Friday, February 9, 2018

Impact of Classroom Design

Have you ever given thought to the idea that the design of your classroom provides students a first impression upon what your class will be like? Desks in rows, all facing the front of the classroom tells them strict, rigid, and boring. Desks in pods, central focus, and teacher station up front tells students group work is expected while also paying attention to teacher up front. For some this is intriguing, while others will feel scared and anxious. If we want students to believe that learning can be fun, that learning is about the journey and not the destination, then we need to strategically consider how we design a classroom setting that fosters engagement and participation.

The design element to my Flipped Classroom was essential in aiding the expectations I had for student learning to occur. There was NO front of the classroom. A teacher desk/station did not exist. There were very few desks in the class, much less any structure to how they were placed. My classroom looked like your neighborhood coffee shop - high tables with stools, couches, student art work, and chaotic layout. Students first impression on day one was a little confusion quickly followed with a smile. Three elements that were essential to this dynamic shift in student perception were flexible seating, work stations, and white board tables.

As a caveat, substitute teachers disliked my classroom upon first entrance. I did not use a seating chart - I do not believe in telling students where to sit! Students were well aware of my expectations for class and quickly became aware of whom they should sit by and whom they shouldn't. There were stools, comfy chairs, couches, singles desks, round tables, and rectangular tables for students to choose from. If a student needed some individual work time, he/she knew to find an individual desk. If they needed some additional help in tackling the video lesson and practice sets, they would often sit with peers they trusted. If they wanted to sit or lay on the floor, then so be it. My goal wasn't to restrict their seating arrangement and force them to be still. I wanted them to be comfortable and able to focus on learning!

Eventually, this lead to having designated work stations throughout the room. There was a spot for "oops, I forgot to watch the video lesson." This had headsets, iPads, and paper for note taking. There was a round table for challenge problems...I think I got this topic, let's try something harder. There were two areas for "Help! I need somebody" where students could converse with each other about practice problems and seek out the teacher for advice. These stations ended up providing a functionality I had never planned for. Students became flexible and honest in their individual needs for learning - a transfer of ownership had taken place.

Both of these elements really led to the final element taking place. And honestly, this final element happened by student mistake. One particular work day, two students were working collaboratively on the floor. They were discussing and sharing their thinking for solving a set of math problems. Out of nowhere, they began drawing their solutions on the floor with an erasable marker. Thinking nothing of it, they kept going at it. When I initially saw them, I was shocked. How in the world could you think that was acceptable. They both looked at me with a smile and calmly said, "Don't worry...we tested to see if it would come off easily first." 

I was faced with two decisions. Come down hard on them, laying out the law of the land. Hopefully, by reading this post you can tell that isn't quite my style. Rather, I applauded the students for thinking outside the box and working so well together. I thanked them for trying it out first, and then asked them if they thought there might have been a better approach to trying the markers on the floor. They looked, nodded, and said "maybe we should ask for permission next time!" While I can only assume they learned their lesson, I gave their experiment a little bit of thought. Could this be a viable option that would encourage students to show their work and share their thought processes?

Like many educators do, I decided to beg for forgiveness rather than permission. I sought out my two experimental students for help in deciphering which desks the dry erase markers would work on and which it wouldn't. I wanted to recognize them for the creativity and empower them to help me make the classroom better for all. Low and behold, nearly every surface in my classroom was 'erasable'. Over the course of the next few weeks, students were grasping for markers and even bringing in their own. Classroom discussions increased in context and length. Students were eager to share and show others what they did to learn. Further, students began to seek out additional ways to submit their practice problems to me as their teacher. "Can I snap a few pictures and email them to you?" "Could I put the pictures on my blog and share the link?"

The creativity and innovation I witnessed from students was remarkable. Students were not afraid to try something and fail at it. They knew there were resources at their disposal to be successful - fellow classmates, video lessons, and their teacher. Ironically, the fewer rules I gave students, the more they felt the freedom to be kids. They knew the ownership of learning fell solely in their hands. And they were quick to run with the responsibility and embrace their own individual uniqueness. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Be Patient...

