Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” That is until you meet Rob Townsend, a physical science teacher at Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michiga...
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Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” That is until you meet Rob Townsend, a physical science teacher at Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michigan, and his school principal, Greg Green. It was Green who once asked Townsend why so many of his students fail his class the first semester.
Townsend’s initial response went something along the lines of “them not doing their homework, if they were in class at all.”
Built in 1959, in a solidly working class community, Clintondale High School had prided itself on its academic performance and its strong relationship with the community. A half century later, the reality for Clintondale had changed.
The 800-strong student body now comes from a diverse socio-economic background, with 73 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch; the population mix went from 35 percent minority to 65 percent; and for the past nine years the school has been running at a budget deficit.
The climate and financial changes coupled with an increase in student need and decrease of school staff has contributed to the struggles of Clintondale. The result: In 2009, more than 50 percent of freshman students failed English, and school leaders had 736 discipline cases for 165 students.
So when asked the initial question of why students were failing, it was easy for Townsend to point the finger at students.
But the question was so powerful that it moved Townsend to action.
“At lunch that day, I sat down determined to write a report on why these failures were happening,” said Townsend, a 12-year Clintondale veteran and a member of the local Clintondale Education Association. “I wanted to be able to throw it on Principal Green’s desk and say ‘Ha! Look at this! Now where does the fault lie?’”
But between bites of his ham sandwich and honest reflection, Townsend recognized that a laundry list of problems would be useless. Instead, he set out to find solutions.
His report turned into an investigation, uncovering the reasons behind student absences and missing homework assignments. Townsend’s research found that students lived too far to walk to school, had unreliable transportation, or were dependent upon city busses that often run late.
Clintondale is sandwiched between Little Mack and Gratiot avenues. The latter is a main thoroughfare that leads straight to the city of Detroit, where a large percentage of Clintondale students live. Students who live in Detroit typically wake up at five o’clock in the morning to make the 12-mile journey to the school. If a bus is late, the students’ entire day is muddled.
When it came to missing homework assignments, Townsend found that it was because students didn’t understand the material.
“After spending the majority of the class time explaining concepts and lessons while students took notes, or even doing a class-wide activity with the students, I was still unable to see if they understood and comprehended the concepts before they left the classroom with their homework assignments,” said Townsend.
Townsend quickly realized that it was silly to give homework to students who couldn’t do it at home. And then he thought: “One way to create more class time and not lose education time was to have them take notes at home and do the work in class.”
This concept fit perfectly with Green’s desire to move the school toward using more technology. He encouraged Townsend to incorporate more internet-based programs that allowed students to take notes and access resources online, allowing students to receive extra support at home.
A year later, Green researched various companies that could fully support reverse instruction, and came across a group called Techsmith, which provides screen capture and recording software. Through the help of a grant from Techsmith, “flipping the classroom” was launched.
“I knew what I wanted; I just didn’t know what it was called. Techsmith labeled it as flip classroom,” said Green. “This now gave us a chance to expand our school [instruction] without stressing staff out,” referring to how the technology could be applied once and used by various educators. “It’s maximizing our ability to teach,” added Green.
Flipping the classroom allows an educator to record a lesson plan on video in the same fashion it would be presented to students. The structure of the video is an overview of the lesson, the content, and ends with a summary. Educators can insert their voice, video clips, photographs and images, as well as work out problems in their own writing within the video, which is less than ten minutes long.
Students can access the lessons on any computer, as well as on smart phones. School leaders also opened the doors to the library and computer lab before school, during lunch, and after school for students without access to a computer.
“We made it convenient for students,” said Townsend. “They no longer had to find a quiet area where they could sit and concentrate—all they needed to do was find ten minutes to watch a video and take notes.”
By taking notes at home, an additional 30 minutes of class time was added to learning time. This extra time allowed Townsend to directly work with students on projects, lab assignments or activities, ensuring along the way that students understood the material. He was also able to identify those students who needed extra help or were previously too shy to raise a hand requesting help.
Other benefits of flipping the classroom include:Notes are now available at home for students who were absent; Students are less frustrated and disruptive in class because there is someone on hand to help one-on-one; A much larger percentage of assignments are completed and to a much higher quality; When an educator is absent from class, a video can be made for that day and a substitute teacher has a clearer idea of what was covered and how to help students.
This new instructional model for Clintondale also sparked an interest among parents. They now had a direct link to their child’s school instruction, and it gave parents the opportunity to be actively engaged in their child’s education.
“Parents liked the idea of going online and watching the videos for themselves,” said Townsend. “If their child was struggling with the assignment, the parent could watch the video and learn alongside with their child,” offering support along the way.
A year later, educators saw dramatic changes in students’ core subject areas. According to Green, by reversing the instructional model, the failure rate in critical subjects had dramatically decreased.
For example, in English Language Arts, the percentage of students failing fell from 52 percent to 19 percent; in math, a drop from 44 percent to 13 percent; in science, it declined from 41 percent to 19 percent; and in social studies, fewer than 10 percent of students failed, compared to nearly a third the previous year.
“This is what makes sense for our school and we want the best for our students,” said Green. “The flip approach holds the golden key for [many] students because educators can control and eliminate learning obstacles, and it allows teachers to give their best presentations and share resources.”
Reversing the instruction has received widespread support from the education community, including the Clintondale Education Association, whose leaders were supportive of the new instructional model and encouraged educators to see it as another tool in the teacher’s toolbox.
The association was instrumental in helping reduce the concerns from educators of being replaced by technology. From the onset, Ken Austin, president of CEA made sure this new model was a volunteer-based program, with the flexibility of opting in and out, or using it as a major part of instruction or having it serve as a small portion of an educator’s class time. In addition, the association was at the table with administrators to ensure educators were fairly compensated for extra working hours.“We want the students and school to succeed,” said Austin. “The goal of changing the instruction is to get out of this five percent business,” referring to the U.S. Department of Education’s label of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.
The goal for the 2011-2012 school year is to expand the reverse instructional model to the entire school while aiming to increase the passing rate of the Michigan Merit Examinations and the Michigan Education YES! Grades, both required standardized tests.
Educators and school leadership at Clintondale, along with the local association, are transforming one of the nation’s lower-performing schools by taking a hard look at themselves and their professional practice , and collaboratively changing the strategies of years past to an approach that is modern, relevant, and student centered.
“We’re hoping to make a difference,” said Green.
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