Which Way Do You “Flip” an English Class?

Students during a role-play last year

Jon Bergmann, a self-styled “pioneer of flipped classrooms” posted yesterday about why teachers matter more in a “flipped” classroom than in a “traditional” one.

“Teaching is fundamentally about human interactions and that can’t be replaced by technology,” he writes.  Take that, MOOCS.

I am inclined to agree.

For those of you unfamiliar with educational buzzword-ese, “flipping” a classroom is inverting the traditional model of instruction: instead of lecture in class, exercises for homework, you give them the lecture for homework and the exercises in class.  The argument runs that students benefit more from applying their learning under the guidance of a teacher during class.  Lectures are equally effective when delivered by video.  A teacher could film themselves delivering a lecture, require students to watch for homework, and then guide them through an exercise in class.  Very nice.

The practice of “flipping” classrooms has generated more than its fair share of cutesy phrases, most nauseatingly the one about how teachers should change from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”  I understand the sentiment, but… gag me.

You may notice that I assiduously put scare quotes around the word “flip” in this context.  I’m skeptical of the term (as I am of all educational jargon) and I think it deserves to be called out by punctuation.  I have nothing against the idea.  I’m just not convinced that it’s actually all that new.

Here’s the thing: I teach English in an independent school.  My class already consists mostly of facilitating student discussion of a text.  Do I need to “flip” that?  Or is it already “flipped”?

Would “flipping” an English class involve reading the text in class and conducting discussion online for homework (as I do when we read Shakespeare)?  Is there some other direction to “flip” that I haven’t thought of yet?

I prefer to think of “folding” my class.  Rather than “flipping,” which means a 180-degree turn and implies that the object being flipped only has two sides (right-side up and upside down), I like to think of my class as something that can be folded like origami paper.  I have myriad formats for my teaching, and each accesses a different way of learning.

I lead discussions, I allow students to read discussions, and I put discussions on the internet.  I read out loud in class, I have students read out loud or silently in class, and I have them read at home.  Students write essays, journals, blog posts, create videos and set designs and images both in-class and out.  I sometimes lecture (and I maintain that a great lecture is as fine a teaching tool as any).  I have students lecture each other.  I do individual, pair, small-group, and large-group work.  I do games and projects and performances.  And I am always looking for something new to add to the arsenal.

Teaching is like fitting a joint in carpentry: many joints will work, but one joint–properly thought-out and carefully chosen–will make the project both beautiful and strong.  My greatest challenge in teaching is deciding which format to use for which activity.  And recognizing when I can stop experimenting with a lesson because I’ve found the right fit.

I suppose my skepticism about “flipping” comes down to just that: I don’t see teaching as two-sided.  I see it as multifarious and multifaceted.

How do you “flip” something with a hundred sides?

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