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Thinking of Flipping Your ELA Class? Here’s Some Advice.

So, you’re thinking of flipping your ELA class? The flipped classroom is an intriguing concept for many people, but it’s not for everyone. I first began running a flipped ELA class about eight years ago. Since then, the practice has grown. Recently, with school closings and a heightened focus on virtual teaching, the flipped classroom is a hot topic of discussion. In this post, I’m outlining some advice I’d like to share for anyone who is interested in trying out this approach to teaching and learning.

My co-teacher and I began flipping our classes because we wanted to be able to move toward more of a student-centered teaching approach. We also wanted to have more class time available to run small group interventions and enrichment activities. That was where our learning experiences began. While our journey has not been without trial and error, each setback and obstacle led us to a place of greater understanding regarding the flipped ELA classroom.

Here’s some food for thought if you are considering flipping your ELA class:

Identify your purpose. 

Why are you thinking about flipping your class? Sometimes the flipped classroom gets a “bad rap” because people assume that teachers are being lazy…not wanting to teach. These people don’t really understand the work that a well-run flipped classroom takes to pull off.

If your goal is to increase your students’ grades, don’t hold your breath. I actually completed my action research project for one of my master’s degrees about the effect of the flipped classroom on achievement and engagement. Did engagement go up? DEFINITELY!!! Did achievement improve? Not necessarily. If your purpose in flipping your class is to make instructional time more meaningful, active, and student-centered, then the flipped classroom is an excellent option.

Don’t dive in head first without a life raft.

Okay, so maybe that’s a weird analogy, but I think it works. When my co-teacher and I began our flipping frenzy, the superintendent at the time told us it was an “all or nothing” deal. As such, we approached the flipped classroom experience in a way I would NOT recommend.

We began the year flipping every single lesson. It was insane. We. Were. Drowning. The strategic approach would be to flip a lesson here or there…and observe the data. Survey students, survey parents, consider qualitative data – student participation and engagement during class, consider quantitative data – quiz or test scores and homework completion rates, and compare that data to non-flipped units.

If you have the breathing room to ease into a flipped classroom, I strongly recommend it.

Get approval.

This suggestion might be reminiscent of an overprotective parent, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re considering the flipped classroom approach (and you’re the only or one of the only people in your school trying this model), get permission from your administrator and the board of education.

My co-teacher and I had to seek approval from the superintendent (even though it was an administrator who asked us to try the flipped classroom), outlining our reasons for wanting to try the approach, the current body of research regarding it, and assessment strategies to track students’ progress as the year went on. He also asked us to present our findings to the board of education.

In a virtual teaching environment, this same level of approval may not be warranted. After all, most teachers are delivering their lessons via videos, which makes your flipped classroom approach blend in quite nicely.

Do some research and observations.

Before committing to the flipped classroom, do some research regarding various options for implementing it. There’s no single right way. Finding your groove is definitely a process of trial and error, but you can get a good idea or at least some solid inspiration for where you might want to start by researching and doing observations.

My co-teacher and I visited a neighboring high school the spring before we started our flipped model. The woman we observed was, in a way, both the expert and the pioneer in our geographical area. I really appreciated some of the things I learned from her (ex. – collaborative work, iPad stations, white boards that stick on the desk tops, assessment ideas), but other things (like the fact that she kept her gradebook open for the entire year so students could work at their own pace through units) just weren’t going to work for us.

In an online teaching environment, this research and observation may come in the form of talking with teachers virtually. How do they design their video lessons? What strategies have they found effective for encouraging students to participate?How do they avoid overwhelming students remotely with both assignments and video lessons?

Communicate clearly.

The flipped classroom is not exactly common knowledge…and 95% of the parents you run into are not going to be familiar with it unless you educate them. Parents can be amazing advocates for teachers if they are informed. At the beginning of the school year, my co-teacher and I send home a letter explaining the flipped classroom model and why we are using it, and we also include a link to a video detailing the same information.

It’s a good idea to start with a survey to get ideas regarding students’ and parents’ opinions for their perceptions of what education should look like, for their learning styles, for their attitudes regarding the use of technology for homework, and for their access to technology.

Making videos is not easy for most people. My co-teacher and I are relatively well-versed with technology, but the parent introduction video we made was, in hindsight, slightly embarrassing. I considered including the link here, but I just can’t do it…which brings me to my next point.)

