Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ELA Problems, Explore-Flip-Apply Solution

Last summer at the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Ramsey Musallam and heard him speaking about different models of the Flipped Classroom. Of particular interest to me was the Explore-Flip-Apply model. Currently, I am doing the traditional model (isn't it odd to call a flipped instruction method "traditional"?), where I front load the information and then assign a project or activity to assess that content. I liked the concept of the Explore-Flip-Apply for the Language Arts class and decided I eventually wanted to move to this model. I wanted my students to get familiar to flipped instruction first and transition them into what I would consider a more difficult model.

Ramsey Musallam recently posted a more detailed explanation of Explore-Flip-Apply and gave some examples from his Chemistry background. This post really got me thinking more about how I can use the Explore-Flip-Apply model. The more I think about this, the more I'm realizing this might alleviate some of the obstacles I've seen in English instruction. I realize every discipline has its own set of challenges. Following are some that I've seen in English Language Arts that many struggle to address. And, after each problem, I've presented an Explore-Flip-Apply solution.

1. Show your work
When was the last time you heard a teacher talking about all the extra English tutoring she did? How often do kids come in before or after school for English help? At my school, our principal runs after school math help (he was a former math teacher), but kids rarely ask for after school English help. My point being, for the most part, kids don't think they need extra help in English as often. If a student has trouble with an English assignment, they will call a friend and get the answer. There isn't the need to show your work as would happen in a math class. There doesn't seem to be an expectation to show your work in English. Sure, we teach writing as a process and may require rough drafts to "force" kids to show their work. But, students used to doing English work at home in isolation, tend also to not to see the need for showing their work.
On a similar note, I love the "revision history" in Google Docs. I can see my students' writing process and "rough drafts" right there in the document.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution: This model seems to be based around "showing your work". I'm envisioning a lesson in which I present a problem or task. Ken Shelton presented an awesome activity at the GTA on Google Search tools that required us to work in groups to fill in answers to some questions in a short time period. I can see doing something like this initially as exploring. Give the students a short time period to answer some questions. At the end of the time period, hopefully, no one will have completed the activity. Then, have the students brainstorm how or what tools they needed to be more efficient. That's the Explore.
Next would be providing a video, screencast, podcast, or other digital means for them to be provided a list of tools and their uses. Maybe you could even demonstrate finding the answers in the allotted time emphasizing what tools you used. That's the Flip.
Finally, the students return to class and are given a similar, but possibly even more difficult, task. Again, they are given a specified time limit to find the solution using the tools they learned about the previous night. Once they've shown progress in their search efficiency, assign a larger research project. That's the Apply.

2. A lot of writing is collaborative

If we think about times we use our writing skills in really life, many times it is in a collaborative process. Right now, I am working on two presentations and a conference proposal with other teachers. We are collaborating the writing process. Unfortunately, when we ask students to collaborate, all students don't learn or focus on the same skills or content. With some projects, that's acceptable. However, even when students contribute equal work, they still contribute to different tasks. Students will work toward their strengths, which is what real-world collaborations are, but we need them to work on their weaknesses.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution:
I can see doing a project where students teach each other as part of the explore. For instance, I assign a presentation. The presentation has to teach the class a skill or topic on which the group has a lot of knowledge (sound like a conference presentation?). As a group, they have to brainstorm what topic they will be covering and then proceed to determine what skills they need for a successful presentation. If you want to narrow it more, it could be a topic of some content related to your class. Students determine what they are going to need to complete this project successfully. At the same time, they have to identify and document what each partner's strengths are. That's the Explore.
Next, they watch a video, podcast, or other means and see which skills they really do need. Here, I might throw in a twist and require them to perform a weakness of theirs as opposed to a strength. And, at the same time, they need to teach their other group members their strengths and learn from the others how to improve their weaknesses. That's the Flip.
Then, they use all the tools they learned and put together their presentation. That's the Apply.

