Turning Teacher-Student Roles Upside Down

| April 3, 2012 | 18 Comments
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Upside Down Academy

By Chris Thompson

It’s a typical school day in Oakland, Calif., and Aaliyah is about to show how to solve two-step equations. Circling the three numbers in the equation 4x + 10 = 30, she says, “So one, two, three? Is a hater. They’re like haters… We trying to get rid of those numbers, ‘cause they hate on x. And we trying to have x protected.”

If that’s an unusual way to characterize isolating the variable, that’s because Aaliyah is an unusual teacher. In fact, she’s not a teacher at all — she’s a student at the Envision Academy of Arts and Technology. Her algebra lesson is being filmed and posted on the Web.

Videos like Aaliyah’s are the brainchild of Jared Cosulich, a San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur who specializes in cooking up ideas for Web-based businesses (a Yelp-like site for weddings! A way to donate your birthday to charity!), and seeing if they work. He’s deeply interested in education, and he’s creating a nonprofit known as the Upside Down Academy, hoping it’ll catch on.

“Learning is a lot more effective when you’re turning around and producing it as well.”

Cosulich took Salman Khan’s now-famous approach to creating short, easily made education videos and turned it on its head. Under Cosulich’s approach, teachers or mentors don’t make these videos. Students do — as soon as they’ve mastered the material themselves.

“Learning is a lot more effective when you’re not just trying to consume information, but turning around and producing it as well,” Cosulich says. “A lot of this is about motivation, what motivates us to learn. At the end of the day, a lot of education gets divorced from purpose. This kind of gives people a purpose, to help someone else out.”

Producing these videos creates distinct benefits, Cosulich says. First, students must understand a subject well enough to communicate it to other students. But there’s an upside for teachers too. By watching students characterize math problems in their own vernacular, teachers might better understand how to explain the material using different approaches.

The Upside Down Academy is very much in the beta phase. In fact, it’s only been tried out once in a real classroom setting, at the Envision Academy. Just a few weeks ago, students, parents and teachers gathered at the school for what they dubbed “Exhibition Day,” when parents watched the videos, then worked on a few algebra problem. “Parents were getting quite nervous, said Kiera Chase, the blended learning coordinator for Envision, who set up the video production project. “They kept saying, ‘Oh my god, I don’t remember some of this.’”

“I could tell by the looks on the parents’ faces that they couldn’t do the problem,” said Karimah Omar, an Envision student who produced one of the videos. “They were even calling over other students.”

One of the most rewarding elements of the video production for Omar was the chance to show that her neighborhood – the rough and tumble flatlands of West Oakland – is more than poverty and crime. “If I go somewhere else, and I say I’m from West Oakland, they think, ‘Oh, you from the ghetto. You talk loud.’ We wanted to prove that just because we’re in West Oakland, doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say.”

Omar’s fellow student, Gibran Huerta continued the thought. “Coming from Oakland, I’m using this opportunity not to just show math, but to show that we’re not just what people think we are,” Huerta said.

Envision plans to produce another round of videos, then step back and see modify what needs to be improved. As for the Upside Down Academy, it’s just getting started – and can go wherever teachers and students want to take it.

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  • http://www.envisionacademy.org Nicole Morello

    Hi there,

    Thanks so much for writing this article about EA! I am the Enrollment Coordinator for the school, and I am looking forward to sharing it with our incoming students and families.

    There is a misspelling in one of the names. It should be Gibran Huerta, not Gibran Huerga. He is one of our star students at EA, and I know he’ll be frustrated to see his name spelled incorrectly.

    Also, do you happen to have a print version of the article that I can hand out to families?

    Thanks, Nicole

    • Gibran Huerta

      This is Gibran.
      I am not frustrated but I would love to see that changed. Even though my name is spelled wrong I am still very appreciative of the fact that I was able to contribute to this article. The article helps Envision Academy to escape that stereotyped look that we have and gives the viewer a different perspective of Oakland.

      • Christie Levine

        I wasn’t able to contribute to this article….. 

      • Anonymous

        Hi Gibran, sorry about the misspelling of your name. We’ve corrected it. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed — you have an important story to tell!

  • http://blendmylearning.org Kiera Chase

    This project was a great opportunity to combine a number of learning goals into one project. The students learned about filming and production skills, they honed their understanding of their own learning styles, and they applied all of this to their math lessons and videos. Having an opportunity to reflect on their own learning, encouraged students to think critically about the act of teaching and learning and the relationships that develop through this process. This was evidenced more on Exhibition than in their Upside Down lesson write ups.

    For other teachers wanting to use Upside Down Academy, I strongly suggest encouraging students to be really thoughtful in the lesson write up portion. This provides students with an opportunity to be metacognitive about learning, and better prepares them for feedback from the public. Also, don’t feel like the videos have to be masterpieces. Upside Down Academy incorporates a rating system that lends itself to works in progress and redoing, readdressing, revising in the interest of improvement.

    If this project piques your interest, please follow us at blendmylearning.org.

    Also, I would like to print a correction, Gibran’s last name is Huerta.

    Thanks Chris for telling the story of our Exhibition and Upside Down Academy.

  • MC

    Interesting article! It looks like something was left out or an extra word added into the second to last sentence too. “Envision plans to produce another round of videos, then step back and see modify what needs to be improved.”

  • Kiera chase

    Thanks Chris for capturing the essence of our Exhibition. I think that the process of reflecting on their learning styles has made out students more informed students. They are more thoughtful about the relationships that develop between teacher and student and as a result they are engaged in new and interesting ways.
    We should get in touch to document the experience of round two. I am excited to see how the student from EA can provide support and encouragement to the students at Impact Academy.

    • Chrsitie Levine

      I had one question…. Why am I not in it?
      -Christie Levine

      • Karimah_omar

        Oh yeah i noticed that, maybe its because you didn’t talk a lot.  

        • Chrsitie Levine


          • Chrsitie Levine

            They spelled Gibran’s name wrong……. :/

  • Wasp

    It’s not actually about showing that you’re not ghetto or whatever, it’s about using your knowledge as a tool for change. It’s about teaching people a math concept how you learn it. Even then, it’s not really about you. It’s about expanding education to places where others do not have the teachers we do that help us every step of the way

  • Christie Levine

    This article is very intriguing and even though I might not be in it I can gladly say that this is a great article and I am very happy what you said about EA. It really shows that we are educated and we know what we are doing! :) I had a fun time doing the interview.

  • Onesty Hill

    I think this article catches exactly what we were trying to tell.

  • B Monroe

    For me, personally, i know Karimah and Gibran and i went to the same school as her and we always face stereotypes about how since im from West Oakland, and raised in West Oakland, no one is going to want to be around me, I’m seen as ghetto, loud, ratchet, out of order etc. It’s to the point where i try not to dress like any other “black” girls. It’s not that i don’t want to be black, because im proud of who i am, it’s that i don’t like what “being black” is supposed to mean. My main concern in life is to succeed. So yea i know how to learn, and i know what i’m doing.
    -mariel moody

  • dubose12345

    i feel that you guys should interview a couple of kids that actually ben out there and seen the stuff that happens or that ben in that situation

  • Bariki_smith

    Hi my name is Isaiah DuBose I can honestly say that i feel that you guys should have included some kids that were brought up in the hood and has been there all their life, and has been trying to make it in school. To not be a product of the environment and change the way they are today…Not saying that Karimah and Gibran didn’t i know that they sort of did because they both are my fellow piers and i know them very well
    My name is Bariki Smith and i am only revising a comment that my fellow pier Isaiah Dubose made.

    • Boobiee Monroee