Teacher Interviews – Flipped Teaching with Andrew Swan

One of my goals as a teacher blogger is to promote the voices of regular teachers. So many teachers are engaged in developing innovative and amazing new strategies for teaching Social Studies. They are advocates, they are inventive, and they are working with students on the front lines. Yet, their voices are often lost in the dialogue about our current education system. These experts in our field need to be promoted and recognized for their work. Each month, I’ll be publishing an interview with someone who’s taken on the task of teaching History. My hope is to promote teachers who deserve our attention.

My first interview is with Andrew Swan. A Yale graduate, Swan has been teaching middle school for the past 18 years in Newtown, Massachusetts. He has experience teaching 6th-grade Geography, 7th-grade English, and 8th-grade Humanities. For the past 8 years, he’s been teaching 8th-grade U.S. History. A public school teacher, Swan teaches with a diverse population with many different needs.

Swan is also one of the moderators of #sschat on twitter and he blogs about flipped teaching at https://www.flippingawesometeaching.com/. He was also on Jeopardy in 2009!

1. I’ve always found the idea of “flipped” teaching really compelling. What led you towards the “flipped” style of teaching?

Have you ever received a student’s project submission and you know they worked hard, but the information is total crap? One time I assigned a poster project about the French and Indian War. Several days later, a girl brought in a sparkling beautiful piece of work….about the wrong Treaty of Paris (1783, not 1763) which anachronistically also featured Napoleon Bonaparte because, you know, he was French. I really wanted students to produce creative work, to learn independence, and also understand history properly — but how could I get it all done?

Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams wrote the best-known book about flipping, called Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. I absorbed that book the following summer, and dove right in.

Flipping seemed like the best way to bring the project work into my classroom, where I could monitor students’ progress and avoid those “Treaty of Paris” moments while also providing essential content knowledge.

2. What benefits does “flipped” teaching have to offer that you didn’t find with your previous teaching approach?

After switching (voluntarily!) from teaching English for 8 years into the History classroom down the hall, I was eager for research projects, primary source readings, and deep discussions of current events.

Following the lead of my new content partner, I utilized the textbook for direct instruction, bolstered by my own in-class lectures and video presentations. I heartily endeavored to employ supplemental items like reading study guides for ELL and Sp.Ed. students; to give class time for mini-lessons on taking notes, reading the textbook, learning from a video, etc.; and to meet students after school or before school or during enrichment periods to catch them up on direct instruction they had missed…

… but that is not how I spend my teaching time anymore.

My conscience is clearer now. Every student can learn AT LEAST the essentials for every unit, whether or not they attend each class period. I don’t need to re-create every presentation or class experience for students who were physically or mentally absent.

Furthermore, students can delve deeply into those research projects, primary sources, and deep discussions that I wanted all along …. with the core background knowledge needed to succeed with those activities.

Another fun result: at nearly every parent-teacher conference, Mom and/or Dad points at me and says, “I recognize you from your videos!” And at least half of those adults follow up with something like, “I’m learning about American history too!” My relationship with parents has infinitely improved, as they know much more about what their child is learning. I have not had a single complaint about homework assignments in the past 5 years!

3. One of my concerns with “flipped” teaching is the ability of my SPED students to access and focus on the videos that present the content. How do you make sure that your SPED students are able to understand the lessons independently?

I have a sizable population of students with disabilities: some classes are almost 50% special-education program students with ADD, dyslexia, processing delays, other cognitive impairments, and/or severe emotional instability. That is the population which has benefited the most from my change to flipped learning.

I always have a couple students with visual-processing challenges; we encourage them to learn by listening to the presentations, sometimes by covering the screen. A few others have auditory-processing issues; we teach them to use visual cues for the first viewings, and then listen as closely as they can to replay. Everyone benefits from the ability to pause and rewind the video, including students with attention disorders and language-based disabilities.

The special-education staff absolutely love the video-based learning. They watch with the students; they can learn the material from videos ahead of time; they know exactly what I want students to learn from the homework; their role in my classroom is much more clear than before: not just a note-taker, but a facilitator for our active-learning experiences.

All students must be taught how to learn from videos. Some special-education program students will need more instruction and redirection than others, particularly with note-taking skills. For the first weeks or months, all Academic Support classes watch videos together. By the end of the year, independence has increased, and we trust they can apply those learning and note-taking skills in future years (with or without video lessons).

4. Some of my students live in locations where internet isn’t available, and their data plans are limited also. I worry that accessing the “flipped” lessons would be more difficult for those students. How do you deal with access to the internet for your classroom?

I feel fortunate that this isn’t a significant problem. I give a student survey in the first week of school, and one of the questions checks for students’ computer and internet access. I get no more than 5 students every September who report this will be a problem. Those students use enrichment/study-hall blocks or after-school library access as needed. Again, I know that I am lucky in this respect.

I always give 2 or 3 school nights for each video lesson assignment. That helps avoid some tech access issues. I also make the videos easily accessible through Vimeo or Youtube, so they may be watched on cell phones or any other device — no keyboard or fancy log-in required! They’re also fairly small (<50 MB) so bandwidth should not be a significant barrier.

Until we have ubiquitous internet availability in this country, teachers must assess the appropriateness of flipped learning on a community-by-community basis. That is ridiculously unfortunate, but I’m hopeful that issue will soon feel as absurd as the existence of antennae on cell phones.

5. What would you say to teachers who are thinking about “flipping” their classrooms?

Flipping everything at once is a huge leap. I do not recommend making the wholesale shift right away (even though I did this in 2013), because it impacts your grading policies, requires some special class management, and will disrupt many students’ and parents’ notions of classwork and homework. Also, you probably have to learn some video-production and curation techniques.

Start by flipping just 1 or 2 lessons. Pick a presentation that exhausts you to perform several times a day; choose something that you should standardize for every student. Two of my very first video lessons were:

Another piece of advice: you must use backwards-planning! 1) What are the objectives to assess? 2) What class experiences do you need to facilitate? 3) What knowledge do students really need to achieve 1 and 2? … The answer to that 3rd question tells you what the video lessons ought to contain. If you get into the trap of “hey, there’s this cool video I should show….” then your flipped classroom will collapse.

Finally, newbies should network with other flipped teachers:

  • www.flippedlearning.org is a really good resource
  • #flipclasschat and #flippedlearning Twitter hashtags also have some great educators
  • Start blogging about your journey into flipped learning, and reading other people’s blogs. That greatly helped my entry into this world!

This interview was incredibly inspiring for me! I’m already thinking about how I can flip a few lessons. If you have questions for Andrew, make sure to follow #sschat and #engsschat! They’ll be discussing teaching with a flipped classroom tomorrow night – January 29th, on twitter.  

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