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Flip Your School

Teachers are turning the classroom model upside down, and getting result.

Three years ago, more than half of the freshman class at Clintondale High School outside Detroit failed English in the fall semester. Failure rates for math, science, and social studies were similarly high. "It's unconscionable to have that going on in your building," says Greg Green, Clintondale's chief administrator. Something needed to change, and fast. So Green decided to do something revolutionary: He "flipped" the whole structure of the school day-students did "homework" in class and listened to lectures at home, after school.

He began by asking one of his social studies teachers to try the flipped classroom model. When that experiment went well, he implemented it for the entire ninth grade.

Green wasn't armed with mighty resources. The district had been in debt for the past decade. Seventy-five percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunch. Yet a semester after doing the "flip," that freshman class's failure rate in English and language arts had been reduced by about two-thirds by the time they were sophomores.

"If I can do this," Green says, "anybody can."

Leveling the Playing Field

Clintondale isn't the only school benefiting from the flipped classroom model. Teachers across the country, and around the world, have found success in exchanging the role of expert before an audience of (potentially bored) students for that of classroom facilitator and content developer/video producer.

About six years ago, while teaching chemistry at Woodland Park High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Jonathan Bergmann and colleague Aaron Sams came up with the notion of flipping teaching time and student assignments. They made their own "vodcast" lectures, with one of them playing the "expert" and the other asking the "dumb questions." No more in-class lectures about counting subatomic particles. Instead, Bergmann's students watched short videos after school of him calculating the atomic numbers for various elements on the periodic table. The next day in class, students would break into small groups and do their own calculations while Bergmann walked around offering help.

"I had a personal conversation with every kid, every day. I knew what they were struggling with," says Bergmann, who is now a technology facilitator at the Joseph Sears School outside of Chicago. "Instead of me doing the talk, talk, talk thing, I was walking around interacting with kids. You end up helping the kids who need it the most."

And the kids who aren't struggling? They can move ahead in the material at a flexible pace until they're ready to take an assessment, say proponents. If they pass, they've "mastered" the unit and can move on. Overall, teachers say that the flipped model gives students at all levels more control over the learning process and more meaningful, individualized  attention from them.

"The most important thing," says Green, "isn't the technology. The important part is that we eliminate the learning obstacles that kids have in ‘at-risk' environments. We're finally doing instruction around the students that we have. Instead of forcing them into our structure, we're adapting to them."

Technology to Teach
To be sure, this enhanced personal contact relies on technology. Students need computers, either at home or at school, though some software lets teachers record and edit videos that can be viewed on multiple platforms, from smartphones to flat-screen monitors.

At Clintondale High, a multimedia center on campus has extended hours, and each student studying there receives his or her own Gmail account.

"We don't have one-to-one computing, but the resources we do have, our students use," Green says. Worst-case scenario: A teacher shows the instructional video during the first 10 minutes of class for kids who missed it.

The access issue works both ways. Teachers must either record their own instructional videos or find and purchase ones that they can assign as homework.

Even the most experienced classroom teacher may feel some stage fright in front of a camera-and making a video can be time-consuming. At the Joseph Sears School, which has recently begun implementing the model, one third-grade teacher spent five hours making an eight-minute video about math concepts.

"But next year she'll have the video she made this year," says Bergmann. He helps teachers by taking the technology load off their shoulders, asking questions on camera, and letting the teachers be the experts.

The 24-7 Classroom
civics and economics teacher Andy Scheel says that flipping his classroom at Clintondale High dissolved the boundaries between teaching and learning hours. He uses Google Groups to share videos and other resources, and he receives notifications every time a student works in the group page.

"I had a young man who barely passed my class the previous semester," Scheel says. But after the flip, "I was receiving notifications that he was working at 12:15 and 12:40 at night."

If his school had to go back to the old format, he says, students would rebel. "This invites them in. They can get through the content in a way that's not bitter or painful. They are empowered."

It's good for teachers, too. "It's the mind-set that goes with it," says Green. "The philosophy is, ‘Let's learn together.'"

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