12 May 2015

School Leader Magazine Article

I was asked to write an article for School Leader Magazine--a magazine published by the NJ School Board Association. For those of you not a Superintendent or BOE member in NJ, I wanted to share my ideas with you.

Let’s Stop Talking About Flipped Classrooms and Start Talking About Flipped Learning
A chemistry teacher describes how he refined his approach to a flipped classroom
By Marc Seigel

I will never forget the exact moment that I became complacent.

It was October of 2010, my tenth year in education. I walked in on a Monday, sat down at my desk, opened the folder of my laptop that contained all of my PowerPoints, opened the one pertaining to the unit I was starting that day, and suddenly felt like I was punched in the gut. You see, I hadn’t spent a single minute over the weekend preparing lesson plans or even thinking about what I was going to be teaching that day. My instructional routines had become so automatic and my grasp of the content so precise that I didn’t even have to engage my brain to produce a lesson for the day. My classroom was generally running on autopilot. I knew at that moment that something needed to change and it needed to happen fast.

It just so happened that about two weeks later, I was skimming a publication from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and stumbled across an article about two chemistry teachers (Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams) in Colorado who were using videos they had posted online to teach content to their students. About two years prior, I had begun recording example problems on an interactive whiteboard using a video camera and posting them to my website, but they were only there to supplement what I was already doing. I never considered recording my entire lesson for my students to watch. My students commented how helpful it was to see those problems a second time when they were at home so why wouldn’t seeing an entire lesson help them? So began my flipped classroom story.

Flipped Classrooms: 101 A “traditional” flipped classroom centers on the idea that lectures normally given in class are recorded and posted in some form for the students to watch for homework. The videos might be posted to YouTube, a teacher website, copied to a flashdrive, or burned to a DVD. A typical 45-minute lecture could be boiled down to about 10 or 15 minutes. Students would take notes, just like they would normally do in class, then come to class ready to engage in something to reinforce the material they learned the night before.

This is exactly how I began my first flipped unit. I chose a fairly easy unit (since I teach chemistry, I chose writing and balancing reactions), something with which my students had always found success. They would go home, watch the videos I recorded using Camtasia Studio from TechSmith and posted on my YouTube Channel (http://bit.ly/seigelchemistry), come to class, and do the homework they normally would have done at home. It was fantastic! Every time a student began to struggle, I was right there to answer his or her questions. The students wouldn’t go more than a few minutes being confused and would immediately get right back to getting their work done. I still gave the same checking-for-understanding quizzes I had always given, the same labs, the same tests. The only thing that changed was where the homework assignment and the lecture happened.

The best part about this method, for me, was students could move at their own pace. Some students would watch all of the videos in one weekend, show up on Monday and just plow through all of the graded assignments. Some students would have the laptops open on their desk (at the time we had Dell mini-laptops, but I now have a cart of Chromebooks) and watch the video as they completed the homework. Some failed the homework assignment even though they took good notes, went back to the videos in class, and had the opportunity to fix the mistakes they made. None of this would have been possible in a traditional model with me controlling every aspect of the daily routine.

This system worked really well. But then I soon realized things were starting to unravel. Since everyone was completing the same homework assignment, and different students were moving at different speeds, slower students figured out that if they just wait for the faster students to complete the assignments, they could just copy their work when it was returned. Also, students who were not good at managing their time in class properly, fell far behind (sometimes weeks behind) and were turning in an entire marking period’s worth of assignments on the last day before grades were due. This last situation caused a tremendous amount of work for me and meant that the students were not getting the timely feedback they needed to be successful.

Once again, things needed to change, and fast.

Stop Focusing On Classrooms and Start Focusing on Learning Those educators who have been successful with a flipped classroom have begun to move to a flipped learning approach. Both are centered on the essential question: What is the best use of my face-to-face time with my students? However, it is the mindset that is different.
  • Flipped Classrooms allow students watch lectures at home and engage in homework in school. Teachers guide students through a series of worksheets or more traditional activities that help them reach objectives and gain the knowledge necessary to pass assessments.
  • Flipped Learning allows educators to use a variety of teaching methodologies to help students reach a learning objective. (www.flippedlearning.org) Rather than focusing on the content they need to learn, students are engaged in activities that teach both content and skills that are necessary for success. The classroom is a dynamic and collaborative environment where all levels of learners are supported.

