Friday, November 29, 2013

1:1 Student Conversations

I find that moments of "asynchronosity" are becoming more and more common in my classes this year as I continue to weave in mastery learning and student-centered learning. During these moments, when students are working on various assignments and activities, based on their current needs in the classroom, I've been able to actually sit down and TALK with individual students for an extended length of time! It has amazed me how powerful these two to five-minute conversations can be. Here are some examples of how I've used this time:

1) Verbal Assessment. Students in my Biology classes take and retake small quizzes on content until they reach 100% (with remediation and reteaching in-between). I was astonished to find that there are students who occasionally struggle with multiple choice questions, but can verbally explain their thinking just fine. So I've started giving verbal assessments to students who haven't reached 100% on a quiz after two tries. Out of my 50 Biology students, about 5 or so usually need this type of assessment, so it doesn't take a terribly long time to accomplish.

2) Project Evaluation. After the Biology students' Food Webs project rough drafts were due, I scheduled some class time to sit down with each student and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their projects thus far. I asked the students to complete a self-reflection before meeting with me, and then during each conference, we were able to start by discussing their thoughts on their project. This took about three class periods, and I had to be creative in designing something else that was engaging enough for the class to work on independently while these conferences were happening.  In the future, I'd like to record the conferences, however, because when the project deadline approached it turned out many students had forgotten the details of our discussion!

3) Notebook Conversations. Students in each of my classes complete all of their classwork in their science notebooks. Although I love the organization this provides for the students, it is a pain for me to take home 50 notebooks to look over every weekend. Last weekend I was just too busy to finish all of the notebooks I wanted to read through, so I decided to look through the notebooks WITH the students while they were working on other things for class. What started out as a time-saver for me ended up being a really great way to have a conversation with each of my students. I talked over each their entries, gave them feedback on their work, and had them make corrections right then and there (usually they go back and make corrections on their own, and I look them over when I collect notebooks again). Being able to talk through some of the misconceptions with students in the moment was so valuable for me because there is often a disconnect between what they're thinking and what they actually write down on paper.

Even though some of these techniques took quite a bit of class time, I feel like the investment will pay off in the long run. I'd love to hear ideas from you about how you "meet" with individual students and create time in your classes for these types of interactions.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Backchannel Bonus

I've been experimenting with backchanneling in my classes this year.  I use Schoology for my LMS, so its Discussion feature has been perfect for this.  Up until today, I'd tried backchanneling twice in class.  Once, I asked my Biology students to answer some questions about a few video clips they watched about human impacts on the carbon and nitrogen cycles.  This worked okay, but did't produce a lot of student interaction, which was what I was looking for.

The second time, I had students ask questions through the backchannel while they were watching presentations given by their peers.  When each presentation was finished, I randomly chose a handful of the questions for the presenters to answer.  This was a little closer to what I envisioned: every student had a voice, and some of the voices were heard.  Still not enough student interaction, though.

Today, I showed a great movie, "What Darwin Never Knew," to my College Biology students.  I set up a backchannel discussion on Schoology again.  Here's how I described it for the students.

While watching the movie, record your questions, "I wonder-s," and "That's Cool-s!" here. Respond to your classmates as they post their thoughts as well.

Comments should be on-topic and school-appropriate.
Each student should record at least 2 comments of their own.
Each student should reply to at least 2 of their classmates' comments.

Then I let the movie roll and watched the magic unfold.  Students were engaged.  Students were "talking" to each other.  Students were excited.  And guess what...BONUS! turns out that backchanneling in this way is a great formative assessment!  Here's how:

As you maybe guessed by the movie choice, the students are at the end of an evolution unit.  The questions and ideas they posted in the backchannel gave me insight into pockets of confusion that exist in the class right now.  Check out some of these questions and responses (student typos/word usage/grammar and spelling errors are unchanged!):

Comment A
Student 1: Did they just say we evolved from fish? So when people say your a fish when your swimming it's actually true in a way....

Student 2: That is an interesting thought, but no i don't think that would be the "truth" about people swimming very well.

Student 1: If you think about it theoretically it could be, why do u think some people are better swimmers then others maybe they evolved from better fish...

My thoughts:  Definitely reveals some misconceptions about common ancestors.

Comment B
Student:  If we developed from other animals why cant they mix these animals again and make humans?

My thoughts:  We need to revisit phylogenetic trees.  Students are forgetting ancestral forms are no longer living.  Humans didn't evolve from present-day organisms.

Comment C
Student 1: So does this mean we are related to everything in the world besides plants or any other vegetation? Or are we related to plants too?

Student 2: That's a really good question. Because do common ancestors apply to just animals or plants as well?

Student 3: It wouldn't surprise me if we were related to plants because it seems like we are related to everything living organism.

Student 4: I don't think so because even though plants are living things they aren't actually like us or animals.. like they don't have thoughts or feelings like animals and humans do

Student 5: put most animals don't have thoughts either they just have natural instinct.

My thoughts:  Students still struggle with the fact that humans are animals, which makes it difficult for them to understand our connection to other organisms.

I find all of these student thoughts just fascinating!  I could go on with further examples, but let's get to the point:  This method of backchanneling was a great formative assessment.  I got a peak into the minds of my students that I wouldn't otherwise have seen.  Now I have a list of topics we need to revisit in class.  And it doesn't hurt that my students really enjoyed it.  When the end of class rolled around and we had to pause for the day, one student spontaneously said, "Aw, do we have to?  This is so much fun!" 

Enough said.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Low-Tech Learning

I love using technology to enhance student learning and make my life easier whenever possible.  But it's always a pleasant surprise when I stumble across a low-tech way of helping my students grapple with a topic that produces positive results as well.  It's like meeting up with an old friend that you haven't seen for awhile and thinking to yourself, "Now I remember why I like this friend so much - why is it that we don't spend more time together?"  Here are some methods I've been using in my classes lately, mostly on the fly as I adjust to student learning on a day-to-day basis.

Students needed a way to understand the connection between the results of their flame test investigation (different salt solutions will give off different colors of light when heated in a flame), excitement of electrons, and the quantum mechanical model of an atom.  Working together, the other Chemistry teacher and I came up with a model in which we drew out three levels of concentric circles in sidewalk chalk outside our building (no photos of this, but you can see my drawing below).  Students represented the electrons in the various levels.  Different elements had different numbers and locations of electrons.  The electrons were given Monopoly money, which allowed them to move up to a higher energy level, grab a colored dodge ball that was waiting for them, throw it in the air, and then return to their original level.  Students observing the process reported on what color dodge balls they saw, which represented the flame color for that salt.  This was a short, simple simulation, but it stuck with the students and helped to facilitate a later discussion about what it means for an electron to become "energized."

Not all electrons were energized in every simulation, and not all electrons moved to the same energy level.
As I've written about before, my group of Sophomores this year is really struggling with the Carbon Cycle and the Nitrogen Cycle.  I decided to make some manipulatives for them and have the students practice the cycles using these manipulatives (this was after various investigations and other activities that just weren't quite doing enough to "make it stick").  So I printed off the steps and vocabulary words associated with each cycle on small rectangles.  The students color-coded some of the steps based on if they added or removed the element from the atmosphere.  They then cut out each of the rectangles and kept them all in a plastic bag for review.  I posted videos (Carbon Cycle video sample here.) showing the use of the manipulatives on the Schoology class page.  Students are expected to be able to use them to show and discuss the cycles for their summative assessment for this topic.  They have unlimited attempts to get this correct.  I do something similar to this for mitosis later in the year, and I love that every student will be able to explain these concepts to me verbally, one-on-one, at their own pace.  Students started these about two weeks ago, and just this week while they were reviewing some of the topics for a new project, it was easy to recognize that the content had stuck with them

I have gotten lots of great ideas for formative assessment from Page Keeley's book,
Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning.  I highly recommend purchasing it - even if you're not a science teacher.  One of the methods I have used with success is an activity called "Justified True/False."  For my College Biology students to review phylogenetics, I created 10 challenging statements for which they needed to determine if they were true or false, and then explain why.  This year, I wanted a quick, simple, and interactive way to get an overview of the class answers so that I could review the questions that many students were struggling with.  So I tore 10 sheets of paper off a large desk calendar, put a large number on the back of each one (1-10), and spread them around the room.  Students and their partner (they worked on the Justified T/F in groups) traveled from paper to paper recording their answer to that question - True or False - and an explanation.  If their answer was already on the paper, but their explanation was different, they only needed to write their explanation.  If both their answer and explanation were already on the paper, they would move on to another paper.  Once all groups had circulated to all the papers, I quickly scanned them all to find which ones had the most contrasting answers (3 of the 10 papers), and spent the rest of the class period reviewing those topics.  It was a great, simple formative assessment that got the students up and moving and helped me to focus on what they really needed.

