Monday, February 27, 2012

Class Size

Today was a Monday, that's for sure.

Actually, my first block class went pretty well...took a SBG assessment, did pretty well, those that were ready and took it, the rest will take tomorrow, briefly reviewed the video stuff on orbital notation, that seemed to go well also, kids working at different paces, the way I want it to go.

My AP is not being I won't mention them other than the, wow, if I was this unfocused in school in my AP classes, I am soooo sorry.

But my last last class.  This class is Honors Chem I and they are a bunch of pretty good kids.  One of the things that happens a lot in my school though is that a lot of our honors kids have some good brains but aren't very used to using them.  Since they can coast by in most of their classes, they aren't used to having to really apply themselves, and just like when I start up running again after a 5 year hiatus, it takes time to stretch out those muscles.  That is killer hard, both for them to learn and for me to be patient with.

What makes it a little more challenging for me is that I have a larger than normal class for our school.  One way that we are blessed is that overall our class sizes are pretty small, especially in the lower two grades. I generally have around 25 or so students on my roster in a normal class.  In this one though I have 30, and one  constant that I've always noticed is that all of my honors kids have tended to be a bit more chatty than others. Couple that with the newness to them of flip and of SBG, they are struggling and I am struggling with their struggles....

S:  "Mr. A, I didn't watch the video last night, can you come show me how to do this?"

Me: "Ok, did you read over the note packet?"

S: "No"

Me: "your partner seems to know what's up, did you ask them?"

S:  "They don't want to help..."

S2 (the partner): "I tried...she doesn't want me to help"

And so on...I want to help, that's what I do, what I'm there for, what makes having a real teacher different than just watching videos and such.  But me a third of the way.  When your honors kids don't want to plug into an equation with n trickeration, that's frustrating...for both of us.

I was tempted on the way home to just scrap flip for this class, stick with SBG and switch back to my normal DI lecturing, at least for a week.  But then I thought, if I really believe in the flip, which I do, why would I switch to what I feel is an inferior pedagogical model?  To prove a point?  We already know that they hate lecture in general....

Part of the problem of course is that I feel I've been falling a little apart in my planning, so the ones that really want to zoom ahead, I'm not fully prepared for.  So I spent extra time this weekend in between starcraft viewing to really flesh out more fully this weeks plans.

And then on the way home I get an email that says my team will be out of the building all day Friday for the hot new model of thinking we are doing next year.


Okay, I can do it...

Anyone out there with ideas on how to make flip flow smoother sometimes, send my way, I'm going to try out some new stuff, but always love to hear what others are doing!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Affirmation and Questioning Oneself

So we're a third of the way through the semester.  I had my last evaluation of the year last week and while I'm never one to worry a ton about them, this time was a little different.  This was my first real, fully flipped classroom evaluation.  I had two evals last semester, but I was in that weird in the middle part where I was making the videos and wasn't fully flipped yet.

I actually didn't think the evaluation went that well, and even after the post, I can think of a thousand things I should have done better.  But you know what, it didn't matter that much because while I was discussing it all with my principal she brought up how the classroom was truly student centered, how they spontaneously helped each other, how they knew what to do and that I barely addressed the class as a whole, instead was working with individuals or small groups.

The response in my head was "Yes! It works...."

I'll be honest, I'm still questioning the flip model a bit in my head each day.  I think that's because it is so much work on me and with sick kids and wife at home, it is hard to focus at night on putting the energy and time required into getting everything done for all of the demos and activities that I want to do.  I'm still not there yet, that's for sure.  I've had particular wonders about my honors class, which is a good class, but I can tell that they would much rather I just stood up there and lectured, gave them work and graded it.  I've done that for a long time and am pretty good at that as far as it goes, it would work.

But "it will work" is not really the mantra of trying to improve my classroom. Lots of things "work" but don't really, or just serve to gloss over a lot of stuff.  As I look back on my career so far, it's not that I think I've been a bad teacher, just that wow...I could have been so much better.