In preparing for the upcoming semester, I had one of those deja vu moments. You know, one of those moments in which you catch yourself looking back on your career, feeling bad for those first students you ever taught. One of those moments where you knew you weren't at your greatest and wish you could have a do-over. This day, it was looking back on my first days of flipped did I have a lot to learn at that time.

While students at that time were eager to try this new approach to learning, I don't think I knew how hard it was going to be to prep for and find the right activities to support the various needs of all the students. I knew how to make the video lessons. I knew how to do a quick check for understanding. I even knew how to break up the students into groups to discuss and collaborate. What I quickly learned I didn't do I support all of the students simultaneously?

Unfortunately, the answer took quite some time to figure out - I DIDN'T NEED to have all the answers. In a flipped learning environment, the goal is for students to own their learning-to drive their own understanding through using questions, activities, and collaboration with classmates. What I needed was to have a better understanding of how to support students in the ownership of learning. To find contextualized, applicable resources for math that the students could use to support their learning. I also needed to structure the classroom environment in a way that would encourage and support that individual growth model.

I quickly learned I needed to be patient with the process. As long as I could support student learning through conversations, rapport, engagement, and activities, the students would learn. I needed to remind myself, I also would be learning along the way. Learning about new tools, new resources, new engagement strategies. While I wanted to perfect Flipped Learning right away, it was okay to take time to find the 'sweet spot'. I realized I needed to be okay with the process taking time.

At best, it took me three years to see a functioning classroom that engaged ALL students. I was finally in a groove that allowed me time to expand my resources, meet with struggling students more often, and encourage mastery of learning with each student. Three long, hard years of trial and error that lead me to realize - I'm not done learning. I'm going to continue to grow and learn from students, from other educators, and from myself. The most powerful lesson is to be patient...keep student learning at the core and allow yourself time to learn and grow!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Getting Lost in Service

The art of teaching in today's classroom has less to do with content and more to do with connections. Long gone are the days of standing in front of class, lecturing to students about content. Today's teachers understand the need to be dynamic facilitators of the learning experience, helping to serve and meet each student where he/she is at. While not an easy task by any measure, today's teachers spend countless hours planning, prepping, and serving students to the best of their abilities. 

Perhaps that is why I transitioned to Flipped Learning years ago - so that I could better serve the unique needs of my students, while also providing more time and access to me as their teacher. I cannot express how important this transition was in helping me ensure that students were more successful in my classroom. While I started out with traditional lecture, it was the barrage of questions and confusion from students on homework that caused me great alarm. I knew what I was doing wasn't benefiting students.

As I transitioned to Flipped Learning, I quickly became a fan of how collaborative students became. They started asking each other questions, using each other as resources, and providing support in difficult projects. It afforded me the opportunity to really get to know my students on a different level and serve them by tailoring my activities and lessons to their interests. It allowed me to meet with students to know what holds them back from being successful and how to help them see they are capable of being good at math. Further, I can check in with 'advanced' students to know how I can challenge them a little more.

I've learned and grown so much over the years using Flipped Learning. While I initially thought it would help me to be more available to answer their questions and confusion, I've realized there is a greater opportunity to serve each student on an individual level - to show them I genuinely care for who they are, what they want to do, and how they can achieve any goal they set out to complete. Serving students has become a passion that I cannot deny. I enjoy finding ways to engage them in math and learning, while also seeing them for who they are! The art of teaching, in my opinion, has become about getting to know each and every student as an individual and helping them pursue success in life. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Reflections of a Flipped Educator

The fall semester is quickly coming to an end. This was the first semester in three years in which I had the opportunity to teach a math class. Naturally, I taught using Flipped Learning, a method of instruction and classroom engagement that I wholeheartedly believe in and share as often as I am able. Today I reflect upon what I've learned throughout the semester, as well as how I've grown as an educator in today's ever changing classroom environment. 

Students continue to motivate me to want to be better. They help me stay on the top of my game in finding creative and innovative ways to engage them in math. While I realize most college students have a love/hate relationship with math, I am grateful that my approach to learning helps them see how math can be utilized to strengthen their employability skills for a career of choice. Through collaboration, problem solving, and perseverance, students slowly gained confidence in their abilities this semester.