Although you can't read the student writing on this very well, it shows the answers and explanations for question #3.  I believe three groups thought it was true and two groups thought it was false.  From these results, I knew right away that the class needed some review on the topic of this question.  
I think the lesson learned in the last week is that we as teachers need to be able to discern what is the right tool for the right situation.  Technology tools are wonderful, but sometimes there are low-tech ways to accomplish the same goal that are easier and more effective.  To put this in more concrete terms, I might have an electric screwdriver in my toolbox, but there are some jobs that are better-suited to the old-fashioned manual screwdriver.  Teachers are constantly sorting through that toolbox to find what is best for our students at any given moment.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

So this is what it means to be a Reflective Teacher...

I've always considered myself a reflective teacher.  When planning my units, I'd incorporate new labs and activities, trying to continually improve my practice.  It wasn't until this year, however, that I truly understood what reflective teaching is.  You see, this year, I've sincerely bought into the philosophy that I want 100% of my students to understand 100% of the content of the class.  I'd been slowly inching toward this by allowing corrections and redos in my classes, but this year I'm all-in.  I am refusing to "move on" in class until every student masters the objective, which is really stretching my skills in asynchronous learning.  Lately, I've been fretting over how much time it's taking to make this happen in my classes.  We have been discussing the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles for three weeks - argghhh!  But just this morning I realized that this isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's a natural product of making sure every student is learning.  So, I started listing in my mind all of the things that are happening in my professional life right now, and I realized that these challenges are mostly a by-product of becoming a more reflective teacher.  So, without further ado, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a reflective teacher, based on events in my life over the last four weeks:


  • Being 2 weeks behind in your curriculum compared to last year because (gasp!) your students this year are different than last year's students.
  • Stretching your creativity to the limit because you need to reteach a concept 3 times for students to "get" it, and why would you teach it the same way three times when they didn't understand the first way you taught it?
  • Being willing to admit that lesson idea did not work, and not being afraid to trash your "favorite" lessons.
  • Acknowledging that 90% correct still means 10% not understood.
  • Understanding that when students aren't learning, 99% of the time it's NOT because they don't want to learn.
  • Forgetting the excuse "They should have learned this last year."
  • Throwing pacing and "getting through the standards" out the window.
  • Using student feedback to set assignment due dates and test dates.
  • Evaluating student work almost every night, and correcting individual student assignments 3+ times.
  • Willingness to build the lesson as you go based on what the students need.  
  • Having a deep pool from which to draw ideas so that you can create responsive curriculum on the fly.
  • Being shocked to discover all that students truly don't know.
  • Refusing to move on when the whole class isn't ready.
  • Finding material to challenge all learners where they are.
  • Explaining to parents and principals why the class has been "stuck" on one topic for three weeks.
  • Refusing to be bound by grading periods.
  • Admitting your weaknesses to other teachers.
  • Constantly weeding out portions of lessons that don't target objectives.
  • Using more class time when a lesson runs long and not just assigning it as homework.
  • Probing deeply into student understanding.  Just because they can correct their mistakes doesn't mean they understand it.
  • Knowing that there will never a be moment when you've figured it all out. Student needs are always changing.

You see, before this year, I was adapting my curriculum to what I thought would help the students.  I'd make a plan based on past experience and execute the plan throughout a unit.  This year, I'm adapting the curriculum to what the students are telling me they need help with on a day to day basis.  I know where we need to go, but I'm reading my students' cues to better determine how we'll get there and how long it will take.  It is a daily struggle for me to let go of the mentality that I need to be at a particular point in the curriculum by a certain day.  We may not accomplish all the objectives that last year's class covered, but I need to be okay with that. 

"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

Nicolaus Copernicus

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Using #AR to teach the Nitrogen Cycle

The Carbon and Nitrogen Cycle are two important pieces of the MN state standards in Biology.  I don't think I've approached it the same way in all the years I've been in the classroom.  I just haven't settled on a strategy for teaching the cycles that I feel really helps the students understand the complexity and implications they hold. So this year, I decided to Aurasma-fy the nitrogen cycle.  This is just a piece of their learning cycle, however.  Before getting to the AR, here's the sequence of content:

  • Students brought in soil samples from various places near their homes, and tested them for nitrate using Vernier sensors.  
  • The class used mini-iPads with the Aurasma app to participate in a virtual scavenger hunt as an introduction to the Nitrogen Cycle.  (More about this below.)
  • Students watched a content video at home that initiated a connection between their lab data and the scavenger hunt, then finished the lab conclusion in class.
  • Next week, the class will set up "bottle ecosystems" to observe over 20 days.  Students describe how the carbon and nitrogen cycles are evident in the bottles via a report.
I started creating the scavenger hunt by writing out all the parts of the nitrogen cycle I wanted to cover, and divided them into nine separate steps.  I intentionally kept the steps short and simple as this was the students' first introduction to the cycle.  Next, for each of the steps I decided where I would place the clues.  I knew I wanted to run the hunt outside because then the students would be less distracting to other classes in the building.  Once I knew where the clues would be, I wrote a rhyme for each step that would lead students through the hunt.  I recorded the clues on Explain Everything and uploaded them to You Tube - these videos were the overlays for the Auras.

As the triggers, I originally thought I'd use the numbers on my signs.  When I loaded them into Aurasma, it told me they weren't distinct enough, so I had to find some pictures online that would work as triggers.  I ended up taping the pictures on the numbered signs for the students to trigger the auras.  The pictures related to the clues.  For example, in the photo below, the trigger is a picture of soybeans.

I put the students into partner groups and started each group at a different clue so that they wouldn't overlap as much.  At each clue, one student activated the aura while the other recorded the Nitrogen Cycle step in his/her notebook.  We have 50-minute class periods, and most students were able to get through all of the steps in that time.

A couple of challenges I had with the lesson:

1. Trying to find triggers that were distinct enough for Aurasma.  I knew the numbers wouldn't work, but I learned the morning that students were supposed to use the app that the first pictures I chose weren't working either.  I had to scramble at the last minute to find some replacements and redo the auras.

2. I have three sections of Biology that used the scavenger hunt, so I left the signs up outside all day.  By the time my last class of the day did the hunt, the wind had picked up and blew clue #6 away!  Next year, I'll make sure to use plenty of duct tape.  

Besides these two hiccups, however, the lesson was a success.  The students were engaged and excited to find the clues.  The diagrams that they ended up creating in their notebooks showed that they were beginning to understand the nitrogen cycle.  One student even commented, "That was a really cool app!"  Coming from a high school student, that's a glowing endorsement!

Students checking out a clue by the school sign.
*If you'd like to check out the auras I used for the hunt, my Aurasma channel is MeyerScience.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A #flipclass Photo Gallery

Here is a "technical" description of the classroom in which I teach on a daily basis:
  • The subjects that I teach are Biology, Chemistry, and College Biology.  
  • I deliver content via video outside of the classroom, aka "Flipped Learning."
  • I use inquiry approaches and Explore/Flip/Apply to direct the sequence of the content.  
  • The classroom is blended with the use of a class website on Schoology.  
  • Students use Google Docs for collaboration and submission of assignments.   
  • And so on...
I could continue to list the methods and tools I use in the classroom, but these descriptions will never truly represent how my students are learning.  The following photos, however, give a bit more accurate depiction of the daily ins and outs of their classes.

