Who Are Your Students?

--Originally published at Flipped Learning

When presenting on Flipped Learning, I'm often asked to share my "why". What's the reason behind making such a dramatic shift in my teaching? Quite simply, it has always been about the students. In the traditional style of teaching math - correct homework, introduce new topic, go through examples, ask if there are any questions, assign new homework - I found I had very little time to get to know WHO my students were and what strengths and passions each had that made them unique. Homework was coming back to class incomplete for a variety of reasons - didn't understand, too busy with chores, practice went late, my parents couldn't help me. I was struggling to see how I could best support each student in their growth as a middle school math student...really, as a teenager becoming a young adult.

When educators and leaders talk about differentiation, scaffolding, and equity, I just didn't see how a traditional middle school or high school classroom could be extremely effective meeting students' individual needs. I felt too much pressure to 'get through' the content so I could guarantee I met certain 'expectations'. Yet, I felt I was doing a disservice to my students and the reason I got into teaching in the first place. Flipped Learning completely changed my outlook on connecting with my students and engaging them in a way that could and would support their individuality as learners.

While it took patience, kindness, and compassion, I slowly began to see a different side to students. Students slowly began to share struggles they were having at home. Some even shared the frustrations they were having with classmates and friends. As we slowly unpacked all of the drama in their lives, we were able to dive deeper into math. I didn't quite understand how or why it was happening, but students were learning with much deeper understanding and clarity than I had witnessed in the past. 

As I see it, students trusted that I valued them as individuals first. I was finally able to identify WHO I was teaching, what their struggles were, and how to use their strengths and passions as a way to learn math. Take Johnny (name changed) for example. Johnny was a quiet 8th grader that didn't quite see the value in learning math. All Johnny wanted to do was go fishing or go home and make fly fishing lures. That was all he ever talked about and all he ever doodled about. As we were beginning to introduce variables into math and algebra, Johnny was completely lost. "Why do we need letters in math? I thought it was always about numbers?" Knowing Johnny's passion lied in fishing, I presented him a scenario, a math problem, that asked him to identify how many lures he would need to create in order to make money given a set cost of supplies. Within minutes, Johnny was able to give me a correct answer. I manipulated the cost of supplies, raised the goal of his profit and asked him to solve again. Low and behold, Johnny nailed it. I looked at him and explained you just solved an algebra problem using variables, you just don't know it. Taking a few more minutes to show Johnny the algebraic equations and walking through his math thinking, he suddenly got it. He looked at me with that deer in headlights look and simply said "Thank You!"

Would I ever have been able to connect with and help Johnny this way in a traditional class setting? I simply don't know. What I do know is that on this day, I was afforded time to connect with Johnny and help him see how his passions for fishing could help him learn math. I was afforded time because Flipped Learning gave students the opportunity to learn content without me and practice math with me by their side. Flipped Learning helped me to know WHO my students were and what they needed in each moment to be successful - equity.

Sure, there was some struggle to get started and resistance from other teachers about the noise coming from my classroom. Yes, we spent time going over how groups worked, how to help each other become better learners, and how to ask better questions. Yet, at the end of every day I was able to look at my classroom and think about at least one student that I was able to help, either with math or with life. And isn't that the reason we all become educators?

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