By Daniel Nemerow, M. Ed.
Imagine giving your classroom over to your students, allowing them to drive instruction, to take the conversation where they need it to go, and still address all of your state content standards. I’m fortunate in that I get to do exactly those things every day.
And it’s easy.
My students enjoy class discussions, because we work on what they need to cover to feel as though they have mastered the material. In turn, I benefit from better engagement and honest effort when it comes time for them to demonstrate what they’ve learned. For years, my colleagues and I attended professional development that stressed how important it was to meet our students on their technological level. So I tried. I used apps, my SMART board, interactive websites and programs, and anything that looked as though it might help me establish a connection between young people and mathematics.
It wasn’t enough.
My students were engaged in the moment, but I wasn’t seeing lasting benefits from the integration of technology into my lessons. Sure, technology helped some students understand concepts on a larger scale, but it wasn’t paying off as I hoped it would. I began using online videos as sub plans when I had to be away from the classroom. It seemed like a good idea to have a math teacher in the room, even if it was just a projector and a screen. I finally asked myself: “Why aren’t you making these videos for them?” I knew my students and their needs, I had the technology, and I was willing.
Making my own videos was enjoyable, and there were students who benefitted from having them available while tackling the night’s homework. But still, I didn’t tally any lasting effect on their mastery. My videos didn’t solve their greatest dilemma: giving up when they couldn’t figure out a homework problem. It was then that I decided I would make videos for every lesson; I would assign them for homework, and I would be the greatest tutor they ever had. I would flip my class.
Although some teachers believe that a flipped classroom experience will not prove effective for them, everyone with access to even basic technology should make the effort, because all one truly needs for this undertaking to succeed is buy-in, a plan for execution, and follow through.
Like any new endeavor in a comprehensive high school, my idea for change required support. I wasn’t going to turn my students’ lives upside down without at least a nod from my administration. On that issue, I am fortunate. My administrative team heard me out, appreciated my rationale, and agreed to let me venture down this path.
My next step was getting students on board. As a basketball coach, I’ve always loved the John Wooden quote: “Nothing will work unless you do.” If my students didn’t believe that this would work for them, would make math easier and more accessible, I’d never get it off the ground. At first, there was some resistance. Students who had been successful in a traditional classroom didn’t see why they couldn’t just keep doing things the way we always have. I had to work to convince them of several key points as to why the flipped experience was not only going to help them, but was going to make math more enjoyable.
I managed to make my first point when I asked students how they responded when they got stuck on homework problems. I had them complete a survey that addressed math survival skills, work habits, homework, frustration levels, and effort. The data I received further cemented my belief that something had to be done. A majority of students confessed that when they got to a problem they didn’t know how to complete, they quit. Most also said that they spent too much time on homework and that they felt the required effort in math class far outweighed the effort necessary in other academic areas. They were trying but not succeeding.
After reviewing the data, I asked each class if they would like to complete all of the practice problems with me. Not as homework – we wouldn’t even call it homework anymore; we’d refer to it as practice, bacon, milkshakes, gymnastics, anything but homework! I explained that if we took on this challenge together, I would be able to help them the moment they had a question. Nearly all of my students said this would be ideal, but then the obvious next question was, “So, Mr. Nemerow, when do we take notes?”
And I had them.
I explained that their notes would come from videos they would watch online. I explained how to access my YouTube channel, and assured them that the videos would never be more than twenty minutes long. They would be able to watch them whenever they wanted, to access math instruction in the middle of the night, during lunch, or on weekends. I honestly didn’t care; 2:00 am Sunday was fine with me. At this point, my students were in. The idea that homework wouldn’t be hours of problems on a deserted island with no help in sight, and that they could watch online whenever the mood struck was checkmate for me.
High school students are taking on more and more with their free time. Are they doing everything we wish they were doing? Of course not, but an increasing number of them play sports, work, participate in clubs, volunteer, play instruments, or take care of siblings. In their minds, I was taking work off of their plates, returning them a ration of free time, and completing the most frustrating problems with them.
They were in.
I discovered that it is actually quite simple to get the basics of a flipped classroom up and running. I was diligent about creating videos and keeping them simple and relatively brief. I coached students on how to watch them. They needed to interact with the online lesson, not a skill they were prepared to embrace at first. Granted, I’m referring to students who will spend fourteen hours trying to beat bosses in a dungeon in World of Warcraft. But the suggestion that they interact with a math tutor online was akin to suggesting that they play Lebron James in a game of 1-on-1.