So, what does this dynamic, collaborative learning environment look like? Well, that’s the beauty of flipped learning--every educator customizes it to fit his or her school, students, and personal abilities. Some teachers use pre-made videos on the Internet; some make their own. Some are the only teachers in their building/district flipping; some are part of an entire flipped school. Some teachers use only their traditional assignments; some allow the students to design their own work. This is not a pre-packaged curriculum--something you just order from a company and everything you need is already inside. Let me tell you what a typical unit looks like in my flipped environment.

One unit my students learn about is solutions. On the first day, the students will participate in a guided-inquiry activity called Introduction to Solution Making (http://bit.ly/seigelsolutionmaking) in which they will learn about calculating concentration of solutions by making two cups of fruit punch. There are no procedures other than for them to make two cups of fruit punch the way they like to drink it. After they make the drinks, they read farther down and it tells them to use the mass of powdered drink they measured and the volume of water they used to calculate the concentration. This is when they realized they didn’t measure anything and have to start again.  Note: While learning how to calculate concentration is the main learning objective, students learn more through their mistakes of solution making. At the end of the activity, the students are free to drink their solutions while they watch the instructional video about calculating concentration (which is linked in the Google Doc of the lab).

The video on concentration is embedded in a Google Form. Below the video are three self-check questions for the students to complete at the conclusion of the video. These questions are modified questions from the unit test and align to the district quarterly assessment. When they answer the questions and hit “submit,” a tool called Flubaroo provides both the student and the teacher feedback on the student’s understanding of the material, and he or she can ask the teacher questions about any errors or misconceptions and get the immediate assistance they need.

Students now move through a series of both required and optional assignments for the unit, which have been detailed on an assignment chart distributed on Google Classroom and on the first day of the unit. (bit.ly/seigelsolutions) While some assignments are labeled as required, I have given the students the freedom to either supplement or replace these with assignments they have designed. This gives all students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in ways that better suit their needs.

The Future of Flipped Learning Is Now The flipped model does not only apply to teachers and students. Administrators can flip faculty meetings or professional development by giving teachers something to read or research in advance and then engaging them in discussion and activities when the group comes together. Advisors can flip club meetings. The culture of learning has changed for students and schools. When the accumulated knowledge of the human race is sitting in your pocket, teachers no longer need to be the sole source of content knowledge, but rather, need to direct students toward ways to find their own understandings of how to use that content appropriately.

10 May 2015

Teacher Appreciation Week

I have a student who is basically mute in my class. I want to say she has said a total of 20 words all year. Through March I was only able to ask her yes and no questions because she could shake her head otherwise she would just cast her eyes down until I eventually gave up. However, being the stubborn person I am, I would go out of my way to say hi to her every time I saw her, compliment her art work when I visited her art class, and give her a huge smile. April saw a break when she finally said hi back.

This week, for Teacher Appreciation Week,  I received the following from her:
There's a lot of things I could say right now. A lot of cliches to justify this and the things I do every day. But all I am going to say is this:

Thank you. Thank you for being brave enough to write this. Thank you for making me cry.

I really appreciate it...Honestly!

13 April 2015

Let's Start Celebrating Mondays

Monday is my favorite day of the week.

Monday is a clean slate.

Monday is the day to try something new.
To blaze a new trail.
To kick the tires and light the fires.

My best ideas come on Sunday night and Monday is the first time I get to test them.

I stumbled across this image a while back and I love it.
The weekend is only 2 days out of 7. If all we do all week is count down the seconds until the weekend comes we are wasting over 70% of our life. And, if you ask most people how their weekend was, they tell you it was nothing special.