Thinking about flipping your ELA class? This post is full of helpful suggestions and considerations for traditional and virtual teaching situations. #DistanceLearning #FlippedClassroom #MiddleSchool #HighSchool

Consider the nature of the video-creation beast.

It’s important to understand the learning curve that comes with making videos. Ideally, you need professional software, which can be expensive…then there’s lighting, quality sound devices, editing, and other factors to take into consideration.

I’ve used a variety of technology to create my classroom videos. Some are free. Others are not. Understanding what each type of technology can do for you will help save time with creating lessons.

  • Camtasia Studio is one I’ve used to add callouts, transitions, music, and live underlining, etc. to my videos.
  • Apple Clips is a fun one for outlining steps in a process. (introducing the 8 parts of speech or the steps of the writing process, for example)
  • Explain Everything is great if you want to be able to embed videos and move elements in and out of the story frame as you record.
  • Screencastify, Screencast-o-matic, and Loom are all great for creating unpolished videos of yourself modeling or explaining directions for a lesson.
  • iMovie is one of my favorites because of how simple it is to make small edits and add transitions and music.
  • FlipGrid now allows for 10 minute videos. Plus, they have added interactive features like screen recording and a whiteboard or blackboard option. I love that students can reply to the video with any questions they have.

From brainstorming to publication, I could spend several hours constructing a video. If I wanted to be able to use it multiple years, I’d have to create the storyboard or the PowerPoint or other visual aid, plan what I was going to say, record myself saying it, edit the video, create corresponding notes and an assessment, and then publish it. I would still call these videos amateur.

Creating your own videos is preferable (most of the time).

What about the possibilities of using existing videos instead of creating your own? Supplementing the flipped classroom with videos from external sources is possible, just like any teacher in a traditional classroom would do. However, as the educator assigned to a particular group of students, you know them best. You can tailor your videos to their needs and readiness levels and curriculum requirements. Your personality can shine through.

Consider collaborating with other teachers who have the same courses as you. Could you save yourself some time by splitting up the creation work? You might be surprised to find that your students would rather watch an amateur clip of teachers in their own building than a professional clip of a stranger.

Decide which lessons are most effective when flipped.

Making the flipped ELA classroom manageable is important. One way to do it is by limiting the number of instructional videos you assign each week. I try not to assign more than two or three.

After we flipped our classroom the first year, my co-teacher and I took some time to reflect on which types of lessons were most effective flipped. Certain ELA content areas lend themselves better to flipping than others. You may find it helpful to flip…

  • lessons that are teacher driven (flipping those to allow for a more student-centered, active learning class period)
  • explanations of processes that you field questions about regularly (how to work a tech platform, how to do in-text citations, etc. – these videos will save you time)

Consider your access to technology.

The flipped English class really is more effective with one-to-one capabilities both inside and outside of school.

When I began my flipped classroom journey, students didn’t have access to any technology unless I reserved a computer lab. I found myself saying, “remember this part of the video,” and “it was after the part where….”  My students would be looking at their notes, but had they been able to rewatch portions of the video as they worked collaboratively in class, the experience would have been more powerful. That really is a large benefit a flipped English class..students being able to rewatch a lecture whenever they need a refresher.

Keep the videos short.

In my experience, creating videos that ranged from five to fifteen minutes was the perfect time range for my high school students. Any shorter, and you risk cutting important content. Any longer, and students will be “skimming” the video instead of actually “reading” it.

Other research I’ve read since then has revealed that after six minutes, attention spans start waning.

I’ve found that in videos where I am modeling writing a paragraph for students, it’s difficult to keep the time limit under six minutes. When it’s not realistic for me to create a short instructional video, I try to chunk the lesson. In other words, I build in elements that require students to reflect and practice (more on that in a minute).

Ultimately, what’s more important than time limit is content. If students want to watch the video because the content is relevant and valuable, they’ll do it even if the video is lengthier.

Use engaging elements.

As with regular teaching, your students will get more out of the videos if we make them engaging. Use analogies, act things out, demonstrate a skill, and use music or sound effects. We can think about scaffolding and differentiation with video creation in the same way we might plan for those elements in typical classroom instruction.

