Saturday, June 29, 2013


What kind of learning culture do you currently have in your classroom or learning environment? What types of decisions do you make to support this culture?

Within the past four years, I have attended two professional development institutes at the Science Museum of Minnesota that have profoundly impacted the learning environment I have established in my classroom. Now, you'd think that a teacher workshop at a science museum would be all about fun experiments and getting messy, but this wasn't necessarily the case. Though there were some various labs scattered throughout the week that made us science teachers as giddy as kids on Christmas morning, the overarching theme of the institutes was how do we empower EVERY learner? All of us educators say we think all students have the potential to learn and will do everything in our power to help our students accomplish this, but how does it really play out in our classrooms? Consider these examples from my own experiences and ask yourself if they feel familiar:
  • A student wasn't getting his assignments done. I tried to get him to come in before or after school to work on them by reminding him in class. That didn't work. I had him paged to my classroom in the morning when I knew he was in the building before school. That didn't work. I explained my concerns to his family and my principal. That didn't work. This student ended up failing the semester.
  • I had a student in my class who repeatedly cheated on his assignments. Despite multiple warnings, and then consequences, he continued to cheat.
  • A student was constantly disrupting my class by loudly calling out inappropriate comments that were making fun of other students. I told him to leave the classroom.
Although you may not have experience with these specific scenarios, I'm willing to bet most teachers could identify a similar situation from their own history in which we did not follow through on that mantra, "All students can learn." Before attending my workshops at the Science Museum, I thought that I was encouraging all learners to their highest potential. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that I was giving my students permission to fail in so many hidden ways.

Though there is no way to adequately summarize two weeks' worth of workshop material and reflections, I'd like to share with you the one nugget from those two weeks that had the biggest impact on my classroom culture: The idea of Mindsets.

Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University who researches, among many things, student motivation. In the course of her research, she discovered something completely contrary to how many teachers and parents view learning. The ability to learn isn't determined by IQ, self-esteem, praise, or even confidence. Learning is directly related to one's impression of intelligence. About half of our students see intelligence as something they are born with. Dweck calls the condition of these students a "Fixed Mindset." The other half of our students understand that intelligence is a fluid entity, which can be changed over time. These students have a "Growth Mindset" according to Dweck. (Dweck, Self Theories, 1999). The diagram below summarizes the effects these mindsets can have on students (Mindset #1 is Growth, Mindset #2 is Fixed).

Looking back at the three examples of students that I shared with you, it is more than likely that the barrier to these students' learning was their fixed mindset. They believed they could not learn in my class, and acted in various ways to protect themselves from feeling "stupid." Some students act out in class or say they're bored to draw attention away from their perceived inadequacies. Other students are so convinced they could never learn the material that they resort to cheating. Finally, there is a group of students that just completely gives up. They'd rather not try at all than experience any perceived "failure" once again.

Now, what does all of this have to do with my classroom culture? Well, as a result of reading Dweck's Self Theories and reflecting on its implications for my teaching, here's the teaching philosophy that I developed, and still share with my students to this day:

All students can learn.

Therefore, all students can, with support and help,

deepen their understanding of science.

Students and teachers alike will establish high expectations that all students will achieve.

Although I may have thought about my classroom in this way in the past, I didn't always act in this way.  So I changed the routines in my classroom to truly reflect this philosophy.  

First of all, students always get 100% on all of their notebook assignments.  Students have composition notebooks in which all of the class material gets entered:  labs, reflections, review, journaling.  I originally thought I'd give each notebook assignment a score, and then give the notebooks back for corrections.  I was shocked to find that the majority of the students never made corrections!  Even though students had low scores, they had internalized a fixed mindset and decided that they couldn't ever understand their mistake so it wasn't worth their while to try and correct it.  So, now my students don't get scores on their assignments at all until they're perfect.  A student will turn in a lab the first time, I'll write comments and suggestions on it, s/he will work on those problem areas, they'll turn it back in and I'll look it over again, there might still be some corrections they need to fix up so they get it back a second time, and so forth and so on until they have it right.  Then, finally, I enter a grade for the assignment.  And it's always perfect because the student continued to work on the assignment until all of their mistakes and misunderstandings were cleared up.  Isn't this the whole point of learning?  What are we saying about the importance of what we teach if getting 75% on an assignment is "good enough" for a student to move on?  More importantly, what are we saying about that student's abilities?  

