The Evolution of My Practice

I graduated from York University in 1999 with an Honours Bachelor of Science in Applied Math, and a Bachelor of Education in Intermediate/Senior Math and Science (Physics). At the time, what I really wanted to do was to put all of my time and energy into the pole vault for a year, to see how well I could do. Unfortunately, I had a big student debt, and a car that was just barely getting me from A to B. A job offer came in to teach OAC (Ontario Academic Credit) Finite at summer school. I needed the money pretty badly, so I took the job. Here’s what my practice looked like at that time: first, I would write out my notes in pencil. Then I would deliver the lesson the next day on the chalkboard, and my students would listen and copy what I wrote. Then they would work on some exercises that I had chosen from the textbook. I had very little time left to walk around and help people. I didn’t check work for completion or give quizzes before tests. I gave a test at the end of each chapter, and an exam at the end of the course. I’m embarrassed at how basic my practice was then. Even worse: I did exactly the same thing the following summer when I taught it again at summer school (except that my notes and tests were already prepared, so it was a heck of a lot easier).

From July of 1999 (when my professional teaching career began) to October of 2007 (around the time of the fall BCAMT conference), I made small incremental improvements to my practice. While there was improvement in my practice, it was definitely a slow process. Regardless, I’m pleased to look back at the accumulation of knowledge about teaching that I have gained. Among other things, I learned (specifically about teaching Math) how to…

  • connect previously learned topics to new ones
  • ensure students got a comprehensive lesson and notes
  • predict common mistakes
  • anticipate questions from students
  • prepare students for assessment
  • use both formative and summative assessment
  • create a website to keep parents & students up to date
  • teach Math in french (oui, c’est vrai!)

My lessons in particular had come a long way… I now used lesson note templates, where key ideas were listed at the top, examples followed, with space in between examples for students to write. When a graph needed to be done, I would insert a grid into the template, so that the graph could be done well. It made the lessons go a lot more quickly, because students didn’t have to write as much (especially for word problems). I would run off the lesson note template on paper for the students, on acetates for me, and then I would mark it up on the overhead projector. Since the lesson note templates were electronic documents, I was well prepared to make the first significant change in my teaching practice… to start teaching with a Tablet PC.

I first tried using a Tablet PC at a retail store in about September of 2007, and I thought to myself: “I think that I could teach with this.” In October of 2007, at the fall BCAMT conference, I went to every session I could on Tablet PC’s. When I saw them demo’d, I saw the potential immediately. I thought: “Oh my gosh, my notes are already electronic… I could start using this technology immediately!” I knew then that I would be able to…

  • save my notes and post them on my website
  • highlight
  • zoom in on things
  • show kids how to use their calculators using a virtual calculator onscreen
  • research stats on the internet

and so much more… all during class for my students to see and learn. I was so excited that I called my wife at the end of the conference and told her: “I have just seen the future of education.” She had never seen or heard me so excited about teaching. Next, I called my principal. He was very supportive of using technology in the classroom. While he secured the funding for the computer, the Math department at Earl Marriott agreed to fund the projector. It took until the spring of 2008 to get it, but when I got my first Tablet PC, it was very exciting. My students were wowed by the clarity, the colour, and all the things that we could do with it. Students and parents were appreciative of the change, especially to be able to have lesson notes from my website when classes were missed. It seemed to be a good start.

In September of 2008, I began teaching at Brookswood Secondary School, where I became a leader in terms of technology, particularly in the Math department. I got the entire Math department up and running with Tablet PC’s, and again I felt that my practice, as well as those around me was going in the right direction.

But gradually over the next few years, the novelty wore off for students. Also, I had become so efficient with the Tablet PC, that I was doing too much for my students: all examples on the lesson, lots of the homework questions (the next day in class), plus I went over solutions for every quiz and test question upon handing them back. I was working my butt off, and my students were doing very little. This made me very unhappy. I thought that it was becoming the culture of the school to do the bare minimum to pass. That may have been true to some extent, but I also had a big part to play in the passivity of my students.

Last summer, during summer school, I piloted a new approach in which I would put a huge emphasis on the effort mark (separate from their achievement mark), which would be based on homework completion and some self assessment done by the students. This was done on a daily basis, and I was very pleased with the results. Students were making a real effort to show me what they had done to learn the material. I spent a lot more time talking to students individually, and a lot less time going over every single question with the class as a whole. My students did very well, but more importantly, my students and I truly enjoyed the learning experience. Due to the success that I had experienced in summer school with this new focus, I intended to follow the same formula for next full school year.

