Thursday, April 21, 2016

Perceptions of International High School Students Regarding Flipped Classroom Strategies in the Humanities Classroom

That was the title of my Master's thesis, a 41-page undertaking which I put the final touches on, and sent off earlier today.

This project represents the culmination of almost three years of studies, and I really cannot think of a better way to have ended my Master's program.

I had been interested in learning more about flipped classroom strategies for a couple years, and this project gave me a reason to commit, and invest both time and energy into using them in my own classroom.

I should explain up front that flipped classroom strategies refer to the shifting of content and information from inside the classroom to outside the classroom, instead favoring higher-level thinking activities (discussions, debates, simulations, workshops, etc) during class-time.  Thus, the sort of application and discovery tasks traditionally assigned as homework become the "meat" of time in class, while the lecture and information acquisition that previously dominated class-time instead become homework.  I chose to do this primarily through the use of short lecture videos, in order to shift historical content outside of my classroom as much as possible.

My Humanities class served as the testing ground for this study, and the students were very helpful in providing their feedback.  I spoke to each student in the class briefly about the use of flipped strategies, and conducted in-depth interviews with six students.

Students were almost universally positive about the use of lecture videos.
Here are some of the reasons why:
1) The videos allowed for a greater degree of flexibility than classroom lecture.  Students appreciated the ability to choose when to take in content rather than having that dictated by the teacher in class.
2) Having access to lectures in video form meant that students could re-watch if they needed to.  For instance, most students re-watched the lecture videos I had posted about the time leading up to the Civil War while working on their Document Based Question (DBQ) essay on the causes of the Civil War.
3) 90% of the class cited the transcripts that I posted along with the videos as being very helpful.  Students in need of English language support said that it helped them to understand the videos more clearly than they would have understood a classroom lecture.  Other students said that the transcript helped when they needed to re-visit the video, to find a particular section to re-watch.
4) Most of the students felt that the videos were the right length, each clocking in at somewhere between 2 minutes and 5 and a half minutes.
5) Several students expressed appreciation for the fact that the videos helped them to better understand discussions and activities we did in class.
6) Students never felt that lecture or details were the point of my class--there was always a bigger picture we were aiming for.

All this being said, there are still bugs to be worked out: I would like to find more resources to offer students, so that lecture videos are not their only option, and I would like to help students feel comfortable accessing further background information on their own (and even, have a desire to access further background information on their own).  I would also like to make my videos less dry and more creative and engaging than a talking head.

Still, the feedback I collected was affirming that this tool has tremendous potential in my classroom, and I hope that my positive experience with flipped strategies will encourage colleagues and other readers to consider how they might use flipped strategies in their own classrooms as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

To Any and All Teacher Education Students

Imagine this:
You are a college senior just about to finish the teaching program at your university.  You have spent the last four years studying educational psychology, curriculum & instruction, assessment practices, pedagogy in your subject area, and much, much more.  No doubt, you have also completed a couple short-term practica in which you may have been a fly-on-the-wall or even a temporary T.A. in another teacher's classroom.

Perhaps you were even able to teach a lesson or two of your own before you started your official student teaching placement in your Senior year.

What lies before you now is a choice, and--it turns out--an important choice, at that:

Will you try to find a teaching job right after you graduate?
Or, will you go straight into a Master's program?

I can certainly understand the appeal of pursuing a Master's right away--after all, you have been a student for the past 16 years of your life and momentum is on your side!  All of the theory you've accumulated over the past several years of education courses is still fresh in your mind, and wouldn't it be better to have as much preparation as possible before that dreaded first year of teaching?  And anyway, you'll have to get a Master's sooner or later, so you might as well just get it over with, right?

But what if your choice made a big difference to your long-term growth as both a teacher and learner?  What if "sooner" was not the proactive, forward-thinking choice we often believe it to be? What if "getting it over with" was the wrong mentality entirely?

The truth is, the first year of teaching will be painful no matter how much you prepare.  You will forget what you learned in your education classes, and sometimes you'll forget a lot.  You will do things that you know are not best practice in the name of making it through the day.  You will not be able to keep a smile on your face and a spring in your step every minute of every day.  You might not ever snap and lose your temper (Confession: I did), but a time will come when your students will observe that "you're not as nice [or fun, or energetic, or <positive quality>] as you were at the start of the year." You'll have moments where you will feel overwhelmed, exhausted and quite possibly, even questioning your decision to be a teacher....

...and you'll learn more in that one year of struggle than you learned in all of your education courses combined.  Through trial and error, a constant cycle of forgetting and recovering, theories will turn into realities before your eyes.  You will develop your "voice" as a teacher.  Your daily and hourly failures to be the best you can be will drive you ceaselessly back to the drawing board, and each time you will come up with something better, something stronger.

Your second year will feel like a new pair of running shoes and the breeze at your back: you'll be able to run further and jump higher than you could the year before, and things that were challenging to you in your first year will seem like second-nature in year two.

On and on it will go, each year bringing you closer to becoming the teacher you want to be, and then...'ll reach a point where you can't improve on your own.  It'll feel like hitting a wall, and it might be painful, or frustrating, or simply perplexing.  You'll encounter an issue in your teaching that you cannot find an obvious solution to, and you will want to learn more about teaching.