I have found that students don't give up on an assignment as easily if they view it as a "process" from the beginning instead of a one-shot attempt.  I am very explicit with my students as to why I do this (because believe me, they do complain when they get their notebook back for the third time and they still have corrections to do!).  I make it clear that learning takes time - and it takes different amounts of time for different people.  If my students understood everything in class right away, they wouldn't need to be in the class.  I also embrace this "learning as a process" mentality for quizzes, tests, and projects.  I don't want to take up the space going into detail about these here, but I can summarize it all by saying that students know that they will get the time and support they need to master any assignment in my classroom.  

This philosophy doesn't always work out perfectly, of course.  There are the one or two students out of 100 or so that simply refuse to believe they can learn at a high level.  Also, all of the correcting can get overwhelming.  But overall, speaking to my students on a regular basis about the ability of everyone to learn given enough time and chances, and backing up that rhetoric with policies that ensure every student has as many chances as they need to succeed - as long as they keep trying - has completely changed my classroom climate.  Cheating has become less of an issue in my classes because students don't feel the pressure to perform when they're not ready.  Students are focused less on "did I get it right?" and more interested in seeking resources to help them understand class content better.  Students who have never felt successful in a science class suddenly realize that they can understand this stuff.  I had a student who had an IEP and his special education teacher questioned if he should even be in my Biology class.  I told her that he could definitely make it through.  Although he struggled in the beginning, once he realized that he could continue to redo his work until it was correct - and the impact that would have on his grade - he was coming into school regularly after hours to get help on the corrections that were needed on his assignments.  The look on his face when I showed him that he aced a quiz was priceless.  So many students will just "settle" for doing mediocre work.  I create a culture in my classroom in which the students know I expect their best, but I will give them the time and the tools to get there.

Flipping my classroom has blended seamlessly into this philosophy as one of those tools students can use to personalize their learning.  Instead of students being expected to absorb all of the necessary content in one sitting, they are now able to take in the content at their own pace and as many times as they need.  This further supports the idea that learning is a process that moves at a different pace for each student, and in each topic.  While one concept may "click" immediately with a student, another topic might be more challenging and require more video views or more tries at his/her assignment.  A who had struggled in a previous class of mine went out of her way to tell me how much she loved having videos to access in this new class with me.  She reported that she has always had a hard time keeping up with lectures in class, and even when she does write things down, she can't remember what it was all about when she goes back to look at her notes.  In my flipped classroom, however, she loved the fact that she was able to access the content at her own pace and as many times as she needed.  When she had corrections to make on her assignments, she repeatedly went back to the videos to help research her questions.  A flipped classroom supports a learner-centered culture because it gives students equal opportunity in accessing the content.

When I implemented the "all will learn" philosophy in my classroom, I was surprised by one fortunate side affect:  My relationships with students became more authentic.  I think I am less likely to be viewed by the students as "the judge," handing down sentences (grades) like grand pronouncements.  Instead, we are collaborators, working together to find a way for them to understand the material.  They know that I will respond to their needs and requests in the learning process.  Students finally "fess up" when they are uncertain of a new topic because they understand that there isn't a penalty for "not knowing."  I keep the lesson plans flexible so that if the students make it clear to me that the whole class needs another day of review, I find a way to make it happen.  This open conversation about learning between my students and myself has nurtured a sense of trust and safety in my classroom.

For more information about mindsets:
Dweck's Faculty page at Stanford:

TED Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth regarding "grit."  References Dweck: 

From New York Magazine.  Discussion of Dweck's research and its implications for praising children:



During Jon and Aaron's FlipCon13 keynote, they challenged the audience to make some personal goals using the 5-5-5-5 format.  Here's my first stab at it:

5 Days:  In days, I hope to be finally caught up with my FlipCon 13 class!  While everybody else was working hard at FlipCon13 - attending sessions, making connections, asking questions, recording reflections - I was relaxing on the beach of a Northern Minnesota lake.  Boy, am I paying the price now!  This has been a crazy week of playing catch-up in my class, but the intensity has made me focus and prioritize my time.  So in the next five days, I'll be working on my new class assignments.

