Cheshire Academy’s Rachel Wright Finds Success Flipping the Classroom

A conversation with Cheshire Academy’s Rachel Wright about the convergence of modern and traditional as she ‘flips’ her boarding school class.

Has/how flipping the classroom made you a more effective teacher?

Cheshire Academy’s Rachel WrightBy doubling the amount of time I have with the students (as long as you use the extra time effectively). Because I can accomplish the teaching (and reteaching) via videos, I am able to get to those synthesis and application questions that I always knew were important, but had to skip in the interest of time. I am able to plan engaging lessons and activities that keep the students immersed in the math, without losing the direct instruction and practice time that is so important when learning new math skills.

Rachel describes this video as “succinct and would be pretty easy for any reader to understand from start to finish: It’s not terribly exciting, but then not many of my math videos are! They are meant to be straight-forward and simple.”

How has flipping your Algebra 2 honors class worked?

I have thoroughly “flipped” my Honors Algebra 2 course.  Because these are internally motivated students and it has been an integral part of our classroom culture since the first day of school, the students faithfully watch the homework videos and come in with the practice problems done and questions prepared.

I know my students and record videos for them (occasionally using resources that have been created by others on the web, after watching them and determining that they will work for my classes), so I have usually anticipated their questions and built them right into my video. At the start of class every day, we go over the example problems and troubleshoot any areas that weren’t clear or that need more reinforcement.

This then frees up the remaining 80% of class time for the appropriate amounts of re-teaching, application, extension, and pre-teaching that I feel are necessary with each given topic and class.

That’s interesting…flipping the classroom still requires a great knowledge/understanding of your students?

Of course! Not only do I need to anticipate what my students’ questions will be so that I can incorporate them into my video lessons, but I also try to activate prior knowledge whenever possible – so I need to know what my students know and how they think.

I try to incorporate vocabulary and methods that they are already familiar with and translate these to the new material that I’m trying to get across. That’s why it’s usually best for me to record the videos for myself rather than using resources that are already out there. Sometimes I want my students to see or hear another perspective, but usually my own lessons go over the best with them.

Then, I have to get a quick read on their comprehension and mastery when we go over the practice problems at the start of class. I can usually accomplish this by watching their faces and pencils as we go over the answers (and as a back-up, I always collect the homework problems so I can see if anyone was really lost). Sometimes I’ll also give a quiz or a do an activity to assess mastery.

The third piece that requires knowledge of my students is planning activities to flesh out each lesson. Choosing whether to play a game with the material, complete a set of challenging practice problems, or bring in prior material for a spiraling activity all comes from knowing my students and sensing their needs. I try to choose whichever activity will lead to the greatest depth of understanding and retention of the material.

How much time do you devote to video production?  Any challenges that you’ve had to overcome?

In the beginning, it took me two or three takes to get a video right – so a ten minute video might take an hour to produce, record and post. Now, it takes about 20 minutes per video. I typically post three, to four, videos per week, and, some, I am able to reuse from previous years.

One challenge has been writing my own questions, because I would like to feel that I have ownership over these videos so I don’t want to use examples directly from our textbook. Another challenge has been finding the technology to be able to record videos from home or anywhere outside of my classroom. It is still easiest to record directly from the SMART Board in my classroom, but there are iPad apps that now make it possible to record and post from anywhere pretty easily.

Of course, another challenge is ensuring that students watch the videos each night. After devising a system that works (daily video quizzes or checking video notes, etc.), the system has turned out to be self-correcting. Almost all students in my classes will watch the video and do the best they can to learn from it because a) they can’t understand the homework problems without the video and b) they don’t want to be the only student in class who has no idea what is going on the next day!

What improvements/success do you see via flipping?

The way that I know the flipped classroom is successful with my students is by seeing the unprecedented amount of higher-order thinking that they are capable of achieving with this material. Traditionally, students would master the procedures in class and some would reach the higher-order type questions on homework (if the textbook even provided them!) while others would quit at the first sign of difficulty.

In my classroom, students master procedures at home so that they are able to analyze, evaluate and create complex scenarios with almost all of the material – with supervision and intervention by me as necessary – in class.

For example, a very common lesson in an Algebra 2 course is the introduction of a new type of function. Students typically learn how to graph the new function, graph transformations of that function, and state the domain and range. At this point, I am able to introduction a new type of function in a video and students can apply previous skills and watch the new examples in order to master the graphing, transformations, and basic analysis of the new function in ten minutes. Then, depending on the level of comfort that I gauge when we go over the homework, the following class day’s activities might include:

  • Partnering with another student to write functions, graph them, and then trade and figure out your partner’s functions based on their graphs. Determining functions from graphs in an entirely different skill that students should be able to “discover” without needing direct instruction.
  • An individual or group worksheet asking students to analyze features of the graphs beyond what was covered in the homework. This might include finding x and y intercepts of the function, determining maximum and minimum points, intervals of increasing or decreasing, finding where the function might intersect with another function, etc.
  • A writing or speaking assignment asking students to compare/contrast the new function to previous functions learned in the class. This is a great way for every student to have a chance to bring a different observation to the discussion that others might not have noticed.
  • Generating a list of real-world scenarios that might be modeled by the shape of the given function (i.e. the spreading of a disease for an exponential function).
  • The use of classroom technology like a graphing calculator to perform the more complex analysis of a given function or for modeling of data into a function.
  • A truly creative assignment – like finding a photograph with a line or curve in it that looks similar to the function we’ve learned, transposing that photo onto a coordinate plane, and generating the equation of the function that they see.

When my students are able to complete this level of synthesis and application with the new material, they have achieved more than procedural mastery. They have achieved real understanding of the material.  I would point to this as the greatest benefit of the flipped classroom.

Flipping itself seems to require a certain amount of mastery and creativity; does flipping present any specific challenges to boarding school teachers and their traditional three hats – teacher, dorm parent, coach?

The first time I tried flipping my classroom a few years ago was out of necessity – I had a class that was struggling, and I just felt that they needed more time for direct instruction with the material. So I started teaching the toughest lessons in class and recording the same lessons on video, hoping that the reinforcement would help them learn (it did!). Students were able to pause, stop, start and re-watch until they got it. After having that success with videos, I decided to try flipping a full course the following year – and yes, it took a lot of work over the summer to prepare to presentations, recordings, and an arsenal of classwork games and activities and extension assignments to fill the class time with meaningful work.

But after the first full year – what a time-saver it has become! I have so many resources at my fingertips, and a previously-recorded video for every single lesson. Now I have the flexibility to use a video if it seems appropriate or teach something “live and in person” when I think it’s needed. It is also a lot easier to modify and re-record old videos (to tailor to the needs of my current classes) then it was to create them from scratch the first time around.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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