I think that's what I'm looking to pull out of the kids too.  In my Honors class in particular, they can all do the work and get "works" for them in that way.  But I really don't just want them to get by, to just work...I want them to learn, to grow, all of that pollyanna crap that I can barely believe I'm even typing, but that's really what I want.

I was sitting in a room of teachers in a leadership meeting a couple of years ago and we were doing some activity where we were writing down why we were in teaching or something like that.  My answer was that I didn't want to change the world, that I wanted to make a ripple, to have my kids make ripples too.  I got pretty roundly ridiculed for that, probably because I'm a pretty prickly sarcastic dude and they thought I was full of feces.

But it's true....and I think I've been making ripples before, but I feel that the stones I'm throwing in the pond now with the new way of doing things have a lot more heft, and hopefully, create bigger ripples.

So I'll stick with it...I've been pretty adamant about not slipping into my old model from last semester of showing the vodcasts collectively to the class during class time...I'm still sticking to the SBG thing even though I'd really like to shell out some points for other things.  But I think in this discomfort is growth for me and hopefully for the kids as they are uncomfortable at times too, not always knowing the correct answer, but hopefully starting to think a little more.  I'd hate to get to the end of the term and wonder what if I had stuck it out.

And yes, that little boost from administration, just showing that they like what is going on and will be willing to back you when stuff gets nuts, that is needed as well!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Microwave Changes

Something I've found very hard over the past few years in education is the speed at which changes are supposed to take place, speed demanded by administration or ourselves.

  Last school year we had a couple of days of PBL training and were then supposed to incorporate it into our semesters that very term, meaning that a week or two before school, bang, make the switch to a totally new pedagogical technique that will take up somewhere around a sixth to a third of your term. The examples were minimal at best, those of us presenting it were hardly briefed on it before being expected to teach it.  Then those of us who were responsible for teaching it with no prior PD to train us were then expected to show up at department meetings and "check in" on PBL progress.

Last semester when I decided to start flipping my class, I canned most of the first unit before school started.  That was nowhere near enough.  As we reached the 2nd unit, I realized that I just didn't have the time to make the videos far enough ahead to burn the DVDs and such.  That being the case I did a weird deal where I showed the videos in class, like watching myself lecture and explain from outside of myself.  Very odd, and of course it wasn't as effective as I would have hoped.  I beat myself up for it pretty severely.

The issue was that I decided to make a change and put some planning into and expected it to be done and good to go.  I've done sort of the same thing this semester with google docs and SBG.  The problem is that even the best changes in the way we teach take time.  If Sams and Bergmann took a few years to perfect their version of the flip class, why do I think I'm going to be a guru in a semester or two?

One of the things that drives me that way is that you see posts and tweets from people who seem to have made changes and bang, results the next week, scores and learning soaring.  A lot of those same teachers promote their ideas like they are simple changes that can be done by a simple mindshift after reading a post or watching a video.  It does not work that way, any more than teaching in the classroom does.

I'm competitive, which I know is anathema to a lot of the modern education movement, but that's who I am.  I want to be the best, I want to have all of the answers right now.  And when I don't, I'm aggravated and defensive.  Last semester I was asked to present on the flip class idea and I was so upset at where I was with it, I demurred, probably rightfully so.

All of this came to the surface a bit more for me because at the school I'm at, drastic changes happen almost every year.  Just last week we became a magnet and this whole new way of teaching that is supposed to be the new default for every teacher in my school within a school was presented.  I have faith that we'll have some PD on how to do it, but decide in what seems like a couple of weeks that all of the teachers involved will suddenly adopt a new pedagogical plan seems quick to me.  

Maybe our microwaves need a new button next to the popcorn one called "instant pedagogical change"...

I'm willing to change, I pull new stuff in every year and this year of course I've thrown it all out and started from scratch.  Of course I think I'm a lot more willing to put the time and effort in when it is bottom up, meaning that the ideas are teacher spawned rather than admin spawned.  No doubt I'd feel the other way if the shoe were on the other foot.

