Tyler Johnstone handed his Algebra I students sheets of paper one day last week emblazoned with a letter and separated them into groups. He asked one student to find the greatest common factor.
The girl quickly moved students with similar letters out of each of the three groups until she had the answer.
The classroom exercise was "homework" for Folsom Middle School students. It showed whether they grasped the concepts taught in a video that they had watched at home the night before.
Johnstone is one of a handful of teachers in the region who embraced the idea of students learning from videos at night and demonstrating what they've learned the next day in the classroom.
In other words, he has "flipped" the teaching experience. Johnstone is part of an emerging trend, one that even has its own hashtag on Twitter: #flipclass.
Flipped classrooms are possible because of students' greater access to technology such as computers, iPads and smartphones. Teachers like flipping because they can focus on students' problems individually in the "homework" sessions at school. The kids like not having to spend so much time on schoolwork at night.
While the flipped classroom is gaining steam nationally, local school districts say it's in its infancy here. But more are on the way. The Sacramento County Office of Education has offered flip-classroom training, and will work with elementary teachers soon.
"It increases time with students and lets you use face-to-face time more effectively," Johnstone said. As a result, students are more engaged.
Johnstone circulated among the students Tuesday morning as they did their "homework" in his classroom.
"I love this class," exclaimed seventh-grader Victor Vo as he stood at the front of his algebra class. Vo said he now spends a half-hour on schoolwork at home. He can get help at school the next day if needed.
"It's better," said Grace Adams, an eighth-grader in the class. "You watch videos at home. If you don't get it, you watch it again."
Recording classroom lessons isn't a new idea.
Teachers have been using videos to supplement learning for years. But the concept of flipping the classroom started to gain momentum only about six years ago, when two Colorado chemistry teachers – Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams – recorded podcasts of their lectures for students who missed class, said Mark Frydenberg, a professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts who lectures on the topic.
"It does take a significant amount of work," said Johnstone, who is in the first year of flipping his classroom. He spends an hour a day making videos for class.
The 26-year-old educator tries to keep his videos simple. He began the year working out algebra problems using only a pencil and a piece of white paper. He has since moved to a tablet and stylus. Each afternoon he posts a video to YouTube and to his page on the school website.
Many instructors record their own lectures, while others use free online videos as resources, Frydenberg said.
Todd Reiswig has been videotaping his lectures all year to prepare to flip his Advanced Placement statistics classes at Elk Grove High next school year.
The flipped classroom individualizes instruction, Reiswig said. "Kids just don't learn at the same pace," he said. "This way they can replay it 10 times if needed."
Although Reiswig won't officially flip his classroom until next year, he is already posting the videos for his students to use for review. His students are scoring higher this year than last year, he said.
"There have been benefits I didn't even expect," he said.
One of Reiswig's students became bedridden and unable to attend school for a prolonged period. She has been following the lectures from her home and got a B-plus on the last test, he said.
Parents also have watched the videos to refresh their skills so they can help their children with their schoolwork, Johnstone said.
The teaching method also has its challenges, Johnstone said.
Although most of his students have a computer, there have been times when they don't have access to one. In those cases, Johnstone has burned CDs or directed them to their textbooks or to public libraries with Internet access.
"We need to realize not every student has technology as readily as others," said Frydenberg. "Most schools have a computer lab where they can go watch or listen. Most people know someone who has access."
The flipped classroom offers a "more humanized classroom," said John Fleischman, an associate superintendent at the Sacramento County Office of Education.
SCOE will soon train 25 elementary teachers how to use the teaching method to cover the Common Core State Standards, which will be implemented in the next two years. An Intel grant is funding the project.
These training sessions and the enthusiasm of some district administrators may mean more teachers in the Sacramento region will be turning their classroom teaching upside down.
Folsom Cordova Unified has three teachers flipping their classrooms and another 10 educators being trained in the method.