Ever further, I recognized the continued need to help students feel safe and welcome in classroom environment - both in-person and online. The more I was able to connect with them and their interests, the more they came out of their shells and the more responsible they became. Students would email "Running late for tonight's class because...", or even drop me a voicemail to ask questions. It was as if the more I respected and trusted them as students, the more effort and commitment they gave to the class. The value I emphasized on character paid off in big ways.

Personally, I recognized the need to continue to find and adapt activities that would engage students in unique ways. Whether it was mystery problems to solve, teaching others at the white board, or passing the problem, students seemed to enjoy working on math differently using different strategies and activities. Therefore, I continue to connect with my PLN and see what others are doing that I might be able to adapt.

Lastly, I realized how much I missed being with students on a routine basis. Helping to create a sense of belonging while also helping students advocate for themselves is an element that I don't get to often engage in with my current role. I've realized that the passion I have for teaching hasn't gone away, rather it was just laying dormant temporarily. The more I engage with others, asking questions, sharing ideas, and learning how the landscape of tomorrow's classroom is evolving, the more I can tell my passion and heart lie in a classroom. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Teaching is an Art - Not a Job

This past month, I had the unfortunate opportunity of saying good bye to a young man that was taken from this world far too soon. At the young age of 29, he was tragically killed in a vehicle accident. Set to be married in December and an avid hunter and hockey fan, his death came as shock to his family and friends. While it had been at least ten years since I last saw or spoke to him, I was quickly reminded what a great young man he was. 

As I waited patiently in what seemed like a never ending line, I caught myself flashing back to those early days of my teaching and coaching career. It was through my early years as a football coach that I met this young man and his family...and all his friends for that matter. Starting in 7th grade, then 9th grade, and finally as a Sophomore on the JV squad. He brought a smile and a wit to every practice, every game! He had this infectious ability to make you laugh, while he worked his tail off to be the best he could be. 

And so here I stood, waiting in line to pay my condolences. Surrounded by young men and women who I grew up teaching and coaching, noticing they are beginning to start families, a harsh reality hit me hard. Here lies a young man, destined for great things and eager to start a family, lying in a casket. Nothing in life is guaranteed. While the events of the day left me emotional, somber, and reflective, I quickly realized I miss teaching. I miss connecting with students on a daily basis, providing them a safe, welcoming learning environment that encourages individuality and risk-taking. I miss getting to know them, what their hobbies are, and what they want to do in life. 

I have a passion for students - a passion for listening to them, believing in them, inspiring them, motivating them, encouraging them, and empowering them. I have a passion to help students see themselves in a different light than others may. I see teaching as an avenue to engage students in life altering ways, not through curriculum but through trust, honesty, empathy, and passion. For some, I might be the only bright spot in a students day. I must embrace that opportunity and help each student feel welcome, safe, and able to share with me! I love building relationships with students and seeing where they are in 10, 15, or 20 years!

As I pursue moving back into the classroom (insert plug for open math vacancies), I cannot wait for the opportunity to invest in each student and get to know him/her. I am also quickly reminded, we are only given today as a gift and we must choose wisely how we live for today. We have the choice to make the best of each day, approach students with kindness, and share our positive attitude with everyone we encounter. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

4 Signs of Student Buy-In for Flipped Learning

Trying to prove your Flipped Learning environment is an effective instructional practice can often be tricky. Some will point to exam scores, while others will look to course success. Districts might even point to persistence from one semester to the next. Yet, Flipped Learning might not always be visible in known data points such as those above. Rather, I try to focus on the four signs below to know if my students are learning and engaged in my Flipped Learning class:

1 - Conversations about Content
Perhaps the greatest measuring stick I use in my Flipped classes come from listening to the conversations students are having. While quite often misconceived as noise, I know my students have bought into Flipped Learning as they start to have conversations about how they learned from my videos, as well as how to apply that learning to our practice problems in class. I can't tell you how many other teachers stop by to ask what's going on? Why are your students so loud? And my response is always the same - just listen to what they are talking about! 

2 - Compassion through Collaboration
While some skeptics of Flipped Learning worry about cheating or 'piggy-backing', authentic learning happens when students become compassionate about one another being successful. Some of the greatest moments I've witnessed in my class are when students sit down with one another and share their thinking and calculation process. While it would be easy to just show an answer, students show genuine compassion for one another in helping each other be successful. What I really love to see is when students start working in different groups all on their own, illustrating the sense of belonging that all students should feel in every classroom environment.

