‘Flipping’ the script

When homework becomes classwork: New methods help RCI students
By: 
Scott De Laruelle

Photos by Scott De Laruelle. Rome Corners Intermediate School math teacher Kay Kissling works on problems with, from left: Kirsten Oppliger, Angela Hessler and Sam Peterson. While at school, the students are learning material that is traditionally considered homework as part of the personalized learning program.

Joel Hanner gets some tips on his math studies while working one-on-one with RCI teacher Celia Paczwa. Since starting personalized learning methods earlier this year, students and teachers have more time to spend in small groups or working individually.

Moms and dads are some of the greatest people in the world. But sometimes, when it comes to assisting with homework, they’re not always the best resource.

In the “old way” of instructing students, teachers would give lessons during class, then assign homework to be completed for the next day. But then what happens when a student gets stuck and needs help parents can’t provide?

Rome Corners Intermediate School fifth-grade teaching team Celia Paczwa and Kay Kissling have solved that learning problem – and a few others – with some creative “flipping” and a little bit of  “dynamic regrouping” this year with their group of 46 students by using personalized learning techniques put in place this fall.

Personalized learning is an initiative the district started in 2011 to help all students reach their potential. It starts with the individual student in mind, and designs learning according to their own needs, motivations and capabilities.

Paczwa said RCI’s program started this past summer when she took a class that discussed “flipping” classes.

Teachers assigned students videos to watch at home, which were then discussed the next day during class time, when help would be available. She was sold.

“I decided I wanted to start flipping math classes,” she said.

One of the reasons was her students’ performance the previous year, which she felt could have been better.

“My low-performing students grew a lot, the middle group did what was expected, but my high achievement students didn’t make as much growth as I would have hoped, so I wanted to have an opportunity to push them,” Paczwa said. “This year, I had a lower base to begin with, so I said, ‘We need to find a way to meet all of them where they’re at.’”

Planning for success

Before the school year started, Paczwa and Kissling discussed taking the leap and decided to start with their math classes. It took more work and planning on their part, but so far, the improved results have been clear.

“We said, ‘Let’s look at what they need each day, and not just decide we’re going to do this one day, this one day and this one day,’” she said. “It’s that concept of personalized learning – it used to be time is the constant and learning is the variable, and now we’re kind of switching that idea where time is the variable and learning is the constant. So they will get it, it just might take a little extra time (for some students).”

District technology director Jon Tanner said the method helps meet students’ specific needs and keeps students from either becoming bored or falling behind the group.

“You don’t have one kid who’s sitting there hearing stuff they already know, and you don’t have another kid who says, ‘I got lost three days ago,’” he said. “Instead of lecturing in the class and having the kids go home and try to work on problems where they can’t ask a teacher, it’s doing it the other way.

“When they come back with questions, they can ask a teacher who’s right there. It frees the teacher up to work with kids on the individual problems they have.”

Force multiplier

The teachers are also using “dynamic regrouping” this year to keep students learning at their appropriate level. Kissling said in the past, the two taught math classes at the same time, using the same lessons but not necessarily getting the results they wanted.

“We weren’t reaching all the students, so this is really turned out to be a good thing to be doing,” she said. “It’s very time-consuming, but a very good thing.”

The pair has an educational assistant and a special education teacher to assist them, so now they split kids into four or five groups to provide more individual attention to those who need it. While they’d like to eventually include the personalized learning methods in other subjects – particularly language arts – they’re content to use the math classes as a sort of test case this year.

“The other teams are three-teacher teams, so we have something a little unique where we’re both teaching math at the same time, so we can do this flex grouping,” Paczwa said. “It’s always switching – sometimes kids are working in pairs independently, and I might be working with four or five kids who need more of my time. Every day looks different.”

Students are divided into groups on a daily basis, depending on the lesson, as one student may be proficient at one math skill and need help at another.

“When they are met at their level – not too high and not too boring – they stay on task,” she said. “Some of our most difficult kids, you have six of them in a small group and they finish one problem and say to each other, ‘What did you get on this one – oh, we didn’t get the same answer, oh, I think your multiplication is wrong on this step,’ and they have that conversation and they’re engaged in it because they’re being pushed.

“That’s one of our biggest things – they are becoming engaged.”

A nice side benefit is the students are working with more than one teacher, Kissling said.

“I really know her kids because I’m working with them much more than I had in the past, and likewise, she knows my kids,” she said. “And I just love that.”

When homework comes in during the morning, the teachers are able to get together right away to make adjustments on the fly.

“We use third- and fourth-period prep time and say, ‘Wow, this kid is not understanding open number sentences with word problems,’ or ‘This student needs help with double-digit divisors,’ so we come up with different groups,” Paczwa said.

The teachers are also using more “pre-testing” to figure out what individual students need to help them move ahead.

“When there are kids who are like, ‘We’ve already got this,’ then we don’t have them in the regular rotation,” Paczwa said. “They then move on to something else or so do something more in-depth with it – they’ll use an iPad and show how they would teach it and explain it, or do things that go a little deeper with the concepts.”

Promising results

While the teachers believe they are reaching more of the students on their level, most importantly, the changes have been clear in their improved grades.

“I feel pretty confident that it’s working just looking at the report cards,” Kissling said. “I have many, many more (good grades) than I do kids who have needed re-teaching, even though we’ve got a lower ability group this year.”

“We haven’t had much re-teaching at all,” Paczwa added. “We’re getting it right in the classrooms.”

Kissling said after the changes they made this year, it’s “pretty cool” to now see students become more independent and take more ownership in their learning.

“They’ll be sitting at the table and conferencing between each other in such a technical, mathematical way,” she said. “I just love to watch that.”

In light of this year’s math successes, Paczwa said the duo is going to work in the future to try to continue the concepts in other subjects they teach.

“This is our pathway to personalized learning,” she said. “We’re looking at what our students need and trying to adapt our instruction to meet that. I feel that this year, we are reaching a lot of the different learners I don’t know that we were last year.

“I feel like we’re making huge progress this year – it’s working for us and we’ll keep going with it.”

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Terra Cotta 1 leads the way
Rome Corners Intermediate School teacher Dawna Wright and her sixth-grade students in team “Terra Cotta 1” are now in their second year of their “personalized journey.” They were the first team in the school to begin implementing personalized learning methods at the beginning of last school year, she said.

“It is a dramatic shift from what we were doing,” (but) we still have a ways to go,” Wright said.

One of the big changes has been “lots of extra planning,” both during the summers and during the school year - but not just for teachers.

“In terms of specific lessons, many of our students are doing more of that planning because it is more student-driven instead of teacher-driven,” she said. “Each one of the teachers on the team takes a lead for specific subject areas. But we always try to build in that personalized piece for students.”

Wright said while students are achieving on the same level as their counterparts in traditional classrooms, they are learning more “21st- century skills.”

“Students are learning to advocate for themselves, organize themselves, researching skills, manage their own time and prioritizing, (and) those are the skills many students are missing due to a traditional classroom,” she said. “They sit, they get the information and they do whatever the teacher specifically asks of them. Our team often asked them to demonstrate their learning in a way they would like to do.

“This could work in any classroom and across the district,” Wright added. “The point is for students to be able to learn in the manner of which they learn the best. (Here), there should be many options for students to choose what works the best for them.”

–Scott De Laruelle