Sunday, September 18, 2016

Flipping Might Help Save My Classroom

Pictured- Some of my students
I've been having trouble talking to my kids for any length of time. The second week of school has just ended and already I feel like I've had That Talk a dozen times. You know the Talk about how they're fifth graders and I promise I'm talking as little as humanly possible but I also need all of them to understand expectations and instructions. The one where you're trying really hard not to sound frustrated the first few times you give it, and then maybe you try it with an edge in your voice to see if that helps the few kids who aren't getting it. The one where sometimes you enumerate the things you really don't want to do to "help" them be quieter like rows or assigned seating? Yeah, I feel like I've given that talk a lot already. And I'm not really used to that.

Let's get the extenuating circumstances/excuses out of the way- I have 36 fifth graders this year. Yup, to prove that was not a typo I will write it again in word form- thirty-six fifth graders. That is, as the kids say, a lot. It's at least five kids past "a lot" to be honest. That said, I'm not trying to complain about the number. It's only been two weeks and I already like all my kids, even those kids who I know will be the ones to push me to be a better teacher. I wouldn't trade any away. And the other two fifth grade teachers at my school are in the same boat. One of them was a fourth grade teacher last year, so his boat has been an ark for a while now. I was dealt a hand of thirty-six this year, so that's the hand I'm going to play. 

Still, that's a ton of kids. And it creates challenges I can't ignore. I can't use the challenges as excuses not to get my job done, but it's a factor that plays into my planning much more than it used to. And I have a chatty thirty-six. I like chatty classes. I want my kids to talk. It's so much better than a bunch of silent types. (Of course, I naturally have silent types in my room too and they're trying harder than ever to melt into the background, which is easier because the background is full of kids.)

I also have a student teacher this year. This is not a complaint in any way. In the first place, I begged my principal to find me a program in need of a mentor teacher because, as I say in my first book, having student teachers is the most valuable learning experience I've ever had as a teacher. And in the second place, she freaking ROCKS. Inviting someone into your classroom is a coin flip (or a crap shoot) and I scored huge. Her name is Veronica Miller and she's a high-energy, high-positivity nerd custom built for me. If you click on the link on her name you'll see her twitter handle is Veronica 3 of 5. Which lead to me saying, "Wait, like 7 of 9 from-" and we both finish, "-Star Trek Voyager oh my god you nerd!" She's also jumping at the chance to teach as much as possible. I'm sure I'll be writing about our experiences and what I'm learning from her quite a bit. 

But having a student teacher also presents certain challenges. I've already heard, "At least you have kind of a co-teacher in the room with you." Which, while true, isn't exactly what her job is in my room. I mean it is, but I didn't ask for her to lighten my load. 

All that said, Veronica and I have a chatty bunch of kids this year. A happy, positive, willing to learn and try, chatty bunch of kids. And they are having a hard time settling down for long enough to listen to a full set of instructions. Or even chunked instructions. Trust me, I know the tricks. I got a bag and I've been reaching into it. But they aren't working like they should. Again, I'm pretty sure the class size is diluting some of their effectiveness. So, rather than complain, we went looking for solutions.

Veronica noticed that when I use Sophie or Courson, my two monster puppets, to teach the students are riveted. This was not a surprise to me. Pretty much everyone, including my own children, likes Courson and Sophie more than they like me. But I also know that the puppets aren't a cure-all. They're great and they work like gangbusters, but I can't spend the whole year speaking through them for a whole wide range of reasons I'm sure you can put together yourself. 

So we had ourselves a challenge. How can we take advantage of the students' love of the monsters, while not burning them out? And then I thought about a lesson I was planning on running again this year which had worked great last year. The first story in our reading text (which for the most part is full of decent-to-good stories) is called A Package For Mrs Jewls. It's a chapter from the wonderful Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar. In the story (SPOILER ALERT) Louis, the yard teacher, carries a very heavy box up to Mrs. Jewls' class on the 30th story, only to have her open it, see it's a new computer, and toss that computer out the window. "Thank you, Louis. We were learning about gravity and the children learned about it much faster with a computer than with the pencils and paper we have been throwing out the window," Mrs Jewls says. The story is actually a fun commentary on edtech in general. But the punchline is scientifically incorrect and much like a Balrog, that shall not pass.

So I created this YouTube video

I gave out Chromebooks and iPads, gave the kids the (if you don't use you must install the Chrome extension and make your life better), and set them to work. It worked wonderfully. The kids got the assignment, they could watch it as many times as they needed to understand, and they were working in groups. Ready, GO!

I realized this just might be what Veronica and I needed with the more instruction-heavy lessons on our plate this year. Especially since, thanks to Donors Choose and wonderful human beings, I just added three more Chromebooks to my class set, putting me at thirteen. That's 1:3 for those of you keeping score at home. Not ideal, but a better ratio than most. Especially if we're just watching videos.

We experimented with a quick video that very day (that day being Friday). The kids went to PE first thing in the morning so we used our prep to shoot a quick math lesson/game involving place value. Veronica brought the game to me, together we massaged it, she created a worksheet-like substance for it, and we were ready. Making the video was as easy as shooting it on my phone, uploading it to my class YouTube channel*, making a few minor edits using YouTube's editing software**, and linking it to our class website along with the questions Veronica wrote on a Google Doc we set to View Only. This is why I have an Assignments page on our class website.

The kids came back from PE, did some learning, went to recess (while we double checked all the links), Veronica reviewed place value periods in two minutes (using my classroom timer to keep her honest), I told them they were going to work in the same groupings as that morning, and we wrote on the board " -> Assignments -> Place Value Yahtzee Video and Doc. WATCH VIDEO FIRST". Then we said, "Ready...Go!" (We actually said, "Ready, Hippo," because V brought using magic words into my room rather than just plain old Go and I dig it.)

It WORKED! Not 100% perfectly wonderfully, but it freaking solved the problem. Neither of us wasted time counting back from three or doing the Silent Stand And Wait While Staring At The Talker in the middle of giving directions. We had time to hand out dice while kids worked. And they learned what they needed to learn and did what we wanted.

I'm not convinced flipped is the way 100% for me. But that's because I don't believe in using anything in my classroom 100% of the time. Date teaching strategies, don't marry them. Flipping with video-based instruction seems to be working right now. There's a lot of front loading that will go into these lessons, and I'm not sure I want to spend my morning and afternoons making a ton of videos, but this is a tool I didn't use often than I think I will use more. I think we found a way to serve our large class while saving my sanity and preserving the positive attitudes of our students.

Plus, as I excitedly shouted at Veronica at lunch on Friday, "Now you get to go to your cohort and say, 'Today I planned and executed a lesson using puppets, video, manipulatives, Google Docs, a class website, and paper and pencil!' Then you drop an imaginary mic and walk out of the room because damn, that's cooler than anything they did." I'm not saying being a cooperating teacher is a contest, I'm just saying Veronica and I are winning.

*if you have a google account, you have a YouTube channel. I had to talk my school into unlocking mine last year, but they went for it.

**YT's editing is easy to use. Sign in, click Upload, click Video Editor, push buttons until it does what you want.***

***if you have follow-up questions about anything I'm talking about in this post, please tweet at me (@TheWeirdTeacher) or throw a comment on here.

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