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Pleasanton Weekly

News - July 12, 2013

Teacher gains fame for rethinking learning

'Flipped' classrooms engage and challenge kids

by Glenn Wohltmann

A fifth-grade teacher at Fairlands Elementary School has been bringing some innovative approaches to classrooms in the district and is making a national name for herself in the bargain.

Lisa Highfill was recently tapped to be an instructional coach for the district, focusing on technology. That should be a comfortable fit for Highfill, who's been through both the Google and the YouTube academies.

She's also using technology to spread her message to educators across the country. One recent afternoon, she was using Skype to talk to teachers in Texas, and was featured last month at a TEDx (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk in Livermore, speaking about "flipped" classrooms.

A search for Highfill's name on YouTube will turn up dozens of videos, featuring her giving a lesson or creations by her students.

"It was probably three years ago when I was introduced to flipped teaching," Highfill said. "It was a clever way to maximize my face time with kids."

Before, as is the case with most teachers, Highfill would spend all her time in class teaching how to do a particular thing, like long division, then assign homework.

"That's a pretty typical cycle of learning," she said. "What I did was to rearrange that cycle."

The goal of flipped teaching is to involve students in active learning. In class, listening to a teacher talk, Highfill said, "There's no engagement there."

In flipped teaching, she said, "I explore first."

"Here's some blocks, what can you make from it. I don't tell them the learning process behind it -- they have to figure it out," she explained. "Second in the cycle is the explaining of the concept, the flip."

By the time the flip occurs, the kids are already engaged and active. They want to understand the concept.

There's more to the idea of flipping a classroom. Highfill says instead of homework, she'll assign a video for kids to watch at home, which takes the place of a class lecture.

"Parents could watch it also, so they could see what's going on in the classroom. Explain and remember -- that's the part parents can understand," she said. "My job is to encourage and motivate them and push them. They come back to class the next day and they have to apply that knowledge."

When the class was learning about polygons, for example, Highfill gave out marshmallows and spaghetti, and the kids built their own.

"That night, they watched a five-minute video," she said, and the next day, "they were building dodecahedrons."

When the students were studying planes, they asked for bubble solution.

"The bubble stretches over the faces of these three-dimensional polygons," she explained. "What's mind blowing to them -- they had a triangle and in the center they create a square. That started a whole new section of learning.

"That's when they had that 'ah-ha!' moment -- when you create those those moments in the classroom, that's when you know there's learning. It's loud and it 's messy."

Highfill has stopping trying to ban smart phones for her classes, and other devices have been provided by grants so that everyone has access.

That way, if a student doesn't have access to YouTube at home, or if she or he wants to watch the video again, they can, plus they can pause and rewind to watch a section again if they need to understand a part of the lesson. They can also go back and watch to get ready for tests.

"We tweet everything we do," Highfill said, adding that "other classrooms said, 'Oh, we want to do that, too,' so they started doing this across the country."

This has led her to become involved in ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, and on a more local level, CUE, Computer Users in Education.

"I do workshops about at least once or twice a month. I've traveled to Portland and Boise to talk about this," she said.

Highfill wants to be clear to parents and other teachers that she doesn't flip every class. Some weeks she won't flip any classes; others she may flip one or two.

Now, as the district's instructional coach for technology, she's bringing the same idea to her fellow teachers.

"I'm creating flipped professional development now," Highfill said. "The key to it is it takes a lot of time. You just can't read a book and do it, you have to play. Summertime is the perfect time to do it, you're lesson planning, that sort of thing."

So far, 50 teachers and administrators signed up for summertime professional development.

But Highfill said the concept of flipped learning is about more than about using cool new toys.

"Because I use technology doesn't make me innovative," she said. "It's how I use that in the classroom, that makes it an innovative piece."