Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflections of a New Semester

This school year has seen some changes, marking the next step in my evolution as a teacher. What follows are some reflections of the first semester on the implementation of flip class, standards-based grading, mastery learning, and immersion in a family setting. In my research prior to initiating these changes, what I found was compelling evidence to make the change. Some of these findings are noted and my observations behind them. This is by no means statistical data, but rather observational data to support or contrast what research and other classroom teachers are finding.

Flip Classroom

Research by Aaron Sams, Jonathan Bergmann (Colorado), Karl Fisch, Khan Academy

Research/experience suggests: Students move at their own pace

My observations:

Nothing is worse than sitting in a class and having to review concepts that you already know very well, or being in a challenging class that seems to move too fast that you feel like you are drowning. Allowing students to move at their own pace means you are allowing students to learn on their own time. If they need more time to understand something, they take more time. If they don’t need as much time as we have planned for them, don’t beat a dead horse.

This showed up right away at the beginning of the semester. A particular Spanish II student started with a more challenging concept. He struggled with it for 3 weeks, missing his progress check. Since he was spending the needed time with it and mentally working through the concept as evidenced by his daily work, he was still awarded full credit on his progress check even though he had nothing concrete to show for it. By the next 2-week check, however he had not only “mastered” that concept, but also 2 additional concepts and was ahead of his peers! This also showed up in other students throughout the semester. It’s very cool to see this in action.

Students also began to understand what they were good at and what they struggled with, such as grammar, conjugation, vocabulary, etc. Eventually they were able to get into a new unit and start with the “easy” concept first and then leave the more difficult concepts for the end of the unit when they had more time.

This idea was really valuable when I had a student who demonstrated extremely slow processing skills. Once he understood the concept, he retained it, but getting him to understand the concept was very labor-intensive. We were able to slow down time for him and he completed quarter 1 Spanish in the amount of time other students completed the first semester. He still met the goals, just like the other students, just a bit slower. If this had been a “normal” class, this student would have failed and been looking for another class to take second quarter. Fortunately, he was able to reach success and also picked up some skills through the conversación second semester.

Modifications for second semester:

I really like how the students are able to choose what they want to study and when. This is the ultimate reflection of student-centered, differentiated instruction. For this reason, I will continue to allow them to move at their own pace. I will try to encourage them to progress at a rate that they can move as I think some are moving slower than their abilities.

Research/experience suggests: Students have a deeper understanding of the material

My observations:

A number of Spanish II students struggled with a certain concept and tried to just hand in an assignment before completely understanding it. Through conversations with them, they realized that they needed to watch the entire video explanation, get help from their “family” but not allow them to do the work for them, and/or complete additional learning activities to better understand the material. Fortunately, I was able to have these conversations with them get them to a point where they could more deeply understand the concept. In a traditional class they would have a surface level understanding of the material and be able to complete an assignment, but wouldn’t have the opportunity for the deep understanding without holding up the rest of the class. This is just one example of many that I could have demonstrated here.

Modifications for second semester:

Previous to this year, I have had conferences with each student every 2 weeks. These lasted about 5 minutes each and it gave me an opportunity to see what the students knew and could do, offer reteaching or extension to learning. Unfortunately because I had to meet with every single student in a limited time, there was no room for additional time with the students that really needed it. Now I can conference with the students that really need it and push the other students during the conversación time at the beginning of class. This balance seems to be more ideal for the conference component and I will continue to conference with students in this capacity.

Research/experience suggests: Lectures become homework; homework becomes classtime: students are more engaged in the learning process

My observations:

One of my goals in the flip class model was to put the responsibility of learning the lower-order thinking skills (LOTS) on the student. In the past, I was frustrated with spending class time memorizing vocabulary and doing Quadrant A learning. I wanted to advance my students into the other quadrants and higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) during class and not have to worry about those low-level tasks. This is what I wanted to have happen as homework! I wanted more quality, hands-on discussions happening during the brief 40 minutes I had with them each day.

What flip class offered were students listening to and watching the lectures, on average, three times for each concept. Some students also got a one-on-one explanation or a whole-group face-to-face instruction time in addition to the video. This indicates that students are replaying explanations, pausing, reviewing, and reinforcing concepts. Traditionally, students get one face-to-face, whole-group explanation with some redirective guidance as needed later. While the video watching is theoretically supposed to happen as homework, I am ok with students watching during class. At any given moment, students are in one class period may be working on 6-7 different goals or concepts. Again, this is the ultimate in student-directed, differentiated instruction. Students are engaged at different levels.


