Monday, December 5, 2011

Flipping Out

At the recent NCTE convention in Chicago, I saw a clip of spoken word poet Sarah Kay performing "B."  If you haven't seen it, click this link right now.  Kay's brilliance comes from the way she sees and hears unique linguistic combinations in ordinary words.  The presentation that featured Kay's TED talks recitation of "B" was about mentor and model texts.  Penny Kittle showed the clip, then asked Kelly Gallagher, and the audience, to pick a line and use it to jump start a free write.  There are so many lines in the poem, choosing one was tough; in the end, I chose to write in response to the line "getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air."  If this line does not define the craft of teaching, I don't know what does.

I mean, let's be real for a minute: How many times have you begun a lesson, believed in what you were teaching, had a clear goal in mind, saw in your minds eye the aha moment playing at the corners of your students eyes and mouths, and suddenly the reality challenges your view of who or what you are?  If you aren't raising your hand, you probably aren't telling the truth.

How do we maximize instructional time so that students remain engaged and still get the coverage of prior knowledge needed to be successful?

A new technological trend has teachers flipping out in response to to this question.  "Flipping" instruction is not just a profane phrase anymore (not that it ever was).  A flipped sequence of instruction is one that literally flips daytime lecture with nighttime application.

Well that couldn't possibly work, Dan?!  Are you "flipping" mad?!

My mental health aside, think about the possibilities; the good folks at the Harvard Education Letter did.  The November/December 2011 edition of the letter addresses the use of flipping in schools to raise student performance:

"Since she began 'flipping' lectures and homework assignments, high school science teacher Shelley Wright has noticed something: the number of students failing her course has dropped from the usual three to zero.  Departmental exam scores are higher, too."

Wright teaches sophomore, junior, and senior science at Cornerstone Christian School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, so her practice and the flexibility surrounding varies compared with many of the teaching contexts we have; however, the article contains other teacher pioneers in this instructional method.

Despite this difference, any strategy that seems to improve students' abilities to learn and retain information is welcome information.  I have spoken with a number of my science and math colleagues and they almost instantly saw the appeal of such a practice.  One of my colleagues even began excitedly theorizing about extra lab time.  The trouble for us, as teachers of English, is finding a way to apply this strategy to our classrooms.  We generally don't have discrete, measurable skills that can be analyzed in a single lesson.  In math classes, students can learn a method for working a problem.  In science classes, students can discuss the effects of acid-base reactions and begin to solve acid-base equations.  In English, teaching students to read or write in a single lecture is laughable; what could we teach?

I was recently rereading Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher and I found the answer.  Having students measure their own level of comprehension could easily adapt to video lectures at night.  Then, I came up with a sequence I think could work for English teachers; below I have provided my idea for a sequence of flipped instruction for the English classroom as well as the outline of a flipped instructional sequence as it appears in the Harvard Education Letter.

Basic Outline for Flipped Instruction:
Day 1: Exploring - "explore the material with an activity building on prior knowledge"
Night 1: Explaining - "watch and sometimes interact with some form of media online"
Day 2: Applying - raise "questions about the video from the night before" and pose "an application problem"

Flipped English Class on the Opening of The Great Gatsby:
Day 1: Exploring - Students open the text and read the first couple pages (up to that break as the action becomes present instead of the reflective frame); they write questions they have from their reading.  The class discusses Fitzgerald and his life using the opening paragraphs of the novel as a frame for the discussion (ex: Fitzgerald is sometimes called the Jazz Age moralist and he opens the novel with a discussion of judgment).  Finish reading the opening chapter.  Students ask more questions, this time adding ones about spots where they struggled with comprehension.  Unanswered questions are collected before students go home.
Night 1: Explaining - Students can pull up audio clips from the National Endowment for the Arts's The Big Read website.  They can watch teacher created videos about comprehension strategies to help them measure their own understanding, applying the strategies to brief articles on background information for the novel.  They could also watch videos from students or other sources about the value of what Gallagher calls "second-draft reading."
Day 2: Applying - The teacher brings up the unanswered questions to see if students have found answers for them on their own through the videos or the background reading.  Students reread the first chapter in class, rating their second reading using their newly learned comprehension strategy.  The remaining questions about the content of the first chapter are answered.  Questions are generated about what will happen next.

I know it is rough and somewhat idealistic outline, but it is a starting point.  The real value of flipping for English classes would be the development of skills that will help students become more successful independent readers.  The more skillful the reader, the more likely he or she will not struggle to read independently assigned text; thus, even though two days are spent on one chapter of a novel (the essence of luxury), the time can be made up as students learn to read, not just consume, text with more skill and understanding.

There are many objections and questions we could raise about flipping: access, knowledge of ed tech, what to include in a video, and where to find good videos are just a few.  These questions are best tackled by individuals from each school.  I could sit here in my comfy chair at home in Virginia and offer grand pronouncements on ways to avoid these obstacles, but that wouldn't help many of us develop strategies to overcome these obstacles.  Instead, I challenge you to look at each of these challenges and ask "what if" instead of "yes, but."  For example, what if I could flip my instruction?  What if I had the same success as Shelley Wright?  What if my students got excited about homework?  What if having them access lectures online brought some new motivation to their learning?  I can't be sure, but I think this idea is not just another idea to make the public school system behave in the same way with a different outfit.  This idea seems to require the kind of revolutionary thinking that could reshape the way public education works.

In any case, I have to go for now.  I am going to try and record a lecture about rating comprehension and post it on my class page to help my students with their break reading;  I'm excited because I get to play with an iPad to do it.  Who says that we get too old for toys?

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and winter break.

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