Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How I Started Flipping

I have been teaching German language, culture and literature at the college level for a very long time and have always enjoyed it. There are, however, a few aspects I truly love about interacting with my students, and I wanted to multiply them in depth, intensity, and duration:

  • Making class time dynamic and FUN.
  • Harnessing the knowledge of more advanced students and/or the energy of highly motivated learners to help their struggling or less interested peers.
  • Having sufficient time in class to answer students' smart questions about German culture: "Why don't Germans smile at random strangers more often?  or "Why is a college education nearly free in Germany?" or "How do many Germans construct a self-identity?" 
  • Leading students to discovering answers to these questions by providing them with the tools of critical thinking
  • Seeing students overcome the fear of producing utterances in a second language.
  • Helping students individually, depending on their personal needs.
  • Assessing all of the learning that occurred in my classroom, not just isolated vocabulary or grammar.
  • Giving students the tools to evaluate German culture, warts and all.
  • Making space and time available for learners to analyze differences and similarities between their own cultural practices and the way Germans handle theirs. Is there something to learn from these analyses?
  • Offering alternate German identities for my students so that they can walk in another Schuh and shed their monoculturism.
  • Laughing and playing in my classroom.
  • Celebrating students' success in creatively communicating in German.
  • Boosting the motivation in the classroom and outside through in-depth cultural discussions that make my learners think critically.
  • Providing explanations that students can access a second (or third or fourth) time around.
  • Witnessing students connect to the German culture in their own meaningful ways.
  • Talking less while my students interact and collaborate more in the target language.
  • Developing more intellectually each semester rather than repeating the same lessons and jokes year after year.
  • Giving students detailed feedback on the spot (instead of grading stacks of homework that those students who need my explanations usually just toss as soon as I return to them my toil of many hours).

The search for a teaching strategy that allowed me to achieve all the above took me many years. I constantly added and eliminated classroom practices, but the problem remained: LACK OF TIME! There simply wasn't enough time to do the pleasurable, mind-stretching, analytical, and creative activities that I saw as so desirable (and my students did, too). Not only that: it seemed, as the years went by, that students' grammatical preparation in high school was less and less adequate, with the result that I needed more time to explain grammar, first the English version and then the German variation. And that is when I discovered the flipped classroom. Shifting all those grammar explanations out of my group learning space gave me the breathing room I needed to start transforming my classroom into a dynamic group learning community in which amazingly smart insights occur by enthusiastic students.

Incorporating flipped learning into my German college classrooms supports my students' needs and my own desires as a professional educator. I hope you, too, will discover the same joy of reconnecting your discipline, your students, and yourself in this innovative and gratifying manner.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Letter to My Future Students

Welcome, dear fellow learner, in our classroom!

I am delighted that you want to learn more about the German language and culture. By the way, do you know why it’s so beneficial to learn a foreign language? Studying another language exposes you to a new culture, increases your tolerance for different opinions and behaviors, diversifies your political and social views, and helps your entry into the globalized workforce (even potentially increasing your salary; see the graph of career-time economic gains by an employee proficient in a foreign language).

Speaking a foreign language is a practical skill and should be approached as such. How do you best learn to ice-skate, paint, or play the piano? By listening your instructor give you daily lessons and then practicing for half an hour? Or by practicing, practicing, practicing, and practicing some more, with a trainer or teacher watching and giving you concrete tips to improve your growing skill? Of course, it’s the latter approach that will yield the best outcome.

In most classrooms, you have the following ratio of instructor-to-student input:

The professor lectures and you listen or take notes. This is called passive learning. If you’re lucky, you get some hands-on experience using the newly learned content, but usually you will apply it at home (or not… we all know students who don’t do their homework, right?). At the end of a learning unit, you get tested on the material that you have memorized by staying up the night before. For the final exam, you need to re-memorize all of the semester content to demonstrate your knowledge. Aber weisst du was [but you know what]? Knowledge of a foreign language equates only to theoretically understanding its grammar and remembering its vocabulary, not being skilled in actually using the language. That only comes with practice.

That is why we will approach learning German differently in this course. Our time will be split like this:

All that practice in class will be done in groups, and you will carry out tasks that relate to real-life situations. That’s called active learning. Your group members (and your instructor) will be there to help you complete a task successfully. That’s called cooperative and collaborative learning. Your homework will be to absorb the digitally delivered information and fill out worksheets with the details that are needed to complete the in-class tasks. These tasks will help construct knowledge, interweaving the information into useful applications which, in turn, provide you with the skills necessary to use German. The process of culling useful information from the digital content is called self-directed learning and will enable you to become a life-long learner, that is, someone who has the intellectual resources and the will to analyze questions voluntarily, to find answers independently, to evaluate sources of information, and to apply the gained knowledge toward solutions and skills.

