Class time was just too limited. Research suggests that teachers should systematically and explicitly teach students to craft essays, yet I struggled with finding the time to do it all: teach my students the skills necessary to write the essay, provide proper written models of the various elements, support them in fully digesting and using the writing process, and provide them opportunities to ask questions.
Delivering the essential instruction on how students should link ideas, craft body paragraphs, and write clear thesis statements took up a significant chunk of my 75-minute periods, leaving students with little class time to actually engage in the essay-writing process.
I needed to change my instructional process so students could learn the elements of the essay and have time to work on the process of writing and thinking about the essay with me. Flipping my classroom was the answer.
In a flipped classroom, students are asked to listen to and learn the content, concepts, or skills of a lesson for homework, then apply the new information to their work in class. The teacher has an opportunity to interact with the students as they are applying the skills and concepts to their work—answering questions, stretching their thinking, helping clarify misunderstandings, and encouraging them as they work.
My Flipped Classroom
When my colleagues and I decided to flip our classrooms, we identified the criteria we would use to evaluate our students and crafted the final assignment the students would complete.
In my seventh grade English class, I decided to flip all the instructional lessons associated with writing essays. Students were to come up with a question linked to a theme from the novel Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos. Some acceptable questions were “How does the theme of secrecy affect characters’ actions?” or “How do relationships between peers, adults, and siblings change in the novel?”
I created a 5–10 minute podcast for each essential element of the essay and posted them online (www.mspatel.podomatic.com). I used PowerPoint and Prezi (www.prezi.com) to create the visual portions of the podcast and added an audio component with QuickTime I (www.quicktime.com). Each podcast centered on a question that the students could answer after they had viewed the video, such as “What is a thesis statement?” and “Where is the thesis statement in an essay?”
Many of the podcasts required students to bring a completed activity to class and discuss it.
For example, when students were learning how to connect body paragraphs so the essay would be perceived as one piece of writing rather than separate paragraphs, I asked them to write a conclusion sentence or sentences for each paragraph that connected to the next body paragraph by using the information from the model on the podcast. Their conclusion sentences needed to include two elements: 1) a wrap-up of the main ideas of the paragraph and 2) a brief introduction of the topic to be discussed in the following paragraph. The next day, we reviewed their efforts and made sure the assignment was done correctly based on the concepts students learned in the podcast.
We spent the first 10–15 minutes of each class discussing the key points from the podcasts, linking the information to the students’ particular assignment, reviewing the homework from the podcasts (if assigned), and answering questions.
Students also completed short mini-activities from an activity packet that linked to the topic of the podcast. For example, when students were crafting thesis statements, one activity from the packet asked them to evaluate different thesis statements. The statements that were strong included all the necessary elements; students needed to revise the weak statements.
When I reviewed the students mini-activities from the packet, I got a sense of who might struggle during the application portion of the class. This prompted me to keep a closer eye on those students when they worked independently in class.
I debriefed students about the change in the classroom model before I flipped the lessons. I went over the guidelines for watching the videos and shared the new procedures in class. They knew they were required to watch the podcast before coming to school; take notes on information they heard; watch the podcast more than once if necessary; complete the homework; consult the podcast if more questions about that topic arose; and notify me immediately if they could not access the podcast or complete the homework.
After the students completed the mini-lesson in class, they worked independently to complete the aspect of the essay under discussion, consulting me if necessary. I encouraged the students to ask questions, review portions of the podcast, ask me to review aspects of their written work, revise elements of their essay, and continue to engage in the writing process.
Students are able to access the podcast at any time to refresh their learning—even when the unit is finished.
I gave the students opportunities to evaluate the podcasts’ effectiveness in improving the students’ ability to write an essay. Overall, a majority of the students viewed the podcasts favorably. Although they said the videos themselves could have been more “exciting,” they believed that the videos and the flipped classroom model were helpful:
- The podcasts are effective. The information is presented simply and straightforwardly, making it easy to understand. Also, all the key pieces of information the students needed to complete their essays are discussed.
- The podcasts are a powerful resource. Students can refer to the videos when needed—not only for this assignment, but also for any writing assignment in other classes for this year and in the future.
- There’s time for processing. Watching the videos provides students with time to process the information. By the time they come to class, they can identify the areas of confusion and clearly articulate the questions they may have.
- There’s more time to write. Students have more class time to work on planning and writing their essays, using me as a guide. Prior to the flipped classroom, if students did not have time to ask their questions in class, they had to see me during their breaks. In this model, students have ample time to ask questions in class and show me versions of their drafts.
- Alternatives are available. If students have problems accessing the videos because of Internet issues, I give them a copy of the videos to download onto their computers.
Suggestions and Conclusions
During this three-week flipped unit, I worked more effectively with my students. I was able to consult with them more often and provide them with more specific individualized feedback throughout the essay-writing process. As a result, their confidence during the writing process steadily improved, their level of engagement during independent work time increased, and they diligently spent their time crafting their essays and consulting with me for advice.
Students asked far fewer basic questions and, when they did have questions, were better able to articulate them. They also were willing to start writing before consulting with me. Most important, the students were writing for the majority of the class time.
If you are considering flipping your classroom here are some suggestions:
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is much information on the Internet to help guide you.
- Keep podcasts short and simple. Simplicity helped students focus on the key pieces of information.
- Link videos to classroom instruction. Be sure podcasts have a clear purpose linked to the activity that will be completed the next day.
- Hold students accountable to actively watch the podcasts. Embed a short activity into each podcast so students must be engaged while watching. Ask students to bring the
Pooja Patel is a learning specialist and middle school English and humanities teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City. She is also an adjunct instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2013.