At the End of One…

The sign on my door says it all.

The first quarter is over. It has been a great year so far and my our 7th grade flipped classes in Algebra and Pre-algebra have been going much better than they did last year. Chalk it up to experience I guess.  A couple of science teachers in 8th grade are also testing the waters with the flipped model and it is great to have some kindred spirits in the building. Another math teacher at 6th grade is also assigning videos for homework and that is certainly a move in the flipped direction. The times they are a changin’.

Are we going as fast as I’d like? No, but I think that with the slower pace at the beginning, the fundamentals will be stronger and we will have an opportunity to increase the rate of progress later on.

I had some things in my course descriptions at the beginning of the year which were more in the realm of philosophy than description, so this seems like a good time to lay them out. Some of my initial thoughts at the beginning of the year have evolved as well.

Tests and Quizzes

I initially planned to prevent mindless quiz taking (quizzes are on-line and automatically graded) by offering a two-tiered system, with tier I to consist of 4 attempts from which the average grade would be the taken result. Tier II would be a single attempt and I would take whichever grade was higher from the two tiers. On further reflection, and after thinking about what a colleague had to say about it, I decided averaging was not the way to go. I began by allowing one or two attempts with a requirement to come see me if the attempts did not result in a satisfactory score. Then after a discussion and perhaps some review, I’d reset the attempts for another try.

After discussing options with the kids and getting their feedback, we are now doing 4 attempts on a quiz, with the highest grade accepted for a score. The understanding is that if you do not get the score you want (a minimum of 70% is still the standard) after the third try, you better come see me for help and advice before you use your last attempt.

So far this is working well, it maintains buy-in for the kids since they know they can’t just take a quiz over and over again until they pass it, plus it keeps me from constantly having to take time to reset individual quizzes to allow more chances.

What About Extra Credit?

There is plenty of credit available, so why should there be any extra? If someone wants to go out of their way to do more than is required to learn more and get more out of it–great! I would even consider replacing some part of an assignment with the extra work done on another, but so far that situation hasn’t come up. Bottom line is, there is no need for extra credit, and I don’t accept it. I don’t think any teacher should. Extra credit is just  a free pass for erasing the negative result of something you should have done but didn’t, and accepting it sends the wrong message.

On Grades and Grading

I reproduce below, in its original form, the paragraph I had initially used in my course descriptions — philosophical and highly opinionated parts included!

In a mastery learning class, learning is paramount. Grades are really only of secondary importance. When it comes to assessing learning, there is really only one thing that counts; can you demonstrate that you have learned the skills and knowledge that are the content of the course? Last year, with that in mind, the only way to get “points” toward the grade was from the quizzes and tests (Can you do it? Do you know it? Have you reached a minimum acceptable level of learning?). That mostly worked, but based on my experience I am shifting back a bit toward what I used to do. Why? Because like it or not, be it right or wrong (it’s wrong) there are a number of learners who are not used to having to master material for a grade, and expect to get points for attempting to learn. Attempting to learn is a very important part of learning, but it is the actual learning that counts (not the attempt). Unfortunately, this mind set has resulted in it being too common for kids not to do work if they don’t get “credit” for it. Some day we will be past that, but the day is not here yet.

What About that Camp Stool?

I had planned to tote a camp stool around the room with me so I could use it to sit and provide help anytime, anywhere in the room. As it turned out, the class sizes were small enough so that there was almost always one free seat at every table for me to use. So, I figured I didn’t need the stool. But, now we have added more kids, so I am back to considering that idea.

Stop Playing School, Start Playing Learning

Some conversations I have had on twitter and seen on blog post comments mention the notion that kids are good at playing school, and not so good at learning. I see that. It is most evident when kids do all the assignments and pass all the quizzes, but fail on more comprehensive tests. Some kids have the mechanics of note taking, filling in the blanks, completing the assignments etc. down pat but get little out of it. Those are good skills, but we need to move them past that phase into actually processing the information that they are presented with during the reading, listening, discussion and completion of the assignments. As I said in the the initial version of my course description:

We are after real learning here. Not fake learning where you show up every day, “turn in” all the assignments, fail all the tests and still pass with a C. Uh-uh. Ain’t gonna’ happen.

None of this stuff is written in stone, and there are exceptions to every rule. I’d like to hear what others have to say about how things are going after one quarter of playing school learning has gone by. The comments section is open.

Preseason Thoughts and Reflections for 2011

In about a week or so, us educator types in Colorado will be returning to our schools to get ready for the next school year. May it be a good one for all.

