A FENWICK ALGEBRA TEACHER IS TURNING THE TRADITIONAL LECTURE MODEL UPSIDE-DOWN.
By Mark Vruno
For three school years now, Math Teacher Andrew Thompson has been “flipping” the educational experience for his freshman College Prep Algebra I students at Fenwick High School. Unlike their predecessors of decades past, these frosh do not sit through traditional lectures in the classroom. Instead, for homework, Mr. Thompson’s students listen to and watch 15-minute digital, audio-visual files of their teacher explaining algebraic concepts and, literally, working through equations. “They can see everything I’m writing as I’m doing it,” he explains. Then, the next day in class, students work (often together) on practice problems from their algebra textbook.
LISTEN IN AS MR. THOMPSON EXPLAINS THE CONCEPT OF COMPOUND INEQUALITIES.
Thompson spent the better part of a summer preparing and pre-recording the video files to reverse his conventional learning environment, and he has been tweaking and improving the content ever since. (He employed the use of Explain Everything, an interactive whiteboard app for Apple iPads.) One major upside of this teaching style is that a student truly can work at his or her own pace.
“An advantage of the flipped classroom model is that the videos are pause-able and re-watchable,” the teacher points out, “and they’re always available for review and/or reference via Schoology,” the school’s online learning-management system. “My students are given time almost every day to work at their own paces in class,” Thompson adds.
On the course description that Mr. Thompson distributes to parents and students at the beginning of the semester, he outlines a typical night of homework:
- Watching one video and taking thorough notes on the [built-in] Notes Guide, which is available as a printable PDF document, or on a blank sheet of paper. “I ask students to at least copy down exactly what they see on the screen, even if they’re confused,” he explains.
- At home, students also may finish up any in-class bookwork from the previous day. (Mr. Thompson does not grade the bookwork for completion, “only effort,” but adds that he stronglyrecommends that his students do it.)
- Other reinforcing homework might include completing a practice quiz/test or extra practice worksheet, which also are completed for a homework grade.
Meanwhile, back at school in Room 34, a typical day in class could include talking about due dates and upcoming events, such as chapter quizzes and unit tests. Students also will review, together, the material from the video by doing some example problems on the screen. “This is the time where students can ask questions about what they did not understand in the video,” Thompson explains, which can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. “I highly encourage them to ask questions.” They have multiple opportunities to ask questions in class, either with everyone or one-on-one with Mr. Thompson. The teacher sees value in peer collaboration as well. “They can learn the material from one another as well as from me,” he urges.
Then, students are given time to work on the book assignment for a given day – applying the concepts from the previous night’s video. “This is what used to be ‘homework,” Thompson says, and consumes approximately another 20 minutes of class time. His algebra students can earn up to three daily participation points. “As long as they are on task and make a good-faith effort, they earn all points,” their teacher emphasizes.
Something else that he does during class time has become a critical task over time. Mr. Thompson checks every student’s notes – one by one — for completion and “a homework grade.” He admits that he absolutely needs to be diligent with these note checks, something he learned the hard way two years ago. Clamping down on note taking “makes them committed,” he says of his students.
Not Their Fathers’ Algebra Instruction …
Truth be told, the flipped classroom is not a new concept. The idea was popularized by Khan Academy nearly a decade ago, with their short lectures on YouTube, but its appearance in mainstream education has been gradual. Does the progressive instructional technique work well for students? The proof is in the math, Thompson contends. “I believe the self-paced method yields positive results,” he notes. “The ability to work at your own pace serves the lower end of the class as well as the high end. Anecdotally, I’ve seen it work.”
But how does he manage all the different paces, you ask, especially in an introductory freshman course? From an algebra standpoint, “Fenwick has kids from all over coming out of eighth grade with a wide range of abilities,” Thompson acknowledges. “Struggling students can take things as slowly as they need to, while the more advanced, honors-type students can work at a faster pace and/or do advanced work that I make available in Schoology. These kids just need to stay within the parameter that I create.”
Reception from present Fenwick parents to this blended-learning strategy has been overwhelmingly positive. “When I first learned of the flipped classroom style of teaching, I thought it was a unique and innovative way to work with the students,” praises Cindy Day Erwin, mother of Michael (FHS Class of 2021). “As a parent, the opportunity for my son to do the math problems alongside his classmates and have the teacher there to assist when confused makes tremendous sense to me.
“I remember being a student and getting stuck on a question, but then the next day we were on to a new topic,” Ms. Erwin continues, “so there wasn’t a real opportunity to get my questions answered. This method has potential to ensure that all the students understand the information that they need to know.”
Fellow parent and Fenwick alumnus Mark Laudadio ’84 echoes such upbeat feedback regarding blended learning when it comes to his son, Cosmo, who also is a freshman in Mr. Thompson’s class. “Cosmo has done well because all problem-solving is going on in class, where the teacher can help,” Laudadio stresses. “Also, he receives some tutoring [outside of school], and the tutor can lock right on to this week’s assignments.”
As for student reactions, Mr. Thompson has received mixed evaluations on the flipped classroom method. “It’s a new tactic for most kids, so it’s a mixed bag,” he says. He did conduct a Professional Development session last year, and a few other Fenwick faculty members have incorporated it in their teaching, including fellow Math Teachers Mary Cusack and FHS newbie Matt Barabasz, who brought the technique with him from St. Patrick High School (Chicago). In our Theology Department, Father Doug Greer and John Paulett have been receptive to “flipping,” as has Expressive Arts Department Chair Rizelle Capito.
Mr. Barabasz also has been flipping his classrooms for since 2015. This year he is teaching Algebra III Intermediate and Advanced Algebra III as well as Geometry. “I flip only certain sections or chapters,” he says, and “I do not do the whole year. It works very nicely for math because we learn from our mistakes and we learn from doing problems.
“Students tend to enjoy the flipped aspect better — once they get used to it. I have had some students come up to me and ask to switch back, though, … [which] is why I do not do an entire year. Some kids need the guidance and full support, so I cannot ignore those types of learners within the class.”
Being new to our school, Barabasz says he is working toward flipping some sections here at Fenwick. “It is a lot of front- ended work,” he explains, “and making time as a new teacher isn’t the easiest thing, but I do plan on incorporating some aspects. Right now I am posting videos for the students, but these are after the fact and are for additional support.”
About the Author
Media Content Manager Mark Vruno is Editor of Friar Reporter, Fenwick’s alumni magazine, and Head Freshman Football Coach.