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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Excerpt: Video Q/A: A Magical Time

Aaron Sams and I are writing a book about the flipped classroom. We are going to share a few of our ideas here and see what folks think. It is still in the draft mode, but here is a passage where we talk about how we check if students have watched the videos. Though we didn't know it when we started it has quickly become one of our most rewarding teacher moments. Please share your feedback.

When we check whether or not they have watched a video, one requirement is they ask us interesting questions. This especially works in our freshmen course of Earth and Space Science. For credit, we tell each student they must ask us an interesting question from the video. The question must be related to the video and must be a question for which they do not know the answer. These interactions with the students are some of the richest times we experience in our classrooms. Students either ask questions individually, or in small groups. Every student must ask at least one question per video. Often during these question and answer times, students ask us questions we don’t know the answer to and thus we work on finding the answer. Also the questions students ask often tell us what we have not taught clearly, or in some cases their questions tell us they are misunderstaning a key point. This then give us time to clarify and clean up their misunderstandings. These interactions are truly one of the magical moments we experinece every day with our students.

Every student must ask at least one question about each video. This is especially valualble for students who do not generally interact with their teachers. In the sit and get model, often just a few students will be the ones asking questions. Those students are more outgoing and confident. The more quiet, introspective students often have the same questions, but rarely voice those in the traditional model. In the flipped-mastery model ALL students MUST ask these questions. We have received more and better questions in our courses than we ever did in a traditional model and the discussions have been richer and frankly more rewarding as a teacher. We have found students are really very curious, and in this non-threatning format, all students can demonstrate their curiosity and learn.

Another thing we have noticed druing these question and answer times is how our quiet students come out of their shells a bit. Sadly, some of our students rarely have adults listen to them. Their parents are too busy, their teachers are talking to them, and thus the only people who will listen to them are their peers. These conversational times has opened up our chance to get to know our students on a more personal level which has paid dividends in helping troubled teens through difficult times.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Not All Instructional Vodcasts are Created Equal

I got an interesting question from Deb Wolf, mastery coordinator in the Sioux Falls School District today and it is something that Aaron and I have ruminated on for quite some time. It turns out that there are varying qualities of instructional video podcasts. Since lots of teachers are making these, she asked for a rubric by which we could assess the quality of an instructional video podcast. Aaron and I are in the process of finding a publisher for a book about flipping the classroom and as we made our outline, we decided to devote a chapter to this very topic. So here are what we think are keys to making a quality vodcast.

1. Keep it short. We are teaching the youtube generation and they want things in bite-sized pieces. If you are teaching the quadric formula, just do the quadratic formula. Don’t try and add anything else.

2. Animate your voice. When you are doing these videos you are most likely using some sort of presentation software (powerpoint, prezi, keynote, smart notebook, etc). The only thing you have besides your slides is your pen and your voice. Change the inflection of your voice. This keeps kids engaged. We don’t want to kill kids with videos. Make them exciting.

3. Better yet: Do the vodcast with another teacher. There is something powerful about having two people having a discussion instead of one teacher talking at you. Our students have told us they prefer it when Aaron and I have a conversation. They learn more too. Usually one of us takes on the role of the student learning the material and asks questions while the other is the expert.

4. Add humor: Aaron and I usually have some sort of a running joke in some of our vodcasts. We usually do this for the first two minutes of each vodcast. Students either love these or not. Since they know they will be the first two minutes, those who like our weird sense of humor tune in and those who don’t just fast forward. This leads me to the next rule

5. Don’t waste kid’s time: I have watched vodcasts where teachers talk about their favorite football team for five minutes. Since students are watching this on their own time, this discussion wastes their time. Keep to your topic.

6. Add annotations: Think of your screen as a whiteboard with cool pictures. Use annotation equipment to add pen markups. We use a Wacom bamboo tablet, but there are so many other ways to annotate the video. Other options are interactive white boards (Smartboards, Promethian Boards, etc), wireless tablets, or tablet PC’s.

7. Add video clips: Aaron and I insert videos of us and or kids doing cool experiments in class. This takes more time, but it allows students to see the science in action. We bring a video camera with us wherever we go and try and think of a way to make a good video. When we were in Washington DC at a recent conference we shot some video in front of the Hope Diamond. We used that video to explain the chemistry of diamonds. When I was in Peru this summer my son took some video of me explaining the geology of the Andes Mountains. You can also insert other clips from places such as youtube. And in a similar vein…

8. Picture in Picture: Since we started using Camtasia Studio it has a nice picture in picture feature. We have a webcam in the bottom of our presentation. We wondered if this was distracting and so we asked our students. They told us that they were better able to relate to our us as people when they saw the videos.