Biology students assessing biodiversity near our local river ecosystem.

Using their smart phones, students took pictures of plants and animals they found in the ecosystem, uploaded them to our Schoology class, and then used them in further discussions about food chains.

Designing food webs.

After food webs were completed, students discussed implications of disruptions in the food web.

Biology students used Socrative to participate in peer instruction.
Students answered questions on their own first, then worked with a partner to evaluate their answers, and finally resubmitted answers.

College Biology students working on a simulation of carrying capacities and their relationship to r and K strategies in populations.  Starbursts were used to represent resources which multiplied through many generations of population growth.

Biology students analyzing the results of the photosynthesis and cellular respiration inquiry investigation.

This lab sets the stage for photosynthesis and cellular respiration discussions.

Chemistry students used Aurasma auras to learn about chemistry equipment and safety in the lab.

The videos made by this year's students will be used in auras for next year's students.
College Biology students tested river water for dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels.
This was the first time we actually hauled all of the Vernier probes down to the river to do the testing on site. 

There are days when I doubt what I'm doing in the classroom, when I wonder how the students will ever learn everything our state standards require of them.  But when I look over these photos, I see the conversations students are having with each other, the questions they are asking, the teaching they are doing, and the problem-solving in which they are engaged.  These are the skills that will serve students for success in life.  The cliche, "A picture is worth a thousand words" is begging to be referenced here.  In education, we tend to throw around labels with reckless abandon, but when it gets right down to what our students are doing on a day to day basis, these pictures pretty much say it all.

Connected Educators Month

Why is it that I always get inspired in the morning while I'm eating my breakfast and in a rush to get out the door?  It happened again this morning.  I've been mulling around this idea of talking to my colleagues about how much I have learned and gained by being on Twitter.  I wasn't sure what the right format for this would be, however.  I didn't want to come across as being "preachy."  This morning, while eating my yogurt and scrolling through my Twitter feed, I remembered that October is Connected Educators Month.  What a perfect opportunity to bring up Twitter with the other teachers in my building.  So I found an article about teachers using Twitter that I had stashed in Evernote a month back, and decided to send it out to my colleagues.  Then I figured I had better write a little explanation of the article.  So, what started out as simply sending out a link via e-mail evolved into my "Twitter Manifesto."  Well, not really, but it did take up enough of my time this morning that I was definitely scrambling to make it to our 7:25 staff meeting on time.  What follows is my impromptu morning message:

Happy October!

Besides being the month in which the 1/2-year deluge of candy in our house begins (Halloween, Christmas, Valentines, get the idea), October is also "Connected Educators" month.

There are a variety of ways we are connected as educators, but I want to take a moment to share the amazing difference Twitter (yes, it can be used for more than spreading horrible rumors) has made in my connections with teachers.

A couple of years ago, [another teacher] mentioned that she was able to get a lot of great classroom ideas by being on Twitter. So I set up an account and gave it a try. I didn't have much success. I decided to use it as a way to pass class information on to students. That didn't work very well either. So, I set my Twitter account on the shelf for about a year.

Then, this summer, I took an online class in which I was able to find teachers to follow on Twitter who were interested in the same educational topics I was. I also discovered weekly Twitter chats, during which teachers communicate via Twitter for hour-long conversations about educational topics that change every week. Having real-time conversations with other teachers around the country and around the world has had a profound impact on how and what I teach in my classroom this year.

Let me give just two examples. First, Twitter has been great for spurring my creative juices. A lot of the technology that I've picked up and using this year, such as Google forms, gClass folders, and Aurasma were first introduced to me through Twitter. Secondly, Twitter is a great way to get education-related questions answered. I was trying to figure out the best way to get captions on the videos [my co-teacher] was making for our Chemistry classes. I posted the question on Twitter, and within minutes I had an answer from a fellow teacher in Pennsylvania who had just been talking about that same question in PD that morning.

If you're at all interested in starting a Twitter account and creating your own Professional Learning Community, check out the article below (by the way, I found it on Twitter!). It's a great place to start. Of course, I'd be happy to answer any questions you have as well.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Assessing Assessment

Assessment is an aspect of my classes that seems to change every year.  I have yet to find a model that I'm completely happy with.  It really comes down to the essential question, "How do I know what my students know?"  Assessment looks different in all of my classes, but what binds them together is that assessment is always a tool for me to see how the students are understanding in the moment, where they are on the learning continuum, and provides feedback to adjust my teaching.

I've taken a leap into Project Based Learning in my Biology class this year.  To be honest, I have no idea if I'm doing this the "right" way, but I do know that I want students to be more engaged in authentic learning experiences and less concerned about passing a test.  The Unit 1 project question is, "What types of factors are threatening food webs?"  Students have been completing in-class research for their individual projects, and production of the projects will begin soon.

In the meantime, I designed a ten-point quiz to "test the waters" of student understanding for the same objectives upon which the project is based.  As I explained to the students, everyone will receive 100% on this quiz, but it might take some students longer than others.  I set up the quiz on Schoology, so students were able to see what questions they got wrong right away.  Before the next class, I created individualized review assignments for each student based on their areas of misunderstanding on the quiz, and they worked with partners in class to review those concepts.  Any students who did not score 100% on the first quiz then retook the quiz (same concepts, different questions).  More students were able to pass the second time around, but there were still some who did not score 100%.  During a research day in class, I visited with each student who still had errors and discussed any misunderstandings 1:1.  They then took the quiz a third time.  If there were errors on this version, I went over their mistakes with them verbally, and in all cases the student was able to explain why s/he answered the question incorrectly and what the correct answer was.

Positive aspects of this quizzing scheme were that students did not experience the "pressure" of a typical quiz.  I think they understood that this process was intended to help them learn more, not assess if they had learned everything they were "supposed" to learn by a certain point.  I also saw some great interactions between students as they taught each other during the individualized review activity.

There are a few parts of this process that I need to work on before the next quiz, however.  It takes a lot of time on my part to create all of the individualized review and multiple versions of quizzes.  I'd like to find a more automated way of doing this.  Secondly, the class time that is required for me to individually review with students between Quiz 2 and Quiz 3 is an obstacle.  I haven't yet come up with a way to make that process more efficient either.  There is still a handful of students I was never able to meet with last week during class to discuss their errors on Quiz 2.  I don't want this process to stretch on forever.

And finally, I'm still asking myself, does this quizzing process truly assess what my students know about food webs?  Is this really the best indicator of what they have learned?  I'm waiting to pass judgement on this for now, as the student projects have yet to be unveiled.  In my mind, these projects will be the true testament to the depth of student learning.  It is my hope that the quizzes and projects will eventually work hand in hand.  For now, it's on to my next to assess the student projects. I will happily take advice on this or any of the questions I've described above.  As always, the one constant in my classes is that assessment will continue to evolve.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Feedback, Part II

The editor of our local newspaper contacted me this week wanting to write an article about what flipped learning looks like in my classroom.  Since my science-teaching colleague has also starting flipping this year, I asked her to participate in the interview as well.  She had a great idea - "Why don't we survey our students and include some of their opinions in the article as well?"  So I whipped up a quick Google Form and we took a couple of minutes in our classes Thursday and Friday for students to complete the anonymous survey.  I have been stewing over the results ever since.