I’ve had a couple of months now to think about the year ahead and to try and sort out some ideas that were left swimming around in my brain after the last school year. It was definitely the most difficult year of my teaching career. I guess that is to be expected when you make the switch from being a “teacher” to a “learner-in-chief.” I certainly knew what I was getting into when I decided to adapt the flipped class model to my 7th grade mathematics classes. I found that there is still a great deal of confusion about the difference between “teaching” and “learning.” Most people still think the best way to learn something is for it to be taught to them. That is most definitely wrong and I will defend that from now until my last day in a classroom. So what should a teacher be doing? Why, helping kids learn of course!

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to attend and be a presenter at the 2011 Flipped Class Conference in Woodland Park. I gave two sessions each day, one on Moodle question banks and one on measuring progress and achievement in the flipped class environment. The attendees were great and had some wonderful insights and questions. It was super helpful to hang out with the other presenters for a week to benefit from their experience at flipping the classroom. The discussions we had outside of the seminars were truly enlightening. Inspirational even. Many of the following thoughts are directly the result from discussions I had at the conference, but others I’ve been mulling over for awhile now.

What I learned in One Year of Flipping

I did many things right and I did many things wrong last year. I like to think I have learned a lot from my mistakes and will put those lessons to good use in the coming year. No pretty pictures here with keyword-laden captions. Just hard thinking and reflection. If you can handle that sort of thing, read on.

Communication, Communication, Communication. How import is communication? Important enough that I decided to write the word three times at the beginning of this paragraph. I had abut 90 or so kids in my classes last year. Of those I’d say about 20 had parents who started out, remained, or ended up pretty strongly apposed to the flipped class model. There were no show-stopping reasons for their opposition (at least not as far as I could tell from talking to them), it was just new and they didn’t like it. In other cases they wanted to protect their kids from being out on the edge of certainly, which isn’t always comfortable, but where true insight comes from and actual learning happens—not from some “expert” giving step-by-step instructions for how to solve a problem that “looks like this.” I’d say I had about 10 (that I knew of) who were on the opposite side of that and who seemed genuinely appreciative of the flipped class model. What the other 60 thought about it, well, I guess I’ll never know.

The first half of the year was the hardest, but the second half was a lot better. Why? Two reasons. First of all, I analyzed what was working and what wasn’t and changed the things that weren’t to try something else. I announced the changes to the learners, their families, and the administration. I believe that kept them on my side for the most part, or at least let everyone know I was not just dogmatically following some prescribed plan that I was dead set on continuing no matter what. People will appreciate your ability to self-reflect and change. They also like being kept informed about what you are doing.

There were 4-5 cases where the parents were pretty strongly set on pulling their child from my classroom. I am happy to say, that after meeting with them personally, not one child ended up being pulled from my class. It’s that communication thing again. Once they saw in person that I had thought this flipped class thing through pretty well, that I was serious about providing the best education possible, and that I had some good arguments in favor of what I was doing, the criticism waned, and at least I was given a chance. Good all around on that, as far as I am concerned.

Second of all, I made a conscious effort to send an email message home at least once a day to a family, giving them an update on how their child was doing. It was easy to find something positive to say on a daily basis and I always sent my message to someone new each time. Most of the time the response was very positive and only in one or two instances did my messages go unacknowledged. It pleased them and it pleased me too. It also pleased the principal and the counseling office (who I cc’d on my messages). Communication, communication, communication.

My Videos, Not Your Videos. There are a lot of really good videos out there designed to provide learners with direct instruction and examples. No matter how good they are, I have yet to see a single one that matches up perfectly with my curriculum, or presents things the way I would do it.  I used a combination of videos made by others, and made by me last year, and since there is not an infinite amount of time available for making videos, I will no doubt do the same this year. However, I hope to shift the balance more toward using my own videos. Word on the street is that kids prefer to see and hear their own teacher when watching instructional videos. So be it.

And another thing. When I made my videos I tried to make them generally usable by anyone else who wanted to use them. In other words, I wanted them to be useful for all math teachers, not just myself. No more. I am not responsible for the mathematics education every kid on Earth—just the ones in my classes. So, my videos will be customized specifically to exactly what I am doing, and to match up exactly with the curriculum material we are using at my school. If someone else finds them useful (I’ll still make them available) super. If not, that’s fine too.

Zero Bad, Missing Okay. Whew, did I stir up a hornet’s nest when I started entering zeros for quiz scores that were way overdue. That has a rather sudden and detrimental effect on one’s grade. Was it a fair thing to do? Maybe. Did it have the desired result (getting the kids to get to work and taking the quizzes)? Sometimes, but not as much I predicted it would. What it mostly did was cause the phones in counseling and the principal’s office to start ringing off the hook. Why it wasn’t MY phone that started ringing  off the hook is a good question, but one that must remain unanswered for now. So, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all (despite the best of intentions).

