By Polly Keary, Editor
Fryelands Elementary third grade teacher Randy Brown has developed a teaching skill any teacher would envy.
He can be in two places at once.
Brown long believed that the best single improvement to classrooms that a school district could make would be the addition of another fulltime adult.
It didn’t seem possible, though. Budgets didn’t allow it.
But three years ago, technology did.
Now, using an innovative combination of filmmaking, computer programming, technology and classroom practices, Randy Brown can literally double himself; teaching kids on one side of the classroom while giving them individual instruction on the other.
The technique, which he calls “classroom flipping,” is catching on in the school district and around the region. And now it has caught the attention of the judges of Washington’s most prestigious education awards.
For his unique approach to education, and for the nearly missionary zeal he brings to the job of teaching, Brown has been awarded this year’s Stanley O. McNaughton Award, the highest award offered in the annual KCTS Gold Apple awards, given to exceptional educators statewide.
The Khan Academy insight
Randy Brown, sweater-clad and red-bearded, taps his foot vigorously as he sits on a student’s desk after school and remembers the night that he saw a way to solve one of the biggest problems facing teachers today.
His sister-in-law had been telling him about the Khan Academy, free online lessons in math, science, history and other subjects, taught as they would be in a classroom.
“Three years ago in February I was in the parking lot at Safeway; it was raining at 8 o’clock at night, and my wife was in the store,” he said. “I went online on my phone and I watched the first one. I was totally blown away. It was crystal clear. I had no idea how he was doing that. I knew if I could do that, I could duplicate myself.”
He had spent 25 years wishing for another person to help in the classroom. Now it seemed he could create his own virtual assistant.
If he could make lessons the way Saul Khan did in the Khan Academy videos, with clear lessons being written out on the screen as one watched, he could effectively add a second person to the classroom every day.
Brown just didn’t know how to use technology to create that kind of video.
“My first videos, I just set up the camera to record my computer monitor,” he said. “It wasn’t clear.”
So he kept Google searching, trying to find information on what the Khan Academy used.
“One word kept coming up: Wacom,” said Brown.
Wacom turned out to be a Vancouver, Wash., company that manufactured a tablet computer called a Pen Tablet. It allows the user to draw on a tablet screen so that the writing appears on another screen.
“I begged my wife to let me buy one of the Pen Tablets,” he said. “And then we had a snowstorm.”
All the roads were so dangerous that deliveries everywhere were cancelled.
Desperate to get his hands on the new piece of technology, Brown got in his pickup truck and drove to the UPS distribution center in Redmond to pick it up.
Schools were closed for the next four days.
“I spent the next four days learning how to use it,” he said. “And that was the beginning of learning how to do this.”
“There are two of me”
Friday, the classroom of 26 third-graders was very quiet.
Half the class was gathered around a cluster of open laptop computers, headphones on, all looking up at a flat-screen video monitor on the wall on which images having to do with weather were passing. Every once in a while the kids suddenly said a word or two in unison, answering a question they could hear in their headphones.
The other half of the students worked at their desks, and Brown passed among them like a bee in clover, stopping briefly at each child’s desk to check on their work.
Every five minutes or so, the silence was interrupted by the prerecorded voice of a student, telling the kids it was time to switch.
The group with headphones went to the desks to work on the lesson they’d just seen on the screen.
The second group put on the headphones and started the next lesson.
The lessons they are watching all were recorded by Brown.
Each lesson, (also viewable online at www.mrrbrown.org) begins with a brisk and cheerful greeting, and then writing appears on the screen, along with lessons, pictures and workbook pages as Brown explains each skill, sometimes using such cartoon companions as “The Puzzled Penguin,” who needs help figuring out why his math problem didn’t turn out right.
The little videos are the accumulation of three years of steady work.
“For a while I got here at 5:45 every day, three hours ahead of class,” said Brown. “It took that much time to make the videos. It was a real labor of love.”
As of today, Brown has recorded more than 500 of those short lessons.
“Now there are two of me,” he said. “People laugh when I say that. But it’s true.”
The tech strategy
As Brown taught, he also learned. To look at his classroom, one might think he’d been a tech wizard all his life, but in fact he’s fairly new to gadgetry.
His semi-circular desk has two monitors on it, a table computer, a hard drive, an industrial-sized power supply underneath and cables snaking everywhere.
