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Flipping to the future: Teaching technique gains ground

LaNae Raney, North Middle School eighth-grader, views a video of science teacher Julie Poetzel dissecting a frog earlier this month. The exercise is part of a Flip Lesson. The student can watch the video at anytime and as often as necessary to be able to answer the questions and perform the task.

LaNae Raney, North Middle School eighth-grader, views a video of science teacher Julie Poetzel dissecting a frog earlier this month. The exercise is part of a Flip Lesson. The student can watch the video at anytime and as often as necessary to be able to answer the questions and perform the task. Photo By Mary Catanese

May 21, 2013

Lecture, homework, project, repeat.

It's the traditional classroom structure. It's how many of us were taught and how many children won't be taught. Some educators in Menomonee Falls and Germantown have thrown out the old method and flipped their lessons.

Flip lessons mean students are taught at home by watching a video that includes a lecture. Then, they do their project or homework in the classroom. When a student is stumped on homework, they can ask their teacher in class. The lessons free up time for one-on-one questions since the "pre-lesson" and a lecture are completed via videos commonly made by the teachers themselves.

Julie Poetzel, longtime Falls teacher, and first year educator Brandon Nelsen — both eighth-grade science teachers at North Middle School — decided to integrate two flip lessons into each eighth-grade science unit.

Instead of using much of the 46-minute class period to introduce the lesson, the lesson is introduced beforehand. After the students watch a video, there is a question and answer section. The answers are uploaded to a form, giving Poetzel and Nelsen immediate feedback so they know which concepts need to be focused on in the classroom.

Each video is divided into four parts: "watch," "think," "dig deeper" and "and finally." They try to keep the videos shorter than 12 minutes so students stay engaged.

The latest flip lesson was used for the frog dissection unit. A video took the students through a dissection before they mimicked it in class.

"It's great for pre-teaching, we use it for enrichment to push kids further, we use it for supplementary as something to add that I didn't get to, but wanted to get to. It has so many purposes," Poetzel said.

Helping students help themselves

When eighth-grader Allee Kelley was told to watch a video at home, she said it "was weird." The more videos she watched, however, the easier it became. The dissection video became a tool to help reinforce the lesson, instead of students relying solely on the teacher.

"I liked how we had more knowledge of what was going to be done," Allee said.

Her classmate LaNae Ramey thought the videos would be boring. She found it to be the opposite, calling them a "comedy" as Nelsen and Poetzel incorporate jokes into the digital lessons. In the end, the videos have helped LaNae understand the subject more than she would sitting in a traditional lecture.

"I also learned this year that I am a visual learner so it helped me a lot knowing what I have to do before the actual project that we have to do. I've gone back to rewatch (the video) to see exactly what you have to do," she said. "You can get lost so quickly when it was in front of the classroom."

Allee agreed. She said completing projects in the classroom is easier because there is more time and she understands the concept better.

Having more one-on-one time with students while they work on projects and homework has been a direct benefit of the flip lessons, Poetzel said. With the dissection unit, Poetzel said "they just understand it better and we have more time to really get into things and discuss adaptations."

Flip lessons have not been adopted as a district-wide model yet, however, since Falls is a continuous improvement district, the work being done on a smaller scale will be analyzed to see how it fits into the bigger picture, Director of Technology and Assessment Jeff Nennig said.

"It's really powerful and we're kind of watching and seeking feedback," he said. "They are figuring it out on their own so the lessons they are learning will be really invaluable in bringing it to scale."

Answering a call for change

In 2011-12, a handful of Germantown educators began flip lessons at Kennedy Middle School. The district is in the process of examining its effectiveness and seeing positive results, Superintendent Susan Borden said. She said students are "crying out" to be taught differently and use more technology. School districts can no longer wait to change, and flip lessons are a way for teachers to be innovative in answering that call.

"We have to create innovation in small pockets and replicate the things that work," Borden said. "With flip lessons, the student engagement is really high and then the students go beyond that lesson and they begin to propel that learning rather than it being prescribed."

Ken Kasbohm, eighth-grade honors geometry, math and reading teacher at Kennedy Middle School, started using Smart Board software to create his own video lessons for his geometry students at the end of last year. By taking notes and doing practice work on the basics via video the night before, the students have more time for them to focus on the in-depth math skills in class, work together as a group and get help from Kasbohm.

In addition, Kasbohm created an online message board where students can post their questions as they watch a video at home, which gives him a sense early on of common questions students have. By flipping the lesson, Kasbohm said he is clued into the problem areas sooner and knows what to focus on more.

"For the classes I've been doing it for, it's been overwhelmingly positive," he said. "It opens it up so I can go ahead and work with kids individually, a great way to do formative assessments to see where we are struggling and where we are doing well."

Is it the future?

"The message is loud and clear" that traditional, direct instruction is on the way out, Borden said. Flip lessons have allowed teachers to intervene on the spot and provide immediate feedback, instead of three weeks later when a project or test is graded.

Poetzel and Nelsen will continue to improve the videos they make themselves, seeing what works and what doesn't. They may begin to incorporate digital games into their flip lessons and increase the frequency of use. Kasbohm said the lessons lend themselves to certain subjects more than others, but they are gaining traction.

Nelsen said there are districts out there that have a flip lesson every night. Because not all students in Menomonee Falls have access to their own computer or tablet, they give students more than a day to watch the video. Students can access the videos in the library, flex time after school or by going to the science classrooms during a free period to use a tablet. Poetzel is hoping to have additional laptops in the science rooms so more resources are available to students who do not have access to technology at home.

Flip lessons are one piece of a large digital conversion happening in the Falls School District. Ninth-graders have laptops and each classroom across the district has tablets. Flip lessons seem to fit nicely in the overall package.

"This is a powerful way to use the technology that we have," Nennig said. "I can't say today that this is the model we will use, but I will say it probably is."

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