Flipping Your Classroom: The First Steps

[Note: This article was originally written for Carolina Biological’s Articles & News section.]

One of my Physics colleagues took an online Flipped Classroom course over the summer which required her to create a short (3-5 minute) video explaining a topic of her choosing. She hated the assignment. She hates the sound of her own voice, but, more importantly, she is not tech-savvy, so the assignment really scared her as to whether she could pull off a full-year Flipped Classroom. When we sat down together during the first days of the school year, she expressed to me all of her concerns:

  1. What program do I use to make my videos and where do I find all of the equipment?
  2. Videos take so long to make. How am I am going to get them all done in time?
  3. Am I going to be spending all my time making videos and not preparing any other activities for my class?

Many people have similar concerns when they first flip. Like any method of instruction you need to focus on what you are trying to accomplish by trying something non-traditional. For me, I wanted to increase time with my students assisting them with problem sets in class to tackle any problems they might encounter and complete more laboratory activities. The video is not the focus of my Flipped Classroom, but rather the method I use to achieve greater inquiry in science.

To get my students ready for instructional videos later in the year, I start them with watching certain TED Ed Videos found on ed.ted.com. We start the year with the Periodic Table and Atomic Theory. Instead of me standing in front of the room talking about Mendeleev and his ideas, we watch The Genius of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table (https://goo.gl/tJneiL) in class and then discuss why his ideas were insightful or why they may have been misguided. When we move to Atomic Theory, my students watch How Small Is An Atom? (https://goo.gl/ZWDLuz) for homework and complete the 5 multiple choice questions that are in the THINK section. When they come to class the next day, we discuss their answers and some of the interesting things said in the video.

The benefit of starting the year with TED Ed videos is they are concise and animated so they keep the students’ attention very well. During these early videos, I don’t ask students to write anything down for two reasons. First, I generate the notes about the topic based on their comments from the in-class discussion. Students don’t always know what is important so they need a little guidance filtering the information. But also, some students have really insightful ideas generated from the video and I want to make sure to include them in the class notes. Second, I want their first impression of instructional videos to be a positive one, not one where they listen to me drone on (i.e. read a PowerPoint slide to them) about a topic that is difficult to visualize.

After these introductory units, I begin to use short videos for daily instruction that I have made. But if you are like my colleague, making videos can be overwhelming so don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel. Start by finding videos on YouTube created by teachers who are teaching the same subject as you are. This may require some hunting and watching videos with various styles and qualities. Here are some suggestions my students have given me when they have watched other teachers’ videos for my class:

  1. Find someone who matches your energy level when you speak. If you are high energy, don’t pick someone who speaks calmly and with a monotone voice.
  2. Videos need visuals. This may mean someone standing in front of the camera or text bubbles or simply writing/picture appearing. Don’t choose someone who is simply reading text.
  3. Watch the entire video and make sure it covers the exact topic(s) you want. I talked with a Calculus teacher who used a college professor’s videos. They were over an hour long and often went into topics that didn’t apply to what the students were learning at that time. There is no better way to create disconnected students than giving them irrelevant videos to watch.

Keep all the videos you find that you like in a YouTube playlist, even the ones you aren’t going to show to your students. This will give you quality examples to refer back to when you decide to make the leap into creating your own. Like your first year teaching, the first year flipping your classroom is the hardest so find ways that allow you to be innovative in all aspects of the learning process.

Make Your #Hashtag A Movement

Anyone can put an octothorp in front of a word. Yeah, that’s what the hashtag/pound sign thiruter_logo_number_signngie is actually called. I once had a 5 minute conversation with someone on Facebook entirely in hashtags. #youcanhashtaganything

When I was listening to Shonda Rhimes’ book A Year of Yes, something she said has really stuck with me. She was talking about how we all seem to have time to send a tweet or make a post expressing our support for something, tagging it with the appropriate hashtag, but what do we really do beyond that? It is fine if you want #justiceforharambe, but the fact is your public outcry on Twitter isn’t helping the cause unless you get up and actually do something. Start a fundraiser, call your local politicians, start a website and Internet campaign. It doesn’t matter what you do, but you need to do something beyond just saying you support something.