Execute plan B. Instead of entering zeros, I switched to marking quizzes as LATE after a reasonable time had gone by. The “hey, heads up” message was still successfully sent to anyone who was monitoring grades at home, yet it did not cause any grade-panic to ensue. The phones stopped ringing, the grades were stabilized, the message was sent, and more quizzes started getting done. Cool!

Sit Here, Not There. One of the better things I implemented for my second half comeback was the Intensity Table. The Intensity Table is actually a set of tables at the front of the room where I sit to work one-on-one with learners. I answer questions, provide an explanation or two, go over quizzes—whatever they need. I used to do that sitting at my desk. Wrong! When people (especially 12-13 year-olds) see you sitting at your desk for too long, they interpret that as “doing nothing.” It doesn’t matter that you may be talking to someone at your desk, grading a quiz, or whatever—that’s just the way it looks (sometimes). Besides, when you are at a more open and accessible area that is more a part of the room as a whole, you don’t seem like the high and mighty wizard behind your protective curtain and the class atmosphere just improves. Your are “one of them” in learning instead of it being a case of “you and them.” Do it.

Changes For Flipped Year Two

Are there any new things I will do this year. You bet! Some might work and some might not. But, I’ll be danged if I’ll be prevented from trying something just because “it might not work.” By the way, I highly recommend the book Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend.

Camping In. It’s a minor thing (or maybe it isn’t) but one thing I am going to do this year is carry a small folding camp stool under my arm in class. Sure, I spend a lot of time at the aforementioned Intensity Table, but not ALL my time. I circulate around the room to see what is going on and to check in with everyone at least once per class period. Sometimes I even get called over. In those cases, instead of towering over the table, I will pop open my camp stool and sit right down next to the person or persons who want to talk to me. It’ll put us at the same level, it will be more comfortable for them and me, and it’ll send the message that I am there for as long as it takes to get the job done. Sounds like fun so I sure hope it works.

New Instructional Video Format. I am trying a new video instruction format. My best previous method involved setting an HD flipcam on an overhead boom looking down on a piece of paper to record my writing and talking. In deference to the generally agreed upon better method of having one’s face appear, I have experimented with recording myself working at a black board and using the Camtasia zoom feature to move in on the board as needed to show the details of my work. It will be more like a traditional class lecture and it should personalize it more. We’ll see.

Better Ahead Than Dead. I was always struggling to keep the course plan posted ahead of the fastest learner in class last year. I was hoping that would not be so bad this year since I already had one under my belt. Oops, we changed curriculum so pretty much all of my detailed course planning from last year does not apply. But I really like the new curriculum (Big Ideas) a lot better than the previous one (Connected Mathematics) so I’m not complaining. I hope to get pretty far ahead in the plan before school even starts this year. Should be doable.

Quiz Time (Snicker, Snicker). It was pretty obvious that the average scores on the automatically graded on-line quizzes last year were notably higher than the test scores which were not on-line and required demonstration of a much deeper level of understanding. Why? Oh… lot’s of reasons I can think of, which I am sure you can think of too. Having someone else take the quiz for you? In some cases. Parents checking answers before submission? Possibly. Looking things up on the internet during the quiz? Sure. I do not want to eliminate the ability to take quizzes outside of class though.

How about this? Each quiz will have a time limit of 30 minutes. We are talking middle school math here; it’s just not that hard. If you can’t answer 10-20 questions in that amount of time then you have not learned it well enough.

There will be a two-tiered system. Tier I-A consist of a single attempt and you cannot go in to Tier I-B unless you talk to me about it. After you talk to me, I allow you to go on to Tier I-B  consisting of 4 attempts and your final grade on the Tier I quizzes will be the average of those 4 quizzes (unless you ace Tier I-A, in which case you press on!). Tier II will consist of a single attempt that can be taken after the Tier I is complete. You will get the higher of the two scores from Tier I or II. That ought to slow down the cheating, damper the desire to guess and hope for the best, and encourage actual learning. We’ll see. The goal is LEARNING not passing quizzes. Of course all this will be negotiable on an individual basis.

Back to School Night. How can anyone possibly get to know me and my educational philosophy in 10 minutes? Can’t be done, but that’s is all the time we have for each class at our back to school night. So, instead of explaining my grading policy, why and what the flipped class is, and what the class procedure is, thus leaving approximately 40 seconds for any questions, I’m going to spend five minutes explaining me. I’ll tell about what I like to do, and show the covers of all the books I’ve read over the Summer (I’ve read quite a few). I’ll give a few zippy quotes from respectable heroes that provide some insight into how I think and then I’ll leave a full five minutes for Q & A. That should prove interesting since I’m sure for some in the audience my reputation will have preceded me. See you there!