A word to all teachers out there trying to change things up, and to admins wanting to make big changes, give yourselves and the teachers time to work it out, don't expect it all to be done and mastered in a semester or a year.  Kids minds don't learn in the microwave model, and neither do educators.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Getting Over It

There are several significant adjustments that I've had to make in my own mindset to do the flipped class.  As I noted early, one of those is having a lot more to do every day.  I can't skate by on my old lecture notes and personality (which my peers will laugh at!).

One of the first things that is tough to deal with is the feeling that I'm not "teaching".  The actual content is delivered via video for the most part, with a few minutes of review at the beginning of each class period (or more as needed).  Students are then engaged in an activity, working on problems in groups, making videos, etc.  While all of this is going on, I'm circulating around the room, helping groups, offering advice as needed, asking questions to see if they really know what it is that they are doing.  Some days it feels like I should be doing more to directly deliver content.

The reality of course is that I'm delivering content in a much more effective way.  One could argue that it is not as efficient because instead of standing in front of 30 students and answering questions, working problems and lecturing, I'm working with small groups of 2-4 students doing some of the same things.  Sometimes I end up working the same problem multiple times.  That makes me want to get up and work it for the whole class, which I do occasionally.  But a lot of times, I just push each group through the problem in their own way.  And that is the thing with the method of me sitting down with them in a small group.  I'm not working the problem...I'm asking pointed questions, and in a very small group they can't really hide in the way that they would in the whole class setting.

You know how it is, you ask the whole class a question while you are explaining a problem and the same 4 kids respond, or they respond corporately and you can't really tell who knows.  There are ways around this, yes, like popsicle sticks and random student methods, but still, you get a couple of responses each time.  With the way I'm doing it now, I am trying my best to stick to my mantra of every student, every day.  I am not at the point of giving individualized problems to work on, but I think I am going to try some of that out later in the semester as it is definitely the best model I think.

The other big issue is that my classroom is often chaotic.  We are now at the point in the year where some of my students are starting to break away from the pack a little bit, working a day or two ahead.  So that means that I might have students watching videos to get ahead, some working on an activity from 2 days before and some working on "that day's" assignment.  I so wish I had the ability to do more lab stuff in class as well, which I'm headed towards once my demo table gets in.  That of course will only add to the chaos.  

I'm ok with the chaos, it is often integral to learning, and certainly necessary to most student centered learning.  But not everyone likes it.  I'm pretty fortunate that I have administrators who are not only comfortable with kids not being in seats, but encouraging of it.  All it takes is one admin change to foil that though.  Also plays havoc with the planning part of our new and complicated evaluation system.

All in all, I'm learning to deal with it, making the adjustment with as much grace as a chubby, bald, middle aged guy can muster.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tear down this wall

So we received some exciting news this past week at school, which is that my school within a school is going to be one of the few county magnet programs, in our case, for Communications.  A lot of thoughts about that, and about my school in general, but let me focus in on one thing tonight.

Along with becoming a magnet comes some pretty cool news that at some point next year we'll be 1:1 in the School of Communications.  Since I'm flipping, using google forms assessments, having students make videos and tutorials on Explain Everything, etc, that is pretty good news.  In fact, one would think that I would have jumped up at the announcement.  And honestly, I am fairly excited about it.  But I have a bit of trepidation as well.

First off, let me just say that even though I teach in an urban school, we have a ton of technology.  We won a huge grant a couple of years ago, and since then have installed I think somewhere around 6 new computer labs in our school.  Wifi went up in the whole building this year.  Every room has a smartboard and projector.   There is an ipad lab in our media center.

We are truly blessed at our school, and having taught in a school where my computer lab was all of 6 computers, I know what a blessing it is.


