There had to be a Better Way

A year ago, Cheryl was frustrated.  She bought into the idea that her role as a teacher was to provide information and her students’ role was to learn it well enough to demonstrate to her their proficiency.  She could keep 35 below-level 10th graders on task most days, but it was killing her.  It took something so far outside her natural introverted go-with-the-flow mentality that she was exhausted, and aware that she was just playing a part she hated every day.  And she couldn’t keep doing it.

Andrew was frustrated too, but for different reasons.  He was being told that “good teaching” was exactly what he hated: standing up in front of the class, lecturing and controlling every student behavior until they were little automatons producing page after page of perfect notes filled with useless knowledge.  He knew that it wasn’t the way he wanted to teach, but he was stuck.  And he couldn’t keep doing it.

So they both went looking for a better way, and can’t wait to share what they’re found.

Finding the Better Way, by Andrew Thomasson and Cheryl Morris

For each of us, the search started by being introduced to the idea of Flipped Class.  And both of us tried to implement it because we saw it as addressing the weighty issues by which we both were being crushed: personalities that didn’t fit with the Sage on the Stage model; an intense desire for students to be successful both in and out of our classroom; and a belief that our classroom time could be and should be used differently.

And it was better.  More sustainable in terms of personality.  But there was so much to learn, so much to prepare, so much to do. But it didn’t take long to figure out that we couldn’t do it all alone.

That recognition brought us together.  During the Flipped Convention in Chicago (which we both attended virtually), we ended up in a conversation on Twitter about making collaborative English videos together, and that started spiraling.  What we thought was making a few videos about writing research papers ended being something significantly more interesting and ultimately, transformational.

And three months after tweeting at each other for the first time, everything is different. We are collaborating.  Team-teaching from 2,500 miles apart.  Even though we’ve never met physically in person, we have observed each other teaching, and debrief and plan together daily over Google+ Hangout.

Our students are collaborating.  We run a shared website where all of our students can find all of our assignments, and they will be working together intensely on the Blank White Page project, along with several other teachers across the United States.

But what we’re doing is just the beginning.  It’s a bridge between the world in which we as teachers were stuck, isolated from others, operating day-to-day, thinking that’s all there was to being a teacher, wondering if we could last another year, or even to the end of that one.

We believe that the bridge ends with education no longer being the factory model and instead being individualised, personal education that prepares students for the real-world application in their future, both in college and in their careers.

For now, the best we can do is uphold the three pillars of the Flipped Mindset because they give us the kind of classroom that does that best right now:

  1. Make the best use of face-to-face time
  2. Student-centred pedagogy and structures
  3. Focus on supporting students during higher-level thinking tasks, and pushing lower-level thinking tasks outside class time

Those pillars guide everything we do, and shape how our class functions.  We don’t have everything figured out, but here’s what our class structures looks like at the moment:

  • Our classes operate on a Bring Your Own Device policy, which is supplemented by computer time.  At Redwood, we get access to a computer lab once a week, whereas at Forestview, there is a computer lab available most days.
  • We allow our students to work ahead, but not fall behind.  That means we are semi-asynchronous, but still focus on class discussion and collaboration.
  • We talk to every student, every class period, every day.  That allows us to more accurately assess their ability and help them improve with differentiated and individualised instruction, while still maintaining rigor.
  • We use the Flipped Mastery model for our grading.  This post explains the system.
  • We have an on-going project where students choose their own research question and finds the answer, called Blank White Page.  It’s part of us modelling our learning process and building in authentic student choice into our class.
  • Our class website (using Weebly) houses all the content, but we use the following services to help stay organised:
    • LessonPaths Playlists – we have either one playlist for a strand of content (like this one) or one playlist for part of a unit (like these two).
    • Google Drive - we have a shared email address (tmi@tmiclass.com) and Drive, and all our students have shared folders, where all their work is stored.  They are named so that they are easily searchable, and are housed in folders for each separate period.
    • Edmodo – students monitor grades, turn in assessments and essays, and interact with one another
    • Kidblog – our students all have blogs in our shared class, and can read each other’s work, as well as post their major writing tasks for feedback
    • Our YouTube channel for all our videos

Now, most of that is explained on our blogs or on our website.  And all they will tell you is what we do; however, we believe that “who we are” is more important than “what we do.” We invest in each other, and in our students, and in each other’s students because we believe in community and its ability to change lives.

We know that what we produce together will be far better than anything either of us has produced separately in our combined two decades of experience in the classroom, because we believe in the beauty and power of collaboration.

We see that there is a better way, and that if we haven’t found it, we are at least getting closer because we believe in always pushing deeper into our shared potential and modelling that for our students.  We believe in revision, and teach our students that both collaboration and revision are vital to the writing and learning process.

We expect that what we do now will change, but believe that who we are is more important, and that won’t change.  We are teachers.  We are friends.  We are collaborators.

We help each other stop hiding the mess and bringing it out in the open.  Until there is nothing hidden, we can’t be the teachers we want to be. We have to let students see that we are just people, trying hard, doing our best, and making a lot of mistakes along the way. But most of all, we love who we are becoming as a result of working together.  It has changed us, and shown us how far we have left to go.

That bridge, as it turns out, is not just for where education is going.  We are on it, too. And we can’t wait to see what comes next.

Both Andrew Thomasson and Cheryl Morris teach English at the high school level. Andrew is a 10th grade teacher at Forestview High School near Charlotte, North Carolina, and blogs at www.concertedchaos.com (on Twitter – @thomasson_engl). Cheryl teaches 11th and 12th grade at Redwood High School in Marin, California, and blogs at www.morrisflipsenglish.com (on Twitter – @guster4lovers).

Featured image via http://www.emeraldinsight.com