By Nick Longworth
Odds are that many who attended a public school walked away with a few common memories or thoughts on the experience as a whole.
At one point you were probably teased and more than likely embarrassed. Life was over and you were at the end of your rope for sure.
At another point, life was great, with friends, fun and a bright future ahead.
Even if you didn’t get your first kiss or accidentally rear-end someone, you likely shared at least one common disdain with fellow classmates in regards to homework.
At the Park Rapids Century School, 7th and 8th grade math teachers Tom Ahrendt and Nic Lembcke are no strangers to this desolate feeling.
This is exactly why they decided to change things this school year. Ahrendt and Lembcke are in search of a more innovative approach to learning.
Together, the two teachers created and implemented a “flipped classroom” approach to their daily lessons, all but throwing traditional teaching to the wind.
“In a classroom ‘back in the day’ the teacher would give a lecture, kids would take notes, they would get an assignment and the teacher would walk around the room, giving help wherever needed. Students typically would be working on the ‘skill’ problems,” said Ahrendt, a teacher with the Park Rapids school district for 20 years.
“The four or five word problems a student would have left at the end of the assignment probably wouldn’t be done during class and would then go home as homework. But when kids got home, they probably wouldn’t fully understand them because the word problems are always a struggle for anybody to apply the math they are learning into a situation,” Ahrendt said.
“Now with these new classes you have more time to look at the process of how kids are learning – what they are doing, where and how they are messing up or not understanding.”
The flipped classroom idea is simple: Allow students more time in the classroom to use the available resources as a tool in their learning and leave the lengthy lectures for home – where they can be watched individually.
“(Students) will watch the assigned videos at home. Then the next day in class we will split into groups of three or four. They will all take notes on the two or three videos that they were assigned the night before. Finally, they will write up notes on the videos, come back with their notes, and we will discuss everything. Basically, they watch the lengthier lessons at home and they do the homework in class,” Lembcke said.
“They come with a basic understanding of the concept we are working on already and that allows us to go faster and deeper into the concepts.”
All the videos watched that week are known ahead of time, allowing students to delegate their work as they see fit.
“On Monday we give them a list of the videos for the whole week. If students want to plan ahead and work at their own pace, they can do it on their own schedule - which they kind of like. If someone has a game on Friday, they can get everything done beforehand,” Lembcke said.
The class model largely hinges on a single website, MasteryConnect, used to monitor the students’ learning progress. Each individual is given a username and a password used to access the lesson videos.
The site is also conducive to parental involvement in the education process, encouraging parents to take part in daily lessons. It also allows the teacher to monitor a student’s progress in accordance with state standards.
“One of the biggest struggles we’ve come across is that parents come to us saying the math we are teaching now is far different and often more difficult than when they went through school; they don’t know how to help their kid,” Lembcke said.
“But now parents can sit and watch the lesson videos with their kid and know exactly what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. Parents can have a better understanding of what we’re doing while the kids are working in class and know exactly what we are working on. We as teachers can also see if students have watched the videos they are supposed to be watching; every step of the way we can see how they are progressing through the concepts. The site also keeps track of state standards and administers quizzes that keep track of every standard,” Lembcke said.
“When students come to class, we can answer the questions they have on the concepts they watched the night before in the video. Now the homework and the lecture are out of the way so we can get to working on the problems that they actually have trouble on. They can also work in a group instead of at home by themselves where they maybe can’t get as much help,” Ahrendt said.
“Parents have also said they like it because they can sit down with their kid now and they can learn with them too and actually help; earlier they may not have been able to do that. It changes how I teach and gives me more time to talk with kids about how they learn and how they go about attacking problems. In the traditional model of teaching, we didn’t have a lot of time to do that,” Ahrendt said.
Skeptics of the new teaching style are met with understanding and empathy by both Ahrendt and Lembcke.
But after two decades in the profession, in only the first few months Ahrendt can already see a glaring difference.
“(Flipped classes) allow you to fine-tune your instruction for what is necessary and not overly stress on what isn’t. Instead of giving an overview yet again, I can go right to the root of the problem. There actually ends up being less homework too” Ahrendt said.
“We can talk about how to attack a problem. You can get more into how to problem solve, not just whether you got it the answer right or wrong. Your teaching can go deeper into the subjects,” Ahrendt said.
“The other neat thing I see is that it’s highly individualized. If a kid struggles, they can watch the videos two, three or four times; they can slow it down. When I am lecturing in the front of a room I am going quickly and they can’t pause me or back me up. They can raise their hand and ask a question but a lot don’t unfortunately.”
Initial kinks proved troublesome, but have largely been ironed out to make their first year manning the program a success so far.
“It has been successful for the most part. Anytime you start something new like this there is going to be kinks that need to be worked out. We’re using a website that has all the videos already made up for us. Sometimes the videos don’t match up perfectly to what we’re doing in class, but we’re working on making our own videos to use in the future. For the most part everything has gone well,” Ahrendt said.
“In the future our videos will be tailored exactly to what we are teaching in our lessons. We’ve started with just two 7th grade classes to start, but we will see how it goes from there. We didn’t want to dive all-in with both grades and have a bunch of kinks to work out while the students struggled,” Lembcke said.
Students without an active internet connection at home are seemingly left at a disadvantage in a flipped classroom. However, Ahrendt and Lembcke both are empathetic of special situations that do arise.
Accordingly, they remain steadfast in their desire to help every student be successful.
“Every student knows their videos for the whole week at the beginning of it; it really only ends up only being a couple of 10-15 minute videos, maybe twice or three times a week. For those without internet at home, we will try and work with them in a study hall to get them done,” Lembcke said.
“It’s not a full-blown ‘you’re going to watch videos every single night’ – it’s maybe two or three times a week. As with anything, they will have to manage what they do and manage their time wisely,” Ahrendt said.
Ahrendt doesn’t only want to see improved grades. He wants to get at the root of learning - allowing students to be successful throughout their entire learning lives.
“I’ve taught the ‘old way’- I taught that way for 19 years. The flipped teaching has revitalized my teaching because now I can start actually teaching the processes. I can take my teaching to another level,” Ahrendt said.
“I have more time to help a student understand everything further rather than sending them home to pull their hair out in frustration. I think it takes kids to another level as well. They start to learn how to learn. When they are watching videos I am not telling them what to write down. The kids are going to the next step and taking responsibility for their learning. It teaches kids how to learn on their own, which empowers them. What parent would not want to empower their kids to be a learner? That’s what you strive for.”