Teacher Innovation #7: “Flipgrid: A Tool to Nurture Your Classroom Ecospace”

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Post #7 comes from Deborah Aughey. Deborah is a doctoral candidate at Kennesaw State University and a cutting-edge, veteran ELA teacher who has quite literally traveled the world. We met as cohort mates at KSU in the summer of 2013. I consider her a good friend, and an innovative teacher, pushing her students to use the power of the mini-computers in their pockets to do productive and insightful work. When I asked Deborah to contribute to this series, she immediately jumped at the chance to write about Flipgrid. Never heard of it? Me either until about a month ago when Deborah introduced me to it. I am continually amazed at how Deborah is always on the cutting edge of EduTech and integrating it into her classroom nearly seamlessly. Today’s post is truly for anyone looking to inspire the growth of students’ reflexive skills using the technology our students know and love.

Previous Series Entries: Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4 // Part 5 // Part 6

by Deborah Aughey

Is your classroom a container? Or is it an ecoscape?

I’ve been thinking about these ideas ever since Dr. Ryan Rish, now of the University of Buffalo, posed these questions to my cadre of Ed.Specialist/Doctoral students at Kennesaw State University in the summer of 2013. Leander, Phillips, and Taylor (2010) challenged researchers and educators in The Changing Social Spaces of Learning: Mapping New Mobilities to provide a space, place, and attention to students’ contradictory practices of literacy and mobility.


How do students consider my classroom space? How do I?

So, what is a classroom-as-a-container construct? Think of a lidded plastic dish for leftovers. Think of scraping the bottom of a pot of spaghetti sauce, metal or wooden spoon trying to scoop up every bit. Once the sauce is confined in the container, the cook places the lid on it to seal it in, airtight. It is apportioned, controlled, unchangeable, and unaffected by any other flavors or spices permeating throughout the refrigerator. In education-speak, this is a course-in-a-box, a scripted lesson, lock step or drill skill teaching. This is standardized learning, or having the same rigid expectations for all students regardless of their background, personality, lived experiences, or interests.  This is Taylorism, which helped build American infrastructure throughout the 20th century but we need a new -ism for the 21st.

If you believe teaching and cooking are artistic endeavors, then you know that today’s students need to be making the sauce with you — despite how delicious, complex, nutritious, or necessary the completed sauce you create for them. Is it your job to spoon-feed them? Or, to let them experience crying by cutting onions; identifying when the sauce needs more salt by tasting it and recognizing the delicacy and value of fresh basil over dried flakes through experience?  For more seasoned educators like myself who were schooled in the classroom-as-a-container model, it is difficult to give up the stove much less the recipe.

In “Developing a Transliteracies Framework for a Connected World” (2017) Stornaiuolo, Smith, and Phillips outline the “paradox of mobility,” the idea that movement is both restricted and regulated and, at the same time, boundless and liberating. Movement applies to physical movement- think about refugees constricted into camps, groups of identified people restricted entry to places and spaces, or people of privilege moving freely with ease from place to place, job to job, country to country. Movement applies to information as well. Knowledge is mobile, instantaneous and accessible and, at the same time, it is propagandized, taken out of context, censored, or deemed “fake news.”  The poem, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky —” by Emily Dickinson speaks to this paradox. When our students walk around with their world (and the world, past and present) in their pocket, how can we contain our curricular content into just one classroom, one class, or even one room? When we view the inequity of the world, and the inequity within our own classroom, how can we provide equal ecoscapes for our students to coexist within, to access, to play in, to navigate, to master, and to imbue?

So, what does a classroom-as-ecoscape look like? It could be roiling chaos. Or, it could be a multi-layered, multi-faceted, multi-spaced (both materially and immaterially, literal and virtual) interrelated community that nurtures, teaches, and learns together. One recently released platform, Flipgrid, could be a valuable tool to bring students’ mobilities into your classroom ecosystem. My experience so far has been promising.

Someone in my Twitter feed first posted about Flipgrid in March or April 2017, although it seems to have been Beta-tested in schools as early as 2015. I have been looking for a virtual collaborative space where students could speak freely to each other, asking questions and responding, accessible and available to students as needed. For years, I have used the non-profit Nicenet for summer reading discussion boards. Nicenet hosts the Internet Classroom Assistant (ICA2), a communication tool that incorporates conferencing, personal messaging, document sharing, scheduling and link/resource sharing. Last year, I had 149 students posting comments about Seabiscuit five or more times in Nicenet. It was so hard to keep track of their remarks that eventually, I printed 34 pages and used a highlighter and rosters to determine credit.

I am also an Edmodo power-user. I love Edmodo for posting the daily agenda and teaching resources, the exportable gradebook, maintaining a calendar and a library, and the assessment features but it doesn’t contain a synchronous/asynchronous discussion board or collaborative meeting feature, and DISCUS is blocked in my district. In Edmodo, I am making the sauce and delivering the container to my students.  Edmodo has an APP, but it is unwieldly for students to access the assessments. Students need to open the website on their cellphone or use the desktop version.