  • The iPad lab is officially speaking, to be used in the library only.  The thin portable tablets meant to be carried around are in one place, essentially anchored.
  • Even though I like to think I'm one of the more tech savvy teachers, I had no working computer outside of my ipad for over a month last semester.  The IT guys had replaced parts in my computer no fewer than 4 times, and yet it would not even run 20 minutes without rebooting itself spontaneously.
  • My new computer by the way, won't play video through the projector...which is a bit of a problem since I spent a significant amount of time creating my 60 or so videos last term.
  • I said I used my ipad at the end of last term, which I did...with a connector cable that I purchased on my own.
  • The iPad lab only recently actually got useful apps on it....6 months or so after we got the devices...and about 2 months before the next iPad iteration comes out.
  • At the height of my frustration last term I noted that right across the hall from me was the room that is to be our next computer lab, stacked with Dell boxes for that new computer lab...that have been there for months waiting for furniture.
  • Officially, I can't use my personal iPad on the school wireless...which begs the question of what it is actually there for...
I actually have more, but I should sleep at some point.   Let me be perfectly clear, this is not the fault of our Tech coordinator (@techcoor on twitter) who is one of the kindest, most solicitous people on the planet.  And really, it's not even my biggest complaint, because most of that is about me and my tech issues.

So let's get to where the rubber meets the road, the kids...

All social media is blocked...why?  I have 60 videos on youtube, educational videos that are essentially their first go to part of the curriculum.  Oh yeah, put them on the slow frankenstein school website...done...I'm a team player.  Guess what, even though one of the 3 formats I made them in is especially for iOS, they can't be watched at school on the ipads, because the school website converts them to flash... Even youtube/edu is blocked on most of the computers.

So you know what my kids do instead...they pull out their phones and watch them on youtube.  So do I when I need to use something.

I went to a meeting a year ago where the IT department folks and science folks were tauting the benefits of Skype in the classroom, and then proceeded to explain the forms in triplicate and weeks notice we would need to use them...

A few of the teachers use twitter to do connect with students or parents...but of course the only way the kids can access it is on their phones.  They can't use the school computers, which becomes a real problem for those students who don't have internet at home...

We have this crazy new evaluation system in Tennessee this school year, that we actually piloted at our school last year.  I'm ok with it since I'm an arrogant jerk anyway, but a lot of folks are nervous.  One of the biggest focuses is on grouping, creating, thinking in teams, showing knowledge in ways other than tests.  I'm actually down with this, I think it is a good idea.  Teh new hawtness in edubabble is that of 21st Century skills... but what good does that do if the system is walled?

We're in the middle kingdom, trying to peer over the wall into the celestial kingdom.

I understand fully that there are privacy concerns and laws out there that require filters...I just think they are mostly ill-informed and crazy in some ways.

Here's what I it your teachers to moderate.  Even better, expect your teachers to help teach proper ways to use these things.  Are kids occasionally going to watch something on youtube that they shouldn't?  Absolutely...and when I see that, which I will, because I moderate my room, I'll stop it.  Will fights get arranged through twitter?  Probably...someone could get stabbed with a pencil, do we ban those too? (thanks #pencilchat !)

You want me to have my kids create, innovate, be prepared as much as possible for the 21st century, fine...I'm all for that...I want to be on the bleeding edge of that stuff.  I'm prepared to be the guy taking the hits to pass my knowledge of what doesn't work to others.  I have no problem with stuff going wonky as the students and I figure it out.  

But I can't...we're stuck on the wrong side of the Brandenburg gate, able to see what is over on the other side, but kept back, because the stuff over there is dangerous and we can't be trusted with it...

Tear down this wall...

Monday, February 6, 2012

When you're not there

In one of my first posts, I mentioned that it was a great idea to have videos made even if you aren't flipping, particularly for students that are out.  I definitely have a lot of those, especially in my first and last block classes (funny how that happens).

Friday I was reminded that it is sometimes good for you to have the videos for the days that you are out as well. There was a pukeocalypse at my house last Thursday night, so I unexpectedly had to be out Friday.  I don't like to give assessments when I'm not there...just too much temptation for the kids.  But since I'd been out the previous week with another pukey son, my normal reading assignments were burned up. One unit done, the next not started.

