Mrs. Catherine Flippen has a
bittersweet memory of the time she led the students in her Spanish class through a classic hands-on activity of making sugar skulls to celebrate the Day of the Dead. A painful hour after the unit’s allotted 30 minutes had passed, students finally filed out of class, leaving Mrs. Flippen with a room of
half-formed, half-cracked skulls and plenty of rodent bait lingering on the desks, chairs and floor. It was, she recalls, an “epic, epic fail.”
But that experience didn’t diminish Mrs. Flippen’s willingness to try projects --
and even risk failure -- whether the materials were made of sugar and paint or digital displays and software. “How are you going to know what
works if you don’t step up to the plate and say I’ll try it?” she asks. These days, Mrs. Flippen, age 30, applies that can-do spirit to trying out the latest digital products, tools, and processes, looking for pedagogical substance beneath the shiny bells and whistles. After seven
years of teaching, experimenting with technology and (plenty) of memorable epic failures, she relishes how good technology has helped her students soar
beyond their school’s cement walls.
Mrs. Flippen has seen plenty of raw cement during
her career. She has spent the majority of her teaching career at Georgia’s Mill Creek High, a suburban Atlanta school of 3,500 where technology options are restricted
mostly to the six computer labs throughout the building.
She also spent a year teaching Spanish in a more dire environment at Charlottesville High School in Virginia. In the language lab, she elected to use Moodle as the de facto operating system for all
software use because the computers had not been upgraded beyond Windows 95 at the time. (Our most gracious guess would make those machines at least six
The one saving techno grace turned out to be that bane of parents’ lives:
students’ cell phones. One of the first things Mrs. Flippen noticed at Charlottesville HS (CHS), a racially and economically diverse student
population, is that students set priorities on having “amazing shoes and amazing cell phones.” With this revelation in mind, she became one of
only three teachers to allow cell phone usage in her classroom at CHS, a practice she championed at Mill Creek as well, even though the administration was
“against technology and still taking up cell phones” while she was there.
Cell phone activities in Mrs. Flippen’s class started simply enough -- for instance, spurring a race to look up certain information for example -- just to
get students engaged with the subject. She reasoned that if students were so keen on having cell phones, they might also be keen on using them to complete
some learning activity. One go-to, failure-proof exercise, she says, has been to ask students to translate a passage from Spanish to English or vice versa
using Google Translate (mobile version), Yahoo! Babel
Fish (just recently rolled into Microsoft Bing Translator
), and a paperback Spanish dictionary. The exercise is practical because students build vocabulary and shared understanding between the
two languages and promotes critical thinking behind the accuracy and relevancy of digital versus physical information sources.
The traditional tools of school--pencils, textbooks, and the like--are “stuck in the 3D world,” Mrs.
Flippen notes. “In the digital medium you can have kids think outside of the box.” Accordingly, the Spanish paperback dictionary is one of very
few physical resources -- she estimates that 75% of her foreign language instruction is paperless.
As edtech offerings have increased, so have Mrs. Flippen’s options for engaging students through her mini-BYOD movement. She’s become a
fan of sending texts to her students through Remind101, noting
that students “pay more attention if you send it out instead of talking about it.”
She also handily avoids the dreaded “what are we doing today?” question by sending out an agenda the night or morning before class. Students appreciate the texts just as an adult might appreciate a courtesy note or email, she says. What’s more, communicating outside of
class has helped her establish deeper rapport with students.
Quite literally taking matters into her own hands, Mrs. Flippen has also created her own smartphone app using
ibuildapp.com. The site allows users to build native (iOS/Android) or cross-platform (mobile web) apps in a matter of hours--and for no
money out of pocket.
If you think that building an app is over the top, you could be right;
good classroom pedagogy has not traditionally required app development. But imagine, for a second, what it would be like to start a new semester by
bypassing the syllabus review in favor of downloading a class app: No paper bumbling and fumbling. Instant on-the-go access for students. And at least for
that day, unlimited teacher cool points and student engagement. Mrs. Flippen is modest about the app she built, pointing out that she simply likes the fact
that she can embed Quizlet flashcards in the app she has created.
When Mrs. Flippen’s students have had access to desktop computers, she’s turned
to a number of Spanish-language instruction websites to support learning. She’s a big fan of Wordchamp and its web reader application. (It allows students to travel within Wordchamp
to an article she has selected and scroll over each word for a translation.) There’s also Conjuguemos which is great for practicing grammar and verb conjugation, Prentice Hall Realidades which serves as a teaching
resource, and Quia Web which she uses to administer formative
and summative assessments.
She has also experimented with using ShowMe to flip her classroom, sending video lessons to YouTube. Holding her digital ship
together is Edmodo, where Mrs. Flippen links to assignments and
assessments and hosts chats around language.
In the fall, Mrs. Flippen will join Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, an innovative K-12 college prep in
Atlanta where students enjoy 1:1 laptop access. It will let her exercise all the knowledge she’s accumulated from her years in the classroom and her
experiences as a founding member of EdCampATL and as a
first-year Ed.D student at the University of
Florida’s Educational Technology program (a primarly online program, not surprisingly.) (Disclaimer: EdSurge editor, Leonard
Medlock, was a guest speaker at Mount Vernon’s Design Thinking Summit; though, Mrs. Flippen was still a Mill Creek teacher at the time.)
For instance, since every Mount Vernon student has a laptop, Mrs. Flippen hopes to incorporate bell ringers
through Google Docs as a way to simultaneously check for
understanding and take attendance. Mount Vernon runs on Haiku LMS
so she has to re-learn a lot of her Edmodo tricks, but she hopes to keep the tool in place as a social outlet for students. Even the
“shyest kids will take a chance” when they realize they’re in a safe environment, she observes.
Then there’s 3D GameLab
, a closed beta product from the edugeeks at Boise State University. Mrs. Flippen recently completed one of their teacher camps and
received 60 free spaces to use with her students (sign
up for the August camp here). 3D GameLab is a quest-based learning platform for teachers and students (don’t fret if that sounds
like gibberish; edsurgents can get up to speed with this nifty video
). She hopes to have her students embark on a new Spanish language quest each week.
True to her nature, Mrs. Flippen continues to seek out products that are tuned for her students, even taking a pass on popular products because
their designs are either too immature for high school students, lack the metrics she needs or simply lack functionality that makes a product usable by
Her advice for other teachers, who may hesitate to jump into the digital
maelstrom is to start with something small and use it a couple of times. Identify a single pain point in the classroom, she recommends, and experiment with
various solutions until one feels natural. Incorporating SMS
in some capacity is a safe bet since most students have access and the technology is easy to use.
When a school lacks professional development for ad hoc use of technology in the classroom, Mrs. Flippen suggests
Twitter and even Second Life as PD strongholds. And if that seems like a foreign land, just trying tapping on the virtual
door of Cat Thexios’s Second Life house for some virtual java and an edu-jam session. She may even offer to help you make sugar skulls.
Products Mentioned in this Article
- 3D GameLab
- Google Docs
- Google Translate
- Prentice Hall Realidades
- Quia Web
- Second Life
- Yahoo! Babel Fish (now Bing Translator)
Other Tools in Mrs. Flippen’s Toolbox