Don't get me wrong. I love my family and my favorite thing in the world is spending time with them. But my family knows that I love my job, too, because family is not my only passion.

You need to find what excites you and pursue it with unrelenting energy and steadfast determination. 

Take today to pursue your passion. Your weekend will thank you for it.

05 April 2015

Can I Have Your Number?

When the movement towards data-based decisions started to get traction, I have to admit, I was a little excited by the idea. As a science-minded person, I would much rather use cold hard facts to back up my decisions rather than just my gut. Unfortunately, as we strive for more data we are creating systems that are standardizing education; trying to tie everything to a number and removing the human element. But, is this just creating an environment that creates feelings of resentment between colleagues if they don't perform as well?

In NJ, if you take the average of your evaluations and factor in your SGO data, using a carefully determined formula, and have a value of 2.60 or higher, you are considered an effective teacher. If you manage to score a 3.50 or higher, you are HIGHLY effective. A simple formula that anyone can follow. Great!

Here's the problem with the system. Previously, most teachers I talked to were evaluated on a system of something similar to what you would find in an elementary classroom to measure reading comprehension. You had 3 or 4 categories like Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Needs Improvement, Not Observed. Occasionally you found a school that had an Excellent or Above Average category. Most teachers ended the year with all Satisfactory, which, if you think about it, is the highest rating possible. But Satisfactory is like getting a C. Schools set up a system where the BEST you could be is
SATISFACTORY.

Not Good. 

Not Excellent.

Not Above Average.

And the worst part was teachers were fooled into thinking that scoring all Satisfactory meant they were Great.

Now enter a scoring guide that actually separates not only the Highly Effective from the Effective, but also quantifies how effective you are. Earning a 3.4 is very different from a 2.75. Teachers who were used to scoring the highest in every category are suddenly shocked when they are scoring a 3 out of 4. Do you know what a 3/4 is? 75 percent. That's a...C, a perfectly Satisfactory grade. 

Teachers are now getting resentful. 'How could I possibly earn a 3 in that category?!' 'Why did he get a 4 when I only got a 3? I work just as hard as he does!' 'How could he earn Teacher of the Month when I scored higher than he did on my SGO?'

In all of this movement, we have forgotten that in data-based decision making, the data is supposed to be a way to identify our areas of strength and the areas that need improvement. And, from that, we have a place to start creating goals to drive our classroom/professional development/school forward. Why is our first response to fight the evaluation rather than see it as a guide for future decisions? 

We need to stop focusing on the numbers on the page and start working toward improving the education that is happening in our classrooms. If we view evaluations more as a motivation to better ourselves (like when you look down at the scale and say 'I can get rid of those last 10 pounds') and less like they are personal attacks, maybe then we can start having real conversations on changing schools.

16 March 2015

America versus the World

The Media likes to pull out the random fact that the US is falling farther behind other countries in terms of Math and Science testing. Clearly our public schools are failing our students because we are not the best in the world on this standardized test. But, maybe that's ok.

This weekend I was at the NJ GAFE Summit and a student from Ramapo College spoke about a project he completed for one of his classes. His teacher used Google's Moonshot Thinking idea to ignite his passion to complete a project centered about building a strong community on campus around the World Cup Soccer matches. The student was from Nepal and mentioned that if he was in his home country the focus of class would have been to memorize the facts in the books and recite them back to the teacher for a grade. He came to America expecting school to be the same and was amazed that he was able to use his creativity to complete a project based on his passion: soccer. And that comment made me stop and think.

What if the reason we are falling behind on these Math and Science tests is because the US has been focusing more on creativity and less on knowledge?

Even though we are standardized test crazy right now, nothing is going well for schools when it comes to state tests. More and more schools are approaching failing. If I gave a test in my class and half of the students failed, would I blame the students or my test? Yet, when school after school fails the state test, it is the school's fault.

When today's students live in a world where anything they want to know is at their fingertips, maybe a focus on creativity and passion is the better topic to be teaching.