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Gulf Highlands Elementary explores computer-centered, 'flipped' learning

Gulf Highlands Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Alyssa Moritz, Alyssa Vargas and Casey Bush help each other with a math lesson in teacher Tracey Gillies’  classroom, which uses a self-guided, computer-centered model of learning and sharing called flipping.
Gulf Highlands Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Alyssa Moritz, Alyssa Vargas and Casey Bush help each other with a math lesson in teacher Tracey Gillies’ classroom, which uses a self-guided, computer-centered model of learning and sharing called flipping.
Published Oct. 20, 2012

NEW PORT RICHEY — Sirenity Lee stared intently at the laptop computer, typing away as she double-checked her two-digit multiplication problems.

Sitting at the same table, Mesha Meraj worked on partial products — a piece of the same overall lesson, but at a different point along the way.

All around them, their Gulf Highlands Elementary fourth-grade classmates tapped away at keyboards, their teacher Tracey Gillies working the room to see how she might support them.

Some took quizzes. Others watched instructional videos. Still others used their computer cameras to photograph solutions to shared problems, which they then posted to a class discussion board for review and comments.

If they understood the material, the children moved on to the next piece of the curriculum. If they struggled, though, Gillies ushered small groups to a carpeted area, where she led them to a better grasp of their lesson.

Gillies is part of a recent movement called "flipping" classrooms. Instead of focusing on classroom lectures and discussions, students view lectures and lessons on a computer, freeing their teacher to interact with them on more individual needs.

Far from distracted and noisy, the students proudly took ownership of this self-guided, computer-centered model of learning and sharing.

"It's easier," 9-year-old Sirenity said. "Some people are fast learners, and some people need more help because they don't 'get it'. They don't have to be rushed to 'get it' and feel left out."

Mesha, also 9, chimed in that it's nice to be able to use the computer to get the needed information without having to interrupt the teacher or wait for others to get their answers.

"It's easier to learn when you're at your own pace," she said.

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the exciting part about flipped classrooms is that teachers can use simple technology to help focus how they spend instructional time challenging all children daily.

Literature courses already employ the concept, he said, with students doing their content reading at home and having the in-depth conversations in class. A flipped classroom brings the more demanding problem solving part into classrooms for courses such as math and science.

"If we can now have the capacity to have content delivery happen at different periods of time … it's silly to have students sit and watch in class" and then do the hard work at home, Reich said.

Only a few Pasco County teachers have made this move, according to the district instructional media department. But it's gaining interest as more learn about the concept and get support from teachers such as Gillies.

More often than not, the method relies on students watching the videos at home, on their own computers. One of the most common criticisms of flipped classrooms, in fact, is that many children do not have regular access to the Internet or a computer outside of school.

That's certainly true at Gulf Highlands, where 77 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a measure of low-income status.

But Gillies has found a way around that hurdle by allowing the students to use computers in class. When it opened six years ago, the school purchased enough laptops for every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader to have one for classroom use.

"I call it faux flipped, because they don't do it at home," Gillies said.

Other schools resolve this concern by burning the videos on DVD's or thumb drives that students can take to any computer.

Gillies is a devotee of the flip, because she's seen student responsibility and performance rise. She saw the concept work with a handful of students while at Lake Myrtle Elementary, and decided to try it with a full class when she moved to Gulf Highlands a year ago.

"I really try to make it student-centered, so they don't see me as the only expert in the room," she said. "Last year, it was amazing. By the end of the year they knew exactly what they needed to learn. They had no fear of saying, Hey, 'I don't get this.' "

Principal Kara Smucker noted that the effort made it easier for tailoring instruction to students' learning needs: "We're not holding children back waiting for the rest of the class to keep up."

It's one of many methods teachers are using to help boost the school's overall performance. Last year, the school improved its state grade to C, from an F the year before.

Marius Foster, 9, worked on some basic addition and multiplication, playing a video game where he obliterated robots by correctly solving equations.

"It makes it fun, and it helps you learn," Marius said.

Just steps away, Owen Sullivan, also 9, solved multiplication problems on an iPad using Japanese techniques. When he solved an equation, he created a video to teach it, then posted it online for Gillies and others to respond to.

"We can go at our own pace rather than watch what we already know," explained Owen, who finished the first three math units early, then worked on enrichment. "Instead of just sitting in a class, we can watch these lessons and just be free to go ahead."

Flipping the classroom meant a lot of work up front. Gillies had to find materials that meet the state curriculum standards with high enough quality to be worthy of sharing with students, for instance. And she scripted and recorded lecture videos of 5 to 7 minutes each for her lessons.

But with the positive response she's getting from students, Gillies doesn't see herself reverting back. She is working with other Gulf Highlands teachers to help them make the transition.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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