Now, before I launch into the crux of this post, I want to say that the survey revealed that the majority of our students prefer the flipped classroom to traditional classes.  Here is an overview of the questions and results:
  • A "flipped classroom" allows more time for teacher and student interaction than a normal classroom.  76% Agree, 24% disagree  
  • A"flipped classroom" gives students more time in class for help from the teacher when compared to a normal classroom.  72% Agree, 28% disagree
  • I would rather watch a video for homework than work on a problem set (typical homework).  72% Agree, 28% disagree
  • A benefit of the "flipped classroom" is that it allows students to work through class content at their own pace.  70% Agree, 30% Disagree
In the free-response portion of the survey, students had many positive things to say about the class, such as loving the ability to watch the videos at their own pace and appreciating the extra time in class to work with other students and their teacher.  But of course, in typical teacher-fashion, it is those unsatisfied students that are occupying my thoughts right now.  I went through all of the comments of the students who do not like the flipped format, and categorized them into seven different areas of concern.
  • Students think that videos take up too much of their "free time."  They don't like to do homework, even if it is videos.  (13 comments)
  • Students feel they don't understand the video content as well as they would if it was in lecture format.  (6 comments)
  • Students worry that if they have questions while they're watching the video they won't get them answered during class.  (6 comments)
  • Students commented that if they're going to watch videos at home for class, the entire class might as well be online. (3 comments)
  • Students were concerned about internet access for watching the videos.  (3 comments)
  • One student felt there were too many distractions at home while watching videos.
  • Students commented that learning from the video was harder than learning from an in-class lecture.  (2 comments)
I have to tell you, I've been agonizing over these comments.  I don't want my students to dislike my class or feel like it's a waste of their time.  Some of the students who made these comments were very livid in their opposition to flipped learning.  It stung a little bit to have something I believe in so strongly and have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into ripped apart by a few caustic comments.  I should have known better to open up an anonymous survey, but I wanted the students to be honest.  

So even though a large percentage of my students report flipped learning is working for them, I still feel like I need to address that 30% of dissatisfied students on Monday.  I've been thinking about how I'll approach each comment.  Here is what I've come up with so far:
  • For the number one complaint, "too much homework," I added up the total number of minutes of video I've assigned in these first four weeks of school for all my classes.  For my Biology and College Biology classes, it was a total of 40 minutes of video in four weeks, averaging out to 10 minutes a week.  Now I know that it takes longer than the run-time of a video for students to do their homework, because they take notes and fill out a form as well.  From my observations of students who watch video in class, it can take up to twice as long as the run-time to complete an assignment (although it's faster for most students).  So, if I use this highest estimate of video time for homework estimation, it ends up being 20 minutes of homework per week.  I just don't feel that this is too much too ask of 10th and 11th graders.     
  • I am okay with the second comment that students don't understand the videos as well as they would content from an in-class lecture.  I feel like learning a new topic should be confusing at first - otherwise you're not really learning anything new.  I don't intentionally make my videos confusing, but if students come to class with some uncertainty, I'm positive that what I do with them in class will help to sort that out.  There is research showing that students making initial mistakes in their understanding is actually a good way to learn, as long as those misconceptions eventually get cleared up.  Does this mean that students are comfortable with feeling like they don't understand everything?  No way.  Which leads into the last comment - learning from videos is harder.  Yes, it might be more challenging.  And that is okay because we have the classroom space to work together.
  • I feel like the the student comments about asking questions is an area that I can improve upon.  I have the students ask questions on an online form every time they finish watching a video.  I really do look over all of these questions before the next class and tailor what I'm doing in class that day to address their questions.  Most of time I know that what I already have planned for class will take care of a lot of the questions that came up because I was able to anticipate what would confuse the students during my lesson planning.  But occasionally I will verbalize to the students, "A lot of you had questions about _________, so we're going to do this in class today to help with that."  I need to do more of this - I need to be more clear with my students about the fact that I am paying attention to their questions and structuring class in a way that helps to answer those questions.
  • As far as the comments about the entire class being online, I have to defer back to my calculations for the time spent working on video assignments.  Twenty minutes a week are spent in the "online" format.  My classes are 53 minutes long, five days a week, so approximately 250 minutes a week are spent in class, working face to face with students.  I'm not sure how students could learn the material if those 250 minutes we're spending together simply disappeared, as some students suggested.  Enough said.
  • The final comments deal with home environments, either lack of internet or too many distractions at home.  I do worry about marginalizing these students.  I have kept my videos short this year so that they can be watched during lunch, before or after school, or in a study hall.  I try to give students a couple of days notice before a video needs to be completed.  I know which students don't have access because I did a technology survey at the beginning of the year.  I have offered to put videos on flash drives and/or DVD's for these students, but they would all rather find time at school to watch the videos.  It is not a problem I have solved yet, but I continue to try to find better ways to serve these students.
So, now I forge into Monday, ready to discuss these concerns with my students.  I don't want to make a huge deal out of it, because many students are really excelling in the flipped classroom.  However, I do want to make sure that the students who are not liking the class right now know that I hear them and take their comments seriously.  I know that many students will be afraid to speak up when I initiate this conversation in class on Monday, so I'm also going to encourage students to send me messages via our class Schoology account when they're feeling frustrated with class.  I think I'm done with the anonymous surveys for now (!), but I will continue to look for ways to continue this conversation with my students.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Week 3 Review

After three weeks back in school, it's beginning to feel like classes are getting rolling now.  Students are getting used to routines, new technology, and are settling into some more intense learning cycles. What follows is a brief overview of what has been happening in my flipped classes.

In the Biology classes, students have been working through models of food chains, food webs, and energy pyramids.  The next concept they were ready for was the rule of 10% in energy transfer, so instead of just telling them about this, I set up a whole-class simulation in which the students could "become" the trophic levels and calculate energy transfer.

I used some whiteboarding in this activity to do formative assessment of the students' table-creating skills.  The students worked in groups to create a table from the simulation data on their whiteboard.  The students then passed all the whiteboards around the room to compare and evaluate other groups' data tables.  Not only was this a way for me to see what table skills the students were bringing with them into the classroom, but the student groups had some great discussions and I was able to bring in all of the little "details" about tables that I look for when I grade them.

After completing this simulation in class, I assigned the students a video to reinforce the math that supports the 10% rule.  I gave the students 3 days to watch the video outside of class.  Out of approximately 50 students, only 4 didn't watch the video.  I was able to check this on my class Schoology account.  So, to make sure they were ready for our class activities, I tracked them down during their lunch period and asked them to take a "working lunch."  They brought their trays into my room and watched their video while they ate.

Later in the week, students worked in groups to create arctic food webs and determine how changing one organism in the food web could affect many others.  I set up questions on Socrative for some peer instruction work on food chain energy transfer.  This week they started work on their "Food Webs" research projects.  I used gClass Folders to hand out the Google Doc research document I had prepared for all the students.  The students also started their weekly Current Science online discussion.

College Biology started out the year with Ecology topics as well, but since these students have already had Biology as sophomores, they dive right into the topic of biodiversity.  I took the students down to our local river and a water tower area right outside our school to sample biodiversity using hula hoops to make "quadrants."  Students watched a 10-minute video on biodiversity equations as homework and then practiced using the equations in class by calculating biodiversity of various "bean" populations in Petri dishes.  Students read an article about the Spotted Owl controversy and participated in an online discussion regarding protecting habitat for endangered species.  As a hook for learning about exponential and logistic growth, I put together a simulation using Starburst candy that explored different strategies organisms use to deal with their carrying capacity.  Then students watched a population growth video as homework, and they practiced the problems in groups.  I had most of these students in my flipped Biology class last year, and I have had 100% of them watch all of their videos.  This class LOVES Remind 101.  They have told me repeatedly how helpful it is to get reminders for their assignments.  I've sent them a few sillier texts as well, which they always comment on.  The CB students are in the middle of creating "Mystery Biome" videos.  They collaborated on storyboards using Google Docs, and I'll be giving them feedback this weekend using Kaizena (which I'm very excited to reveal to the students).

Finally, I did it!  I am so proud that I was able to figure out how to make Auras for all of the chemistry lab equipment.  Students took the classroom set of iPads around the room and used the augmented reality app, Aurasma, to learn about the equipment.  They were definitely engaged and learning.  The one thing I'm looking forward to doing next year is making Auras with my own students' videos.  This year, I had to use random You Tube videos because I didn't have anything else from which to draw.  So this year I'll be recording videos of the students talking about equipment so that I can add them to the Auras for next year.

The first three weeks of this school year look completely different from the first three weeks of last year.  Because of all the changes I'm making to my classes right now, it's probably analogous to planning three different classes from scratch.  I feel like I'm putting an inordinate amount of time into working on my classes, but most of that time has payed off and is really benefitting student learning.

