When it comes to flipping the classroom, you could say that Joshua LaForge was a bit ahead of his time.
The San Marcos High School physics teacher is among the countless educators throughout the country who have been asked to adapt on the fly to continue to provide education during the coronavirus pandemic.
While most teachers have been forced to take a crash course on the video conference software Zoom, or try their luck at teaching a lesson alone while speaking into a webcam, Mr. LaForge is no stranger to remote education.
Last summer, Mr. LaForge recorded lessons and lectures in video format and uploaded quizzes and coursework to the web as part of his physic’s course offered during summer school. He was able to squeeze a year’s worth of physics into a six-week window and allowed students to work at their own pace.
“It just seemed like a really good fit for summer school, where a lot of kids already have skills and they could dive in and show me what they know and skip a bunch of work that they might not need to do,” Mr. LaForge told the News-Press. “Or, a lot of kids in summer school are way behind and they need help on the basic stuff. It allowed me to set the class at whatever speed they needed.”
In the summer school setting, the students were motivated and some achieved higher grades than they are used to.
“It definitely tapped into some motivation,” Mr. LaForge said.
As if standing in front of teenagers and enlightening them about Newton’s Laws wasn’t hard enough, Mr. LaForge said that a ton of work goes into just one online lecture. He has to script out the lesson in advance, edit the videos and try and raise the production quality — all while trying to cultivate learning.
“My first couple of videos I put up, it was immediately obvious that I was the most boring person on YouTube,” he said with a laugh. “I’m always going to be pretty much towards the bottom, as the guy teaching physics on YouTube, but you have to at least up your game a little bit.”
Mr. LaForge has saved every video he has recorded, and joked that he looks back at some of his old lessons and is continually motivated to improve.
Last year, Mr. LaForge was part of a group that visited Kettle Moraine High School in Wisconsin. It was there he learned about different models of education, including how to best incorporate technology. He is now putting that to good use with his freshmen physics courses.
While now the video coursework is widely accepted as the only practical alternative, it didn’t always garner such approval.
“There used to be a barrier where I would tell (the parents) about my videos and they would say ‘well, I just really don’t want my kid to be on a screen that much,’ which I totally understand. I think it’s a really reasonable concern, but now that concern is kind of gone because screens are all we have,” Mr. LaForge said with a laugh.
Though it worked well in the summer school setting, Mr. LaForge said the online content only made up about one-third of his typical school-year routine. The remaining portion of the coursework would include experiments and in-class discussions — including new experimental questions or big-picture problems like why certain things happen in the world.
“That’s really what I care about most and most of my class is just about that,” he said. “The shame about school being closed is that it’s really hard to do that other stuff that I care about.”
Even though school has only been in session for a week and a half, Mr. LaForge has been impressed with student engagement thus far.
“I’m just super proud of the kids,” he said. “Just for showing up and getting the work done and corresponding with me and taking risks. Being on Zoom and showing their faces — which you would think they could love because they’re Snapchatting and TikToking all the time — they actually hate it when their faces are on video. I’m just super proud of them doing that.”
Despite his appreciation, Mr. LaForge said remote learning has really highlighted the challenges that already exist in the education system.
“Some kids have all the abilities and all these resources… and other kids have no internet at home or no phone, or don’t even know what is going on with school at the moment,” he said.
Mr. LaForge is thankful he was able to establish a good rapport with his students before the closures went into effect, but did say that not being able to have in-person lectures takes away from what he considers the best thing to happen in the classroom setting.
“When I can get students to really struggle with a difficult problem and I can get them to show me their thinking and then I can help them to uncover the problem with their thinking on their own — those are the best moments and I don’t know how to do that in a remote setting at all,” he said.
Just as there were benefits to the expedited summer school learning, Mr. LaForge also sees advantages to this type of education. Students are more motivated because they have more control over the pace of their work and he is able to see, in real time, when a student or group of kids struggle to pick up a certain concept.
“I have a dashboard that I can look at and in two minutes I know exactly who I need to intervene with, about what topics and that really helps me,” he said. “If I’ve got three kids who don’t know a certain skill, I can put them in a meeting for 10 minutes, and then set up another meeting for kids who need help on another skill.
“As a teacher, it gives me all the data I need to be much more effective and give it more of a tutoring-type approach.”
To keep his students engaged, his classes will hold a theme week when class resumes on Monday — as many students are expected to show up for the lesson sporting their favorite ball cap or hat.
“We’re trying to go to some extremes,” Mr. LaForge said with a laugh.
Moving forward, Mr. LaForge said he is looking to fine tune the quality of his own work to keep it both challenging and interesting. He also plans on letting his students have some say in the lessons in the near future.
“I want to reward them for being there and make them feel like it’s a valuable experience,” he said.
Another area he hopes to address is increasing engagement for those who don’t ordinarily participate.
Although the semester typically concludes with a final exam, this school year has been anything but typical. Mr. LaForge said he hopes to focus on what is most important when it comes to the field of science — experimentation.
“I think if they can do an experiment at home with the materials they have, that’s going to be pretty sweet and that will be the stuff that is most important for science,” he said. “I surveyed them with what materials they have around their house. Thankfully it’s physics and so I don’t need anything crazy. Like, if they have notecards we’re good to go.
“We’ll make something happen.”