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Providence Day tries tech-savvy teaching
[March 16, 2012]

Providence Day tries tech-savvy teaching

Mar 16, 2012 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Providence Day School's first chemistry lecture of the year began with teachers Josh Cannon and Michelle Sebastian dancing in the corner of a video screen to "The Element Song," a bouncy tune they found on YouTube.

Their 10th-grade students get their lectures on "vodcasts" -- like podcasts, only on video -- which they can watch whenever and wherever they like. In class, they do the kind of work that's traditionally done at home, with their teachers and classmates available to consult.

Yes, Cannon and Sebastian have flipped. "Flipped classrooms" are a national trend in the quest to change the way students learn using digital technology. Short video lectures let students take in the basics at their own pace, while teachers incorporate the videos, music and computer simulations that today's teens expect. In-class "homework" encourages the consultation and research that's a hallmark of real-world work.

With the explosion of digital devices in classrooms and homes, the question becomes how to use the technology so it's not just a new tool for outdated teaching. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, is rolling out wireless Internet in all schools next August, and offering teachers a chance to get classroom iPads if they propose innovative ways to use them.

Chief Information Officer Scott Muri said he doesn't know of any CMS classes using flipped instruction, but called it "an interesting practice with quite a bit of promise." Andrew Miller, a national expert on 21st-century learning, warns against seeing flipped classrooms as the latest big solution for educational woes. "The flipped classroom is one way to help move teachers toward better teaching," he writes in a blog, "but does not ensure it." Providence Day teachers agree with Miller: Flipping the way they teach isn't easy, even with the advantages that the private school brings. They say the more they deviate from old-school lessons, the harder it is on teachers and students.

"It puts a lot of responsibility on the student's plate, and some of them aren't ready," Sebastian said. She's been teaching 27 years, and says this is the hardest she's worked.

But she also says it's the first time she's seen such dramatic change in the way her students learn.

The push for combining video lectures with in-class "homework" has been building for several years. Thousands of video lessons are now available online, and a host of blogs, websites and conferences explore flipped instruction.

Providence Day, a southeast Charlotte school with 1,550 students, is giving the Charlotte area a close-up look at the challenges and rewards.

Cramming on the bus Teachers there started seeing tweets about the flipped-classroom approach pioneered by Colorado teachers Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams. Matt Scully, the school's technology director, got Bergmann and Sams to speak to faculty over the summer, and this school year a few Providence Day middle and high school classes flipped.

Psychology teacher Joe Grabenstetter likes the technique because he was so busy trying to cram in the required college-level material for his Advanced Placement class that he couldn't squeeze in the kind of activities that bring the material to life.

This year, for instance, he did his basic neurobiology lecture on video, allowing students to take the material at their own speed. During the class time that freed up, he had students randomly select parts of the brain, pair up and write a dialogue between the parts. One of the best had the Wernicke's area of the brain, which controls speech, start out eloquent and deteriorate into aphasia, a classic disorder. The amygdala responded with the emotion that part of the brain controls.

The students loved the change, Grabenstetter says, and one student told him the video lectures let her study for exams while riding the bus to and from athletic competitions.

Full-scale flip If Grabenstetter dipped his toes in the water, he says the chemistry crew -- Cannon, Sebastian and Russell White -- dived in with their clothes on.

Students get all their Chemistry I lectures in video clips roughly eight minutes long. Each unit comes with a list of tasks the 10th-graders must complete, from hands-on experiments to online quizzes. It's up to them to figure out how and when to do the work and take the test. If they finish early and test well, they have some free time. If they do poorly, they can complete more exercises and retake the test.

Teachers are on hand to answer questions and provide direction, but they spend little time standing in front of the class talking. Students say they found that jarring at first.

"First semester was kind of rough for everyone," said Cassidy Greshko, a student in Sebastian's class.

"If you don't keep up, you will fall behind," agreed classmate Christena Pourlos.

Sebastian says at the start of the year, she was swarmed by students expecting her to tell them what to do. Now, she and Cannon say, students are starting to feel comfortable taking charge of their own work.

"It's a lot less stressful once you've gotten used to it," says Jake Fenn, one of Cannon's students.

Sebastian says teachers were pleasantly surprised by how little resistance they got from parents, who are paying more than $21,000 a year for their kids' education. She and other teachers say the biggest pushback came from kids who are academically driven and used to succeeding at the traditional "listen and regurgitate" format.

But teachers say taking responsibility for their work -- and learning the consequences if they slack off -- will serve kids better in college and careers.

Student Elana Burack, who disliked the new approach at first, has come to agree: "I'm sure it will help me in the long run." Challenges and promise Creating the videos, along with a large bank of test questions that allow online retesting, is proving time-consuming. Sebastian says she's spending hours of extra time each week, though she acknowledges that 26-year-old Cannon, who was born after she started teaching, is much quicker at video production.

Having three chemistry teachers work together lets them share or co-produce videos. Students have told the teachers they like the ones where Cannon and Sebastian appear on screen together, providing some back-and-forth.

Next year, with a bank of videos and test questions in hand, should be easier, the teachers say.

Sebastian and Scully, the technology director, have taught in public schools. They say that would pose additional challenges, from larger classes (Sebastian said she had about 32 students per class in public schools, compared with about 20 at Providence Day) to fewer students with digital access at home. But they think it could help engage students who may be unmotivated in traditional settings.

"The energy level is like twice the amount of a regular class," Sebastian says.

Helms: 704-358-5033 ___ (c)2012 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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