3. Authentic writing
In English, we always want to work on what is known as authentic writing, or real-world applications. While I love this idea in theory, I don't always see it as attainable. Maybe it is the fault of standardized testing, but students struggle sometimes to make that connection between what they know and how it applies to the real-world application. For instance, I do an advertising unit with my students to cover some media literacy skills as well as persuasion. Rarely do I get a student that makes the connection between the formal persuasive essay they write for class (either my class or other teachers' classes) and persuasive advertising. Here in lies part of the problem. On a standardized test, they are going to asked to write a letter to their principal explaining why school uniforms are bad or good, or some other contrived "real-world" problem. It is simply asking for a persuasive essay in the form of a letter. Some kids don't get that and write these long drawn out letters with poor organization or supporting evidence. I've even had some kids ask if the principal was really going to read the letters. Do you think that kid is formulating good ideas and focusing on the writing process? Not likely. And that is the crux of the problem. If we focus too much on formula writing that the tests want to see, kids miss real-world applications. If we focus too much on real-world applications, kids can struggle to make the connection needed for standardized test type writing.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution: Well, both my other examples were real-world solutions. However, in this case, I may use a similar contrived assignment that could be seen on a standardized test. I could assign writing a letter to our principal about some topic that needs persuading.
In class, students brainstorm on what skills they need and what steps they'll take in the writing process to compose a solid letter. That's the Explore.
At home, they'll learn the links to other assignments they've had in the past.....persuasive essay, compare/contrast, cause and effect, etc. whichever one I want them to apply here. Or, I may just give them videos on these types of essays and see if they make the connection on their own. That's the Flip.
Then, they compose the letter in class. That's the apply.
Note to self: this exercise might be good to try a couple weeks before we begin statewide testing.

4. Common Sense or "I've spoken English all my life"
Students oftentimes see English as common sense to them. English content is what I like to call cyclical. Or so it appears. As opposed to math or science, in which you build on each topic, English content comes back around and is re-covered time and again, year after year. I can look at my school's 5th grade textbook and find many of the same concepts as my 8th grade textbook. We begin talking about nouns, for instance, and my students say, "We already know what a noun is. We had it in like 5th grade." What they don't realize is that nouns in 8th grade are subtly more comprehensive than in 7th, 6th, and 5th. They might be thrown some collective nouns or gerunds. But, they have their blinders on and are thinking "I already know nouns; I can tune out for awhile." Therefore, they aren't going to ask for help understanding nouns because they haven't even realized there is new content being presented.
Many teachers believe, as do I, that grammar is best taught in context. Meaning skill and drill worksheets, while possibly good for picking up terminology, don't improve grammar in writing. And, isn't that where we want to see good grammar? In their writing? I've always been a bit bothered by our standardized tests that say, "Identify the preposition and object of the preposition in this sentence." My students can write wonderful and correct prepositional phrases with ease. Yet, some of them come to that question and can't identify the preposition. When they get older, will they be more aptly served writing prepositions or pointing to them?

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution:
This might be bit harder to pull off in the Explore-Flip-Apply model. I might be reaching here, but I'll still give it a go.
In class, students might be presented with a problem. Explain what goes into writing an effective paragraph. Maybe even focus it more by adding nonfiction or fiction. Let the students brainstorm what makes a good sentence, attempting, at the same time, to use proper grammar terminology. While they are throwing out what they think are grammar terms, asked some pointed questions like, "does the type of noun we use matter?" Or, "why might introductory clauses be important?" At the end of the period, we should have a list or guide to writing an effective paragraph, with what they believe is proper terminology (but not telling them if they are correct or not). That's the Explore.
At home, they watch a video explaining all they really need to know for writing an effective paragraph, confirming some of their previous work or dispelling any myths or misunderstandings. That's the Flip.
Next day in class, use my list or guide, maybe even spend some time comparing the two guides and coming to a common agreement about certain items. Maybe even have a discussion on why my guide is wrong and theirs is correct. Ultimately, you have them write a paragraph using the guide they learned, at the same time, identifying prepositional phrases, introductory clauses, etc. That's the Apply.

In this post, I solely covered the writing part of English Language Arts. I didn't tackle the Reading Comprehension part at all. That's down the road some time for me. As I stated earlier, I'd like to move my students to the Explore-Flip-Apply model away from, or complementary to, the Tradition Flip model. I have my sights set for doing something like this after Christmas break. We'll see if it happens. In the meantime, I'd love to hear other suggestions on using the Explore-Flip-Apply model to solve the problems I presented. I would also love to hear your problems (content problems that is) so I can help brainstorm solutions. If you have ideas or literature units using the Explore-Flip-Apply model, let me know those as well. I see this model having so much value in the ELA classroom.


  1. Nice work! With your permission I would like to include this in my list of language arts applications when I give Flipped Class presentations.

  2. Absolutely, Aaron! Go right ahead.