3 - Students Share with You
One of the earliest struggles I had in my teaching career was finding time to interact with students and really get to know who each one was. There is so much value in building rapport that I would argue every teacher needs make time to do so. Flipped Learning has only enhanced the opportunities I have to get to know students. As they learn you care more about who they and what they become versus the grade they achieve, they actually work harder and share more. At the college level, this also means they email when they are absent or ill. They actually model responsibility for their actions because you place a value on the person, not their grade. (It also means you can talk to them about their favorite beer and brewer...a perk of teaching adults!)

4 - Students Ask for More Videos
Recently, my mother became ill and needed some assistance at home. I needed to step away for a few days and didn't have my math videos ready for my night class. My students were very understanding and super supportive of what was happening. Yet, they were completely honest with me as well. After spending one night teaching via 'traditional lecture', the students asked if we could go back to the videos...yes, the STUDENTS asked. It was simple yes for me, however, I wanted to know more. I needed to know the why. One student shared how they like to watch and rewind what is happening so that they hear it, see it, and write it down on their own terms. Another offered how he liked to spend time in class working on problems with others and seeing different ways to solve problems. Still another appreciated how the practice problems provided opportunities to contextualize the content to their area of study. I was amazed at how honest they were with why the valued the Flipped Learning environment and the video lessons.

Perhaps I could point to students grades to measure their success in my classrooms. I prefer to let the grades become a natural consequence of the rapport I build, safe environment I create, and the compassion students show one another. It's rather funny how some will simply say "C's get degrees!" And they certainly long as those C's are: Compassion, Collaboration, Cooperation, Creativity, Character, Choices, and Consistency.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Complete Transparency

I've seen many questions surfacing lately in my circle of educators regarding testing, grades, and learning. There is no doubt that many schools and districts are measured on the first two, but I often wonder how true, authentic learning is really measured. Do we define it to a set of numbers that show growth? What about a GPA that tells the cumulative story of a student? Can a district really be measured on standardized test scores?

What frightens me is that in do so, we lose the value of seeing students as individuals with unique goals, ambitions, talents, and passions! While I understand much of that criteria is used to derive funding, illogically in my opinion, I am cautiously optimistic that many parents are starting to see that set of data as irrelevant in whether or not their student learns. And to help that movement progress forward, we as educators must be willing to be completely transparent with our students, parents, colleagues, and administrator teams.

When talking about Flipped Learning, I'm often asked how I got the students and parents to buy in to this 'new' approach to teaching math. My answer quite often shocks people - I am completely transparent and honest with them! I start the beginning of every school year not introducing Flipped Learning, but rather introducing learning as a growth process through which we are using math as the vehicle. We are simply using math to learn character, problem solving skills, critical thinking, grit, and collaboration - all skills necessary in any potential career choice for students. 

Perhaps the greatest moment comes when I share the following analogy with students and parents alike. Imagine I asked you to sit down at a piano and begin playing most likely could not do it right away. It would take time, maybe lots of time to learn many new skills related to the piano. Math is much the same. I am going to ask you to learn new skills that you may not have mastered in the past, or may even never been introduced to. Just like anything you've become good at, I'm asking that you give math a fair shake. I will most likely be teaching math in a way you've never been taught before - Flipped Learning!

After describing what Flipped Learning is, I reassure them that they are going to fail at some point in my class. They will fail at watching a video, completing a practice set, understanding a new concept, or any number of things I ask of them. Failure is inevitable...however, it's how you respond to that moment of failure that will define how good you become at math. Are you honest with yourself,  your group members, and your teacher? Are you willing to change habits that you developed? Will you make excuses or develop grit to persevere through the tough, challenging concepts? 

My goal is to really show them that learning is all in their control. That each one of them possesses a unique skill set that can be used in my class. It's through this transfer of learning and ownership that I establish a sense of growth through math...dare I say a growth mindset. I cannot tell you the number of parents that thank me after each initial open house, or first few weeks of school how appreciate they are of the approach to teaching and learning I have taken. Their sons/daughters don't dread math - they rather look forward to it! And why - all because I commit to complete transparency from day 1.