Monday, September 2, 2013


My Biology students watched their first "flipped" video of the year last week.  I have flipped my classes for two years, but this is the first year I've intentionally used the Explore-Flip-Apply model.  We spent the first week of class in the "Explore" phase:  spending time down by our local river observing organisms, taking photos, and asking questions about the observations.  When I felt the students were ready for the "Flip" phase, I stepped through the majority of the first video with them in class.  The video was an 8-minute introduction to food chains and food webs.

I gave the students an outline to help guide their note-taking while watching the video.  Secondly, I described how to access the videos (I use Schoology for my classes), and how to enlarge, pause, and rewind the videos.  Finally, I modeled how they could watch the video and take notes at the same time.  Their homework for the night was to finish the remainder of the video and fill out the "Feedback Form" I had also posted on Schoology.   

On the Feedback Form, one of the things I asked the students to do was rate the video on how it helped their learning on a 1-3 scale (1 = didn't help, 3 = helped a lot).  Finally, the students explained their rating of the video.  The responses to this section were very eye-opening for me, so I thought I needed to share them with my fellow flippers.  I have included any comments that specifically addressed the use of video, both positive and negative.  Also, I left all of the comments exactly as the students wrote them, so please try to ignore the grammar and spelling issues!  (My reflections on the feedback follow all of the comments.)  

  • I don't like it a lot because you have to go online and watch it. 
  • I felt that it was better than being taught in a classroom because there were no distractions. 
  • All I had to do was pay attention. 
  • The video helped a lot. 
  • I got to see some examples and I like that. 
  • Would like to do this more helps me so much. 
  • I chose a 3 because it helped me that I could pause the video when i needed to, I could go at my own pace. 
  • I would like to actually learn in class and listen and have more hands on things not just listening to someone talk. 
  • I chose three because in the video, I'm able to stop and go back. This way I get a better understanding of it. Also, I was able to do this on my own time and take all the time that was needed to finish the task. 
  • It really helped me to understand this video because pictures or examples are usually pretty helpful to me when learning something new or different. 
  • You talked at a perfect speed, and I only had to pause it a couple times. 
  • I enjoyed watching the video because I liked the visual aids in the video. It helped when you drew the lines to show how the food chain works. I also liked how you took everything step by step. 
  • It was easier to understand the concept better. 
  • I found it better than sitting in class and listening because I can pause the videos. 
  • The commentary was easy to understand. 
  • The pictures really helped me understand how everything fit together. 
  • It was very detailed and I could visualize it instead of just hearing it. 
  • it was better than taking notes and we got an under standing on how the food webs flow. 
  • It was easy to work at home by myself and it was easier not to get distracted by friends. 
  • It was very explainable I thought it did well at supporting the information with a great base start to form a good video to learn from. 
  • I feel that these videos are going to make a bigger impact on my learning ability. 
  • I chose a three because it really did help me understand, and it made me feel like I was still in the classroom learning with you. 
  • Also, i am not sure if I like this way of teaching better or the class room teaching because its easier to ask questions that way, but here you can pause, and go back on the video. This makes it easier to write things down i spoke truthfully and honestly. 
  • I could pause the video and write down notes when I needed to resulting in me not missing any of the information given. 
  • It was a big help because thats how i learn best I learned many things and it was very understandable. 
  • i understood it for the most part. I learned alot of things but got lost a few times. the video did help because if i dont understand something i can easily just pause the video and watch it again. But also if i have a question about something i cant ask cause well its a video, but i also can message you and ask. 
  • I really think that the video helped me understand this better. I think it helped because I as able to stop the video when I needed to, and I was able to go back and listen to it a few times to really understand the concept. 
  • Everything was explained well it was easy to follow along and answer questions.

There were only two students who expressed any negative feelings toward watching the video.  This is pretty typical in my experiences with flipping; most students like watching videos (more than I would guess like sitting in a real-time lecture).  As a teacher, you're never going to find a mode of learning that satisfies every student.  I am confident that although not every single one of my students prefers watching videos, they will learn more as a class in this mode.  Also, the concerns that students have regarding getting online to watch videos and asking questions are common "beginning of the year" worries that are quickly put to rest as students get a better idea about how these issues are addressed in the class.  Students learn that there are multiple ways to get at the content and ask questions - it's just in a different manner than they're used to.

Regarding the positive comments, it never fails to amaze me how often I hear students say they like the videos because they can watch them at home where they are "less distracted."  It reminds me how easy it is for students to be thinking about a whole host of other issues, usually social, while in school - despite how "quiet" the classroom might be.  When they watch a video at home, they can find a comfortable, non-threatening environment and really focus on the content.  I had one student last year tell me, "I loved watching your videos!  I just sat down on my couch, put on my headphones, and grabbed a snack to eat while I learned."  I also find that the ability of students to pause, rewind, and re-watch videos is very compelling for them.  I have many students who typically struggle to keep up in typical lecture classes that are so grateful for the chance to consume content at their own pace in Biology class.  It truly reduces their stress-load and gives them the confidence that they can handle this course.  

I don't think I'll include video rating on every one of my feedback forms, but I'm planning on using them every once in a while to continue getting snapshots of how this format is working for students.  Not only does it help me to modify and improve my teaching methods, but it also lets students know that I value their opinions.

Friday, August 30, 2013

My Yearly Dose of Self-Doubt

I teach high school Biology in Minnesota.  A few years ago, the Minnesota legislature decided that it wanted to explore the idea of a standardized science test that would be required for graduation.  Instead of testing all of the science subjects students are required to study in high school, our law-makers determined to begin this process by testing the History and Nature of Science and Biology in one test of about 80 questions.  A handful of years later, the format of the test has been altered a few times, therefore it is still in the "trial" phase and does not yet affect a student's ability to graduate or a school's AYP (when this was an issue).  However, every student is still required to take the test once, in the spring of the year.  Many Biology teachers fret over how their students perform on the test, and the scores are published in the local paper the following fall.  The typical defense of standardized tests is that they will help improve teaching and learning.  The only thing I can say with certainty that this testing has provided me as a teacher is my yearly dose of self-doubt:  Are my students really learning science?

Let's just put all the cards out on the table:  My students' scores on their state science tests are typically below the state average, and this bothers me.  When the rounds of testing first started, I chalked the low scores up to flaws that are inherent to any new test.  Then my students did really well one year, and I thought, "Okay, now we've got this figured out."  The next year, the student scores were low again.  Hmmm.  I decided to volunteer to write test questions for future standardized exams, and in the process learned that the test isn't actually statistically significant.  There are too many Biology standards in Minnesota for one test to cover, so the percentage passing the test doesn't actually indicate if students have mastered the required topics.  The number of questions the test would have to ask to truly assess student knowledge of the standards is completely unrealistic.  After being told that the test was basically useless for me as a teacher and not a valid indicator of student learning, I resolved to not let the success (or non-success) of my students on this one assessment cause me to doubt what I was doing in the classroom.

Then this year's release of test scores rolled around.  And students in my high school scored below the state average.  Again.  And I experienced that niggling feeling of doubt about my effectiveness as a teacher.  Again.  You see, my science classes are very heavily inquiry-based.  My students ask questions, discuss and debate in groups, and don't memorize definitions.  I don't lecture in the classroom.  I deliver snippets of content via short, at-home videos, but the majority of content is learned through class investigations and activities.  In order to pull myself out of this black hole of doubt once again, I had to remember why I teach the way I do.  I reminded myself that:

  • The way I teach science is supported by research.  I'm not just crafting my pedagogy based on what I prefer or what is easiest for me.  I have spent A LOT of time and mental capital learning from very smart people about how to teach science.  I am constantly revising and reviewing my approach to teaching.
  • My current students leave my classroom feeling challenged, but supported, and report they like the class.  I know this because I ask them on anonymous surveys.
  • My current students know more about science when they are done with my class than they did before they started.  I know this because I give my own pre- and post-assessments for units.
  • My former students report that their college Biology courses are "easy" because the majority of what is covered is a repeat of what they learned in high school.  The one thing my former students report struggling with in college is getting used to the format of college teaching.  They're just not used to science lectures.
  • I listened to an interview with the MN Commissioner of Education (Brenda Cassellius) this summer in which she stated that our current state tests will be phased out within a year because they, "didn't matter to students," the tests were, "biased," and they weren't, "aligned to higher education."     
What finally put my mind to ease regarding this year's test scores (and prompted the writing of this blog entry), was a video I watched this afternoon.  In June, Innovation Hub gathered a panel of educators to discuss "College 2.0," or the direction of higher education for the future.  This almost-2 hour recording is full of gems, but there are a few in particular that really resonated with me.

