After having a year of flipped instruction under my belt and absorbing all of the student feedback that I received (see my 2nd blog post in the series from last summer, “Flipping English Classrooms: Grammar Instruction”), I have taken time to reflect and consider what options and changes I could explore with this teaching strategy.
One of my first thoughts was to consider whether the strategy of flipping grammar instruction was having a long-term, positive impact on my students. If you recall from my “Framing the Flipped Classroom” post, flipping is when instruction is done outside of the classroom through videos and websites, and the “homework” or independent practice is done in class. In terms of my students, after implementing a flipped model, they were more engaged and we were having more enriched conversations about grammar, sentence structure, and language usage. Still, something was missing. I wanted my students to retain what they had learned and to see purpose in learning the skills that were being introduced through the video lessons.
Since the beginning of this school year, I have been able to see the impact first hand. I teach both 7th and 8th grade, so I have the opportunity to engage with students for two years in a row. I started off the year doing some simple bell ringers. My bell ringers are meant to warm up my students’ brains at the beginning of the hour. In the fall, when I gave them two simple sentences on the board and asked my 8th graders to turn them into one compound sentence and one complex sentence, the results were disheartening. The students showed me there had not been much in the way of retention for combining sentences or sentence structure. In addition, when I gave them their first writing assignment, they were required to use simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences throughout their writing and highlight that they could use these types of sentences effectively. As my students were in the drafting stages of their memoir, I paused to remind them about their guidelines for writing the piece.
- Your memoir needs to have dialogue.
- As a writer, demonstrate the effective use of complex sentences. (Highlight in blue at least 2-3.)
- As a writer, demonstrate the effective use of compound sentences. (Highlight in green at least 2-3.)
- As a writer, demonstrate the effective use of compound-complex sentences. (Highlight in pink at least 2-3.)
When we were done discussing the specific guidelines, I couldn’t help but overhear the students turning and asking each other: “What’s a complex sentence? What’s a compound sentence?” The conversation blew me away. There were numerous shoulder shrugs. A handful of students were using correct vocabulary, such as independent, dependent clauses, and conjunctions; however, even these students still couldn’t put all of the pieces together. My realization was that few of them, if any, had retained the information they learned in the flipped videos from the year before. To say the least, I was disappointed. However, because I had created the flipped lessons on our class wiki, the silver lining to this cloud came in how easily I could direct students to the videos that were used last year for the above mentioned topics.
So, as I highlighted these videos for my students, I began to think more about how I wanted to use flipped instruction in my classroom for the 2014-2015 school year, and perhaps the years to come. The one thought that kept resonating in my brain was that I am truly not using a “flipped” model for instructing my students. Instead, I was taking more of a blended approach with my students. Flipped lessons are just that, flipped: lesson outside of class, homework in class. Even with this approach, I wanted more. I didn’t want the grammar video to be just another lesson that the students forget. So, I started creating links to other websites and resources that the students could access. I wanted the conversations to go deeper. I didn’t want to spend just one or two days focusing on a skill. I wanted students to continue to think about the skill and the moves they make in their writing because of what they had learned.
On the other hand, blended learning deals directly with the use of digital content when it comes to instruction. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the students are going to watch a video for homework and then do the lesson in the classroom where they have access to their teacher. The idea behind blended learning is to break down the school walls and to permit teachers to interact with students in and out of the classroom. It allows teachers to reach more students on a daily basis through face to face interactions, online social platforms, tools such as Google Drive, and the use of other digital tools and apps.
Besides realizing that I was actually using more of a blended model for instruction, I began to examine whether students were actually doing their “homework” outside of class. That is, compared to a more traditional model that I once followed for grammar instruction which included me standing in front of the class, delivering the lesson, asking the students if they had any questions, and then giving them an assignment. I wanted to see if flipped learning led to more homework completion. The reality was that I was not seeing any improvement in homework being turned in with a flipped model. Sadly, my teaching dilemma persisted; the same students still were not turning in their homework, and it seemed that students were inventing new excuses for not having their work completed. For example, if students acknowledged that they did not have internet or computer access at home, I would put the video on a recordable DVD for them to take home and watch the lesson. As time went by, students started telling us their DVD players were “broken.” Upon investigation, we were finding out the DVDs weren’t even making it home.
Finally, I began to think about what my real purpose was for having my students watch videos for instruction. Was I really trying to curve any homework issues I was having, or was I posting videos for my students because I wanted them to be more engaged and have more access to their teacher? Were these good enough reasons for me to spend the time to create and search for videos on a given grammar topic? The harsh reality was they were not and I had to examine more worthwhile purposes. I believe if we are going to be the most effective teachers for our students, we have to be willing to try new ways to reach our students, even if that means we are going to fail. It is okay if something doesn’t work with our kids. If we can learn to adapt to our students and try new things and not be afraid to fail, our students will be willing to take leaps of faith as well.
Despite the fact there were numerous purposes to ponder, I had come to the conclusion that I wanted my students to have access to numerous resources other than just the textbook or me. In addition, I wanted my students to have access to these resources outside of the classroom through the multiple devices that they have access to every day. Though I know that nothing can truly replace a teacher, I also know that a teacher isn’t always accessible. As their teacher, the final reality that I had to come to terms with is that no matter how well I teach a skill, students were not going to retain everything that was taught to them. By giving them access to videos, websites, and audio clips such as Grammar Girl students can constantly revisit these skills and feel confident when asked to demonstrate them on an assignment. Also, because the blended model is more complex than just watching a video and then completing the activity, my students are thinking more about the skills they learned beyond the one day it was discussed in class. Now, with the blended model, they are thinking about how to apply this to more than just one piece of writing and they are beginning to think of sentence structure as something that is more fun like building Legos. Furthermore, they are thinking more about what they are doing and why they are doing it. In turn, they are retaining more with a blended approach.
When my principal came to the science teacher and me in the spring of 2013, I was fired up for the possibilities that flipped learning could bring to my students and to my classroom. My students have done some magnificent work in relation to this instructional approach. However, going through the experience and the experiment of flipping my grammar instruction has proven to me as a language arts teacher that my students benefit the most from a more blended approach where they have access to numerous resources when they need them. This proves once again that technology helps with breaking down the walls of the classroom so students can be successful and confident, even if they do have a question on an assignment outside of class.
Flipped learning is by no means the end-all, be-all of engaging our students. However, if teachers are willing to find nuggets of value in what it is trying to accomplish, perhaps it can help others realize what is truly best for their students to be successful. Yes, it is true, my students still need me to be their hub when it comes to learning a new skill, but they also need more than just their teacher. They need multiple resources that are easy for them to access when it comes to learning a new skill. Students also need more than just a simple worksheet or activity for them to retain the knowledge needed to complete future tasks. Furthermore, no matter what new innovative way a lesson may be introduced to students, there are still going to be students who will not turn in their homework and who will need extra encouragement to be successful in the classroom, and those who will take those skills they learn and apply it to their lives outside of school.
Jeremy Hyler (@jeremybballer) is a 7th and 8th grade middle school language arts teacher in Middleton, Michigan, a department co-chair, and a Co-Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He is co-author of Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing and Learning with Digital Tools
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.