I gave Blackboard learning management system a try but found it too cumbersome. I use Google Drive folders for my students, but my school system doesn’t support Google Classroom. Like many teachers, my ecoscape is cobbled together with efficient tools that work for me and can be explained and used easily by my students as we need them.

I have used Voicethread and Padlet with some success. Voicethread, and its easy to use APP, allows students to select how to post to a teacher-derived prompt. Most students just post written comments, but some use the video and audio features. It is hard to read other students’ work in Voicethread, especially if you have to wade through all the other posts chronologically.  It may have changed since I last used it (January 2017) but there is no gradebook feature, and the only way to keep track of posts is by a daily email from Voicethread listing the posters’ names and time/date of posting. I had to make sure they used their real names to identify students as well. Padlet is a virtual bulletin board. It is super easy to use and has an APP. As for holding students accountable for posting, it does not include an administrative gradebook. When you teach more than 100 students, a collaborative Padlet looks like a thousand sticky notes piled on top of one another.

Here is my experience with Flipgrid and why I think this tool helps shift the paradigm of mobilities and foster creation of classroom ecoscapes.

students used flipgrid for their project

I created a grid in May 2017 for my AP English Language students to discuss TaNehisi Coates’s critically acclaimed Atlantic Monthly article, The Case for Reparations (April 2014). I checked out the school’s laptop and iPad cart because I wanted to supervise and maintain a quiet reading environment. The piece is a longform journalistic persuasive essay and deserves at least an hour of reading, thinking, and interacting with the embedded multimedia to internalize sublime, stylized writing and Coates’ devastating argument. Jim Crow laws and redlining in the housing market have systematically oppressed African American people, and Coates’ extensively sourced piece argues that some form of reparations should be made for historic and continued racist practices. If I had assigned the reading at home, I couldn’t have guaranteed that most students would read it in a scholarly environment. I had 15 students out of the classroom on a field trip, so they accessed Coates’ piece from a link in Edmodo on their own time with their own technology. That evening, the first posts started coming in.

Flipgrid is simple to use. Students make an account and use a grid code to access the activity.  A word on the “grids.”  The paid version of Flipgrid allows unlimited grids. The free version allows for one grid. I paid for it and made a grid for my AP students and a grid for my Honors students.  Within the grid, a teacher can post multiple topics throughout the year.

My class flipgrid

A smart algorithm does a voice translation, so a written transcript accompanies the students’ post. It even identifies some key words and phrases (paid version) that post next to a student’s contribution. A student can create a new post on the grid or respond to another student’s post (paid version). Students can like each other’s posts as well, and a teacher can feature posts at the top of the grid (paid version).

Although the system is designed for participants to record videos of themselves talking, many of my students choose to video their pets or their rooms. I like how they took up the tool, co-opting it to use it at their comfort level. I also loaned out my phone to several students to record their response who didn’t have video technology on a home computer, didn’t have a cellphone, or didn’t want to use their minutes.

Some students riffed, speaking extemporaneously about their thoughts on the article, while others had prepared bullet points or even read a statement. As for plagiarism, without a doubt, I knew each posting was from a particular student because I could hear his or her voice or see him/her speaking. (See Dr. Jon Wargo’s work on networking soundscapes for more on students composing across mobile platforms.) One of my favorite things about Flipgrid is that I saw them visually or heard them authentically grapple with big ideas on a complex topic. All students, not just the outspoken or articulate, had a voice and all of them posted.

I insisted on real names for credit. Students appear online by first name only but with last name included on the administration side. For students and parents concerned with privacy, they can record an audio recording like many of my students did. (These next features apply to the paid version.) Student records are collated into an exportable spreadsheet. Teachers can sort the features—names, the date of posting, likes, views, and replies. There is also a feedback feature so a teacher can assess students’ ideas and performance with 1-5 stars and type in a comment that can be emailed to the student. I didn’t use that feature in May but will in the coming year.

I had three students who tried my patience by recording their responses in the boys bathroom with a picture of a toilet and the sound of flushing in the background. Flipgrid has a deactivate feature, so I took their posts offline immediately; used their indiscretion as a teachable moment for all students; and addressed the issue with the perpetrators privately.  I would suggest going over some ground rules for digital citizens before your first grid. I have turned off the posts for this event, but we had more than 4000 views. Here is the link if you would like to see how it worked.

Mind you, this was May, and I had been working with these students since August and had facilitated nine Socratic Seminars with them. For the upcoming year, I am starting with the Seabiscuit activity for the AP students and will post a flipgrid topic monthly, leading up to Coates’ piece at the end of the year. For the honors students, I am going to use it for classroom introductions. I can see its use in math classes to hear students work through a problem; in world, languages to hear students practice and interpret; and many more uses, even feedback from parents after Open House.  I can’t wait to see how students continue to take up the tool in ways we haven’t thought of yet.

Even the most intellectually gifted student who pursues a career in medicine or the hard sciences will need to speak on a panel, defend a dissertation, propose a grant, or enhance her bedside manner. Flipgrid allows all students to practice speaking and communicate with each other in an ecospace-  a third space that is not contained in a classroom but out in ether in time and space. It allows teachers and students to create the sauce together.


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