#1:  "Any job that requires memorization...or rote, procedural problem-solving will go away [in the future.]"  Eric Mazur hit the nail on the head here, and went on to explain that most educational institutions, whether they are Khan Academy, MOOCs or brick and mortar schools, are still focusing on these antiquated skills.  He finishes his position by stating, "The type of skills that are required are changing."

Yes!  This is just what I needed to hear in my post-test-score slump.  Is it possible that the skills I am teaching my students are not measured on the current standardized test?  Could it be that students are scoring low on their state exam because I am preparing them to be a part of the current and future society in which those rote tasks are accomplished by robots or computers; in which jobs will require creative, collaborative thinkers instead of memorization?

#2:  "Your job, as a teacher, is to help them [students] find their purpose, to believe they can do it, inspire them to devote their life to making that happen."  Richard Miller, President of Olin College, is a proponent of project-based learning and learning by discovery.  He understands that in order for students to learn, their intrinsic motivation needs to be harnessed.  This means teachers must give students choices in the classroom and the time and support to follow their questions.  My goal is not that students leave my classroom with every structure of the cell memorized, but that they leave with at least one science experience that excited and inspired them.        

So when I return to my classroom on Monday, I will not hang my head because one measure of "education" says my students are not learning as they should be.  Instead, I will continue to engage students, pique curiosity, invite dialogue, and challenge the status-quo.  I feel as though I can now confidently answer my own question:  Yes, my students are truly learning science.          

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Flipped Classroom, in Ten Minutes.

What follows is a copy of a presentation I recently gave for a local civic organization on flipped learning.  I only had 10 minutes, so I wasn't able to get into the details of Explore, Flip, Apply, but I hit on a lot of what I feel is unique about flipped learning.  I've been meaning to get another blog post completed, so this way I've killed two birds with one stone!  (#multitaskingteacher)

How many of you have had one or more of the following experiences?:

  • As a student, you were so busy keeping up with notes in class, you couldn’t figure out your homework once you sat down to work on it at home.
  • As an adult learner, you went to the internet to figure out how to do something, like hook up your dishwasher or get a stain out of your clothes.
  • As a parent, you couldn’t help your child with the math they were doing as homework because it was different from how you learned it. 
  • As a student, you needed to hear your teacher explain something multiple times before it made sense.
These are common educational experiences for many people, including myself.  Being a teacher, I worried about those students struggling alone with their homework and thought there must be a better way.  Then, a few years ago, I came upon an educational movement that goes by the name of “flipped learning.”  Very cautiously, I started applying some of the principles of flipped learning in my classes, and quickly realized that this movement had the potential to make huge changes in student learning that address all of the experiences I just listed.

The label “flipped learning” has turned into a bit of a buzz-word in education, with all sorts of meanings associated with the phrase.  Today, I’m going to share with you what flipped learning looks like in my classroom, which is definitely my own spin on the practice.

For me, “flipped learning” is examining my curriculum to find those activities when the students need me the LEAST, and shifting them to the homework space.  The activities for which it is important or the students to interact with each other or myself are happening in the classroom space.  For example, my students don’t need me to be physically present with them when they are receiving direct instruction, such as notes on a topic.  This transfer of information requires only low-level processing skills.  Any of us who have learned something new via a YouTube are familiar with this idea.  Therefore, my students take notes for homework by watching short videos that I create and post online.  Not only can they get content for class in this manner, but they can pause me, rewind me, and watch me as many times as they need.  They also fill out online feedback for me before class so that I know what each student is struggling with before class even starts.  Other activities students might do for homework include reading an article and posting their opinion on a discussion board, or interacting with an online simulation, for example – a computer generated beating heart – and recording their observations and questions.  Because of its online format, class content can be accessed anywhere students have an internet connection:  during study hall, on the bus, at home, at the public library.

Once the direct instruction has been moved out of the classroom, what is most exciting about flipped learning is that it opens up time for all sorts of amazing things to happen in the classroom.  Students work together in peer instruction groups to solve problems and give each other feedback.  There is time for project based learning and case studies.  In the science classroom, labs can turn into long-term inquiry-based investigations.  Learning becomes more genuine and occurs at a deeper level.  The teacher is able to take the time during class to answer individual student questions and truly connect with each student on a personal level, which means more differentiated learning is taking place.  In a flipped classroom, I have the time to talk individually with each student every day.  This is allows the true craft of teaching to shine:  teachers become facilitators of learning instead of just dispensers of information. 

Students can easily hop on the internet for information.  What our 21st Century students need to learn is how to sort through all that information, how to collaborate to reach a goal, and how to be creative problem-solvers.  In my flipped classroom, these skills are the focus of the face-to-face time.

I want to give just a few examples of what students did INSIDE my flipped classroom during this first week of school.

  • Biology students investigated gummy bear volume changes as a lead-in to discuss the importance of peer critique in science.
  • College Biology students were outside sampling plant species living in different locations to compare biodiversity.
  • Chemistry students used an augmented reality app on iPads to learn about the equipment they’ll be using in the chemistry lab.

As HOMEWORK, here is what my students did:

  • Biology students uploaded photos of organisms they found along the Cottonwood River to use for food chains.
  • College Biology students watched a video clip from the movie “Avatar” and commented on aspects of the fictional ecosystem.
  • Chemistry students watched a video of [a fellow teacher] and myself at the swimming pool to introduce the idea of dimensional analysis, and then learned how to do dimensional analysis from a video tutorial.

Okay, enough of what I like about flipped learning.  What do the students have to say?  Here is just a sample from a question I put on a feedback form from last night’s homework:
  • "I could pause the video and write down notes when I needed to resulting in me not missing any of the information given."
  • "I felt that it was better than being taught in a classroom because there were no distractions. All I had to do was pay attention."
  • "Before this video experience I really didn't understand how the food chains worked. After watching this video I actually understand what every living thing goes through to live. I feel that these videos are going to make a bigger impact on my learning ability."

Now flipped learning isn’t the answer that will solve all of the challenges in education.  Some students don’t like the change, and not all students have the motivation to take care of their homework responsibilities.  But when I consider its effect on my students as a whole, its impact on learning can’t be denied. 

I want to publicly thank [my superintendent] and [my principal] for supporting this risk that I took in my classroom.  Without their trust in me and encouragement of my efforts, my classroom today would look no different from my classroom three years ago.  They have allowed me to grow and explore as a teacher, and I truly appreciate this. 

I’d like to end with a quote from one of my mentors in flipped learning, a Chemistry teacher from California named Ramsey Musallam.  He said,

"We must empower students to become intelligent researchers and investigators of information, harnessing the power of the internet and their global community, to learn in ways the traditional classroom could never have granted them. Simultaneously, we must use the classroom as a medium for critical thinking and information assimilation, rather than information transfer. As a result, students become empowered to obtain a depth of knowledge while teachers are empowered to design learning environments that value critical thinking and application."

This is what I strive for in my flipped classroom.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Braving the Rapids

One of my favorite topics to teach in Ecology class during the fall is Aquatics.  Students get the chance to muck around in our local river and collect aquatic macroinvertebrates - insects that hide out in the water.  The students soon realize that the rockiest areas of the river support the highest variety of insects.  It turns out that the churning water produced by all of these rocks mixes in oxygen from the atmosphere, creating an ideal environment for the macroinvertebrates.

Tomorrow begins my 13th year in the classroom, and as I ponder the beginning of the school year, this image of rocky stretches of water continues coming to mind.  I envision my past 13 years as a river, each year propelling me further along in my understanding of teaching, learning, and scientific inquiry.  Some years, I have coasted along straight and wide shallows of the river, untroubled by snags, making forward progress.  But other years, I have braved the rapids, and it is one of those moments I want to write about here.