About two months into the school year, I realized that I couldn’t keep up! In summer school, I only had two classes running, but now I had seven. I didn’t have enough time to do all the homework checks and talk to students individually and teach a lesson and go over homework questions, quiz questions, etc., plus talk to parents. There just wasn’t enough time. I tried to simplify my plan, but it was a mess. I thought to myself: “If only I had more time…”

Rewind back a few years… I was very fortunate to have an excellent IT department head at Brookswood by the name of Jim Cartlidge. He helped me come to the realization that it would be worthwhile to make some of my own video lessons. He also helped me transition from a Tablet PC to using a Mac with a Cintiq Tablet (although that’s maybe not as significant pedagogically speaking, so I’ll save the nerd talk for another blog post). Initially, I made only one one two video lessons just to see how it could be done. Later, I decided to make video lessons for several units in Math 8 and 9. I brought students to the computer lab with me to watch the video lesson and take notes. They could pause, rewind, and watch the lesson over as much as they needed to as they took their notes, which my students and I felt was beneficial. I was also free during that time to do other work (attendance, marking, entering marks, emailing parents, etc.). This was great for me, but not ideal for the students, because I still didn’t get as much face-to-face time with my students as I felt I needed. I thought to myself: “If only there were a different strategy that I could use so that I could make better use of class time…” For me, I would find that flipping the classroom would be the answer, and learning to make videos had equipped me with the key tool that I needed to begin to use that in my practice.

Fast forward to the spring of this year. Through the BCAMT list serve, I heard about the Flipped Classroom Conference in Kelowna, and started looking into the flipped classroom as a teaching method. I had heard about this before, but I had never actually met anyone who had tried it. I started to read and learn all kinds of things about flipping on Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, WordPress, Zite, and so on. I learned from a network of classroom flippers what flipping is and its advantages. It became apparent to me that if I assigned the video lesson as homework, then we would have the entire class to work on the textbook assignment (traditionally assigned as homework). No longer would students bring work home to struggle in isolation. Students would sit in groups instead of rows. I would spend nearly the entire time working alongside students instead of lecturing. I gave it a shot for one unit in Foundations of Math 11. The results were amazing. The dynamics in my class were completely different. Students were allowed to work at their own pace, and were grouped according to where they were at in the unit. I connected with my students like I had never been able to before, because I was spending so much time with them! With all the extra time in class, we had the time to do the remedial work necessary on previous topics, in order to learn new ones successfully. This was absolutely crucial for this particular course, and for this particular group of students. Once classes were over in June, I went to Kelowna for the Flipped Classroom Conference, and became absolutely inspired. Not only was I learning how effective the flipped classroom approach could be, but I was also learning how it was a stepping stone to the opportunity to incorporate strategies in the classroom that I didn’t have time to before. Fortuitously, I got a new teaching position at Walnut Grove Secondary School, where the Math department head had just started flipping his classroom too, so I’m thrilled to have a partner to work with on flipping strategies come September.

So that’s how my practice has evolved to the point I’m at today. My intention is to fully flip my classes starting in September, and this blog will document my experience. Although school starts in September, my preparation has already begun, and I will begin to share how I am preparing to flip my classroom in this blog starting in my next post. Thanks for reading my post, and sorry for the lengthiness. Future posts will definitely be shorter.

See you on the flip side,

Andy.

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About Andy Miller

Math and Science Teacher at Walnut Grove Secondary School, classroom flipper, pole vaulter, husband, dad, etc.
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2 Responses to The Evolution of My Practice

  1. jonbergmann says:

    Andy: Great post about how your evolution as a teacher. I welcome you to the flipped class fold. I look forward to hearing how this goes from you. Remember–making the videos is only the first step in flipping. See my post at: http://flipped-learning.com/?p=725

  2. Andy Miller says:

    Hi Jon,
    I agree with you completely. My ultimate goal is to reform my class into one in which the students are fully engaged, because I just can not continue to do the same old thing in which students are so passive. Thanks for the link to your post, it was very helpful. I think it will be very interesting to see what else I can do this year, especially now that I am a part of such an amazing, forward-thinking group of teachers. There is a lot of sharing and collaborating in the Math department at Walnut Grove, and I’m sure that Science is similar in that respect (my stronger tie is to the Math department since I teach Math 6 out of 7 blocks next year with only one Science). Plus, our Math department head has just started flipping, so we should be able to spur each other on to bigger and better things. Hopefully I’ll get some video making done this summer to free me up to explore those other options during the year. I’m curious to know… in your post, you state: “Research suggests that mastery learning, problem based learning (PBL), inquiry learning, hands-on learning, and many other learning practices increase student engagement and performance.” Which of these strategies are your currently most fond of? Is there one that you would recommend to me more than others? Are there any readings you can recommend to bring myself up to speed on these strategies?
    Thanks,
    Andy.

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