Since this course concentrates on practicing a skill, not passively accumulating knowledge, your learning will be assessed through group projects. You will practice (in class and outside of it) and then play-act real-life tasks such as going grocery shopping, booking a hotel room, going to the doctor, or viewing an apartment. Tests are take-home worksheets that ask analytical questions about the German culture, sport a short grammar section, and outline the expectation for your group performance.

In summary: In this course, you will transition from passive to active learning; from acquiring knowledge by rote memorization to practicing a skill by applying the knowledge; from solitary to cooperative and collaborative learning; from chasing a passing grade in GERM 2003 to constructing deeper meanings derived from dissecting parts of the German culture.

A warning: some students won’t like it. They’re the ones who prefer to coast through college and life with as little effort as possible, who have relied on memorization skills to make it through the lower levels of the German language, who don’t want to leave their comfort zone, who expect a dog-and-pony show from their instructors, who resist the growth that comes from facing challenges. They’re the ones who blame others (parents, roommates, instructors, etc.) for their failure to develop into functional adulthood, as shown in this particular evaluation:

This class has made me lose all interest in German. I really don’t care about the culture and am only learning the language because I have to for my major. The first semesters were easy. But now that I am forced to think about stuff and not just do the homework and be done with it, I don’t like studying the language anymore. Frau Jensen is not helpful at all. When I needed her to help me with grammar, she forced me to figure it out in front of her in her office. I could have done that at home by myself! Also, there were too many discussions in class about how terrible America is in comparison with Germany. If Germany is so much better, then why do people come here to work? I often felt really uncomfortable and just said nothing rather than saying what I really think. I guess I also didn’t care enough. The same goes with our group projects. I couldn’t work well with my teammates because they wanted to make a longer skit when a short one would have been just fine. They didn’t care about my schedule and often met when I couldn’t make it or even met without telling me. So, I learned almost nothing new in this class. It was boring and too much work. Total waste of my time.

Contrast that sample student’s frustration (1%) with this representative feedback (99%) from another learner who was able to appreciate that our efforts bring results:

The actual usage of the language to carry out a project was the best part. It created leaps in our abilities to understand and to speak. It also challenged us and stretched us beyond our comfort zones, which made some angry but it is the ONLY way to learn. I enjoyed the immersion aspect, it seems that though we meet 3 times per week, you really need it every day to cover a lot of the material. It was a lot of work but I think the benefits are clear. I can understand much more when I read now and understand more comprehension-wise with listening. I do not need to understand every word in a sentence to get its grasp, and I can finally "get it" when something is in a different tense, or uses a possessive case, or changes a verb to something else. I can understand the gist, even if I am not able to describe the word. I can formulate more natural sentences to describe things without thinking for five minutes ahead of time. I really liked having the debates in class, they were very helpful to see things from a new perspective. I liked the classroom style and feel I learned more this way than in the last course here, though I still may be struggling. It is just taking it a while to all sink in, but I feel like my growth has been incredible. And really the language usage in class is my favorite part; I want to have a basic ability to use the language if I have spent years taking classes, and we use it in class enough that I feel I could actually ask for things in person without having to ready it from a guidebook whereas before I am really unsure if I could. Plus now I know why Germans might react a certain way because I have learned a bit about the way they think. Wow - we've learned a lot this semester and it was so much fun! 

Monday, June 19, 2017

How My Beginning German Courses Evolved: from Flipped Classroom to Flipped Learning

How It Began: the Flipped Classroom in Beginning German

When I began flipping two levels of my Beginning German courses in 2014, I didn't realize that I should have prepared my pre-class modules long before the semester started. Big mistake! I ended up using most of my weekends, holidays, and all of spring break, even pulling a few all-nighters, to produce meaningful digitally delivered content for my students and to enhance my standard in-class activities. After all, due to the routine lessons now being watched before class, I could offer more sophisticated instruction in my courses, and I wanted to use every minute of my newly gained classroom time for deeper levels of learning. Nearly all my students were enthusiastic about this new approach to learning the German language, so I knew that my efforts were worthwhile.