I regularly talk with teachers about using social media better in schools. I tell them to create a class Twitter/Instagram account or create a hashtag so that you can document ad show the world what is happening in your class. But as I have been rolling Shonda Rhimes’ words around in my head, I realize we need to do more than that. You need to make your hashtag a movement. Make it mean something. Make it change peoples’ mindsets or views of your classroom. Let it embody everything you and your students do in the classroom.

Last year, I started #roomofawesome. When I assign projects, I purposely only give them the bare requirements because I want their imagination and creativity to be the focus of their work. When they ask me to give them better direction, I open my arms and sweep them around the room where there are previous students’ work and bulletin boards with my hashtags on them. I tell them the best projects (aka the most creative) will end up on the walls/bulletin boards and posted to my social media accounts where thousands of people around the world will see them. Make it good enough to make it on the #chemisawesome board. Students will always work a little bit harder when they know their work will reach a global audience.

Hashtags can do so much more than just keep the community informed of what is happening in the school. It is the opportunity to change the expectations of what is possible in the classroom and show everyone the awesome that is happening every day.

Be there and cheer the loudest

There are a lot of things kids need from you, but I think the most important one is to be their biggest cheerleader. It doesn’t matter what they are doing–got an A on an assignment, made the varsity team, hit their first baseball, got into a fight with their boyfriend–kids need to know that they have someone in their corner.

I think all of this comes down to the most important “R” in education: Relationships. When you build strong relationships, students will push themselves harder to meet your expectations because they know you care about them. Tell your friends/significant other you can’t do a night out this week because you are going to see one of your students sit on the bench for the football game, send out a whole class Remind telling everyone about an award that one of your students one, wake up at 5 am to watch a live stream of one of your students competing in a trampoline competition in Denmark.

It takes almost no time to be that cheerleader and it will make all the difference in the end.

It Takes A Village

At graduation, one of the student speakers discussed how she used Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes TED Talk as inspiration for her senior year. Being a TED Ed Club Advisor, I thought this might be a great TED Talk to inspire my club members and maybe turn her profound message into one of our community impact projects for this year. The TED Talk was excellent so I borrowed her audiobook from the library and have been listening to it in the car. In the book, she plays her Dartmouth commencement speech, which I am sharing below. FYI, she has a potty mouth.

So, something she says in the book has really stuck with me as it is something we discuss often at both home and school. Obviously, I work with a lot of women (all of whom are working moms) and I am married to a working mom. Shonda talks about how the only way she can be a successful with her work and her family is because of the extra help she gets from her nanny. Several people have looked at what I do at work and the pictures I post of my family on Instagram and Facebook and comment about how I am this amazing dad for being able to pull off these amazing things in every part of my life. Here’s my secret:

It’s all an act.

Obviously, I can’t filter what my colleagues see happening at work, but I can filter what ends up on social media. When I am at home, I only take pictures of the amazing things and post those to my feed. Do you think anyone really wants to see the pile of dirty clothes that I have been ignoring or the dust collecting on the mantel because dusting is one of my 3 least favorite chores? I look amazing because of 2 reasons: 1) I only show the good stuff, and 2) I have an amazing support system.

My wife is my rock. The reason I can go to my classroom and make it the #roomofawesome is because she takes the crazy #Seigelboys off my hands for a few hours and lets me do it. Also, luckily, she never questions the hundreds of dollars I spend on my classroom and students every year. But, I support her as well. This weekend she is doing about 20 hours of yoga instructor training which means it is 3 straight days of single dad time. She’s been doing this once a month for the past 6 months (with 4 more months to go).

At work, I have fantastic colleagues and administrators who have accepted the fact that I am “that Crazy Seigel guy” and never question the random ideas that come out of my mouth. If my classroom gets too loud, they never come over and slam my door or ask me to keep it down. They let me do my thing because they know I have my students’ best interests at heart.

But I am not successful at both things at the same time. Today I was a great teacher and an absent father. My family went to Six Flags and I ignored them completely, even leaving the house to hit Lowes’ before anyone was awake so I could paint my classroom. When my wife has a yoga training during the school year, I am not going to think about my classroom or my students and I am going to focus on my sons. If I try to split my time evenly, I am failing at 2 things instead of one.

What’s the answer to all of this? Pick your battles. That stack of labs can wait 2 hours while I cook dinner, play Poop, and read books to the boys. When it’s family time, it isn’t school time. When it is grade papers time, well, that usually means it is plop the boys in front of a movie time.