Students know that there is an explanation, some examples, and then a task that they have to complete and show me. Some students will just watch the first part of the video, thinking they understand and then go straight to the required task for that goal, without fully understanding. This leads to the student having to redo the learning task. I struggle getting the students to watch the entire video and show me their notes. Most students are able to direct their learning, but other students need that structure and step-by-step approach; these are the ones not doing the steps.

Modifications for second semester:

Currently, I am in the process of making the videos more interactive with accompanying note-taking strategies, based on research-based CRISS strategies. I am unsure what to do about those who can and simply won’t, however. This has long been a challenge for me and why I seek change, new approaches, and out-of-the-box ideas.

Research/experience suggests: Progress checks needed - must be self-motivated, learn to prioritize, manage time and tasks, etc.

My observations:

Students were seen making a learning plan for themselves. Some even voiced their plan with me to be sure it would be one that worked. I saw Stickies used to check off their goals as they went through the unit, or what they had planned to do for the week. I heard kids talking in their families about prioritizing the tasks necessary to complete the unit goals, students were being metacognitive about why they had chosen to do things in the order they were doing them. These were great discussions to be a part of and listen to from afar. I had conversations with kids about what they were doing to complete their goals and they were able to immediately explain that they were doing X before Z so that it was easier. While I didn’t necessarily always agree with them, it made sense to the student so that was the important thing.

Human nature makes kids take the “low road”. Why should I do work when I can socialize, watch movies, play games, etc? This obviously leads to procrastination. Some students have been doing the minimum they need just to complete a deadline. As expected, students will put off for tomorrow what they could be doing today. “I’m done with my progress check” is their thinking and why do they need to do anything else since nothing is due for another 2 weeks. My response is always the same, “so start working on the next deadline; never stop and never give up, always keep learning!” Yes, they need progress checks. Yes, they are going slower the farther away they are from a deadline. Yes, the progress checks are keeping them from digging a hole too deep to get out of at the end of the quarter.

My biggest concern at this point is their lack of vocabulary. The students seem to be doing really well with the grammatical points, but if a student is struggling, it’s because they are not doing their vocabulary. While I see students starring blankly into a screen thinking they will magically learn their vocabulary by starring, I encourage them to use other means to work with their vocabulary. I have included links in Moodle that access games, tutorials, and interactive activities. Students have also requested other, nontechnology-based activities so I have made paper-based activities. Unfortunately, they have only used the large flashcards and none of the other activities available to them.

What else have I done? We have conversation nearly everyday in which they should be using the vocabulary they are supposedly learning. I strongly encourage them to find 5-10 new vocabulary words that they can use daily during the conversation time. The conversation topics are very conducive to incorporating each student’s vocabulary. I have also strongly encouraged the students to learn their vocabulary at the same time they are learning the grammar. I have also required some students to show me 3 different ways they have practiced their vocabulary before retaking a test.

Another problem is that some students are only using one method of studying their vocabulary and lack the skill to generalize. For example, a vocabulary word was “to primp” this quarter. One activity asked the students to give a word for “to fix or straighten oneself”. When they got to the quiz, they couldn’t make the bridge between the two English words to come up with the Spanish word. A discussion then ensues regarding if this was a legitimate word or not. Quickly leaving the argument, as it isn’t the point of the assessment, the student is encouraged to practice the vocabulary multiple methods before proceeding to the next attempt.

To summarize, the progress check is working just as it should, but students are achieving the minimum standard. Vocabulary acquisition also continues to be a challenging issue.

Modifications for second semester:

I still have to decide how I will be adjusting for the vocabulary issue and those who stop, or at least slow to a near halt. I have come up with 3 options, or perhaps a combination of the three:

a) Push more conversation. If they aren’t going to use the work time, why should they be given time to sit on their laurels? OK, that was snarky. What if they had more time to practice what they have been studying?

b) Emphasize a need for constantly working – learning is not a destination, but rather a journey.

c) Make a cultural shift to mimic life -long learning. We are constantly learning and, as a graduate professor once said, “The moment you stop learning is the moment you stop living.” I struggle, however, with getting adolescents to learn to push themselves to bigger and better things. This is a good life lesson. I will keep giving my best effort, though.

Standards-based Grading:

Research by Marzano, Shawn Cornwally (@ThinkThankThunk), Matt Townsley, Scriffiny

Research/experience suggests: Meet minimum standards

My observations:

Students and parents are accustomed to #sbar in the elementary grades PK-4. So, why should this change when they take that transitional walk across the parking lot to the “big school”? They understand #sbar and it’s underlying philosophy. Ultimately, a grade should reflect what a student knows and can do – nothing more, nothing less. If a student doesn’t score well, additional work shouldn’t be given just to arbitrarily raise a grade; either the student knows the concept or she doesn’t. Having said this, additional work can be done to show a better understanding. What’s the difference? Scenario 1: Student performs at C level work. Additional work of writing a paper brings student up to a B level work. This paper does not necessarily show a developed understanding of the C level concept or skill, but more points were earned to raise grade to a B. Scenario 2: Student performs C level work. Additional work is done through practice, one-on-one conferencing, lab environment, or another activity to deepen student’s understanding of the concept or skill that now the student understands at a B level. Scenario 2 is what I am trying to create in my classroom, and I believe it is working (mostly) successfully. This is something that I have had in place for over 10 years now.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of high standards for students to achieve will remain in place.

