Sunday, March 25, 2012

Like Minded

I am incredibly lucky that I live with a largely like-minded, innovative educator.  Our conversations about education occur on a daily basis and could likely fill any Edcamp session.  Yet, it's unusual for me to be surrounded by a large number of like minded teachers, who are all interested in using technology to improve instruction in a meaningful way, who recognize that our students aren't the enemy, who want to teach students in a way that will have real learning rather than involving lectures and rote memorization.

Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in EdcampSS, an "unconference" in Philadelphia where Social Studies teachers (as well as a few representatives from other disciplines) me to discuss strategies that were important to all of us.  Interestingly, many of us already "knew" each other from the Twitterverse, and most attendees are involved in the Twitter chat #sschat.

I attended conferences about Teaching History without a Textbook, Flipping the Social Studies Classroom, Using Evernote, Getting Students to Ask Better questions, and Paperless Classroom.  Watching the ways these teachers teach teachers led me to thinking about how awesome it must be to be a student in their classes.  Usually, those teaching PD (even those who are current or former teachers) are so boring, it's hard to think of how students are successful in their classrooms, but these are truly engaging and enthusiastic educators.

In addition to participants creating Google Docs, which can all be seen here,  Teacher Cast streamed sessions from each room, though it doesn't look like all the feeds are available now.  The archive of all the tweets throughout the day can be viewed here.

There was also a Smackdown,  where folks shared resources of all kinds that can help improve a Social Studies classroom and Kenneth C Davis gave the keynote AND ran a quiz show.  I volunteered for the Quiz Show and was more than astonished to get a question correct.  As a prize, he gave all the participants a copy of his new book, signed mine, and shook this geek's hand!

I generally kept quiet, feeling sort of intimidated by so many people I know (and, not so secretly... idolize) from Twitter who are such educator rock stars--c'mon, what can a never-gonna-be-teacher-of-the-year offer any of them?--but was really happy and enthused to engage with these folks in conversations.  It's refreshing to know that THIS is the state of education in this country, or at least, what education can be if we're not afraid to push the envelope and force our students and ourselves to THINK!  It's engaging to know that I'm not only not the wacko I may sometimes seem, but I'm also perhaps not wacko enough in my non-traditional classroom.  I am refreshed.  I am energized.  

I engaged in many, many conversations and am so enthused, my husband and I are figuring out how we can swing an overnight babysitter and a hotel so we can attend EdcampPhilly together.  These kinds of events are incredible for any teacher who is feeling all alone in his/her school or district, any teacher who needs a spark to get out of a rut or feeling stale, any teacher who is excited to share.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reflections on my Flipped Classroom

I have tried the Flipped Classroom for two units this year.  The first attempt can be seen here  and the second can be seen here.

I wanted to try to the Flipped Classroom method for a variety of reasons.  First, I felt it would drive my instruction away from traditional.  I hope to have students engaged in learning about things that were relevant to what I hoped they'd learn but also that excited and interested them.  I wanted my students to think bigger picture than "What do I need to know to do well on the test and move on?"

For my first attempt, I planned A LOT.  I gathered a ton of materials, and centered the lesson on essential questions that my students could tackle but not come to a "right" answer.  I struggled to find other history teachers who were using the flipped classroom to steal ideas I could use.  Of course, making a lecture was no big deal, but what activities could my students do while in class if they were taking on the lecture piece at home?  Simple read and answer questions from the text just wouldn't work.

To me, that's a good thing.  To my students, however, they struggled.  They felt they didn't know what they needed to know.  They felt they didn't get the more social aspect of sitting in a lecture class--when someone else asked a question, it alerted the student to questions he/she didn't know he/she had.

I tried to implement a twitter chat with the students, so they could ask these kinds of questions as they viewed.  Most would not participate (I did not probe, but my suspicion is that some of them see Twitter as nothing but a way to waste time).  I tried to show the students that they could write their questions in their notes to bring them to class, but when I met with them, they rarely seemed to have any questions.  But yet they went to their counselors and expressed these issues.

This resulted in a ... session.  The counselor came to my classroom to facilitate discussion with the students.  One student mentioned a desire to have more class discussion, so we decided to move forward with that, but if other students wanted to work independently, they could.  We'd divide the room.  (more on how this worked later).  Students express their like for flexibility, the ability to get feedback and imprve their work, ability to pause and rewind podcasts, working on own pace.  They also expressed that they don't have the time to ask questions and that they like learning in a more social setting, a belief that learning from textbooks helps them learn in a more orderly fashion, and a feeling that the traditional method works so why mess with it.