At times in the videos, I suggest that they pause the lesson to try a problem, or that they pause and copy down notes, the same things we do in class that take up significant instructional time. I knew then, and still know now, that not everyone does this when prompted online. Some of them do other things while watching my videos – some are still trying to beat that same boss in that same dungeon – however, when they return to class unprepared, it’s as apparent as if they were sleeping in the back row during a lecture.
They aren’t all going to learn to master a skill (find the sum of interior angles of a polygon, parallel park, shoot a layup, or decide which is the salad fork) on the same day or at the same time. The key transition element for me at this juncture was that I continue teaching/coaching them on how to take notes and solve problems effectively.
I just had to do it online.
“Make sure you pause here and try this on your own.” I say it in every video. They won’t all do it the first time, but maybe the thirtieth time they hear it, they will. I once asked my father, a teacher and coach of over forty years, why my students or players won’t simply do what I ask them. He replied, “You may have told them fifty times; they need to hear it 100.” Seems simple enough.
Where this method truly has an impact is in the classroom. From the beginning of this endeavor, I explained that I am giving my classroom to the students. For the ninety minutes I see them every other day, the room is theirs. Sure, I move desks around, put them in groups, set up activities, and keep an eye on the content standards. But the direction our conversations take rests entirely with them. This was a difficult adjustment to make. My classroom today is not the classroom I grew up in. It is noisy, engaging, flexible, change-adept, and accommodating. We pace discussions based on students’ needs to work through practice problems multiple times. However, on those rare days when they show me that they’ve mastered a particular skill, we move on, again, saving valuable time for everyone. This generation needs something different than mine needed; the sooner teachers today are ready to admit that, the sooner their classroom will be ready to flip. Every day, I draw questions from the notes. I encourage, beg, and plead with students during the video to write down the bits that don’t make sense. When the bell rings, it takes fifteen minutes, usually less, to review the notes and explain any difficult sections.
Then we practice.
I provide them with the opportunity to get better, to ask questions, and to help each other. Just over a year later, they are doing all three as if they’ve been in a flipped classroom since middle school.
Teachers in my school division often ask about “flipping sometimes.” I respond politely. I give support, provide feedback, and listen to their ideas. At some juncture in our discussion, however, I make the point that flipping a classroom can’t be done “sometimes.” This has to be a significant shift requiring a significant commitment if it is going to work. For example, I never show videos in class. Do I have students who show up not having watched them? Everyday. For a while it bothered me, but the more I thought about it and the more I talked with other teachers who were flipping, I decided that I didn’t care.
I care about how much they learn, but I don’t care whether or not they watch my videos. Perhaps they didn’t watch because they knew these skills from a previous class; perhaps they were sick, or maybe they were overwhelmed by an A.P. US History essay. Regardless of the reason, I cannot show the videos, because class time is practice time. My commitment to consistency has played an important role in why the flipped classroom has been successful for me. My students know that I am going to post a video; I am going to take questions (sometimes this happens via Twitter before they even arrive at school), and that I am going to provide them with practice time in class. Because they know these things and because they know that my commitment to being consistent is not up for negotiation, they eventually commit themselves to the flipped experience.
I knew that this was going to succeed the day a handful of students got together to insist that we use class time to work on the practice problems rather than take notes in a lecture. They’d gotten together (online, most likely) to watch the previous night’s video, and they had questions I needed to answer before they could move on. Realizing I was on a razor’s edge with them, I changed gears immediately, chucked the day’s lesson plans, and put up the practice problems. With the floor open for discussion, we worked through the prompts that had given them fits the night before, and they asked about my upcoming video for the night.
I lied. I confess.
I hadn’t planned on the next video in the sequence. However, if they wanted one, if they were willing to work tomorrow’s problems in the same manner, I’d get busy recording and uploading a video after school.
I promised to have it online by dinnertime.
And it happened; I was flipped.
When I read Everett Rogers’s book, Diffusion of Innovations, I reveled in the examples and case studies he uses to illustrate the notion that 17% of any population is all one needs to ensure that an innovative idea will enjoy population-wide adoption. In a classroom of thirty-two students, 17% is 5.4. That day, my clutch of willing students consisted of about six or seven.
Professor Rogers was right again: Once that group embraced the idea that they were going to watch the lessons online at night and work the problems the following day, we were heading in the right direction. Before class ended, I heard them:
We’ll be online after 7:00.
I have practice; so I can’t get on until later.
Text me when you get home. I’ll watch it with you.
I knew that by the following day, I’d have half of them.
There’s nothing special about me or my approach to this undertaking. I consistently demonstrated to my students that I was willing to upload the instructional videos, to give them the time during class to ask questions, and to allow them to lead the discussion where they needed it to go.