This is supposed to be my "thinking" face...I hope I don't look this much in pain when I'm thinking.
I also hope to contact my school principal and superintendent to schedule a post 4th of July meeting to discuss what I've learned at the conference.  My administrators are very excited about the flipped classroom model, and would like to see more teachers in our district adopt it.  We all need to have a discussion about how best to present this model to the staff without overwhelming them.  I've already singled out a couple of archived sessions from FlipCon13 that I'd like to share with particular staff members to pique their interest.

5 Weeks:  Let's see...five weeks will be...August time to go back to school!  My district starts school during the third week of August and ends in the middle of May, so when the calendar hits August I begin to feel that "pull" to get back in my classroom.

This drawing makes me look like I'm trying to run away from school, but in actuality I'm always excited to get back to a fresh school year!
My goal is that by this point I'll have figured out precisely what my face to face time is going to look like, based upon Musallam's Cycles of Learning. I'll have some Google Docs and Google Forms templates ready to go to support that learning in the classroom.  Regarding my videos from last year, I'd like to have the first few weeks' worth revised and ready to go for each class.  I envision making some videos "on the fly" again next year so that they're related to the questions my students have as they explore various topics.  Finally, I've been asked to present about my flipped classroom for some teachers from another district in August, so I'll definitely be using a ton of information that I'm currently processing from FlipCon13.

5 Months:  In five months, it will be December, right at the end of our first semester.  This would be a perfect time to poll my students and parents regarding their impressions of flipped learning.

I'm hoping that most of my students will be loving the flipped learning this year, but I'm sure there will be some who will be uncomfortable, and others who will downright hate it!  Learner-centered classrooms can be challenging for students who are used to "playing school" (as Jon B. would say...).

I also want to invite fellow teachers to visit my classroom during second semester to see what flipping is all about.  If we have iPads for our students during second semester (this a possibility our administration is exploring), I'd like to spend the semester break brainstorming ways for students to use iPads for exploration, collaboration, and presentation.  I've already got some ideas on this front, but I'm not going to take the time to flesh them out until those iPads are imminent!

5 Years:  This is the vision I have for my classroom in five years:

There are a few details about the drawing above that I'd like to point out...First of all, I am in a corner, available for help (and happy!), but the students are busy doing the work of learning.  Secondly, some students are working on their own, some are with partners, and some are in groups.  There are a variety of activities that the students are working on, but they are all essential to the nature of science:  inquiry, support of claims, communication, and problem-solving.  My 5-year goal is that my students are learning in a differentiated, standards-based, flipped classroom that emphasizes the universal and changing nature of science.  I want students to leave my classroom with the ability to make informed, thoughtful choices in their adult lives.  As a teacher, this ideal has always been in my mind.  FlipCon13, including all of the energetic and forward-thinking individuals I have met as a result of being involved with the conference and my class, has brought this ideal back to the forefront of my teaching philosophy.   

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Own Personal Mystery Box

After watching the two FlipCon13 keynotes, I was definitely in a mindset primed for discussing teaching pedagogy.  Here was the downside of watching the sessions in an archived format...missing out on all of those great conversations that must have been taking place at the actual event.  A couple of the other sessions I've watched so far touched on pedagogy a bit, though, thereby contributing to the evolution of ideas for face-to-face time in my classes.  The session on Peer Instruction led by Faulkner and Warneke focused on methods these two math teachers use in their classroom to facilitate group problem-solving connected to new concepts introduced in their homework videos.  Their model is based on the work of Eric Mazur, who I'd actually first heard of via a podcast by American Radio Works last summer.

Here's the link to the transcript and podcast if you're interested...

I remember being excited at the time about the possibility of creating powerful questions for my students that could elicit their misunderstandings, but I needed more concrete examples regarding what this would look like in my classroom.  The presentation by Faulkner and Warneke helped a bit in this area.  These gentlemen begin each math class with concept quizzes constructed of mostly multiple choice questions.  Their students use clickers to answer the questions on their own first, discuss their answers with their "pod" of classmates, and then change their answers as necessary.  They have seen substantial gains in student test scores since adding peer instruction into their classes.  Faulkner and Warneke also shared what I thought was an ingenious idea:  Embed questions within your videos and use the student answers as a "pool" of distractors to draw from when designing your question sets for peer instruction.  I currently use peer instruction in my classroom in a limited and somewhat casual manner.  I can see how being more intentional in its implementation could fit in with Musallam's "mystery box" approach to learning.  Peer tutoring would allow for more student exploration and learner-directed discovery.