Research/experience suggests: Eliminate grade; focus on skills

My observations:

First quarter was awesome! I had the most exciting start of a year that I ever had…until 2 weeks before the end of the quarter. What changed? Letter grades had to be assigned. See my previous post on grading: How to Kill #sbar in the Classroom. When grades are all but eliminated, every assessment is only worth 4 points, and the culture of the class is focused on skills and concepts rather than assignments, the atmosphere is very different! I loved how students were openly participating, taking risks and trying new things. Once grades came back into play, the risk taking went away and they went back to the low road in their journey and they closed their mind to real learning. This has saddened me very much and I’m not sure how to get that back. The variables affecting this are out of my control, but I continue to have great conversations with kids and help them to see how making mistakes is really giving them a deeper understanding of their learning. Elimination of grades is really the direction we need to go in order to maximize student learning.

Modifications for second semester:

With a new semester brings a new start, a clean slate, a fresh page in the grade book. Students often see a new semester as a new beginning. I am hoping to focus on this and bring back the risk taking. I like what the students are able to accomplish in this environment and I often cheerlead their efforts to positive learning and increase in skills and concepts.

Research/experience suggests: Grade becomes a collection of skills rather than a collection of points and assignments.

My observations:

This is similar to the discussion from the earlier topic. I will elaborate the idea with this: the younger the learner, the more structured the assignment needs to be. The older the learner, the less structured the assignment needs to be. I began the year assigning a specific task for each learning goal in Spanish I, pairing it back a bit for II and most of the assessment in III coming from the practical portion of the lesson: the conversation. This has worked well, and I still agree with this, but the upper level learners are still engrained in the idea that if they turn something in, they are learning. Second quarter I added a few more assignments to appease the transition. I think I have a nice happy-medium for now. Perhaps by the end of the year I can eliminate all assignments and just focus on the conversation and acquisition of skills and vocabulary.

This has been a great component and approach to teaching and learning. Kids aren’t completing assignments for the sake of completing them. Learning does not necessarily equate to completing an assignment. Case in point: the student who took 3 weeks to learn a difficult concept. He wasn’t producing anything, but was definitely learning! By the time he understood it well enough to produce something, he had a deep understanding of the concept.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of focus on skills rather than collection of point and assignments will remain in place.

Research/experience suggests: More effective learning discussions with students involving detailed feedback.

My observations:

As stated in a previous topic, conferencing has been extremely valuable and an integral part of my teaching for a number of years now. It has evolved and taken on some changes, but the underlying philosophy remains the same. Conferencing and educational discussions with students is perhaps the most effective component in learning. I can keep kids grounded, give them wings, or show them a path they never knew was there.

Feedback is something that takes the most time, but is the most effective in directing learning. Comments such as “good job” or “nice work” do not show students what they did in relationship to the learning target. Meeting a goal is more than just assignment completion. How well do they understand the learning goal? What did they do well? What can they do to improve or deepen this skill? The conferencing and oral and written feedback are most effective in moving learning forward.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of conferencing and educational discussions will remain in place.

Mastery Learning

“In general, mastery learning programs have been shown to lead to higher achievement in all students as compared to more traditional forms of teaching” (Anderson, 2000; Gusky & Gates, 1986)

Research/experience suggests: higher achievement

My observations:

While I have always had a mastery approach (for at least the past 15+ years), I never implemented it with vocabulary. This is the first year for mastery of vocabulary. Language is a content that builds on itself so “mastery” of one concept needs to happen before moving on to another concept. I set the mastery level at 80%. In the past, students had to show a minimum of C work to earn a grade. They could redo a learning task, but a minimum of C was the standard level.

I often grew frustrated that students would rush through vocabulary tasks, “space off” during vocabulary lessons, or in some way rush through and get less than 30% on their vocabulary assessments. I needed to do something different. I wanted them to keep trying until they could achieve the minimum expectation in vocabulary too.

One thing I have been gravely disappointed with this past quarter is the increased level of cheating. A red flag was raised at the end of first quarter when the students were getting 90+% on their vocabulary quizzes, but couldn’t use the vocabulary in conversation. Again, the beginning was great as they were taking risks, and reaching beyond their usual comfort level. Once the letter grade came into vision, the pressure to perform also rose.

