Niagara Gazette

February 3, 2013

Falls classrooms flipping out thanks to new program

Falls school district among those "flipping" classrooms to boost learning experience

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — As national testing agencies continue to tell the American people their education system is failing students, an outside-the-box idea is making its way through school districts and turning everything on its head.

Teachers are “flipping” their classrooms in an effort to spend more time solving problems and thinking critically in the classroom setting. And the results seem to show that the effort is positively changing the learning experience. 

In Niagara Falls, instructional coach Ed Maynard found the opportunity to try a new approach to reach his struggling students was too important to pass up.

“We’d tried the old way with them and it failed,” he said. “So we thought maybe we’d try it this new way ... we saw a 20 percent increase in final exam scores.”

Inverted thinking

Maynard heard about the program just before the start of the 2011-12 school year. He created a staff development program based on the concept and pitched it to some of the teachers in the district. He said the reaction was mixed with some teachers vehemently opposed. But the ones who recognized the potential benefits sat up and took notice.

Ed Ventry, who teaches second-level algebra and trigonometry, immediately approached Maynard wanting to give it a try.

“I like that it gives me time to conference with students,” Ventry said. “It’s more one-on-one time I have with them. Before, they’d be working on their homework at home. I’d see the finished product but not how they got there. at the very least, this gives me the opportunity to be able to fix mistakes before it’s too late.

The students aren’t the only ones excited about the new learning style. “There are some days I feel like a first-year teacher again,” Ventry said.

So if the classroom is devoted to working with students on problem-solving, when do the teachers instruct on new materials? Actually, they do it while the students are at home.

Through technology available only within the last few years, students can watch lessons from home on computers or cell phones and learn at their own pace. If a student understands everything, he or she can be finished within 20 minutes. Others who may not understand as quickly can rewind the videos, which the teachers post to YouTube or networking site

Student love

Ventry’s class is one of the most difficult required courses offered at the school, and he’s seen his fair share of failed students retaking the course. Students like juniors Sierra Watson and Ashlee Akhter.

The pair spent last year mired in confusion and self-doubt about math and eventually on the outside looking in, grade-wise. But when Ventry explained the idea of the flipped classroom, they took to it almost immediately.

“Last year, we’d go over our homework and sometimes it would take the whole class,” Watson said. “This year, we do the problems in the classroom and we can get help whenever we need it.”

The program is also valuable to students who miss a lot of school in a year, whether from suspension, sickness or other reason. Students in a typical classroom might find themselves helpless upon return, unable to find support to catch up. The flipped classroom changes this. 

“With the videos, I can go at my own pace,” Akhter added. “I know how long I’m going to spend on the videos. When I go home, if I don’t know something, I can always look it up. Math has always been a different language to me. Now, in trig, this has been really good.”

Sophomore Jessica Evans was indifferent to the idea at first but has since converted, after coming to respect not having to sit around bored in class.

Evans is a different story than Akhter and Watson, understanding the concepts as they’re explained to her. So to sit through class after class as other students ask questions she doesn’t need explained always gets on her nerves.

“I like not getting all of the distractions in class,” she said. “The teacher doesn’t need to explain everything to me, but when I do have a question, the teacher can come around without having to teach everyone else.”

The lower levels

Amy Kilmer, one of the high school’s geometry teachers, didn’t know what to expect at the start of this year’s classes. She’d been a fairly successful teacher, passing more than 50 percent of her students in 2011-12.

She started flipping her classroom in September and has since seen a 14 percent drop in her failure rate on tests and 15 percent increase in students achieving mastery level – a score of 85 percent or higher – through the first four months of the year.

Her numbers are what Maynard and company hope translates into success at the end of the year when they evaluate the second year of their experiment. But for Kilmer, the stats show she’s simply doing her job.

Something she said hasn’t been symbolized through scores in the past, due to the content she’s charged with imparting on students.

“Geometry is the first year in math that’s different,” she said. “It’s a lot of new words, new concepts. So when the students go home, to get help from their parents, sometimes its impossible.”

She said the flipped classroom has changed not only the student participation, but also that from parents. They’re able to watch the videos with their children and able to understand concepts and recollect materials they once knew but forgot.

Having parents involved in the process is one of the most important aspects of success for everyone, from the students to herself, she said.

“Parents have told me they’ve sat down and watched these lessons with their children,” she said. “These students don’t have a lot of time at night to spend a lot doing homework. They have clubs, sports and other activities, so they’re not going home and doing the work right away. This is like taking a teacher home with them every night.”

Flipped classrooms aren’t exclusive to the district’s high school, either. Derek Frommert, a math teacher at Gaskill Preparatory School, also adapted it for his advanced students, but he’s taking the technology aspect to new levels.

Frommert not only takes full advantage of the Edmodo networking potential, which allows him to monitor which students watch his videos and gauges participation, he also uses the district’s SMART boards to bring technology into the classroom and create work groups for each day’s problems.

“I use the clickers with the SMART boards,” Frommert told the district’s school board at a recent meeting. “Each day, each student answers a series of questions. I take that data and put them into different groups. Then I bring the groups together and talk about what they’ve done.”

The future?

So as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his education department considers a list of reforms, from extending the length of the school year and/or day to expanding pre-kindergarten opportunities, Ed Maynard and his crew of teachers believe they’ve got a strong candidate for change which can be easily implemented with just a little effort.

They’ve got the first year results. They’re starting to see some figures come through positively this year. They all think the sky’s the limit with the Flipped Classroom model.

“This is the right time for this to happen,” Maynard said. “We’re some of the few teachers here really trying to do something outside the box to help these students learn. I think and I hope it’s working.”