't usually use a lot of PowerPoints or Prezis.  Yet, I created presentation after presentation, sitting hour after hour, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning recording videos on assignment instructions, grammar mistakes, and historical connections to our class novels.  And I thought I was being smart about it, asking students to use the videos to complete questions on worksheets.  Occassionally, I would sneak an extra credit opportunity into the video. I would be surprised the next day when only two or three students would come in with the extra credit.  But the videos were 15, 20, sometimes 30 minutes long. And they were bad.  Really, really bad.  I was asking students essentially to watch PowerPoints, videos without movement, without activitiy, without my personality.  When I recorded many of my first videos, I did not use my webcam. My weird stories and quirkiness were absent. I was asking my students to watch the least interesting content of our class while I presented it in the least interesting way. Of course they didn't watch the videos!

It was when I attended EdCamp Philly last May that the absurdity of what I was doing hit me. In a session titled "Classroom Gymnastics: Flipping, BYOD, Paperless, 20% Time, and More," teachers Liz Calderwood, Kate Baker, Marc Seigel, and Christina Roy began a conversation with participating educators about the differences between the flipped and blended approaches to teaching as well as about how they planned and prepared the flipped elements of their courses.  It wasn't about the videos.  It was about the inquiry.

From Pearson
Flipped learning isn't about the videos. Instead, it is a model of teaching that is based on inquiry and exploration.  Rather than the teacher establishing what, when, how, and why students learn the content, the flipped approach encourages teachers to rethink how and when learning happens for our students.  How might we better engage our learners in their learning? In what ways can we encourage student ownership and mastery over our content areas.  And so flipped learning begins with a problem.  What is the driving problem or question that will lead my students to explore a particular element of my content area?  How can I encourage my students to explore, to be self-directed learners? As their teacher, I am the facilitator of exploration (oh, I like that title.  I might just need to start referring to myself as a Facilitator of Writing Exploration). And so now what I flip are those materials that will encourage my students to explore on their own. Sometimes my flip comes in the form of a shared Google Doc that I ask my students to collaboratively annotate.  Sometimes flipping in my classroom looks like a traditional English classroom with my students reading at home.  Sometimes flipping does involve videos.  However, my more recent videos focus on skills, with me screencasting an example essay to briefly show students about a particular element of the craft of writing.  I am working to build a library of these writing craft videos, short five minute videos that I can share on an as-needed basis to help differentiate my writing instruction. I ask students to come to class the next day with questions based on whatever it is that I have asked them to complete outside of class.  My class is based on questions.  And it is the questions that we use to explore, to discuss, to debate, to learn.  Not the videos.

2) If You Build It, They Might Come...But They Might Not

Just because you've posted your assignments online does not mean that students will access them online.  By now, most teachers realize this.  If there is not a clear purpose for students to access all those assignments and videos you've spent hours uploading, they won't.  A teacher's online space should not just be the equivalent of a classroom bulletin board. It should not be passive. Our online spaces must be dynamic, engaging, changing as the learning happening in our physical classrooms changes. Students need to contribute to the learning that happens in our online spaces.

My class Ning site at MsWard.org
My first classroom website back in 2002 was a very large collection of hyperlinks that very few students accessed with any regularity. In 2008, I played around with wikis and eventually moved my class site over to a Ning, which at the time was free for educators.  This is the space that I use today with my students. Students contribute to our online classroom through blogs and discussion forums. Students can form online groups with their own discussion threads. Students post pictures and videos and comment on one another's work.  It is a space where I not only post our weekly assignments but where students also add to our learning.  Our online space has purpose.  It also has audience.  And because students know that they writing that they post in our online space will be read by more than just the teacher, students have a purpose for their contribution and revision of their written work.
But what I have also learned from our online space is that you need to keep your content as few clicks away as possible.  Asking students to "go here, click on this, find the menu at the left and click on the second option" is a recipe for disaster.  You will lost a majority of your students by the second click. Your online materials need to be well-curated and as few clicks away as possible.  I caught a presentation by Philip Vinogradov recently where he talked about his use of gamification concepts in teaching.  His model of first curating all of his lesson and enrichment materials into one online space before ever sharing units with students makes sense.  Curating lesson materials allows for students to move at their own pace and encourages mastery in that students can return to a library of online learning resources as they need.  What this also calls for is planning.  Success with the flipped learning model begins with excellent planning.  You need to anticipate what remedial and enrichment materials you will need in addition to your planned lesson materials, you need to create a purposeful online space that students can connect and contribute to, and you need to have the end in mind.  How will you know students have mastered the objectives of your lesson? When they have viewed all your materials?  Or instead, will students demonstrate their mastery through their contributions?