The vodcasts definitely helped here.  There were a lot of technical issues because of my crappy school computer, but my last block class got into the computer lab, watched the videos and about half of them completed the first practice set for moles.  I thought that was awesome because we'd only had a very cursory glance at moles before, of the variety of "moles are one of our bases"  and that was it.  Also showed me that the idea of watching the videos to get some baseline information is really catching on with the students.  I think next year/semester I will move to more inquiry before the videos, but so far, it has been going well.  Still have a lot to do for many of the students, but as a lot of us long time teachers know, the fact that my students really did productive, standards related new work without me there was a big step.  Not having a wasted day, especially in a block schedule is a big load off of my shoulders.

One time last semester when I was out my dean said she walked past my room and heard my voice and was creeped out because she knew I was out.  Two of my favorite things, creeping people out and learning, all in one class period without my actual presence.

While I'm giving compliments to my classes, my AP class, who are not flipped, but who are guinea pigs for other new things not only worked out their equilibrium problems without me there, but had them up on all of the boards in beautiful color with comments.  That's what a teacher needs to see after a puke festival.  Then today they dove into their Explain Everything videos with fervor, really getting into it, individually this time since the last time was in groups.  I'll have to do a post just on EE, but suffice it to say I think that it could be transformative in a number of ways, white boarding squared (or cubed even).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Just Stop

For a dude with a grand total of 100 or so tweets, I blew it up today for about 20 seconds.  As I mentioned in my tweets, I learn a lot from twitter every day.  I've only been using twitter for about a year or less and most of the time I've been what my gamer self would call a lurker, meaning that I've read just about everything but rarely contributed.  I'm still that way for the most part.  There are folks out there with some immense knowledge and who obvious surf the web like I did in my pre-child days.

And I am hardly an follower of a lot of people.  I think I follow 50 or so people at the moment, though I've been adding pretty well lately.  Most of these are folks involved in flipped classrooms and other folks I've found through following them.  There are a lot of supportive people, willing to be innovators with boldness, which is awesome, and I suspect is happening a lot in a lot of places.  I follow a lot of hashtags too, #edchat, #flipclass, #edtech, etc, etc...

Today, the negativity, wow...

I have a quote on the wall of my classroom that says you don't help the weak by tearing the down the strong. (paraphrase).  My own personal mantra now for education is that you don't make your own system work by tearing down the system of others.

There are thousands of good, quality educators out there who are very lecture centric, who give homework, tests, quizzes, etc much like teachers for the past few decades.  And though this may come as a surprise to some, they are effective at it, they get results, students learn and are inspired.  Let me share my own anecdote.

I didn't think I was going to college at all in school because of the cost.  When it turned out that I was going to go, I had to start at community college.  Community colleges get derided all the time for being "grade 13" or super high school, and I think there is some degree of truth in that.  But easily the most influential person on my teaching career was a teacher there.  Ed Cameron taught Chemistry and History there, and you may think that is the oddest combination ever.  Probably is.

Mr. Cameron got up in front of us the first day of Intro to Chemistry (baby chem as he called it) and told us we were responsible for everything he talked about, everything in the book and whatever else he felt needed to be tested.  He never did a single demo that I recall, he lectured every day of class, quizzing us as he went, gave brutal tests, poked gentle fun at us and just generally seemed to love his job.

I took six classes from that man...4 in chemistry and 2 in history.  I spent a year as his lab assistant, during which he always referred to me as Anthrax.
My two undergraduate degrees are in Chemistry and History...

I know what the naysayers will cry out...but you were one kid, what about all of the others.  I don't know...all I know is that his effect on my life is immeasurable.  Every day I hope I inspire some student like he inspired me.

So what does that have to do with people denigrating others on twitter?  Most of us agree that students learn in different ways...But instead of extrapolating this to say that effective teaching can happen in a number of ways, we focus on our own favorite hobbyhorse and assume it is "the best".  That on its own is ok, if you don't believe in the way you teach, change it.

What is not ok, and leads to the dark side, is the idea that your way is the "only" way.  A lot of folks who want to attack certain religions as exclusionary are just as apt, if not more so, to excommunicate other educators for what they see as heresy.