No, "want" is too weak a word--you will crave a deeper understanding of teaching.  You will be hungry for growth, eager to dig deep into the theory and philosophy that had so easily escaped you in your first year of teaching, to soak up best practice and make it your practice. 

It will be a desire based not on convenience or momentum, not on "getting it over with", but rather on need.  

That is the right time to pursue your Master's--not sooner, and certainly not later (if you hit a wall and have no desire to find a way over it, teaching is not for you).  

Pursuing your Master's under these conditions will be a richly rewarding experience: you'll have spent enough hours in the classroom to know your own strengths and weaknesses as an educator; you'll be in a better position to ask questions and research what is most important to your situation; you'll have an abundant supply of concrete examples to give real grounding to the philosophies and theories you will study.  If you happen to find a program that allows you to teach and study simultaneously, you'll also have a built-in lab in which you are able to try new things that you are studying, and consequently, you will have real-time experiences to discuss and reflect on in your coursework.  Perhaps of chief importance, you will learn what it means to be a lifelong learner at the time that you need that mindset and skill-set the most.

Poet Wendell Berry wrote, 
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Being baffled is an uncomfortable feeling, as is the helpless feeling of not knowing where to go or what to do.  Yet it is these feelings that ensure that we will be learners for life and not simply learners until our 20s.  

So if you're facing the choice between teaching or marching straight into your Master's, the decision should be simple: teach first.  

Teach long enough to forge an identity as a teacher, and then long enough beyond that to find yourself truly "baffled".  

Then, famished, come and enjoy the feast that further education offers.

As educators who desire for our students to become lifelong learners themselves, what could be better?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Learning Flexibility

For years, I was spoiled: I taught the same students for English 11 and U.S. History in back-to-back class periods.

This enabled me to teach those subjects as a single, blended Humanities block.  The bell would ring at the end of 3rd period, but the students would stay, and we would continue whatever activity we happened to be doing.

Among other things, this arrangement allowed me to design and fine-tune several classroom simulations intended to take up the full 90+ minutes of class-time.

Unfortunately, this arrangement also had significant ramifications for when other subjects could or couldn't be scheduled, and as CAJ has expanded its science and language offerings in recent years, it became necessary this year to break up the Humanities block in order to allow for more scheduling flexibility.

My 2015-16 Humanities class meets 3rd period and 5th period.  The bell rings at the end of 3rd period and the students go away to their 4th period classes.  They return 50 minutes later for 5th period, and we resume our Humanities lesson.

In some ways, this has helped me think through how I use my two periods of class-time more consciously.  Being able to march straight through the bell was nice, but I'd be the first to admit I'm not great at holding to an organized schedule, and sometimes often-times, time would get away from me, the result being that I would have to scrap or push back some other activity I'd planned for the day.

I've actually found a fairly nice equilibrium this year in which 3rd period tends to be more structured and guided, often involving the whole class together examining or discussing some topic, and 5th period tends to be independent work-time for a bigger class assignment.

The greatest challenge has been making my simulations work with this new schedule.

I watched two simulations that I had spent hours designing start strong during 3rd period, but then fizzle when students came back for 5th period.  I'd designed these simulations with an uninterrupted 90 minutes in mind and all of the momentum the students had built up 3rd period would have completely evaporated when they came back 5th period.

It was frustrating and disappointing to see activities that I'd spent so much time and care creating falling flat due to circumstances beyond my control....

...until I realized that circumstances were not beyond my control.

For our final simulation of the school-year, on the decision to drop the atomic bomb, I decided to tweak the format to fit a split-period model.

The original simulation had called for 55 minutes of research and about 40 minutes of discussion, with the actual vote happening on the next day of class.

This year, I shortened the research time to one class period--roughly 45 minutes, factoring in my short introduction to the simulation.  The discussion would start after students came back for 5th period, and would last only 30 minutes.  10 minutes would be set aside for closing arguments and the vote would happen in the last 5 minutes of class.

While this meant shortening each component of the simulation more than I would have liked, I decided that it would be best to leave the students wanting more, rather than less.

The adjustments worked.  Students researched and collaborated diligently in their teams during 3rd period.  It was not a lot of time, but they used it well to put together the arguments and evidence they would need during the 5th period discussions.  The teams met in separate locations outside of the classroom so that they would not be tempted to start the debate too early or talk to any of their indeterminate classmates before they were supposed to.

Then, when the students came back 5th period, they were able to build fresh momentum in the discussion portion of the simulation.  It wasn't as though they needed to try and get back into character, or find their place, as they had in the previous two simulations that had not gone so well--it was a new phase of the simulation entirely, so the students merely needed to apply their research.  Plus, with only 30 minutes, the students could not afford to waste a moment: they launched right in, and the entire half-hour was filled with heated conversations, the indeterminates asking probing, thoughtful questions and the teams trying to provide the best possible answers.  The closing statements felt poignant, and voting on the same day actually gave the whole simulation a better sense of urgency.

The lesson I've learned in all of this is the importance of flexibility.  It is tempting to blame external factors such as scheduling when an activity does not work the way I had hoped it would, but the most constructive response is to ask what I can change to make the activity work.

This is a lesson I will not soon forget!

Representatives from the "Drop" and "Don't Drop" teams try
to convince indeterminate classmates to vote their way.