Despite the encouraging feedback from my learners, I deem this first flipped semester a Feuertaufe, a baptism by fire, due to the immense level of preparation required when one jumps into flipping without experience. Each subsequent semester, I tweaked my flipped classrooms more. I started to hold my students accountable for their pre-class preparation; added more cultural content to the chapters in our textbook; created daily tasks to establish a running theme for each chapter; calibrated the amounts of time spent on reading, writing, listening, and speaking for each task; scaffolded the flow of those daily tasks to culminate in a chapter group project; and finally shifted the way I assessed progress in learning from written exams to in-class project performances. It was only when my flipped classrooms encompassed the last improvement that I realized that we had reached a new level in this pedagogical adventure: flipped learning!

So, what is the difference between the flipped classroom and flipped learning in my courses? I would argue it’s the extent to which higher-level learning occurs in a class.

In the flipped classroom, the conventional instructor output is moved to pre-class delivery, thus freeing up in-class time for the application of the material. That was what I experienced in the early semesters of flipped German and this is how my students still prepare for our work in class.

Example: Three of my videos or PowerPoint presentations explain (in English) what a relative pronoun is and how relative clauses are formed in the German language. The worksheets filled out by my students while they watch the digital content require them to note down the rules for relative clauses, to fill out the charts for (specific and generic) relative pronouns, and to fill in the blanks in a few exercises to get their brains working. After-viewing online quizzes reinforce this preparatory learning. By the time learners come to class, they are primed to apply this information in a more meaningful manner in teams of two to four partners. Since the chapter is linked with vocabulary about German media, for example, student groups assume the roles of reporter, editor, producer, and news anchor who all are tasked with re-writing a clumsily written article that “begs” for relative clauses. How it is edited is up to each team who must cut the verbiage down to five sentences. This approach ensures that the grammar item is merely a tool for a learning activity, not its end. Learners construct knowledge actively, in cooperation and collaboration with their peers, and independently of the instructor who merely monitors, but does not dictate the linguistic production occurring in the educational space.

How It Looks Now: Flipped Learning in My Beginning German Courses

Now imagine that this task is only one of a series of interconnected team activities that will yield a final cultural project and an explanation for the impetus behind the cultural expression. This, in my view, is flipped learning in an L2 classroom.

Example: Students have navigated a chapter’s content by completing scaffolded tasks that produce a polished newscast in German, with contemporary events being reported in an objective fashion without the banter and “fluffy” news often seen on American news shows. To create such an authentic German newscast, students have watched many examples and analyzed their goals (to deliver the facts with as much background data as possible) as well as the viewers’ reasons for watching (to be informed so that they can form an opinion and discuss the news item intelligently and confidently). In-class discussions have drilled down to the motivation behind German news consumption, the desire to accrue intellectual capital in the form of political, economic, and social conclusions. This approach to garner prestige stands in contrast to the typical American approach, which focuses on possession and financial capital to signal status.

The focus on flipped learning has deeply enriched my students’ education in my Beginning German courses. They are motivated to complete their projects because these endeavors construct meaningful knowledge that goes beyond grammar and vocabulary. They do not want to miss class because each absence reduces the overall understanding built via the in-class tasks and impacts their teams’ efficiency. They want to complete their homework because the pre-class preparations are necessary to carry out the team tasks in class. One of my students in the very first flipped classroom noted: This innovative way of teaching “connects students to German culture, fosters an intimate learning environment between students. Fun, relevant, and always focused on improving knowledge of German grammar, culture, and verbal skills.” Six semesters later, another student who benefited from the flipped learning focus wrote:

One of the biggest benefits of flipped learning for German was the fact that we were learning more how to speak the language instead of just memorizing verbs and vocabulary. This instead came more natural as we learned the language. We also had more time to dive into the culture which for students like myself who are planning to travel abroad was the biggest advantage. While it definitely remedied the problem of assigning too much homework, there is a level of accountability that you need to have to succeed in this class because it is still hard work. It is work that challenged how we think which is better than having to memorize anything.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Flip for a Day!