Where might we ask students to do a stop and jot? Could they do that virtually through a Google form or assignment that accompanies the video? Can we stop after each step of the instruction and ask students to apply what they have learned? (Practice applying a reading strategy or writing a thesis statement, for example?) Is there an online discussion platform (like Flipgrid or Padlet) where students can extend what they are learning?

Teach students how to “read” a video.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I began flipping my class was to assume students would know how to watch an instructional video. They are surrounded by technology, video games, and television, so the thought never crossed my mind that I should teach them how to watch one of my videos.

How can we do this?

Show the first couple videos in class. As you are showing the video, explain to students what they should be doing (reading the questions on their guided notes, focusing on the content on the screen and the words being spoken, etcetera.) Pause the video to model thinking, reading strategies, and note-taking. Students might say they “watched” the video when in reality, they had the television on, they were texting, and their younger siblings were running around the house screaming. What seems like common knowledge to us needs to be modeled for many of our students.

With the new normal due to COVID-19 and school closings, this process of preparing students to watch videos and take effective notes is an imperative part of our beginning of the year routines.

Use different kinds of notes and assessments.

Students will try to find shortcuts around the video and note system. I’m not blaming them….most people probably would try to find a way to be more efficient if the process was exactly the same every time.

For this reason, if it’s important to you that students watch the entire video, add some variety both to your notes and to your assessments.

For example, if you just ask students to complete guided notes and you are using a Google Slides presentation for the main visual in your video, expect that students will skim through the video to fill in the blanks, and they may or may not listen to a single word you say.

What are some alternate ideas?

  • Don’t write the answers to the notes on the video itself. Have students write down their understanding of concepts that you are actually talking about.
  • Assign an analysis or personal response to the video.
  • Ask students to participate in an online discussion thread regarding the content of the video.
  • Have an oral or written entrance quiz when students come to class.
  • Tell students to listen closely for a secret word or phrase.

And many other options exist.

Expect pushback from students.

Honestly, many students would prefer the traditional model over the flipped one. I spent a lot of time probing students and thinking about this issue.

Here’s what I discovered: Students preferred the traditional model because it took MUCH less effort for them to sit passively in class, listen to a teacher-driven lesson, and then complete a worksheet for homework than it did for them to actively watch and analyze a video, demonstrate understanding of the concept, and work actively in class to practice that skill.

And, to be clear, I don’t think teacher-directed lessons are bad! I do, however, think that they should not drive the daily structure for a course.

Allowing students to have more time to learn collaboratively, to take part in small group work, and to listen to mini lessons followed by guided practice opportunities can change the culture of the learning environment. Teach students to recognize and value their contribution to an active, engaging classroom.

Have a back-up plan for technology issues.

Whenever teachers assign homework that requires technology (not just for flipped classroom purposes!), there always seems to be a handful of students who don’t watch the video because of some unforeseen event or issue. Here are a few ideas that I came up with to circumvent the problem.

  1. Give students more than one day to watch the video, and urge them not to procrastinate until the last night.
  2. Allow students to watch the video during their study hall, flex period (if you have one), or before or after school.
  3. Call home and talk to parents/guardians about the issue if a student makes a habit of skipping the videos.
  4. Be flexible. We don’t always know what is happening at home.

In a virtual teaching environment, it’s important that we communicate with parents and guardians as well as students about the value of the videos: why we are assigning them and how they will help students. Some districts have begun purchasing wi-fi cards for students who don’t have technology access at home during school closures. In some areas, principals are making home visits to encourage students to participate in remote learning and sending home surveys about the student experience.

Know how to use the freed-up instructional time.

It’s one thing to say we want a student-centered learning environment, but it’s another to implement one on a daily basis. It’s important to design and plan for effective, meaningful class activities, discussions, and collaboration that will allow students to interact with the video content in a scaffolded and differentiated way.

Jigsaws, small group discussions, station activities, interactive Smart-Board exercises or manipulatives, and genius hours are just a few examples of how you can structure your class period.

As if it’s not obvious, the flipped English classroom is a lot of work. Especially at the outset, you will find yourself investing much more time creating and designing lessons than with a traditional model. Still, if you’re passionate about making it work, if it aligns with your teaching style, and if you have your students’ best interests in mind, it will be a success.