Monroe teacher Randy Brown on a national watch list for innovation

MONROE — Randy Brown, a third-grade teacher at Fryelands Elementary School here, has digitally duplicated himself. He’s produced more than 500 instructional videos that allow him more one-on-one time with students.

The videos include information a teacher would traditionally provide while lecturing. Instead, Brown’s students don headsets and watch lessons.

“The part I used to do in front of the class is the video,” said Brown, 55. “Now I’m free all day long to help kids.”

He is receiving national recognition for his high-tech, paperless classroom, landing on the National School Board Association’s “20 to Watch” list, which highlights innovative educators.

The digital-lecture approach is Brown’s spin on the “flipped” classroom model, in which students take in a lecture by watching a video and apply the concepts face-to-face with the teacher. In traditional classrooms, of course, teachers lecture and students go home with problems to solve.

Brown got the idea three years ago from Khan Academy, a website of instructional videos. He realized that by recording lessons, he could be in more than one place at a time. But first he needed a then-pricey device to let him write on a computer and transform his writing and talking into a video.

“I pleaded with my wife, ‘Please let me get this, it’ll be my next two Christmas presents,’” he recalled.

Brown worked for three hours before class each morning for two years to produce the videos, which include photos, graphics and his voice. Now he has recorded lessons in each academic area. Most of the videos are about 10 minutes long.

“I love Mr. Brown’s videos,” said third-grade student Breanna Emerson, 10. “They’re long but they teach us how to do things.”

Today, Brown’s all-digital classroom is littered with laptops, headphones and tablets. Students quietly watch videos and work with him on lessons.

Educators throughout the region have taken notice. Brown was hired by City University in Seattle and by the Puget Sound Educational Service District to show other teachers how to make instructional videos.

With the money he earned by teaching the adults, Brown bought each of his third-graders a pen tablet. In January, his classroom went paperless.

“It’s amazing because we don’t have to waste the forest,” said Kierstyn Bissett, 8. “It’s ruining the wildlife. And it just doesn’t seem right.”

The paperless classroom is also saving the school money. About 40 percent of Fryelands’ $36,000 supply budget is eaten by paper and photocopy costs, administrators said. Brown is saving the school an estimated $400 a year by eliminating paper.

Kierstyn said picking up the digital technology was a little challenging at first.

“It took us like two hours,” she said. “But it took the adults like two days.”

Students have picked up some useful tricks, too.

“If you press Control-Z, it erases,” said Maddie Stelloh, 8.

Maddie enjoys using the audio and video recording equipment in Brown’s classroom. There’s a 15-by-8-foot green screen that students use to produce weekly newscasts with stories from Time for Kids magazine. They’ve dubbed their show “Room 21 TFK News.”

“It’s really fun because I get to pretend I’m actually a news reporter,” Maddie said. “And I get to edit after.”

Maddie’s mother, Erin Commins, said parents, too, benefit from Brown’s high-tech teaching. The videos are available on the class website. They come in handy when it’s homework time.

“We forget things over the years,” said Commins, a private reading tutor. “And the way things are taught is different now.”

Commins said the extra time Brown spends with students makes a difference. Her daughter comes home from school excited about the way she’s learning with technology.

“The enthusiasm and drive Mr. Brown has is really, really incredible,” Commins said. “He truly cares. His motivation is purely, genuinely caring about the kids.”

Fryelands Principal Jeff Presley said Brown’s enthusiasm for teaching with technology is spreading to his colleagues. Brown shares his videos and shows other Monroe teachers how to make them. Now some are putting their own spin on the technique in their own classrooms, Presley said.

“That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter,” he said. “The goal is always to have kids be a part of their learning experience. The more they’re in charge of their own learning the more powerful the teaching is.”

Groups of students rotate through Brown’s classroom, taking turns watching videos and receiving instruction. Brown believes he’s found an inexpensive way to reduce the number of children he has to work with at one time. Washington voters attempted to do that in 2014, passing Initiative 1351, which calls for reduced class sizes at an estimated cost of $4.7 billion through 2019.

The videos also allow Brown to zero in on children who are struggling with the lessons. He gives students instant feedback, fixing mistakes on their screen in red. He said he now has time to work with each student until they really understand each concept.

“This is the single most powerful transformation I’ve seen in education in 31 years,” Brown said. “We need to leverage technology and use it to help kids.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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