Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Changes

So I sent out a tweet to my #flipclass folks last night asking if doing flipclass has caused some major changes in the way they teach.  I sort of meant it especially for folks who have been teaching longer than 5 or so years, not because I think the opinions of those with less experience is not valid, but I was sort of thinking of the contrast in my own teaching.

I've mentioned a bit about my teaching career in other posts, so I won't belabor that, but as I consider some big changes for next year, I was comparing to my old style of teaching.  Much like John Tague noted in a response to my tweet , I considered myself a successful teacher, loved by students, inspiring some to go into teaching, some to attempt to major in Chemistry or other subjects I taught, so I like to think I played a role.  I was a lecture teacher, but I don't think traditional entirely....I'm a storyteller at heart, so there was a lot of that, and I was very actively involved for most of that time (before I had my own kids).

Then I flipped...

Here is a brief run-down of the dramatic changes:

1.  Grades
As I briefly twitter ranted today, and probably to the despair of my #flipclass cohorts, I don't believe that grades should be banned, that they hurt the soul, etc.  What I do believe though now is that a final grade should be a representation of the whole year of learning.  If a student bombed stuff early in the year, but figured it out, that should be taken into account.

I've switched to SBG, which I still have some issues with, but I like the idea of being responsible for knowing the material, not for doing work.  More on that in a minute...  But what has really changed is that I do accept latework and I allow retakes.  In fact, I'm a little shocked now when I'm in a meeting and a teacher doesn't.  Not that I think they are wrong or bad for doing that, it just seems odd to me in my present frame of mind.  Here is how my grades work now:

  • Assessment on a specific standard (or two), usually 2-8 problems/questions long, sometimes MC, but typically problems or free response.  If a student isn't ready when I give these out to the class, they can take it the next day or two.  No point in them taking something they don't know yet.  That's just painful for me and not helpful for them,=.
  • They can retake any assessment twice.  It isn't the same assessment of course, but over the same standards.  If my goal is for them to learn the material, what is wrong with retakes?

2.  Tutoring
I hate tutoring. Not because of one on one time with students, that's the best.  But I hate it because it tends to be a student throwing up their hands and saying "I don't get any of this!"  I still do a lot of tutoring, but it tends to be a lot more focused now and students have notes or at least screenshots of my videos saying "this is what I don't understand".  That leads to a much more productive conversation.  Plus, I'm not talking terminology now with them, we're solving problems, talking concepts.

3.  Teaching (class time)
This the the most dramatic change of course because I do very little full class lecture of any kind.  In fact, I don't do a massive amount of full class discussion, usually it is in a group of 2-4 students at a time, or 1:1.  Where I might have helped 5-6 students before, and those were usually the ones with their hands up, now I help them all, or at least get to speak to them all, everyday.

I'll additionally say that the flavor of the discussions tends to be much better, not always about how we solve a problem, but a lot more in depth talk about the implications of the things we are doing.

4.  Questioning
I've always been a little bit of a hardcase when it comes to questioning, just because I'm a contrary, argue the other side sort of guy.  But what has opened up in the past couple of years is that as my students say "you never answer any question straight", meaning of course that I never just give an answer, I guide them to it through their own brain.  It is painful for both of us sometimes, it takes a looooot longer this way, but it pays off in a couple of ways:
  • They have to think about what they already know and tie it into the new topic.
  • It sticks in their brain better when they think it through than when I just give the answer.
5.  Creativity (by the students)
By far the biggest change is in the type of assignments I give.  Yes, I still give some practice problem worksheets, so to the pure constructivists I am still the enemy of the students.  But my students this year have created hot air balloons, rockets, spinny can contraptions, skits enacting kinetic theory and that was all just in our gases unit.  They've made stop motion videos, biome travelogues, infographic posters, videos working problems, minecraft explanations for topics, etc. We've thrown flour darts at targets, done cat's cradle type activities and basically had a lot of fun.  And to be honest, very little of it has been me doing demos as a traditional chem teacher would do.  It has been them, which of course takes the burden off of me to be the master of creativity all of the time.  

6.  Students first
Hopefully I've always been a teacher with students at the forefront, but I'm not afraid to admit that I have an ego and a chip on my shoulder.  I want to be the best teacher and to get accolades for it.  That was especially true for me 5 or 10 years ago.  Now, I want my students to learn, to enjoy my class and not dread it, either for me or the material.  I teach Chemistry for the most part and had a parent earlier this year tell me that their daughter loved my class and was amazed at her friends at another school that hated Chemistry.  And this isn't a typically science loving kid. A big part of that is the ability to be flexible, allowing students to learn at their own pace.

My classes stay mostly on the same topic, but I have kids who are a couple of weeks behind and some that are a week or two ahead.  They don't all have to be working on the same thing at the same time.  What matters is that they learn the material.  I don't make every kid work every single problem I assign, and I don't think I've handed out problems with more than 10 on a sheet at any point this year.  It is very clear in our classroom that what matters isn't getting enough work in to impress me with their dedication, but simply understanding the things they should understand, and often being able to use that knowledge to do something creative.

My classroom is not the best, it isn't the most creative and free flowing place ever.  But we are headed there, week by week, year by year, and the #flipclass has been the underlying impetus behind these changes.  I suspect in a year or two I won't even be calling my classroom flipped, but I'll always have a debt of gratitude to it for the shove it gave me to being a more student centered teacher.


  1. This is why you had that headache - you had to get this out! I can so relate, in fact I just did a similar post for the same reason, a need to look back AND forward. I've been teaching for, well even longer than you (let's just leave it at that!) and I have undergone the same kind of utter transformation due to the flip. And in a few years, hopefully, there will no longer be a need to call it that, because it will be the norm. Great read for me this cold morning, thanks Arnold!

  2. Reading through your post really gave me the impression of what a passionate and thoughtful educator you are. Not adopting every latest idea and trends can be as challenging as incorporating ideas not generally accepted. I was thrilled to hear that you are starting to use retakes in your instructional strategy. As a middle school teacher who teaches a high school course (with high school exam) I wholeheartedly agree that retakes and revisions should be an integral part of every classroom. Stick with it, I can attest that the responses from colleagues aren't always the most positive on this topic, but then the only response that really matters is when a student says, unsolicited, that they really learned about the subject.
    Jasper Sr.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the comments. It has been a road to get there, but it has been worth it and I'm looking forward to the continued road ahead!