I felt good about the positives and very bad about the negatives.  I was very happy that the session seemed to be a productive one rather than a "you are a terrible teacher, I hate you and I hate this class" session.  I turned to a more traditional instruction for my next unit, but also started thinking about my next flip unit.  I was (and still am) bummed that the students expressed their concerns to the counselor without ever coming to me about it, despite my many requests for feedback on the way things were going.  I thought there were a lot of benefits, like the day a debate started between two students about the rights and wrongs of imperialism.  It was incredible!  They, however, felt that this debate didn't help them achieve the goals of the class because it wasn't coming from a "reliable" source like me or their book.  I had a student who was very interested in the impact of yellow journalism who also felt that without my direct oversight, she was not learning the "right" things.

Overwhelmed at this point and unsure of how to assess this whole mess, I found this (incredible) project from the talented Diana Laufenberg, focused it on theme of imperialism, and had students begin.  It was a mistake to start this after the bulk of the learning had occurred, which got me behind where I'd have rather been, but that's minor and easily solved.. next time, I'll introduce it earlier so students can be looking for ideas while they learn and begin investigating connections.  Otherwise, though, I think this was a much better way to assess this first jump into the flipped classroom because students didn't feel "on the hook" in the way they would had I given them a traditional test.

My second venture into the flipped classroom went both better and worse, but my takeaways from the first experience are many.  First, students rely heavily on being told what they need to know.  In addition to that, they are not trained to want to learn more, or perhaps by the process of becoming more educated, much of their natural curiosity has been squashed.  All this makes me wonder how many kids get burned by teachers in one way or another.  I also wonder how colleges are balancing traditional and newer methods, how they're bridging a more traditional based high school experience with the realities of the workplace's demands.  I also realized that due dates were a problem, and so created a shared Google Doc so that students could see each assignment for which they were responsible (in the first try, I posted them as assignments on the blog, and they were easily buried if a student wasn't paying close enough attention).  I liked the experience of giving feedback and another chance for students to improve their work; it not only gave students the opportunity to improve their grade if desired (and some figured one or two points wasn't really worth a re-do), but it gave me a chance to really figure out what I wanted them to get from the assignments and made the assignments meaningful.  I have to figure out a better way to manage student work, though, because trying to give them immediate feedback has really detracted from the amount of time I have to work individually with them.  I also need to figure out in class activities that aren't always reading or always writing.

This turned out to be a really long post on the successes and failures of my first attempt at the flipped classroom, and it certainly isn't complete.  I'm still encouraged by the obvious benefits of the flipped classroom, though I am frustrated at how poorly I feel my implementation usually has gone.

Monday, March 5, 2012


In addition to be a place for reflection on my teaching, it's also a place to share new things I've learned or used.  One of these tools is Prezi.  When my husband first introduced me to Prezi, my response (like many of my students') was, "What's wrong with Powerpoint?"

Of course, you're familiar with Powerpoint.  It's easy.  You know how to use it.  If you work really really hard at it, you can make it sort of interesting.  But you know that it's easy.

You also know that most Powerpoint presentations through which you've sat have been boring.  Some may even have been drool worthy--the kind that brings you to fall asleep and drool all over yourself--because the presenter outlined some text and brought nothing of him/herself to the presentation.  In fact, you realized you didn't even need the presenter because everything was right there in the text for you.

I recently introduced Prezi to a group of students.  Some of them made the attempt, and complained about it. It's hard.  It's not as easy to figure out as Powerpoint.

But, look, they said.  I can be creative... look at this cool design I made!  Wow, I can work on the same presentation from a different computer or even at home!  This is really cool!

For whatever reason, those students who attempted Prezi generally brought more of their own understanding of the concept than their Powerpoint selecting peers in this group.  By their presentation, it was clear that they knew what they were talking about, rather than using the words of their source, which they'd outlined and then read directly from their Powerpoint.

As far as figuring out how to use Prezi, they have lots of tutorials to get you started.

Students can be as creative (or not) as they wish, but you'll discover that their presentations are that much more dynamic.  They have to plan in ways they do not in Powerpoint.  They can bring colors and videos in ways Powerpoint does not allow.

Plus they can collaborate.  And collaboration is awesome.