Teachers share lessons from ‘innovative’ classroom styles


By Zachary Matson

— Teaching styles widely viewed as successful at engaging students in new ways have struggled to get a foothold in classes across the state and nation.

But some teachers are working to “flip” their classrooms, turn traditional units of study into in-depth projects and leverage technology to offer courses to students in multiple districts. The master’s of teaching program at the Clarkson University Capital Region Campus teaches students – all prospective teachers – the keys to these emerging teaching strategies.

On Wednesday, as part of the school’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, program alumni who teach in schools from Troy and Niskayuna to Ballston Spa and Schuylerville shared insight into the innovative approaches they take in their classrooms.

The strategies, which make use of virtual classrooms and offer ways for teachers to move beyond conventional classroom lectures, have been around for years. But they have been slow to reach classrooms, where busy teachers and cash-strapped administrators are reluctant to take the plunge.

“Everyone agrees these methods are valuable, but the barriers quickly come to mind,” Clarkson Education Department Chair Catherine Snyder said. “That’s the expense, and teachers are very busy.”

Snyder said the testing regime that guides the academic curriculum statewide also makes teachers and administrators more reluctant to adopt new teaching styles.

“We still function within a testing system that is fairly restrictive,” Snyder said. “How much can we do with our students, while making sure we are still successful for our students on those exams?”

Three innovative and, possibly, emerging teaching styles that could land in a classroom near you include:

Flipping the classroom

In “flipped” classrooms, teachers don’t give lectures before each class. Instead, the lecture is the homework, freeing up class time for discussion or more engaging activities. But teachers who want to flip their classes have to invest significant time and energy in producing video lectures for their students to absorb at home.

The payoff, however, can be big. Students who finish the lecture homework come to class already knowing the general content, so the teacher can use class time to probe how well students understand the material and work through activities designed to deepen knowledge and interest.

“I’m spending so much time delivering the content that I don’t have enough time to do the stuff I want to with the content,” Ballston Spa High School social studies teacher Marissa Bongo said of what teaching was like before she flipped her class.

But building an archive of lecture videos can be a time-consuming undertaking for teachers. Bongo said it took her six hours to make her first four-minute video. Recording the video lectures was awkward at first.

“You get over it,” she said.

Starting this year, she is using a technology that poses questions to her students as they watch the videos, so she can see who finished the homework and identify areas of weakness within the class.

Beyond the delivery of content, Bongo said, flipping the class exposes students to technology they will need in the future and it allows teachers to get the most out of the technology available to them.

“We cannot escape technology. If anything, we have to embrace it,” Bongo said. “If you don’t embrace it, then you will fall further and further behind.”

While countless educational videos exist that teachers could leverage in a flipped classroom, Snyder said the tightly-defined curriculum in Regents courses makes it difficult for teachers to find material that fits with how they should be teaching the class.

Project-based learning

Oftentimes, teachers will cap off a unit of study with a culminating project to gauge how well students understand the content and to engage them in the subject matter.

But imagine that instead of the project coming at the end of the unit, the project was the unit. That’s how project-based learning works.

“Normally, you lecture and test, lecture and test, and then at the end of the unit, you do a fun project like a dessert for kids,” said Sophia Hsia, a Chinese language teacher at Tech Valley High School in Albany. “Project-based learning is not like that. In project-based learning, the project is your curriculum.”

At Tech Valley, the entire school is built around project-based learning, so teachers are also able to collaborate across classes and disciplines, building content from different courses into their projects.

Hsia explained a project for which her students were asked to explain how the American health care system works to a Chinese man. Through the course of the project, the students learned about key parts of the health care system, as well as the Chinese vocabulary needed to explain it.

Throughout the project, the lessons are embedded in activities that fit with the larger project.

In a separate project, students learned about architectural and household terms in the context of designing a home for a traditional Chinese family. At the end of the project, they designed actual homes in a computer class.

“Project-based learning puts the learning inside the project, not just as an assessment,” Snyder said.

Distance learning

Distance-learning classrooms work best for small districts or for specialized subjects with a small number of interested students or qualified teachers.

Ross Marvin, a Schuylerville High School English teacher, leads a distance-learning journalism class that serves students in the Schuylerville, Johnsburg and Hudson Falls school districts. Marvin teaches to cameras that follow him around the class, projecting the lesson directly to students in distance-learning classrooms in their home school districts.

As a class, they are working through online programs and developing a magazine. Marvin communicates with students, assigns and accepts homework and has students work together, all online.

“It doesn’t feel like a regular class; [students] are seeing students from different districts,” Marvin said. “I’ll have the students go on Google Docs and chat with students from other districts about their school culture.”

The distance-learning model presents some challenges. Marvin doesn’t always have the chance to meet with students directly or engage with them at the personal level, as he can with students seated in front of him. And he has to deal with the schedules, traditions and grading policies of three different districts.

“A bigger challenge is classroom management,” Snyder said. “If a student is in a distance classroom that needs a little bit more guidance, it becomes much more challenging with the methods used to manage class.”

But Snyder also pointed out the benefits distance learning classes have for districts that are forced to eliminate positions and programs in tight budget years. The districts that offer students the chance to take Marvin’s class, for example, might not have the level of student interest or resources to offer their own journalism classes.

BOCES programs are also well-positioned to offer or coordinate distance-learning classes. Snyder said the Clarkson program works with the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES to place Chinese language teachers who can offer distance-learning classes in the Chinese language to more than a dozen districts.

“Finding New York state-certified Chinese teachers in their community may be difficult, so they have the centralized option,” she said.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, zmatson@dailygazette.net or@zacharydmatson on Twitter.