You believe strongly in inquiry based methods, PBL, game-based learning?  Awesome! I like a lot of stuff there too and am trying out a lot of that stuff.  But it isn't the only way.  Whiteboarding isn't a religion...or shouldn't be.  Salman Khan isn't the devil just because you think it is just lecture repackaged.

Lecture isn't the devil either....

I don't use Khan Academy stuff, but I can see the appeal.  Do I think it replaces teachers? No, any more than I think I don't need to teach my classes because I make videos.  Do we doubt that a lot of students learn a lot from Khan Academy?  I for one don't.  I don't think it is a silver bullet or a panacea, but if it helps some, great.

Yes, the goal is critical thinkers, students who can think on their feet and problem solve, not just regurgitate information or solve the problem the same way they saw someone else solve it, I agree.  But how does tearing down someone else's method help?

I see people on twitter raging about things and often quoting research that shows it isn't much more effective than something else.  Where is their research showing the be all end all effectiveness of their way?  Isn't there...

This post will end here because I've probably gone on too long, but the next time you want to tweet about how stupid, ineffective or inefficient another teacher's method are, ask yourself where your own motives are, and if you are the ultimate fount of wisdom.  If you really think they are deluded or harmful, enter into a dialogue, don't stand in the town square (twitter) and rail against them...democratic education is what most of us want, not demagogic.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


The best part of flipping my classroom this semester, and to a lesser part last term, is the amount of time freed up.  I know that a lot of folks will decry the fact that I spent 10 years teaching chemistry in a largely lecture-centric fashion.  Honestly, that wasn't the problem in my mind...I was a good lecturer, I think a few hundred kids would attest to that.

The problem though was the real lack of time.  To walk students through a lecture, letting them take notes, ask questions, etc, tended to eat up anywhere from half to 3/4 of every class, with the rest of the time devoted to sort of starting homework in class, or maybe, just maybe, a demo or fun activity.  I know, sounds terrible.  I'd be embarrassed if I thought I was really robbing the kids, or felt I didn't help them learn chemistry that way.  Wasn't the best way, but it worked to some degree.

But in switching to flip, wow...I have a lot of time,every day.  I mean a lot of time.  When you go from 2-3 demos/ labs/ hands on per week to 5-6, it takes a lot of time.  The fact of the matter is that after 10 years, the lectures are largely done, my slides are prepped, etc.  This year, I don't even use them.  Instead, that amazing amount of time goes into my kids getting their hands dirty or wet more likely, doing real chemistry, exploring in ways that my old methods didn't allow us.

Sounds awesome right...?  And it is....but...

You can't take a day off, you have to be super prepped every single day.  Of course all teachers know how key prepping is, but at the same time, any veteran teacher knows that you have off days, where what you have planned isn't enough, where you are at a weird point of finishing a section, but not really enough time to start the next.  Or in my current case, where you did demos, labs, and activities all week, and one night you were just tapped out.

That was so last night for me.  I came home, set my backpack down, cooked dinner, read to my kids and then vegged out in front of the computer and read for a while.  I probably shouldn't feel guilty for taking an hour or so for myself, and I really don't. but wow, it hurt today.

My wife texted me in the middle of the school day today to ask how it was going, and I said that I felt like a lousy teacher.  We did work, the kids learned, I helped a lot of them, but wow, it just wasn't clicking today.

While that hurts, and makes me feel like a slacker, I have to realize that you can't run a breakneck, sleep 4 hours a night, work 16 hours a day pace for a whole year or semester.  It just runs you down, then you get to the point where you get snippy with the kids, little things at the school start to drive you insane and you start think about going back to be a quality control chemist in industry again.  Or maybe that's just me.  It's happened to me before.  Really this whole week was rough, though I think the kids enjoyed it and learned from it.  When we reviewed our kinetic theory activity from yesterday and they all knew what had happened, that gas particles were formed and traveled by constant random motion to react with the BTB, it was worth it.

But I'm still beat.  So I'll consider my 2 hours of work from home tonight enough and look forward to review and assessments tomorrow.  And maybe some fun too...for me and the kiddos!