This summer, I participated in an online class for Flipped Learning, and so began my tumultuous ride.  I began to expand my PLN via my class, Twitter, and the Flipped Learning Network.  Just as the rapids in a river mix much-needed oxygen into the water, my PLN contacts provided nourishment, inspiring me to change, adapt, and improve my teaching.  Each day this summer, I pushed myself to master new technology, teaching techniques, and resources that could have a positive impact on my students' learning.  

So, here's another interesting ecological tidbit about the areas of a river near rapids:  the invertebrates that live there have to be able to hang on tightly to some sort of surface, or they risk being washed downstream.  There were moments this summer during which I was worried the steady stream of new information and ideas would overwhelm me.  There was so much to learn and so little time!  Living in the rapids can be overwhelming!  But as I sit here on the evening before classes start and reflect on all the new adventures I'm taking on this year, I can proudly say that I am still hanging on with all my strength.  Here is a small sample of some of the initiatives I'm incorporating this school year:

  • My lessons will be reorganized into the Explore, Flip, Apply model.
  • I'll be using Remind 101 to keep in contact with my students.
  • My students will be using Aurasma to identify lab equipment.  They'll be making their own videos to pair with triggers for next year's class.
  • I'm using Schoology to organize videos, assignments, forms, and links for all of my classes.
  • POGILS will be used in my Biology classes as a formative assessment tool.
  • Scientific Argumentation models will be incorporated into each student investigation.
  • Each of the "flipped" videos for my classes will be accompanied by a Google form to assess student weaknesses in understanding prior to instruction.
  • Students will bring their own devices to the classroom.
  • PhETs will be used as a form of initial engagement.
  • Flipped videos will be made in response to student questions and need with a variety of tools, such as Knowmia, Touchcast, Explain Everything, and Videoscribe.
  • I'll record answers to student questions in the classroom using Educreations to create videos "on the fly" that all students can access.
  • This blog will be updated weekly, sharing all that I experience and learn throughout this pivotal year.

Many of these changes involve increased use of technology, but I truly feel like the adjustments I'm making are bigger than the tech itself.  The technology is allowing me to reshape my classroom in a way that helps more students learn at a deeper, more relevant, more personal level.  This has me excited.  I am more anxious for the start of this school year than I have been in a long time.  Those years of easily floating down the river were not bad.  In fact, every teacher needs years like this to hone their craft.  But I don't want to float for too long, and I don't want to get stuck in one of the pools on the bank that goes stagnant.  I need to brave the rapids every once awhile to get that energizing surge of oxygen that propels my classroom and student learning forward.  I am not naive enough to imagine that a year in the rapids will be easy or free of failure, but I am eager for the adventure to begin.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Making a Flipped Learning Cake

"Why a cake?" you're wondering.  I'll get to that...

This post is my official "Final Reflection" for my Flipped Learning Class, but I am determined that it will not be my last post to this blog!  As I considered what I would like to write about for this last assignment, I found myself continually looking forward instead of looking back.  Due to a commitment I made last spring, I have the opportunity in August to talk about flipped learning with a handful of teachers in my district and other nearby districts.  I keep pondering how I'm going to sum up everything I've discovered about what it means to flip a classroom in a short, workshop-style conversation.  It is becoming a huge weight on my shoulders.  As I reflect back on my experiences teaching in a flipped classroom last year, being a student in the Flipped Learning Class this past month, and supported by my newly-formed PLC, I know there are at least 3 things I must present in my upcoming workshop.

#1:  Flipped Learning is more than just the videos.
I recall that I entered the world of flipping with this overwhelming idea that I needed to make tons of videos to cover all of the content of my class.  I cringe when I think of my 30-minute videos on Cellular Respiration my students watched last year.  Hassan Wilson, one of my fellow Flipped Classmates, has a great blog post about this exact topic.  The central question to Flipped Learning is not "How do I make the videos?" but, "What is the best use of my classroom time?"  Teachers need to parse out the pieces of their class that are low-level, content-driven activities (which are well-suited to video), and those that are high-collaboration/creativity/inquiry/application type activities (which are much more effective in a classroom environment).  Yes, making the videos is one flashy, technology-based facet of the flipped classroom, but the more revolutionary idea is that this tool frees up time in class to actually engage students in research-based teaching strategies that guide the process of learning.  In a podcast interview Carolyn Durley agrees that the first thing teachers new to flipped learning usually have the most questions about is, "How do I make the videos?"  Through her flipped-class experience she learned that more time needs to be put into "classroom renovation."  What will the teacher do with all of that time the videos free up?

A lot of Ramsey Musallam's Explore-Flip-Apply ideas have influenced my growth in this area as well.  Educators need to understand that the videos are only one ingredient in the "flipped learning recipe."   This ingredient can take on different forms (white flour or wheat flour?), and it can be added to the "batter" at different times (before or after the eggs?).  Also, teachers might use different ingredients for their recipe.  Which leads me to my next revelation...

#2:  Flipped Learning will look different for every educator.
While interacting with my classmates this past month, I have seen a huge diversity in the types of content that video can cover, as well as the formats of videos.  Video can be used to provide a hook for a lesson or explain how to use a calculator, to introduce a new class project, or for iPad training.  Teachers can incorporate mainstream movie clips and images into their video, use a graphing interface, or even create their own characters for a video.  The possibilities are truly endless.  This is where the true craft of being a teacher enters the picture.  Each teacher needs to decide for himself/herself at what point in the learning cycle video would be most appropriate.  This will most likely vary according to student age and the subject taught.  I'm in the process of collecting lots of examples for my district teachers who teach Math and English.  For example, in a podcast interview with Lisa Highfill, she describes some amazing flipped lessons for fifth graders on the topics of money sense and poetry.  Not only is a portion of each lesson based on video, but the meat of the lessons is based on Explore, Flip, Apply.

#3:  Flipped Learning is a Bridge to teaching in the Information Age.
Whether a teacher embraces or rejects technology in their classroom, our students are growing up in an age in which every fact they would ever want to know is at their fingertips.  To round out my "recipe" analogy, are we going to bake this cake in a traditional oven or a high-powered convection oven?  The day will come when convection ovens are the only option for bakers.  As Aaron Sams explained in a Flipped Learning Network Podcast over a year ago, we are in a new educational environment.  Not everyone is ready to take the leap over the chasm and frolic in this environment.  Flipped Learning can be a bridge for teachers to gingerly cross the chasm and begin to think about what a 21st Century Classroom looks like.  And by a "21st Century Classroom," I don't mean a classroom that uses the newest technology at every turn.  I simply mean a classroom that acknowledges that memorizing "facts" is no longer relevant for most subjects.  We need to focus our classrooms on those higher-order Bloom's categories, such as Analyzing and Creating.  We need to prepare our students for the future.

I still have a long ways to go in preparing my "Introduction to Flipped Learning" presentation for August, but I know that I have grown more in my understanding of flipping in the last month than I have in the past two years.  Much of this is thanks to the amazing connections I have made through the Google+ class community, the Flipped Learning Ning, and #flipclass on Twitter.  At some point during my viewing of the FlipCon13 archived sessions, one of the presenters made the comment that the Flipped Learning community is simply a group of educators that want to constantly improve their teaching.  When I heard that, I knew I had landed in the right place.  I feel buoyed by my PLN as I enter another year of exploring flipped learning in my classroom!

**If you have any great suggestions of items that I MUST share with my fellow teachers when I present in August, please respond via a comment or e-mail.  I'd truly appreciate any advice!**

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"I want to teach really well."

At the suggestion of a fellow teacher in my Flipped Learning class, I listened to a podcast of an interview with Ramsey Musallam from last June (click here to connect) during my morning run yesterday.  Now, I knew that Musallam was onto something when I watched his FlipCon13 Keynote, but not until I listened to this interview did I realize how closely his educational philosophy matched with my own.  It was an epiphany (or maybe just my endorphins kicking in).  By the end of my run, I knew that I had to find a way to solidify my thoughts so I could keep things in focus.  Thus, this blog entry...