Modifications for second semester:

To make another step toward responsibility for learning, I’m going to have students meet a grammatical goal next to a vocabulary goal. Since grammar and vocabulary are intended to be learned side-by-side, this makes sense. The students have been separating them as if they were two distinct entities, rather than one influencing the other.

I am also going to use the clickers with my interactive whiteboard to create weekly assessments. These will give me an indication of their level of understanding with the grammar and vocabulary. I will also be able to recycle old goals to be sure they are retaining previous skills. My goal is to have additional whole-group discussions about why certain answers are in/correct. This will hopefully get them to become more metacognitive as well.

Immersion and the Family Setting

Research/experience suggests: built-in mentors

My observations:

We learn our first language in the comfort of our home surrounded by multiability speakers. The parents are the highly proficient speakers; there are adolesents with mid-range abilities; there are preschoolers or young children with limited language abilities. All 3 levels come together at the supper table to have a conversation centered around a chosen topic. Given this, why should learning a second language be any different? This year Spanish I, II, and III are all mixed together to learn as a family. Spanish I is the “children”; Spanish II is the “parents”; and Spanish III is the “grandparents”. Ideally, each table group has a mix of each level.

The built-in mentors have worked great. It produces a culture in class of students being knowledgeable to answer questions; they don’t have to rely on the teacher to give all the answers. This moves the focus of the class from teacher-centered to student-centered. Students are asking their parents or grandparents for assistance on various matters. I have heard not only some mentoring happening this year, but also some great encouragement and positive reinforcement among the students.

Creating this environment can be challenging. This was the first year I have had a predetermined seating chart. I wanted to be sure there was a relatively equal mix of I, II, and III students in each family. I also looked at their personalities and learning styles to get the best match I could. In looking at the families, I wanted to be sure there wasn’t a family full of slower learners or all challenge-ready students, but rather a mix of various learners so that there would be some amiable mentoring happening. This proved difficult in a couple of sections, but it worked great for the vast majority of families. Only one family needed some “counseling” by the end of the semester.

Modifications for second semester:

The idea of mentors in the classroom was great. The concept of family-style learning will continue into second semester, even though the students are not keen on the idea yet.

Research/experience suggests: I/II learn from II/III; II/III reinforce concepts from I/II

My observations:

While this was my hope when I first entered into this school year, I didn’t know if I would actually achieve this goal or not. Truth is, this is one of the best things to happen this year. Spanish I has become sponges for Spanish II and III material. Spanish II and III are getting the reinforcement of prior learning, as well as advancing themselves in their current curriculum. In the past I spent a lot of time reviewing what was discussed and learned in previous levels so that we could build on those skills in the current unit. This year, it is just a natural part of the daily lesson. Students are getting the concept of learning and reinforcing skills. They can’t verbalize it or explain it, but they are doing it.

Each year I offer a challenge of a speaking contract to my IIIs and IVs. This contract is entered voluntarily by the student and states that he will speak Spanish 100% of the time in class, or if they see me in the hallways, at games, shopping, or other location. This year a number of the Spanish I and II students wanted to enter that challenge as well, many with great success!

Formative assessments happen throughout the course as a spot-check for progress. These assessments lead to a summative assessment known as a semester test. The students have a 10-minute conversation with me with a list of sample questions. Students were answering questions to my surprise with grammatical concepts and vocabulary from one or two levels above them. Keep in mind that no script of any kind can be used with this assessment as it is a conversation so students are really using their grammar and vocabulary from their knowledge base. When I asked them how they know those words, they replied, “You taught us those in our conversation last [week/month/quarter].”

Modifications for second semester:

This has exceeded my expectation and will be continued into second semester.

Research/experience suggests: Students become comfortable with language learning in a relaxed environment

My observations:

Some students had gained a strong sense of family in the setting. One abuelo was even heard commenting to his hijo, “That is just not what we do in this family.” Many students often used the terms “padre”, “abuela”, “hijos” as they referred to their classmates. It is definitely a relaxed environment on most days. Students are collaborating, laughing, and all working toward a common goal.

Modifications for second semester:

The family setting can be a very powerful component of this approach. I will continue to help the students see the benefit of this mix second semester.


  1. Some really great work here. Glad you are sharing what you are finding in your classroom. This is also a great look into the "messy" world of education. Keep it up!

  2. you've inspired me to develop a flipped classroom plan! Thanks for such a great reflection on the process

  3. I like your summary. One question re: your flipped classroom: Where you do get your videos? Do you record them yourself?

  4. @teachermrw I record my own, but am experimenting with more structured lessons using Google Docs, embedding the "lecture" videos, and creating some discussion-based or activity-based lessons.