Ellen Dill's presentation about student choice also helped me to consider part of Musallam's presentation regarding Explore-Flip-Apply, this time in the context of learning styles.  Dill teaches foreign language classes in which her students choose seven projects throughout the grading term to "show what they know" for the objectives in each unit.  The project might be cooking a favorite meal, writing and performing a song, or simply completing the standard worksheets that go with the unit.  The main idea is that the students have a CHOICE.  Dill presented all of these choices as options in a menu of learning styles.  I have seen research stating that teaching to various learning styles doesn't necessarily help students learn better.  An example of one of these studies can be accessed at the link below:

Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students 1

In Dill's presentation, however, what resonated with me was the idea of student choice, which can be independent of learning styles.  This would fit perfectly into the "Apply" stage of Musallam's Cycle of Learning.  Once students have explored the problem and gathered information to explain or answer the problem, they are ready to take their newly-acquired knowledge and transform it into something personally meaningful.  It seems to me that this is when they transition from simply learning to remembering.  We all know that students remember new information better when it is relevant.  I feel like I could use a version of Dill's learning styles projects to inspire students to create in-class artifacts that redefine their new learning in a uniquely individualized way.

The remainder of the sessions I watched were less about learning pedagogy and more about the tools of the trade.  I ended Chris Koder's session thinking more about if I want to give students guided notes to fill in while they watch my videos.  I learned that Marc Seigel is the guru of Google Apps, and although I have been using Docs and Forms for awhile in my classes, he convinced me I need to take the plunge and integrate them into my videos.  Knowing that my students will all be getting iPads soon motivated me to watch the presentation by Malatlian and Porazzi-Sorrells, and although I wasn't looking for a new way to make my videos, I can definitely envision using Explain Everything instead of Camtasia for select lessons in the future - thanks to this session!  

**One side note regarding technology: Although I love using it and know that it can be very powerful in the classroom, sometimes I'm overwhelmed by all the options out there. I want someone to tell me, "This is THE BEST software for creating your videos, so use this one." I don't want umpteen million choices for screencasting apps - please just give me ONE that does everything I want!**

In summation, I finished watching these sessions with more questions than answers: How is my classroom going to run on a daily basis? Should I continue to give my students quizzes on the videos? Should those quizzes be incorporated into peer instruction? How am I going to write high quality questions for those peer review quizzes? What will my videos look like if I'm taking the "mystery box" approach? What are some science mysteries that could get my students excited and curious? Could personalized student projects truly be designed to hit on the course objectives, yet be flexible enough to adapt to student interests? And, most importantly, what would be the best way to get all of this great information to my fellow district teachers and administrators so that I'm not the lone "crazy" at my school? I'm starting to feel like my future classroom is my own, personal mystery box right now. Following Musallam's Cycles of Learning: I've got lots of questions and motivation - now it's time to take what I know and make it personally relevant.

Miyagi and Me

Before watching Jon, Aaron, and Ramsey give their keynote speeches for FlipCon13, I was entering this summer with the goal that I would improve the videos I have created so that students would be more motivated to watch them.  I flipped all of my classes (Biology, Ecology, College Biology) for the first time last year, and although the students were initially excited about and appreciative of the the new learning format, by the end of the year the novelty had worn off and some stopped watching the videos all together.  I had this idea in my mind that if I could make really exciting, funny, engaging videos, all of my students would be glued to my lessons and learn everything they needed to know.  I guess I was channeling Field of Dreams...

My thoughts were, "If you make those videos really, really awesome, those students will WANT to sit down at their computer, iPad, or phone and watch them every night."  But I couldn't fit that on my picture above.

Then I watched Keynote #1 of FlipCon13 (via the archive), and I started to get an inkling that flipping my classroom wasn't all about the quality of my videos.  Jon and Aaron's presentation focused mostly on their evolution of thought through their years of flipping.  They too simply started with videos, which then became more professional, which gave them more flexible time in class and started them thinking about mastery learning, and now their focus is tying differentiated learning into the flipped mastery classroom.  I am starting to realize that videos are simply a tool to open more time in your classroom, at which point you can really start making headway with your students' learning by incorporating various learner-centered strategies.  The videos themselves aren't meant to get your students excited about your class content - your class time can now be used to get your students excited about your class content.  Imagine that!  