#runningepiphany (you saw it here first!)

Now, before I proceed, I have to make it clear that Musallam is a high school Chemistry teacher, so the fact that his ideas mesh so well with mine, as a high school Biology teacher, is no big surprise.  What was truly revealing to me was that I don't have to completely redesign my classes and abandon my principles as a science teacher to delve further into the world of flipped learning.  What follows is an examination of Musallam's points that truly resonated with me.

The traditional mastery model has the potential to weaken inquiry.
I have tried mastery learning in my classroom on a couple of occasions.  I've redesigned complete units, provided the students with access to all labs, assignments, and content, and let them go at it with flexible deadlines.  Doubtless, I was missing some key components of a true mastery classroom, being that I was new to the whole idea, but I still felt as though things just weren't clicking as I'd envisioned them.  Students rushed through each of the tasks, just to get them done, and didn't slow down if something was particularly engaging.  The class self-divided into small groups of 2 to 4 students based on their pacing, and they rarely interacted with classmates outside of their small group.  I was not convinced that my students were learning science better as a result of this model, but I was not sure why this was.

Fast-forward to yesterday and Musallam's interview.  In his discussion of mastery learning, Musallam states, "The mastery model does not guarantee that inquiry comes before content."  This was a huge eye-opening moment for me.  Here was the reason my mastery units seemed so odd to me - my students were not engaged in inquiry.  The focus of my classes has always been the process of science, thereby inquiry.  When I attempted mastery learning, that focus got fuzzy.  Also, as Musallam suggests, it's difficult to control the sequence of inquiry in a mastery environment, and this is key.  Assimilation and accommodation must come before content in a true inquiry learning cycle.  I would also add that conversations during that assimilation and accommodation phase are essential as well.  When students are allowed to make their way through a mastery-based unit, it is more difficult to control the timing of the inquiry cycle and facilitate the conversations that need to take place.

In my mind, I compare these two processes to different dining experiences.  What would you prefer...a buffet at which you have a huge variety of foods to choose from and can eat your dessert first, or one masterful meal that has been planned out by a James Beard Award-winning chef who knows just the right time to introduce particular flavors into the experience?  



I think my inner foodie just exposed itself, but I would argue that most people would also choose the second option.  I still hope to incorporate facets of mastery learning into my classroom, but this time understanding more about how the two modes of learning may conflict with each other.

Video should be responsive to student needs.
From Musallam's FlipCon13 keynote, I had a general idea of his "Flipped Bloom's" paradigm, but listening to this podcast really fleshed it out for me.  Musallam described this thoughts that traditional classrooms tap into lower-spectrum Bloom's during class time and reserve higher-spectrum Bloom's for homework.  He believes that this is where the true "flip" in flipped learning needs to originate.  Musallam suggested teachers classify their learning standards by Bloom's taxonomy.  Tasks that are at the lowest levels (Remembering, Understanding, some Applying) become video content, and those tasks associated with the higher levels (Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) should take place in the classroom.

This concept isn't revolutionary to most flippers, but Musallam took the idea further.  He suggested that video is your chance, as a teacher, to differentiate for individuals.  The videos should be made in response to the questions and misconceptions that become obvious in the classroom during the Explore phase.  Therefore, different sections of classes might even need different videos.  (This also highlights another issue with mastery learning, which assumes that all of the videos can be made ahead of time for students to access at their own pace.  Therefore, the videos can't be responsive to the various learning stages of the students.)

The idea of using video to provide content for students when and how they need it truly opened up doors in my mind.  My videos don't have to be multimedia masterpieces or prepared in advance...they simply need to give my students the tools they want at that moment in the learning cycle.  Entering this summer, I had a goal of redoing many of my videos from last year to make them more engaging.  I'm finally now realizing that the videos will be more engaging if I create a need in my classroom for the students to access them - and by ensuring that the videos fill that need.  A huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.  The idea also fits right in with all the work I've been doing with formative assessment in my class, once again reminding students that learning is a process and I'm here to support that process.

What finally crystallized this approach to video for me was Musallam's discussion of using Educreations in his classroom to record his interactions with students.  When students are working in groups and have a question, he records his discussion with the students, along with any "whiteboard" work he does, on Educreations on his iPad.  He then sends the file to his library of Educreations videos and alerts the other students in the class that he has just posted another tutorial.  Genius!  I am constantly in this position in my classroom, and what I typically do is grab some scratch paper and a pen and sketch out some diagrams as I work through a question with a group.  I ask the group if they'd like to keep my sketches when I'm done - and they almost always want them AND make photocopies of them to share with others in the group.  Now, I've had an iPad for two years...why have I never thought of doing this on Educreations instead?  Not only could the discussion and diagrams be easily shared with other groups, but those original students could also go back to that video at a later date to review the conversation.  I am SO excited about using this in my classroom.

Teachers shouldn't be a slave to our set pedagogy.
During the interview, Musallam was asked a question about the word "flip" and why it has negative connotations in some circles.  His answer evolved  into a broader discussion about pedagogies in general and the danger in becoming a fervent disciple of one or another.  He said that no method is a silver bullet, and some methods are more appropriate than others for particular topics.  To me, this means we need to be careful about jumping on the flipped learning bandwagon simply because we see it as the method that will cure all that ails us in the educational world.  Instead, we need to understand any teaching method, be it flipping, mastery learning, project-based learning, inquiry, or others, has its time and place.  This is where the true craft of being a teacher comes into play; we need to determine what method works best for our students for a particular unit, lesson, topic, or class section.  Forcing the use of a method just because you're a "flipped class" removes the teacher's connection to his/her students' needs.  I flipped all of the units in my Biology classes last year, except for the unit on Molecular Inheritance.  I had some really effective whole-class kinesthetic simulations I'd used in the past to deliver content, and I wasn't ready to leave those in the dust yet.  I have to admit I felt a bit of discomfort that I wasn't making any videos for the unit, though, because my class was supposed to be flipped.  Listening to Musallam tell me that I shouldn't allow a label to define my teaching made me realize that I had been limiting myself.  I have put a lot of effort into developing some truly great methods of helping my students learn content.  If it works well, I don't need to trash it just because I have the label of a flipped classroom.

This point made by Musallam also made me consider interactions that I have been delving into on social media platforms recently.  In becoming more involved with my PLN in the last month, I've been experiencing this surging feeling that there are so many flipping experts out there that know so much more about the process than I do.  As a result, I've been on a crazed hunt to find as many resources as I can to supplement and organize my class before the school year starts, because one of these people or methods or tools must be THE WAY to FIX EDUCATION.  If I only search long enough, I will find it.

In reflecting on what Musallam had to say about labels, however, I realized that this thing we call teaching isn't about the next great fix - employing the latest buzzwords or techniques or wowing our students with the newest technology.  It's more about constant reflection of how well your students are learning and what you can do to help them.

I already employ a lot of techniques that help my students as learners.  Flipping is simply another tool that I can adapt to my students' needs.  Musallam argued that labeling any teaching method can dissuade teachers from even trying it because of their internalized conception of what that method involves.  I would agree, and then further elaborate that labeling teaching methods also limits the creativity of the teacher in utilizing that tool.  There is no one set procedure for flipping a classroom, and teachers need to be reminded that there are hundreds of ways of incorporating flipped philosophy into their teaching.  We will continue to use labels, because we need to employ some type of language to discuss these methods, but I will attempt to stop seeing these labels as THE WAY to FIX EDUCATION.

When I reflect back on my development as a teacher, my evolving teaching philosophy, and all of the strategies that I've picked up over the years, I can truly say that this statement by Musallam sums up my experience:  "I want to teach really well."  Because when it comes right down it, we as teachers need to be satisfied with never being satisfied.  Our students are always changing, always different, always demanding more of us.  There will never come a time when we've solved every educational roadblock in our classrooms.  What we can do is maintain our desire to strive to be better.  We need to have confidence in our own journey, open minds to gather new tools along the way, and the creativity to use them in a way that best suits our students.