9. Add Callouts and Zooms: In Camtasia Studio we a fair amount of post-editing. In that editing process we can add callouts that are usually text boxes that highlight key concepts. Again we asked our students if these were distracting. They told us no: it helped them highlight key concepts. Also in the editing process we can add zooms. This zooms to the important part of our screen. For example when we do a mathematical problem we zoom into the screen of our onscreen calculator. This shows students how to use their graphing calculator.

10. Keep it copyright friendly: Since many of these will be posted online make sure that you follow all appropriate copyright laws.

We put together a sampling of some of our podcasts. Maybe this will give you an idea of what we think goes into the making of a good instructional video podcast.

Find more videos like this on Teacher Vodcasting Network

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bringing the World into Your Classroom-Connecting through twitter

With the advent of free video conferencing software (Skype) it is amazing how easy it is to get experts into your classroom. One of my goals this year was to bring experts in who can discuss what they do. Today I had the privilege of having Lillie Croft, a volcanologist skype into my freshmen classes. She shared with us a powerpoint about why volcanoes are important to the health of the world. She talked about how volcanoes are both destructive and constructive. It was a great experience for my students to hear from a “real” scientist who did research on the things that we have been learning about.

So how do you get world-class speakers “into” your classroom. For me I have begun to use twitter to connect with people all over the world. If you are unfamiliar with twitter, it is a micro blogging site that allows people to post small (limit 140 characters) micro-blogs. You might wonder how anything important can be shared in 140 characters. Usually what people post is a small teaser and then have a link to a website that gets you more information.

The other thing you can do is use what are called hashtags. Hashtags were developed as a means to create "groupings" on Twitter, without having to change the basic service. Essentially you put the “#” symbol in front of a string of text, do a search for that hashtag and then even people who don’t “follow” you, but who are interested in the same types of things you are will see your post. They then may respond to your post. Several hashtags that I use are: #edchat, #scichat, #scido. When you search these people will talk about education, science, or how to do science in the classroom.

So how did I connect with Dr. Croft? I simply put out on my twitter feed that I was looking for a volcanologist to skype into my classroom. I put it out on the #scichat search list and voila, I got a response from somebody who knew her. I then emailed her and she graciously agreed to talk to my kids.

Truly in today’s connected world, we have the opportunity, and dare I say responsibility, to bring the world into our classroom. So get with it and connect to people who can connect to our kids.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Assessing in Mastery Learning: What we Have Learned

Assessing in Mastery Learning: What we Have Learned

This is my third year of doing mastery learning and the more I teach this way the more I like it. Many of our followers have asked for advice from Aaron and I. What have we learned so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes that we have made. Today I want to talk about how we have changed up our assessment s.

This year in our Chemistry classes we have changed a bit how we assess our students. In the past we would check every single assignment that students assigned. We would then put that in the grade book. This year we looked at objectives and instead of a student trying to “get work” done they are now focused in on the objectives that might have several learning activities. This chunking of our activities into objectives.

Below are the old and the new checklists: Note how the old system is very busy and the new one is not very busy.

Clearly: the second chart makes it easier for students to see what it is they need to know and be able to do. Thus far this has fostered a greater amount of learning.

We have even changed the way that we talk to students. Instead of: did you get that assignment done? It is now, “What objective are you struggling with today and how can I help.” This has created a more collaborative learning environment for all students and I am seeing greater gains in learning already.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thoughts As I Begin My 25th Year of Teaching

Tomorrow marks the first day of my 25th year teaching. Have I gotten that old? . I am blessed to have been in a profession that I love for such a long time. The energy I get from teenagers must keep me young.
I want to share two thoughts with you: They probably should be two separate blogs. One amazing video and some things I want to do differently as I move into this year of learning.

Amazing Video:
Students today are looking for an interactive experience in school where they don’t have to “dumb down” and “turn off” when they come to school. Unfortunately too often our schools do just that. Check out this video clip that demonstrates how our students want to interact with content.

How My Class Will Look Different This Year
1. This past weekend I have been in Canada speaking at a technology conference (Touch-N-Go There I was introduced to Voice Thread ( Voice Thread has a unique way for folks to interact with content. We want to test uploading some of our podcasts to Voice-Thread and see how the students interact with this medium. We already have some great video podcasts, but to have the ability for them to be interacted on this level could add a whole new level of interactivity. We even anticipate others from around the world interacting with the videos online. Potentially our students will be watching these videos with students from around the world.

2. Multiple Means of Assessment: One of the hallmarks of our program is that every student has to complete each unit of study by achieving at least 75% on each exit assessment. We were introduced to a teaching methodology out of Harvard University called Universal Design in Learning (UDL) and one of the things that it asserts that all students need is the opportunity to be assessed in multiple ways. So this year we are going to provide opportunities for our students who want to demonstrate mastery through some method other than the exams. We are simply going to produce the list of objectives for each unit and have students show us how they know this content. They will be able to do this via any method that they choose. We are thinking along the lines of student produced videos, making up their own exams, or frankly any creative method that works best for each student. We will see how this open ended assessment strategy works.

3. More Engaging Activities For the past few years we have been so focused on making high quality videos that we have not given as much attention to making our activities more engaging for students. At this past conference one of the teachers told us she liked our teaching methodology (the reverse classroom) but she was wondering what she would do with the kids during her class if she didn’t lecture to them. Her moment of honesty was telling. We have things for our kids to do in class, but they can always be better and more engaging. I am hoping to team up with some of the other teachers in our building, and in my greater PLN community, to come up with better activities that will better connect students to the content.

4. Student Choice: Speaking of activities: We would like to have more than one activity that can get to the same objectives. Students really enjoy having control of their own learning. What if we gave them more than one type of activity that gets at the same objectives? That way, students who learn differently will be able to learn the way they learn best. This will be quite a process to make this happen—and maybe a logistical nightmare. I am thinking that this will start after the first unit. As I sit here on the airplane headed home I don’t see this happening for unit 1 when kids arrive Wednesday morning.

Class Visits and Further Trainings:
Last year Aaron and I had about one hundred educators visit our classroom. Know that each of you are encouraged to come and visit our blended 21st Century classroom. Feel free to contact me about setting up a time for you to come and visit. We try and have larger groups on set days so that we don’t go crazy. There is also some power in having more people observing what is going on.

Aaron and I have two engagements coming up.
1. September 15th: ISTE Webinar: Go to to sign up.
2. September 23-24th: Bib County Schools, Near Macon GA. We will be spending two days training their staff in the blended classroom and 21st Century Learning. If any of the folks on the east coast are interested in attending I can contact them and see if other folks would be allowed to come.

Last Thoughts:
If you have made it this far in the blog then congratulations. I hope you see my excitement as I move into the new year with my students. For the second year in a row I will have my daughter in class and last year it was good to see what I was putting students through with my program. She can be brutally honest so I am happy to have someone testing out our crazy ideas.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer Projects and Some Future Plans:

I have purposely not spent much of the past week worrying about school or thinking too much about education. It has been the week for home projects and time with my kids. I have:
1. Gotten five cords of wood with my two lovely daughters.
2. Spent a day with my girls at the YMCA
3. A wonderful hike with the same girls.
4. Celebrated two of our family birthdays (My son turned 17 and my wife, well she is one year older)
5. Began a relatively large deck project. The railing on my deck has been in need of a replacement for quite some time so I have decided to put TREX down.
6. And then for the past two days I have had to deal with a flooded garage. It is quite disconcerting to go in your garage and find 1 ½ feet of water in it. I think Noah’s flood hit us and it overwhelmed our culvert in our mountain community and all of the road water and dirt and rock and silt made its way into our garage. Not once, but twice. Hopefully I have remedied this problem for the future thanks to a friend with big muscles.
The big project on the horizon educationally is to begin a website that categories all of the best vodcasts out there for education. The start of this project is to upload all of our videos to youtube. Then we will develop a webpage that will categorize all of the best educational videos out there. The page will simply be links to good videos. We are working on how to most effectively categorize the videos, but I think it will help a lot of both teachers and students out. Our youtube channel is: but our main page will be .
I would appreciate any feedback you might have on how to categorize each topic. As of right now we are thinking of having a page for each discipline: One for Chemistry, Algebra, Calculus, Astronomy, etc. But the beauty of the web is that we could even categorize them in lots of different ways.
All for now:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I went to school in Singapore but grew up on the internet

I just attended a keynote at ISTE 2010 in Denver and Shawn Koh from Singapore was on a panel. He wowed the audience with some great quotes.

“I went to school in Singapore but grew up on the internet.”

Shawn is indicative of the students that we are teaching today. They are so digitally connected and they are literally growing up on the internet. That is a very profound statement from a 20 year old college student. We as educators need to embrace this and set up schools that help these students learn.

Another quote from Shawn when asked: What do you wish you had learned in school: “I wish I had learned how to learn.”

Shawn took classes and focused in on what was being taught, but he never learned how to learn. We need to actively teach our students how to learn and not be so married to our content. I think we can use the vehicle of our content, but if we ignore the learning process we have grossly shortchanged our students.

Short blog post, but profound. Thanks Shawn.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Aaron wins the Presidential Award

This just in:  Aaron Sams just won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Aaron has tirelessly worked to become a better teacher.  Much of his application had to do with mastery learning and video podcasting. It is great to see others acknowledge him for such amazing work.

Below are some Links:
From the White House:
Article in a local Colorado Paper:
Aaron's Hometown Paper:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The South Dakota Experiment

The South Dakota Experiment

This week I am not doing any mastery classes or trainings, so I have some time to reflect on last week. In fact right now I am on my way to the Hy-Vee triathlon with my wife and a friend. We are going to be selling our triathlon clothing (My wife runs an online triathlon clothing store –, and I will be competing in the race this Sunday June 12th. Thus I will chat about our amazing visit to South Dakota last week.

While in South Dakota, Aaron and I had the chance to train a cadre of teacher in the Sioux Falls School District. These 40 folks won a grant to implement mastery learning in their math and science classes. Frankly Aaron and I are humbled. Their experiment started out with them coming out to Colorado to both see our class and then attend one of our workshops. Since then they have gone full bore into the mastery/video podcasting model.

In their grant they are going to pay their 40 teachers to develop the program. They didn’t get too much “stuff” except for some copies of Camtasia to make the podcasts. As we pondered this, we realized that this is just what is needed. The key to setting up a mastery classroom is to have time to develop all the components. You need:

1. To have a library of podcasts

2. A way to assess students in a way that is not too cumbersome on the teachers. The students need to be assessed multiple times if they don’t achieve mastery.

I know this full well since this past year I embarked on doing this with our freshmen Earth/Space class that we teach at our high school. Since Aaron was not teaching this course, I did this solo. I made an untold number of podcasts and utilized moodle to make up so many questions to help assess student learning. It was a hard year of work, but I felt that my freshmen group (about 100 kids) learned more than any group I have ever taught. When all was said and done, I had only two students fail the course and most of them were quite successful in mastering the content.

Anyways: Kudos to South Dakota: They are going to reward the teachers for all of the extra hard work it is to set up a mastery course. And Aaron and I are excited to see what will happen to all those kids in all of those classes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What is Best for Students?-- The Question We Should Always Ask.

America’s schools today face many challenges. Preparing our students to compete in a global economy, bridging the achievement gap, bringing classrooms into 21st Century Learning, and keeping quality teachers in the classroom are complex issues with no easy solutions.

I recently read some research about quality teaching. (US News and World Report, September 2009) The article stated that it is better for a student to be in a “bad” school with a good teacher than to have a bad teacher in a “good” school. Many years ago I had the privilege of listening to Kati Haycock speak on the subject of increasing student achievement. She said that when she goes into schools, what is most distressing is that the best teachers are teaching the fewest kids. Conversely, the newest teachers teach the lowest level of students and have the largest class sizes. This inequality in our schools is hurting the population of students that need the greatest assistance. It not only hurts our students but also discourages young teachers. A few years ago at my previous school, a friend of mine left because he was told that he would never teach an upper-level class at our high school. This bright young man with great potential realized that our school was too entrenched in the seniority system, so he went elsewhere.

Failure to ask the question, “What is best for the students?” causes schools to be mired in mediocrity. Often, schools do what is expedient and do what they have “always done.” The saying “we never did it that way before” is too often used in today’s schools. This attitude has a devastating effect on student achievement. First, students underperform because inexperienced teachers who lack the tools necessary to motivate students are often the ones assigned to teach our reluctant learners. These are the students who most need access to our best and brightest educators. Additionally, when we fail to put students first, we discourage bright young men and women from entering into the teaching profession. If a prospective teacher feels that he will forever be placed teaching struggling students or is not given adequate resources to make a difference, he will either never enter the profession or leave education entirely after a short time.