There are large speakers all around the room, monitors high on the walls, and laptops and headphones are on every surface that’s not a child’s desk.
Four years ago, he hardly had any technology, he said.
But just before Brown saw his first Khan Academy video, he read a book that changed his life.
“This book, Teach With Your Strengths,” he said, lifting a hard-backed book from his desk, “This book opened my eyes like nothing I’ve ever read.”
The book helped him identify his top five strengths, he said, and rose to fetch a placard hanging from the wall on a lanyard. Written there are his five greatest strengths as an individual.
His number-one strength, he learned, is his love for strategy.
And as he thought about strategy and how it could apply to teaching, he began to think about what technology could help him achieve.
Then he started collecting computers.
“Randy has been very resourceful,” said Rosemary O’Neil, school district spokesperson. “Each year teachers get a stipend for supplies and he has used it over several years for technology.”
Brown combed the internet for deals, finding 100-gig laptops for as little as $140 each, and now his room is ringed with 28 laptops, more than enough for every kid to work on his or her own.
Making videos was another strategy, and now the back of the room is walled off by a large piece of green fabric, a “green screen,” that allows him to edit backdrops into photos and videos taken in front of it.
“I learned everything, all of this, from video tutorials,” said Brown. “A buddy taught me how to use a green screen. I can put the kids anywhere in the world and it looks real.”
Once, the kids and he worked on a news story about Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old woman who swam the Atlantic this summer.
“We did a CNN-like report with a student in front of the green screen, and it looked like she was on the beach in Key West, Florida,” said Brown.
The kids even make elaborate puppet movies, edit them with Google images, then make the gym into a movie theater and show the other classes.
Kids seem to love Brown’s teaching methods.
“Mr. Brown, he likes to do fun stuff, like Peak Performance,” said Keegan Locking, 8. “You have to have zero missing assignments, and then you get to get your picture in front of the green screen, and it looks like we’re somewhere else.”
“We get to do electronic stuff,” said Megan Chestine, 9. “It makes it a lot easier.”
A Golden Apple
What Brown has learned, and what he taught himself, he is now teaching to others. Last summer he taught a class on what he calls the “flip classroom model” to 20 other teachers from three schools.
He created eight instructional videos on how teach with video assistance, and divided the teachers into two groups, and quite simply taught the class using the same method he uses with the kids; the groups alternating between watching videos and interacting with the teacher.
Wacom, the Pen Tablet maker, was sufficiently impressed with his work that they loaned him $10,000 worth of Pen Tablets with which to teach the class.
He also met Saul Khan, and Khan later visited Brown’s website.
“He emailed me back and said, ‘I’m impressed; I’m going to share your story with my entire team,’” said Brown.
Brown’s brimming enthusiasm and creativity inspired a colleague to try to get him some recognition.
Traci Adams, a fellow teacher, stayed up until midnight one night filling out an application nominating him for a Gold Apple Award, a prestigious award offered to the state’s best teachers.
She described his classroom innovations, and termed him “a wonderful human being as well as an outstanding innovator in education and child development.”
The Gold Apple Awards for Excellence in Education are sponsored by non-profit television station KCTS 9, in conjunction with the PEMCO Foundation, and it’s funded by the Gates Foundation and judged by professional educators and PTA leaders.
Not only did Brown win, he was awarded the Stanley O. McNaughton Award, only one of which is given away each year. It honors a teacher of extraordinary commitment.
The award is richly deserved, said Jerry Martin, whose daughter was in Brown’s class last year.
“He is one amazing teacher,” Martin said. Martin used to visit the class while volunteering at the school, and he described the flipped classroom as “quite a sight,” and said the kids loved being in it.
At the end of the year, the parents all got a special video with voiceovers by the kids, he said.
“It was truly an amazing year for us, and we were not quite ready to move on,” he said.
But now Brown is running a student volunteering club, so Martin’s daughter still gets to work with Brown, serving dinners at Take The Next Step.
“He is one of the best teachers that I have every come in contact with,” said Martin.
Rebekah Carlson, another parent of a former student, agreed.
“I hope his methods are adopted by all schools,” she said. “It would benefit our kids greatly.”
To see examples of Mr. Brown’s videos, visit http://www.mrrbrown.org/writing.htm.