During the presentation, Aaron did a short demonstration that really resonated with me.  He pulled out his phone and asked Siri (or something similar) to find the electron configuration of oxygen.  In seconds, he had it available on his phone.  He explained that once this would have been a question he'd ask students on a test, but questioned if this type of information should be the focus of education anymore since "facts" are now so widely accessible.  My own classes have already been slowly evolving away from the memorization of facts to an emphasis on the process of science.  However, this part of the presentation brought things back into focus for me.  How can I balance the expectations of standardized testing, which are predominantly based on discrete facts, with a need for my students to be problem-solvers in the unknown future in which they will find themselves?  As Jon and Aaron stressed, we are giving our students tools that can be applied to a variety of situations - not training them for a specific job.

More foreign to me was Jon and Aaron's discussion of mastery learning.  I've tried to incorporate mastery learning into my classes in the past, but it hasn't been very successful.  Mostly this has been due to low student motivation.  Jon and Aaron reminded me of the power that these strategies can have if implemented successfully.  They described how their classrooms revolve around standards-based objectives, and students show their mastery of these objectives according to a rubric.  I think I'm only a few steps away from a mastery approach for my classes.  I already rely heavily on formative assessment in my classroom.  Also, students don't get a grade on a science notebook assignment until they have reached 100% correct, and all students are required to make corrections on their quizzes and tests.  Finally, all the teachers in my district (including me!) have created learning objectives for each of the units that they teach.  I order to fully implement a mastery classroom, however, I just need a little more help with the organization of the process.  I remembered that I own Jon and Aaron's book and should probably reread it this summer to help with this!

Because I have been "attending" FlipCon13 by watching the archived sessions, I was able to watch Ramsey Musallam's presentation immediately after Jon and Aaron's.  This is when my thoughts on flipped learning were transformed the most.  Ramsey delved into the murky world of student motivation, which I realized has been the missing piece from my classes over the years.  He challenged teachers to think of our content as a "mystery box" that has the potential to excite our students as they uncover its secrets.  Ramsey played a TED clip of J.J. Abrams describing how all great movies hold back secrets at the very beginning and slowly reveal them to the audience as the movie progresses.  Ramsey suggested that this is should be a model for student learning.  At that moment, everything clicked in my mind.  I don't need to make amazing videos to engage my students in the content; rather, I need to facilitate student access of the content as they develop their own questions in regard to these "mysteries."  I am fortunate as a science teacher to work with content that naturally lends itself to "discovery learning."

I especially connected with the example that Ramsey gave from The Karate Kid.  Mr. Miyagi allowed Daniel to  flounder for awhile before jumping to his aid.  He provided Daniel with some instruction in karate after the need had become apparent to Daniel, and then Daniel took those tools and transformed them into something all his own.  Ramsey described this cycle of learning in his own classroom as "Explore, Flip, Apply."  I need to be a Mr. Miyagi in my classroom, instead of a Kevin Costner (another reference to Field of Dreams...just in case I lost you there).  I'm going to put a lot of thought this summer into what "Explore, Flip, Apply" is going to look like in my classroom.  Maybe I'll even tape a copy of this photo by my desk to remind me where my focus needs to be...


Thursday, June 27, 2013

FlipCon Reflections

Another assignment for my class was to write reflections on the FlipCon13 sessions, based upon the four pillars of Flipped Learning:  Flexible Learning, Learning Culture, Intentional Content, Professional Educators.

I have more sessions yet to watch, but I'm excited to have this document as notes for the tons of information I gathered by watching these sessions.

FlipCon13 Class

On the spur of the moment, I signed up for an online class associated with FlipCon13.  During the last week and a half, I have been absorbing more education theory and information than I have in a long time!  I've also been able to make many connections with like-minded educators.  Thank goodness it's summer!

The first posts for this blog will revolve around my assignments for this class.  May not be the best way to spark conversation, but the gene in me that craves organization is screaming that this is the most efficient way to do things.

For my first assignment, I watched the Camtasia online tutorials and made videos describing three new techniques I had learned.  Well, I used Camtasia for my flipped classes all last year, but in my attempts to just get "something" out there, I barely skimmed the surface of what was possible with Camtasia.  So having the time to watch all of these tutorials for my class was like a gift!

Here are my first baby steps into more advanced Camtasia features...

Removing a Color:

Call Outs: