Turning Saxon on its Head

(Otherwise known as flipping my math class.)

“How do I do this?” I asked our instructional coach. She had just handed me the heaviest, two-volume set of instruction manuals I had ever seen. Saxon Math, 8/7 Pre-algebra, they read. I peeked through them. Where were the pictures? This looked nothing like any other math program I had taught.

Patiently, she opened the book and began to show me how to do a lesson. It was a close-to-scripted program that follows a set format: warm-up, new material, 4-6 practice problems, 30 spiral review problems. For each lesson, I would have an hour to teach it – may the force be with me!

And so began my Saxon math experience. The material was easily laid out to teach, and the students knew what was expected of them. We worked together on it for a few months. However, I wouldn’t say it went as smoothly as I would have liked. I tried. I did. But the only way to do an entire lesson in an hour was if I assigned a fair amount of homework and if students didn’t ask any questions. I hated to just send home more homework, as that filled their already precious relaxation hours, and made for more class time to correct it and answer questions the next day. Plus, you know what? Students ask questions. A lot of them, in fact.

About this time, I stumbled upon this article about flipping math, and I was so impressed that I promptly went to Amazon and downloaded the Kindle edition of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams’s book Flip Your Classroom. (This is rare for me, because I am about as cheap as they come, and it meant spending money on books. However, I felt like I needed to know how this worked!) I finished the book in a weekend and was hooked on the idea. The basics of flipping a classroom is the realization that students need the most help with the practice work of learning, and that they need the least help taking notes. However, most classes have students take notes in class and do some practice outside of class. Flipping does just the opposite. Students do the note taking from a video at home before the lesson, and then class time can be spent tackling those pesky “homework” problems with additional teacher support. It can also free up class time for more hands-on activities, group work, or student exploration. Now students always have the ability to replay what the teacher said, and never again do they (and their parents) have to struggle with homework without someone to guide them.

I asked around at school to see if anyone had tried it. One colleague had dabbled in it once, and he had some good advice: one topic per video, keep them short (5-10 mins), and be prepared, meaning that any writing that needs done on the board or calculations that need accomplished should be completed prior to pushing ‘record’. He also suggested starting simple – no need to spend hours embedding photos and supplemental clips. I didn’t have any fancy software, and wasn’t really interested in doing the Khan Academy style of video, so I decide to just record myself teaching the way I normally would have taught. I just wanted the students to be able to see the lesson in much the same way they would have in a traditional class.

So, off I set to get permission from my administration (granted! They are wonderful people!), and to record my first video. I couldn’t get the school video camera, so I set up my cell phone camera leaning on a coffee mug (I am truly high tech, can’t you tell), and we were off! Creating a video didn’t take long, but it took a while to figure out what worked on video. I learned the hard way that green marker doesn’t stand out enough, the overhead lights cause a fierce glare, and the air conditioners make terrible background noise.

Slowly, video by video, the course took shape. Some kids watched the videos at lunch to avoid having homework. Others would come in to re-watch them to help them understand better. Absent students now knew exactly what they missed. Parents were overall supportive.

In class, things got easier too. Students showed up each morning with their Cornell notes from each video (I love Cornell notes for this – it leaves them a place to take notes, another to write questions, and a final spot to summarize their learning in their own words.). Instead of starting the class with lecturing, we started the class with the students working out the practice problems on individual whiteboards, which allowed me to see who understood and help those who didn’t. The rest of the class I used to help students, work with small groups, and provide enrichment for those who finished early. Struggling students were finally able to get the support they needed.

Flipping my math class was the best decision I made. I can’t imagine going back to the old way. I’m not done reforming my class (PBR or maybe guided math, anyone?), but I feel very satisfied that I am able to teach in a way that truly helps students learning instead of just how the book teaches.

If you are curious about my 8/7 Pre-algebra class, the videos can be found here. If you decide to try flipping your class, or already do so, please feel free to comment below! what works for you!

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