There are many resources available that explain what the phrase "flipping your classroom" means. The best is the Flipped Learning Network, which was initiated by the original flipped learning pioneers and that hosts a number of amazing resources. There are also the following L2-dedicated websites to consult:
  • Miscositas.com (provides a list of resources; no date or author)
  • The FLT Mag (gives general introduction, with some resources listed; by Edwige Simon and Courtney Fell; last updated 25 June 2013)
  • Voxy (gives general introduction, with some resources listed; no author; last updated 21 June 2012)
  • AASA (lists four rookie errors made by a French instructor; by April L. Burton; March 2013)
  • Mme Burton (a working site used for French instruction, complete with videos and hand-outs; by April L. Burton; last update 2 August 2013)
  • Spanish Flipped Class (a Spanish teacher's reflections in blog format, including  some resources; by an anonymous author; last updated 25 June 2016)
  • Spanish4Teachers.org (explains the TED-ed flip tool for foreign language classrooms; no author or date)
  • Miscositas.com (introductory PowerPoint presentation; no author or date)
  • SpeakingLatino.com (first steps toward flipping a Spanish classroom; by Analiza Torres; no date).
  • CalicoSpanish (chronicles a group chat about flipping Spanish classes; no author; 17 August 2012)
  • Elon University (report on a German professor who is flipping his language courses, with a broken link to a flipped homework video; by Sam Parker; 29 May 2013)
As you can see, most of these resources are dated and none provide concrete advice of flipping the instruction of German as a foreign language. In this blog entry, we will dig straight into a practical example for teaching a flipped German lesson. Also, packen wir's an!

A Hypothetical Lesson on German Word Order in the Standard Classroom

Most textbooks scatter word order rules throughout the chapters, perhaps stating in one chapter that the German verb in a declarative sentence must be in second position, graphing the position of questions with and without interrogative words in another chapter, and explaining the placement of "nicht" in yet another. So you may find yourself introducing and adding to the students' knowledge of word order rules several times during your Beginning German course sequence.

In a standard lesson, you might introduce your learners to some word order principles (perhaps the inversion of subject and verb with a front field: "Ich kaufe heute ein." turns into → "Heute kaufe ich ein"), and then do a gap-filling activity to let them practice these rules, perhaps in pairs to promote communication. There is, of course, nothing wrong with explaining and reviewing. BUT notice how much you have dominated the class communication so far. Even if your students worked together, they have produced utterances guided by you/or and circumscribed by the textbook. 

At the end of this standard class, your homework assignment might be to read the textbook segment that explains this particular rule of sentence construction. The follow-up assignment will likely consist of more grammar-heavy activities in which the students practice ordering the elements in a German sentence. During the next class session, you might call on your learners to hear the sentences they wrote at home and you may find that many of them were able to follow the examples given in the model sentences. It looks like they understand  but if you try to expand on the learned rule in an oral exercise, most of your students falter...

Instructors who do any of those things run a teacher-centered classroom. As "a sage on the stage," such teachers show or tell, and students follow their lead. As a result, L2 communication tends to be one way. Because of the focus on practicing word order, very little authentic language production occurs in this type of classroom or at home.

How Could You Flip This Same Lesson?
To turn this same lesson into a flipped learning experience, you would first identify all instances in which you, the instructor, provide information. That means: explaining grammar, providing cultural background information, comparing the German and English languages, or introducing vocabulary, to name a few. These moments can easily be moved outside of the classroom, for instance in the form of a PowerPoint presentation or a video. You may be able to find a suitable video on YouTube or another educational channel. Just be certain to review it for errors and suitability before adopting it.

The best option, however, is to create your own content. Here is a generic review PowerPoint presentation I made for my college students. I consider it generic because it's "grammar undiluted" and not contextually embedded in a chapter topic.

This video, ten seconds shy of 5 minutes, is assigned as homework watching. To ensure that all students have absorbed the content, a worksheet is also assigned. I use MS Word to create my worksheets, but lock them for editing so that students can only type into the form boxes provided. This keeps the worksheet's formatting the same and permits quicker viewing later in a busy classroom, when I look over my learners' shoulders as they are working in teams. Students are asked to fill out the Zuhause [at home] portion of their worksheets, save them on their devices, upload them to our LMS (Learning Management System; in our case, Blackboard), and print them for our next class session.

Class begins by us quickly checking the accuracy of the information entered on the worksheets. It is very important to ensure that all learners have done the prerequisite work. As long as students attempted to answer a question at home (hence the use of a fill-in form, which cannot be altered in class) and then correct it during our class discussion, if necessary, they don't lose any points. Here is the worksheet that accompanies this and one other review video (I use these videos only to review the older grammar items of word order and present perfect plus to reactivate weather vocabulary, and thus have only rudimentarily contextualized the in-class exercise).


The students then work in teams as they write their stories about the weather last year. They choose whether to compose a crazily unreal weather tale or to faithfully recycle the old vocabulary. As they work, I circulate as a "living dictionary" and instructional guide. Students are strongly encouraged to speak German with each other; this early in the semester, they will only lose 7% of their worksheet grade for speaking English. This gives them an incentive to stay within the target language, but doesn't penalize them too much if they cannot do so yet. It is hard for them, particularly if they placed into my course from a more lenient instructor, but they learn to appreciate the pressure to produce German utterances as it makes them much more fluent by the end of the term.

