When Adam Johnson, an eighth-grade math teacher at Mountain Brook Junior High, starts his lecture, one of his students, Harrison McDonald, is lying in bed. Another student, Matt Hamilton, prefers to take a break and watch a little TV before starting. Ivy Davidson usually doesn’t pay attention until 10 p.m.
How can they all watch the lecture? Johnson recorded a video the night before and put it on the Internet. He is at the forefront of a small but growing movement in education called “the flipped classroom.”
The idea is that instead of doing homework at home, students watch lectures. Then they get help on their practice work at school. It’s called “flipped” because homework mostly happens at school and teaching mostly happens at home.
Johnson opened up his classroom to 20 other teachers and educators from across the state on March 13 for an open house. Teachers in 15 states and 12 countries showed off their own “flipped classrooms” that day, but Johnson was the only teacher in Alabama. He’s been experimenting with this new approach to teaching for five years, but this year was the first time that he’s tried it for an entire year.
Johnson has a shaved head, coaches soccer and barks at his students, “Have a good weekend, Spartans!” at the end of his class. When he was at Troy University, he played the Trojan mascot during sporting events.
But he’s shy about the videos he produces. He prefers to use software that records his writing and his voice, without ever showing his face. He wants his students to hear his voice so they become comfortable learning from him. But he doesn’t want his videos warped into the next YouTube sensation.
The video includes his real handwriting and animated arrows that move in an empty room that looks like his real classroom. He makes silly references to keep students engaged. “Hello there, and welcome to another episode of Mr. Johnson’s math class,” Johnson starts one lesson. “By the end of today’s episode, you should understand what a system of equations are.”
A set of practice problems at the open house required students to scan their answers with a phone — and if they got the correct answer, their phone would reveal a joke.
“Why did the obtuse angle go the beach?” one student read. “Because it’s over 90 degrees.”
“I don’t get it,” his partner said.
“It’s funny,” Johnson told them, as he walked between groups. “An obtuse angle is over 90 degrees. It’s funny.”
“Sort of,” said the student.
Johnson goes the extra mile to engage his students because his most important goal is to boost student confidence. He requests classes of students who have struggled with math in the past.
“They may not be inspired to be a mathematician,” Johnson said. “I just don’t want them to walk away from my class and say, ‘God, I still hate math.’”
He thinks the flipped classroom works for these students. They can watch the videos over and over, without worrying about what their friends think. When he begins class, even shy students can answer, “What was the video about last night?” and usually several more questions.
But he’s also a realist. If a student didn’t watch the video, he doesn’t punish them. Instead, students know to pick up a laptop and watch the lesson in the hallway.
In Johnson’s classroom each of the desks is on wheels, so when he calls out a formation of “groups” or “rows” or “partners,” the students roll into position. Instead of just one projector, the room has two, and the students go up to the board and manipulate virtual problems.
This version of the flipped classroom is perfect for junior high students, according to Mountain Brook Junior High Principal Donald Clayton. They’re allowed to move around and learn from failure, and it forces them to talk about their schoolwork.
Johnson starts class with a discussion about the video from the night before. Students from all over the room shouted out answers during the first class, noticed Jenny Firth, a middle school science teacher who was visiting from Vestavia. But in the second class, two boys dominated the conversation.
The second class had 13 special education students, according to Michel Godwin, a special education teacher who moves with her students throughout the day. She says special education students do really well in Johnson’s class because the videos are both visual and auditory, and because it allows them to rewatch the lessons over and over again.
The part that Johnson likes the best is that he has more time to ask students how they are doing. Because students spend most of the class working now, Johnson has the time to go around and check every student’s notes.
But the flipped classroom can take more time to prepare. In addition to class activities, now he has to create videos. Although he tries to keep the videos under seven minutes to hold students’ attention, they’re still labor intensive.
But it saves some time. Instead of having to catch up absent students, those students can watch the lesson from home and return without missing a beat. It also allows parents who want to help with homework to watch the videos.
A few of Johnson’s students said that they wish they could ask him questions during the videos. He encourages students to email him their questions, but not everyone does. All the students who spoke said that math was more fun this year than last.
Johnson’s flipped classroom wasn’t always a statewide model. When he first assigned videos five years ago, the students didn’t remember any of it. He figured out that he had to teach students how to watch the videos. Now he spends the first couple weeks of the year teaching students how to take notes and rewind when they miss something.
He also started running his open house with parents as if it were a flipped classroom. Getting the students and parents to understand the flipped classroom reduced parental complaints.
“When math was not a person’s favorite subject to begin with,” Johnson said, “and then you’re changing something that was already difficult for them and making it look extremely different, there’s quite a bit of anxiety that can come from it.”
This is a problem that has plagued Hope Prevallet, a middle school math teacher who was visiting from Vestavia. Some of Prevallet’s parents don’t understand why their children have to be in a flipped classroom, if they learn just as well the old-fashioned way.
Johnson’s students are doing better, he said, but with less than a full year’s worth of data to prove it, at this point, he’s just happy that it’s boosting their confidence.
Many of the educators who visited Johnson’s room wondered whether it could work at their schools. Taajah Witherspoon, a math coach in Mountain Brook, came because she wanted to see if it could work in elementary schools. Daniel Whit, the technology coordinator at Madison City Schools near Huntsville, visited Johnson’s class because he wanted to learn how to adapt flipped classrooms to the middle school level.
For all of the reservations the visiting teachers had, one question loomed large. “Is it that the flipped classroom is awesome?” Whit asked. “Or is it that Mr. Johnson is awesome?”