Joe Mehfoud hasn’t let the recent winter weather make a dent in his lesson plans for the eighth-grade civics class he teaches at Pulaski Middle School.
In fact, he’s used those school days off to try out a new technique to keep his students learning, even though they were snowed in away from the classroom.
With cyberspace at his fingertips, Mehfoud found a way to reach out to his students by flipping the classroom and teaching via the World Wide Web. It was a technique with which he was familiar, but it was the first time he had tried to remotely teach a full lesson outside of class.
Pulaski County Public Schools have missed a total of nine days so far this winter. Due to heavy snowfall and severe low temperatures, students have not been able to go a full day since Feb. 11, with classes canceled and school days delayed.
Considering Mehfoud’s civics class is taught on a semester basis, a full school year’s worth of material is condensed into 18 short weeks. With standards-of-learning (SOL) tests coming up at the end of the year, the teacher realized there was no time to waste.
“Because of the amount of time that we’ve been absent, I figured that it would probably be in the students’ best interest, because we have to keep going, we’ve gotta move on,” he says of the remote learning concept.
Mehfoud used Remind 101, a website designed for teachers to communicate with students regarding schoolwork outside of class. He had his students sign up with the website at the beginning of the semester, and told them if school was canceled, he would put up a URL for the next day’s lesson.
When students missed an entire week of school the week recently, Mehfoud said it created a challenge, since he couldn’t prepare the students beforehand for their remote work. When he anticipated that school would be closed last Thursday, however, he had his class take their notebooks home and get ready to learn from home.
Simply, Mehfoud took his already-planned lesson, compacted it as much as he possibly could, and created a PowerPoint presentation with screen captures in Quicktime, which he then put on Youtube with his voice overdubbed. He said the idea was to make the lesson outside of class as “educationally appealing as possible.”
“Anytime, if a student has a choice between a snow day or doing work, you want to try and present as much information as possible without overburdening the student on a day off,” Mehfoud says.
Contrary to the normal assumption of how kids would react to having to do work on a snow day, Mehfoud says his students bought into the idea. On the first night, 60 percent of his class completed the lesson and took the notes they needed.
One of Mehfoud’s students even wrote to him, saying she greatly benefited from the lesson’s unconventional format. Notably, she pointed out that it was a straightforward experience free of distractions.
“I feel like I can remember the material better, and I feel like I can get more done without all the distraction of you having to stop and tell my classmates to do their work,” the email read. “Overall, I felt like you got to teach us, not just teach a little and [then also] discipline.”
“It’s really cool from my end, getting that feedback from the student,” Mehfoud says. “As a teacher, that makes me feel optimistic about the SOLs going forward. If they can put aside their time on a snow day and get their work done, you have to like the work ethic and their composure in the onset of adversity.”
Mehfoud instructs 28 eighth graders between his two civics classes, which he teaches in addition to health and physical education at PMS. With that number of students in mind, he was able to monitor how many people were taking the lesson by watching the view count from the time he posted it online.
It’s a digital tool similar to online teaching programs used by colleges and universities, such as Blackboard, used by New River Community College, and Desire2Learn, used by Radford University. According to Mehfoud, he was inspired to virtually engage his students by Virginia Tech geography professor John Boyer, who posts an entire semester’s worth of his lectures on Youtube.
“Seeing how he did things, and how he engages students digitally, makes you think ‘why can’t you do that with middle school students?’” he says.
Mehfoud says several other teachers at Pulaski Middle School use Remind 101 to keep in touch with students outside of class, particularly to keep them up to date on upcoming tests, quizzes and assignments. The past two weeks served as an experimental trial to use it as a full platform for class, which he says the other teachers utilized as well.
There’s an initiative in Pulaski County for teachers to be prepared when more than one missed school day is imminent. If it looks like school will be canceled for most of the foreseeable school week, each teacher is to have a plan of action for their students, to give them something to do so they won’t fall behind.
“Anytime where we have the opportunity to get our materials ready and get everything out to the students, it makes our jobs a lot easier, especially with the technology assistance,” Mehfoud explains. “Going forward with something like this, if you’re able to flip the classroom, if you’re able to put a package together online with digital materials, you can take away some of the negative impact of losing the time in the classroom, because the students can make up the work, all online.”
Mehfoud says that isn’t necessarily the case with everyone, as not all students have access to a computer at home, although computers in the school’s library help alleviate that issue in the mornings.
He has not heard any feedback from the parents yet on Remind 101 and the flipped classroom, just because his use of it is so recent. However, Mehfoud is anxious to see what the parent’s take on it will be.
“Hopefully they embrace it,” Mehfoud says. “I think it’s a valuable tool. There’s nothing better than having different tools and different methods in your educational arsenal, because every teacher has their different ways of doing things. If everyone did everything the same exact way, it would get really boring.”
Considering the fact that flipping the classroom worked out well on its first run, Mehfoud is preparing his lessons to enable him to teach virtually should anything happen cancels school. Those lessons could even be made available to students who miss multiple days due to circumstances such as illness or a death in the family.
Mehfoud hopes nothing will take his lessons out of the classroom for the remainder of the school year. Should that happen, though, he’s prepared.
“I’m hopeful, going forward, that we won’t miss anymore classroom instruction,” he says. “But in the event that we do, we’re ready. The technology is there, the ability is there.”