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Teachers 'flipping' classrooms in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jen Cook's students never have to turn in homework.Instead, they are required to watch videos explaining the day's lesson when they're outside of class, and do all of their coursework during class time."The biggest problem I've had has been with the parents. They get concerned because it's so untraditional. There's a fear that I'm not teaching. But it's designed with a purpose," said Cook, a math teacher in Taylor County.Cook is one of a handful of teachers across West Virginia who are trying out "flipped classrooms" -- a strategy that inverts traditional teaching methods by delivering instruction online outside of class and moving "homework" into the classroom.While the state Department of Education does not currently sponsor any pilot in the state or provide funding support for teachers who want to try it, several teachers are taking it upon themselves to see if their classrooms can benefit from the unique strategy.Cook flipped her classroom about three months ago and she's already seeing improvements."The biggest thing is being able to really help the struggling students," she said. "I can spend more time with them, as opposed to only the high-flyers who answer most of the questions, which tends to happen in a traditional classroom."Students are learning more about independence, while Cook is connecting better with them one-on-one."This helps them understand that they're going to have times, whether it's in college or at a job, where their boss or professor is going to say, 'Go do this,' and they're going to have to get the information on their own. It's starting to build those skills," she said."It helps differentiate the students more -- it's easier to teach each of them individually. Most of them don't have the benefit of having a parent that remembers how to do the schoolwork to help them, especially with math. This gets them the help when they need it."Two teachers who recorded live lectures and posted them online for students to watch at home introduced the idea of flipped classrooms in Colorado in 2007. They reserved class time for collaborative work and exercises. Since then, teachers have been testing out their own versions of the method.Rob Grady, a chemistry teacher at Point Pleasant High School, uses an iPad app that pairs short audio clips with words to prepare students' "homework," and teaches a modified version of the method that combines the flipped classroom with mastery learning.Flipped-mastery classrooms encourage independent learning by allowing students to work at their own pace and collaborate in stations."Honestly, it's phenomenal. It has surpassed my expectations," Grady said. "You're teaching kids in a format that they're used to -- through videos and technology. It just makes sense to them."
Grady said he's seen academic improvements since he changed the way he teaches, especially when it comes to understanding key concepts."It's all self-based. You give the kids the video assignments, then they come in and work at their own pace," he said. "It allows your top performers to excel, and the others to move at their own pace. There's engagement with students who have never even raised their hand before."
Can flipped classrooms work if students don't have Internet access at home?Kyle Berry, a teacher at Barboursville Middle, thinks so.Instead of solely depending on videos, Berry gives students websites to browse as homework and offers paper copies of the same material, or he gives them a hands-on "project" for home. Recently, his students' homework was to search their houses for examples of heat conduction.For him, it's more about students actively seeking out learning experiences on their own than it is about putting something down on paper.
"If you can get them to look for things in their home that they're familiar with, they become more engaged. Then you use their experiences as a jumping-off point for class discussion. It's different, but kids like different," Berry said. "I want them active. I can't be sure there's somebody at home to help them with a page full of homework, but I know they can find something that resembles cytoplasm on their own if they get creative."Jeanette Shahan, a second-grade teacher in Morgantown, also has altered the flipped method to accommodate students without computer access.She records short videos of herself giving lectures and allows students to watch them at their own pace in class. That way, they can replay directions for class projects, and she can use her time more efficiently by engaging with each group of students.But Shahan, who has taught for nearly 40 years, said the transition wasn't easy for her."I'm a veteran teacher. I had some reservations. I'm not real tech savvy -- I thought I was inadequate," she said. "But my students were glued. I was just amazed. I could not believe how enthusiastic they were. Their little faces lit up."Shahan has used the opportunity to create a more personal connection with her students. During Christmastime, she based a lesson off a video she made in her home in front of her Christmas tree and asked the students to tell her about their traditions.Kim Greene, Shahan's principal at Skyview Elementary, offered gift cards to any teacher who would try out the new method. Once the rewards ran out, teachers were trying it on their own, without the incentive.At Skyview, teachers use flip cameras to record their lectures or allow students to help teach each other by coming up with the activities and recording them to show to others."The possibilities are really endless. If there's a sub, students can still get their normal instruction," she said. "We've even started flipping faculty meetings."While not everyone in the state agrees that flipped classrooms are the future of education, most teachers trying out the new method agree that the technique is having a significant influence on the school environment."I don't think it's going to be your whole toolkit, but I think it's a great tool to have," Berry said. "It needs to be a part of a teacher's repertoire, but it doesn't have to be done full-scale.""It could be used in all classrooms, but there doesn't have to be one, sole method," Cook said. "It's a great way to make moves in the right direction so that every student doesn't have to stay on the same page. In a traditional lecture style, everyone's doing the same thing every day, and advanced students tend to get bored while others struggle to keep up. Even the very best teachers struggle with that."Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.
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