The good news is that we can and should change the paradigm of education and bring those quality teachers to all of our schools. With the advent of 21st Century tools, it is now possible to have some of the best teaching in the country happening in multiple places at one time. Educators can record their lessons on the most difficult subjects and make these lessons available for students all over the country. As this becomes a reality, the role of the classroom teacher will change. He or she will go from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. The classroom teacher will spend his days interacting with students and pushing them to excel instead of spending time managing poor student behavior or presenting a scintillating lecture. Another advantage is that if the individual teacher is strong in some content, he or she can rely on a gifted distance teacher so his/her students will have access to that content.

When I have spoken around the country about what we are doing with the “Reverse Classroom,” some of the greatest interest has come from rural and urban schools who have a hard time finding teachers to teach some of the more difficult science and math courses. Those schools see the “Reverse Classroom” as a way for all of their students to have access to quality, high-level teaching that will open doors for their students.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I Believe about Learning and Teaching

This is an excerpt from my application for Colorado Teacher of the Year (I was a semi-finalist).  It explains much of what I do and believe in about education.  I hope this explains a bit about this blog.

In today’s world of Google and the internet, knowledge is accessible to virtually all citizens. Our students realize this and have become disenchanted with the schools that they attend. Teachers who still think that they are the disseminators of knowledge need to see that there is more to learn than they can ever hope to teach. The greatest gift we can give our students is the ability to learn and adapt to new situations. We must give them the gift of learning so that when they leave our halls, they will have the tools to succeed in the complex world in which we find ourselves.

Outside of school our students live in the connected world of facebook, twitter, texting, the internet, and their own social spheres. Unfortunately many of today’s schools require our students to scale back when they walk into the schoolroom. They have to turn off and dumb down. Instead of fighting the digital culture, we as educators need to infiltrate the digital culture. As we do this we will be embracing and using the tools of the future. When schools are designed for the benefit of students, they will see the connection between the classroom and their lives and will realize that schools are their launch pad into the larger world. I have seen some of our best and brightest students give up on school because they feel that it is not relevant to their lives. We cannot allow this to happen. Our schools can and should be a place where all students have equal access to the best possible education.

If this is to happen, educator roles need to change. The old model of the teacher as the giver of all knowledge needs to disappear. Instead we need to act as coaches and guides to our students. As educators, we can guide and nurture tomorrow’s leaders, not just teach them specific content. This all has to be done in the context of caring and nurturing relationships. When our students realize that we won’t ever give up on them and that we believe in them, they will truly become the leaders they are meant to be. As our schools are transformed into hubs of learning, our country will become a better place, and our schools will again become the envy of the world.  

As we move into the 21st century, students need to be able to solve complex problems, work collaboratively, and synthesize their knowledge and experience. Gone are the days when teachers covered content and hoped that students would learn. My classes are a laboratory of learning.

For decades, many people have talked about mastery programs, but successful implementation has been difficult. With the explosion of technology, it is now easy to make interactive video podcasts that teach specific objectives.

In this model, students take responsibility for their learning in and out of the classroom. They watch video podcasts on a number of digital devices, work on assignments, conduct experiments, interact with the class Moodle website (course management system), and have one-on-one discussions with their teacher. Students are allowed to work through the content at their own pace while meeting pre-described milestones. When they complete a unit, students must demonstrate that they have learned the content by taking an exit assessment that includes both a written and a laboratory component. If students do not demonstrate mastery by meeting the pre-established objectives on these exit assessments, they must go back and relearn the concepts they missed and retake the assessment.

A huge benefit of this teaching methodology is that every student learns at a level that is developmentally appropriate for each individual. Differentiation occurs for ALL students. Some students are given the extra help that they need to master the content while other students are allowed to move ahead at their own pace. Because I am now a mentor instead of a lecturer, more time is available to interact with all students and to give them individualized help. Since every student is now required to master the content before progressing, all students are engaged in their own education. This has been a radical paradigm shift; I have seen students of all ability levels mastering rigorous content. Using this model assures that all students learn at a high level and I am able to asses them continually. When students “don’t get it,” they are required to go back and relearn the concepts until they master them.