By being consistent, I showed them that it could work. After that, it didn’t take long for them to make the classroom their own. Most days, I just get to come along for the ride. I highly recommend it.
The benefits of flipping could not have been easier to see. Many of the advantages outlined by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams in Flip Your Classroom came to life for me, in a matter of just a few weeks. My students were tackling more math than they had before. Even students who didn’t watch the videos were still working. They didn’t have a choice; class time was work time, practice time. Like it or not, everyone had to get a glove and get in the game for that ninety minutes. Prepared or not, well versed in the previous night’s lesson or not, it was happening around them. Most of them learned quickly: If you don’t want to be embarrassed for ninety minutes, find twenty minutes to watch Mr. Nemerow’s videos.
In a traditional classroom, unwilling students endure school with the same joy that many of us endure a trip to the dentist. Afterward, they begrudgingly do homework problems and complain to their parents and friends about how much they hate math. Unwilling students can’t follow the traditional pattern of disconnection in my class anymore. They can skip every video, every night, but when the bell rings on Monday morning, they are going to practice math. I am going to help them; their peers are going to help them, and they are going to catch up.
There’s no place to hide.
For me that represents a significant victory. I think many teachers believe that if unwilling or disconnected students did more math, they would be better off. The good news is they’re right. Flipping has provided me with an opportunity to reach every student. I began my career as a special education teacher and later taught math in a bilingual classroom where I presented material in English and Spanish. Flipping has allowed me to reach struggling students without making them feel different, insecure, or afraid to ask, “Can you repeat that please?” All students have the ability to pause, to watch videos again, or to post comments with questions. They can do this without feeling as though they are under a magnifying glass in a traditional classroom. No one sees their frustration during instruction, and the following day, we work on problems together; so any student can have questions answered by me or by a peer. As long as they’re learning, I don’t care.
Many teachers, me included, struggle to extend a lesson for students who need enrichment. It is easy in theory, but in the everyday sprint that is my class, it’s difficult to make enrichment a reality. I no longer have that struggle. Practice problems are designed to take as long as any student needs. If a struggling student takes all ninety minutes to complete the initial prompts, they will be fine. The standards are addressed. However, if a student blows through those questions without a wrinkle and needs more of a challenge, I have the ability to provide more difficult or engaging material. I can differentiate instruction and practice, because students are able to move at the pace that best suits them. I have given them the space they need to learn, and they take full advantage of it.
In their book Change in Schools, Facilitating the Process, Gene Hall and Shirley Hord argue that for any change endeavor to succeed, stakeholders must shift their concerns from themselves (their classrooms, their lesson plans, their way of doing business year after year) to concerns for the organization (student mastery, shared use of effective instruction and assessment practices, lifelong-learning skills). I have to confess that for years I organized my classroom around what made sense for me. I was the teacher. If I felt comfortable with the practices in the environment, I would be more energetic, provide more perspectives on the content, and see more students succeed.
I was wrong. And if you’ve organized your classroom around your needs first, you’re wrong, too.
Sorry. But it’s true. And I wouldn’t bring it up here unless I had already been down several miles of that same dirt road. I’m not a consultant selling a book; I’m just a teacher who’s had a pretty compelling paradigm shift, and I want to talk you into trying it as well.
I had to adjust my concerns from concerns about myself, my comfort level, and my way of teaching over to my students’ needs, their technological skills, and their busy lives.
Spring semester, 2013 – 14 was the first grading period that I spent completely flipped in Geometry classes. This year I have flipped Algebra 1 and Algebra 2. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever go back, and not because flipping classrooms is a fad or because it is fun (although it is fun). I will never go back, because my students are doing more math now that than they ever have before. That’s our primary victory. But also because they are performing better on formative, summative, and standardized testing. The data I have collected isn’t complicated, and it supports everything I’ve suggested in this brief case study. Simply stated: More of my students have As and Bs, and fewer have Ds and Fs. They’re doing more math, and it pays off in knowledge, learning, and skill mastery. I had personal bests on state standardized assessments in number of students passing and passing advanced, and the only difference for me was that I had flipped my classes. Embracing the fact that they don’t need me for notes, but do need me for practice wasn’t easy. It required a paradigm shift that nothing in my education or experience had prepared me for. Yet the results of flipping my classroom have not only made that shift easy for me, but have ensured that I will never go back to teach traditionally.
After one semester last year, I asked my classes if they thought this was working. I knew it was; I had the data. But I was curious as to what they thought. I told them I was thinking about going back to traditional teaching just to see if it helped anyone get a better understanding of the material. Needless to say I didn’t do that. The reason: My students won’t allow it.