3) Prepare for Chaos

One of the many reasons I initially wanted to move to a flipped approach was to open up more time in class for my students to practice their reading and writing skills with the support of both the teacher and their peers.  It didn't make sense that for me to assign reading homework when students were struggling with comprehension.  It didn't make sense to have students draft essays outside of class when they struggled to formulate ideas into a thesis.  The activities that my students struggled with needed to be the ones we practiced together in the physical clasroom.  Moving more of the reading and writing into our classroom time together using a writing workshop model made it easier for me to differentiate how and where I provided support. What it also made for was a lot of chaos.

One of my greatest successes with the flipped approach came this past fall as my students completed our first 20% time research projects. But if you walked into my classroom on any Friday, it would look more than just a little chaotic. I would have a student or two crouched under the counters lining my room reading a book.  Another two or three students could be found in the hallway video taping interviews.  Three of four students would be hovering over the computer using my webcam. Desks would be rearranged into small pods for students to watch YouTube tutorials on cake decorating and computer hardware assembly.  But learning was happening in every corner of our room.  On our research days, I circulated around the class conducting conferences, speaking with students about their learning process, intervening when students needed support.  However, what was not successful was how I kept track of our writing and research conferences...or rather, how I did not keep track of them.

Looking back, I should have more carefully read the advice of Nancie Atwell and Carl Anderson, both of whom advocate for students and teacher to keep process notes of their writing conferences together.  Although my students blogged weekly and I kept an unmanagably large spreadsheet of all our varied projects, I didn't track the conversations and strategies I shared with students during our conference times. This was a lost opportunity.  Looking back, I could have intervened more strategically had I been taking notes on our conferences.  This would also have helped me be more strategic in how and when I provided feedback.

4) Ask Questions...Lots of Questions

Not only does the model of flipped learning hinge on the questions that we use to frame the lessons we prepare for our students, but we also need to be asking our own questions. Is this the best way to support the learners in my courses? Are my students getter the feedback they need to progress? How the heck do I do this when no one else in my department is?

The flipped learning movement took root in the work of Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann who began flipping their Colorado science classes in order to reach those students missing class.  Five years later, you can't attend an educational conference without there being at least one session on flipped learning.  As of today, there are 19,632 members of the Flipped Learning Network.  What does this mean? There are a lot of mentors and models out there to ask for help. Something that I have started to do a bit better this year is turn to my Twitter PLN with questions about flipping.  English teachers like Cheryl Morris and Andrew ThomassonKate Baker, and Troy Cockrum have been invaluable inspirations for my own learning. Had I reached out earlier in my flipping adventures, perhaps I would not have made the mistakes that I did.  So in addition to curating materials for your students, curate your own learning spaces and mentors.  Reach out and ask questions.  Ask a lot of questions.  After all, isn't that what we're trying to encourage our students to do? We need to be models for the type of learning we hope to support.

Here are a few of the online spaces where I have found models to inspire my flipped learning approach for my English courses.  Let me know if you find any that I can add!

Follow Jennifer's board Flipped Learning Tools for the High School English Classroom on Pinterest.


greg prater said...

I like the message of "it's not about the videos." That is so true.most people who look at flipping casually fall into that trap. After my year I have to say i will continue but with a more blended approach. I have a lot of improving to do. I am still struggling with the creative block of deisgning high quality learning experiences around my content (HS biolgy)I know nearly all of the pieces of the puzzle( i know what causes most kids to learn) I understand the idea of "those that are talking are doing the learning". I also am fairly adept at properly utilizing technology such as as for formative assessment. But i cannot seem to put it all together t create a unit that includes all of those (and more) wonderful elements that are parts of good teaching.

Jen Ward said...

@greg - It sounds like we are in a very similar place. Moving forward, I plan to involve my students more in the production and curation of our course videos and materials. I wonder if that would work for you biology courses.

Sara Staten said...

I just stumbled on your blog, and this post is awesome! I'm planning to incorporate instructional video into my teaching this year, and I so appreciate the thinking you've shared here. It's clear that you have a very thoughtful and reflective practice. Good stuff!