VASD: High school experimenting with new instruction methods

VAHS senior Harrison Grittinger often uses his smart phone to access lectures or assignments for his AP chemistry class. [Photo by Seth Jovaag]

A web-based unit in Jenny Wolfe's French class lets students listen to readings of "Le Petit Prince" and access flashcards, assignments and more from mobile computing devices.

Some days, Verona Area High School senior Harrison Grittinger watches his chemistry lectures at home on his laptop. Other days, he watches them on his smart phone in the school library.

Either way, Grittinger says, he comes to class prepared with notes and questions for his teacher, Ann Moffat.

Grittinger is a fan of “flipped classrooms,” which upend the tradition of teachers lecturing in class and students doing homework at night. Instead, teachers make videos of lectures, post them online for kids to watch and use class time to help students apply what they’ve learned.

“You’re able to spend time (in class) working on actual problems, rather than just taking notes and figuring stuff out at home, which is more difficult,” Grittinger said.

This year, nine VAHS teachers are experimenting with flipped classrooms. Ten more are tinkering with ePubs – short for electronic publications – which allow students and teachers to create web-based repositories for research papers, videos, links to helpful websites and more.

Both initiatives got a boost last spring from roughly $32,000 in “innovation grants” provided by the Verona Area School District. The money paid for staff training and some hardware and software.

Several teachers who spoke with the Verona Press said both methods are still a work in progress. But students and staff alike say the trend likely will continue, given teenagers’ growing affection for social networking and greater access to mobile computing devices, such as tablets, laptops or smart phones.

How to flip

Flipping classrooms appeals on several levels.

Students can watch lectures online anytime, even if they miss class. They can pause or rewind lectures without interrupting others. Fewer kids are seeking help before or after school.

And most importantly, Moffat notes, class time is often driven by student questions that can yield greater understanding for everyone.

Teachers note that making the videos is time-consuming, and they can’t replace vibrant in-class discussions. There’s also an awareness that not every student has Internet access outside of school.

But overall, the method gives students “time to really absorb the content,” Moffat told the Verona Area school board last month, and “frees up class time” to problem-solve.

Moffat, who has taught 19 years at VAHS, said she’s made about 60 videos this year, lasting five to 12 minutes each. They often show her narrating as she makes notes on an interactive whiteboard in her class. The videos are uploaded to YouTube, then posted on a shared website for her students.

Mike Ray is also using the flipped approach more often this semester in his advanced-placement psychology classes. His videos can give students some basic knowledge about thorny concepts to set the stage for deeper in-class discussions, he said.

Fellow AP psych teacher Sarah Domres said the videos are also helping kids review for the course’s final exam next Monday that could earn them college credits. Instead of holding numerous before- or after-school study sessions, kids can review the videos and bring specific questions to their teachers.

English teacher Kris Cody-Johnson offers another approach. She doesn’t entirely flip her classes; instead, she makes occasional videos that target specific issues, such as a playful two-and-a-half minute reminder on how to craft topic sentences for students in her Intro to College Writing and Reading course.

“I will only be increasing the use,” she wrote in an email. “I have a list of movies I intend to make to help in the research process or the drafting or revising processes. I think it is a great tool to help many kids.”

Textbook alternative

Teachers are likewise finding a range of uses for ePubs, which has become a catch-all phrase in Verona for publishing Web-based content.

In theory, ePubs could morph into an online replacement – replete with embedded links to videos or other web sources – for expensive textbooks that can quickly become out of date.

Case in point: three Minnesota math teachers made headlines in late 2011 when they saved their school district $175,000 on textbook costs by creating their own curriculum using free, web-based software. Other websites, such as offer free online textbooks that teachers can use wholesale or adapt themselves.

Verona teachers aren’t there yet, but some are moving in that direction. For example, math teacher Jim Guy is working on a similar project for an advanced calculus class he teaches.

In 20 years of teaching, Guy said he’s never been completely satisfied with calculus textbooks that can cost $120 each. With the help of his students, he’s trying to craft an online resource that incorporates videotaped lectures, links and his most effective assignments.

The end product could remain “virtual” or it could be printed for as little as $5, as many students still prefer having a book to hold and make notes in, he said.

It’s a “huge task,” Guy admits, and he’s not sure yet if textbooks will get the heave-ho, unless “we’re at the point where every kid is walking around with a notebook or iPad.”

Social learning

Meanwhile, students in Hope Mikkelson’s Biology 2 class have created their own web pages using free, open-source software. The pages include research papers and pictures and information about themselves.

Those pages pop up when you type “Verona ePubs” into a search engine, which in itself can be a motivator for kids to do top-notch work, Mikkelson said.

“It’s powerful in their mind, that you can search on Google and their work will pop up,” she said. “It’s another tool to use.”

Students’ sites are grouped together, so they can easily read and learn from each other’s work. Senior Demi Weisbrod said that social-networking aspect appeals to teenagers. She posted a research project about the eating disorder pica that included a link to a video of a woman who talks about her obsession with eating chalk.

“It was more interactive,” Weisbrod said. “I think people got more out of it than just reading a boring science paper.”

Junior Rachel Samz said she likes the idea that she could include links to her best projects on college applications. And with their work online, sophomore Alder Levin noted that she doesn’t have to worry about emailing assignments to herself or losing a flash drive.

“It’s really easy to just sit down and work on my project,” Levin said.

In Jenny Wolfe’s French class, students can access assignments, flashcards and video or audio clips through an ePub that expands their opportunities to hear the language spoken by native French speakers. Last week, students listened to a French reading of “La Petite Prince,” (“The Little Prince”) as they followed along.

With “a gold mine” of web applications, expert lectures and lesson plans online, the possibilities for ePubs are sky high, says Rita Mortenson, an educational technology coordinator for the high school.

Not only can teachers craft their own curriculum, she says, but students could have more opportunities to publish their own work, rather than being “just consumers” of textbooks.

“I think there’s going to be a lot more of this,” she said.

Who’s doing it

VAHS teachers experimenting with flipped classes this year:

Flipped classrooms

Science: Ann Moffat, Annelies Howell, Matt Tiller, Mike Ray, Deb Weaver

Social studies: Sarah Domres

English: Kris Cody

Math: Laura Bakken

Staff development, technology: Rita Mortenson 


Science: Hope Mikkelson

Agriculture/science: Angie Midthun-Hensen

Math: Brenda Hoffman, Jim Guy

Spanish: Tina Halverson, Jenny Wolfe

English language learners: Julie Jenewein

Social studies: Kara Johnson

LMC: Teresa Voss

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