At the end of the class session, learners check the appropriate boxes on the self-assessment segment and I collect the worksheets, which I already checked during my in-class perambulation and which thus only need a cursory glance-over for grading (I see this type of grading as a formative assessment; it is accompanied by online quizzes that may be retaken until the student is satisfied wit the quiz score).

At the start of our next class session, my learners receive their graded worksheets back and can refer to them during our next in-class task. They have instant feedback on the previous work and a built-in reference text for the task at hand.

For more information on the actual flow of learning in my classes, see the blog entry "How my Beginning German Courses Evolved."

Some of the Many Benefits of This Approach
  • By shifting my grammar explanations out of the classroom, I have gained invaluable extra time for hands-on practice of the target language. 
  • Because the review material is presented in video format, students can slow it down, rewind, repeat, or speed it up. They are independent of the instructional pace set by the teacher.
  • Students become active learners who are held responsible for transforming pre-class information into usable knowledge. By preparing themselves for our class session, they are adopting the habits necessary for self-regulated, life-long learning (Some will not like this new obligation and will resist it. This challenge will be discussed in another blog post.). 
  • Although I have established a modest linguistic parameter (e.g., the weather topic, told in present perfect tense), my learners are free to express personal meaning and thus assume control and autonomy over the task at hand.
  • I am available to assist during the most complex phase of a lesson: the practical application of L2 content.
  • By teaming experienced learners with those who still struggle, I create multiple mini stations of L2 instruction in my classroom and promote leadership skills in the "deputy teachers". 
  • With completed worksheets in hand, students obtain tangible proof of their growing ability to communicate meaningfully in the target language.
  • The classroom has been turned into a student-centered space of collaboration and creativity.
  • Because the students are speaking German during class time, they practice their language skills more consistently than if I were to call on them individually to read a sentence here or provide an answer there. 
  • Offering content in tactile, kinesthetic, visual, and aural formats (through realia, dances, gestures, videos, Power Points, audio files, songs, and student-designed materials like posters, advertisements, and skits) caters to a greater group of learners than the standard textbook-assisted approach.
  • Students are encouraged to move through the classroom to ask peers or the instructor for assistance. For the summative assessments at the end of a chapter, they demonstrate mastery in group-designed skits, which rely on individualized action and expression rather than demonstrating their learning on paper tests.
  • All learning styles are welcome in the flipped classroom: students may produce language spontaneously during classwork or peruse the worksheets in advance at home to pre-construct their contributions, thus lessening foreign-language performance anxieties. 
  • The completed worksheets serve as snapshots of lower-level cognitive information ("cheat sheets") necessary to carry out in-class tasks, a strategy that frees up working memory to perform higher-level, critical thinking.  
  • The roles in each group project (the end-of-chapter skits) are self-chosen, thus letting some learners be leaders and others followers. This strategy highlights the writing skills of one peer and another's technical expertise; it allows activation or interpretation of background knowledge, depending on personal interest and ability.
  • Last, but certainly not least, the learners are assessed on the demonstrated, practical use of the target language, not the rote memorization of vocabulary and grammatical accuracy. This ensures better grades, more confidence, and overall greater success in L2 acquisition.
Worauf wartest du noch? Flippst du schon? 😅 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Welcome to my Flipped Learning blog!

Guten Tag! I am Birgit Jensen, an associate professor in the Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literatures at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. 

I have been teaching GERMAN  since 1987 and love my profession. But as time went by, I realized that my students, their needs, and instructional technologies were changing, and that I needed to change alongside with them in order to keep reaching my learners. That is when I discovered the flipped classroom. Since 2014, I have taught my Beginning GERMAN courses as flipped classes, and I have never looked back since then. Better still, as I got better at this innovative teaching strategy, my students and I started to experience the benefits of FLIPPED LEARNING

I am writing this blog to help other foreign language instructors, particularly those teaching GERMAN, flip their classrooms. There are few resources (yet) on the Web, necessitating FL teachers interested in flipping their classes to re-invent the wheel. 

Well, no more! Here you will learn about my BEST PRACTICES J as well as pitfalls L to avoid. Although I teach at the university level, you can easily apply my tips to middle and high school GERMAN courses as well.

HAPPY READING and don't hesitate to contact me with your questions!

How I Started Flipping

I have been teaching German language, culture and literature at the college level for a very long time and have always enjoyed it. There are...