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'Flipping' the classroom in DL

DLMS sixth grade math teacher Jess Stuewe helps out a student who had a question on the "homework" he was working on during class Tuesday afternoon. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

“The dog ate my homework.”

“I dropped it in a puddle on my way to class and it got ruined.”

“I left my paper on the bus.”

Many of these fabled excuses for missed or delayed classroom assignments are becoming a thing of the past in some Detroit Lakes classrooms, due to a relatively new method of instruction known as “flipped teaching.”

In the past, classroom teachers would stand in front of a chalkboard, video screen or other presentation medium and lecture on a particular topic, then send their students home with assigned problems to work out, based on that day’s lesson.

The students would bring their papers with the assigned problems back to class the next day, for the teacher to assess for errors and grade based on the quality of work shown.

Today, more and more teachers are “flipping” that traditional method of instruction by taking advantage of advances in computer and video technology.

Beginning last year with the distribution of iPads to the district’s fifth grade students, Detroit Lakes Middle School math teachers Steve Zamzo and Jess Stuewe began putting some of their classroom lectures into an online video format that could be accessed by the students at home, via their iPads.

The students would watch the videos, take notes, then come back to school the next day to complete their assigned math problems in class, using what they had learned from the videos.

“A flipped classroom, by design, is kind of backwards from what most of us grew up doing in school,” Zamzo says.

Rather than spending most of their class period standing in front of the students delivering a lecture, Zamzo and Stuewe can now use their time working with the students one-on-one, providing personalized guidance on the day’s assigned problems.

“It helped us out, because the homework wasn’t getting done” using the more traditional forms of instruction, Zamzo said.

The reasons for that go beyond simple reluctance to spend their after-school hours doing homework.

“Some kids maybe don’t have someone there after school, to help them with their homework and answer questions,” he said.

Also, for many parents, the things they learned in school are a distant enough memory, or the lessons have changed sufficiently that they sometimes don’t have the answers their children need to complete the assignment, Zamzo added.

With the flipped classroom, however, teachers are on hand to answer their students’ questions directly.

“We can answer questions immediately, and check their work as they are doing it,” he said. “To be able to have someone there to check and make sure you’re doing it right is a huge thing.”

“What pushed this forward was the implementation of iPads for the sixth grade,” Stuewe said. “This (flipped learning) really helps the kids use their iPads as a learning tool.”

For instance, if there is a particular part of the lecture that the student doesn’t quite understand the first time around, and would like to review it as preparation for a test, they can back up the video and “watch it over and over” as needed, she added.

“Our entire curriculum is online now,” Stuewe said.

Thus, students who are motivated to jump ahead to more advanced problems are able to do so, while those who need to look over the material a few times before they master it can simply review the video an extra time or two.

As with every innovation in learning, however, the flipped classroom took a little time to implement effectively, said Zamzo.

“We had to teach them how to use it first,” he added. “It was a pretty new thing to them, and we do try to set them up to be as successful as possible.”

Some of the early video lectures they did ended up being 15 minutes or more in length; as they became more experienced, they realized this was simply too long for the students to absorb the material effectively, Stuewe said.

“We’ve been doing them in five to eight minutes,” she added.

Zamzo equated their new classroom role to that of a sports coach getting his or her athletes ready for “game day” — i.e., testing on the assigned material.

“We work pretty good as a team,” Stuewe added.

Because they work on the curriculum together, that also means all of their students are getting the same material — which in turn means “all of the sixth grade students are on the same page,” said Zamzo.

Though much of the day’s assignment is done directly on the iPad, “paper and pencil is still readily available,” said Stuewe — and is still an essential tool for the students to prove their work.

“Math is still something where you need to work the problem out on paper,” Zamzo explained. “Showing your work is important.”

To make each day’s assigned material available to the students when they get home, Stuewe and Zamzo use an online learning management system known as Schoology, where all of the videos are stored and made accessible to the students via a user name and password.

Parents can also gain access to the material via the same system, Stuewe noted.

“It’s a web page that’s accessible via any (Internet) browser,” Zamzo added, noting that it can be accessed via a smart phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer system.

Videos from YouTube and other sources can also be used as supplemental material, he said.

As for making the video material interesting for their students, Zamzo said, “whatever the personality of the instructor is, that will come through… we try to make it somewhat entertaining for them.”

“It’s a learning process for us too,” Stuewe said.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454