It’s not easy being a Parental Educator in today’s world. It takes a lot of people to help you be the successful person that you make everyone on social media think you are. And, on a side note, never forget to stop and thank those people from time to time.

Nothing Profound To See Here

I have a pile of unpublished, half-written blog posts that will never be seen by another person. When writing I typically have 1 of 2 problems. Either I 1) can’t figure out how to get started or 2) can’t come up with a great ending. Tons of great ideas; no solid way to make them appear on the screen.

Being a Chemistry nerd, me and the words don’t do so well. Occasionally, lightning strikes and something profound makes it on the page. More times than not, I run out of steam and just end with half a thought.

But, what I have realized in all of this blog posting stuff, is sometimes you just need to get the thoughts out there even if they don’t come in a nice, neat package.

So, dear reader, I just wanted to give you a heads up. I am going to be publishing more posts; some of them will be great, some will just be me getting my thoughts out there because sometimes it feels like the cup is full. I will do my best to have some sort of profound revelation. More often then not, they will just…

Building a Learning Environment

The most important lesson that they do not teach to pre-service teachers is how to build a nurturing learning environment in the classroom. My cooperating teacher during student teaching had the last name of Hellstern and there was never a more appropriate name for a person. She was cold to her students. She didn’t greet them at the door, she didn’t ask how they were doing. She was there to teach Chemistry and the students were there to learn. Her desk and chalkboard were on this raised platform in the front of class (designed by the school so that students in the back could more easily see the bottom of the board without the students in front blocking them) and she never came around her desk to walk amongst the students. When I took over the class, she actually remarked to me after a lesson that I spent too much time “talking” with my students at their desks about the problems we were working on. The mantra “don’t smile until Christmas” was probably developed by her.

I vowed never to have a classroom like that. I wanted my students to know that I cared about how they were as people as much as how they were doing in my class. Until the last few years, that has always been focused on simply getting to know my students and chatting with them about their non-school lives. Recently, I have made more of an effort to break down barriers by changing the physical environment of the room. This started by bringing in bungee chairs, then giving more options as to where students were allowed to sit in the room throughout the class block (not just during the independent/group work time), and then last year by bringing in lighting for the lab benches and neon colors everywhere. Oh, and calling my room the Room Of Awesome may have been over the top, but it set the tone.

Clearly, something worked. Every year I purchase a yearbook. As I have mentioned before, I do this so that when I retire, I can look back at all the amazing people and events that took place during my carreer. I wanted to share some of the comments that students left this year:

Your classroom is by far the coolest and makes me feel the most safe. 

Thank you for having the coolest and most comfortable classroom ever. I will always remember your chairs…

Thanks for the freedom of playing cards and other games during class when we finsihed out work.

Thanks for letting me sit on your floor for 180 days.

You definitely have changed the way I view teachers and view school. 

Over the past few years my struggles with my [personal problems] have made life pretty unbearable at times, but when I was having a hard day your door was always open and you always took the time just to talk to me. 

So, my message to all new teachers: take the time to learn who your students are as people first. By making sure that I openly recognize that they are human beings, and I show them that I am a human being too, I help create a learning environment that functions so much more effectively for all. We do more activities, we laugh more, we have more fun, and we learn a lot more along the way.

Your students are worth it.

With Heart Wide Open

I love every one of my students. When they hurt, I hurt. It is both my greatest asset and greatest weakness as a teacher. I treat every student as if they are my own child. Do they make bad choices sometimes that gets me mad at them? Absolutely. But if they were in trouble, I would stop what I am doing to protect them.

This year has been especially tough on me. I can’t even describe for you the amount of tragedies that my students have been dealing with this year. My classroom is a safe place, and I tell that to them on the first days of school. Luckily, many don’t n
eed it, but those that do, realize it can be a sanctuary from the world outside those 4 walls. Unfortunately, all I really offer them is an open-mind, a tissue when necessary, and a little advice.IMG_20130124_090126

I wish I could give them a hug and tell them everything will be ok in the end. If I had a superpower it would be to pull that pain out of them so they would never have to feel it again. I wish there was some perfect phrase that, after they pour their heart out to me, I could say and make them realize that everything will be all right.

To all my students, both the ones that have their world crashing down around them and those that are carefree right now: Whether I am physically there or not, whether it is a Wednesday or a Sunday, April or August, 8am or 8pm, I am there for you. You are not alone, and you are loved.