End of Year Reflections

This week was the end of our school year. It was extremely difficult end, as we reach 11 days since the murder of George Floyd. For 11 days, Black communities in the Twin Cities and many other places have been ravaged not only by grief, but by escalating police violence, an influx of right-wing extremists, and arson targeting Black neighborhoods and businesses. These 11 days are a mere sliver of the over 400 years of on-going violence Black people have endured in this country. And, while George Floyd’s murder looms large for those of us in the Twin Cities, he is only one of many Black people murdered by police in recent months, including, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDate, and far too many others. In the face of this devastation and on-going trauma, anything I have to say, especially as a White woman, seems trivial.

But, as a White woman, I benefit from and contribute to the systemic racism that makes Minnesota one of the most racially inequitable states in the US. As a teacher, I bear a particular responsibility for the long list of inequities in Minnesota’s education system. One of the most seductive aspects of White privilege is the privilege to absolve myself of responsibility because the problems are too big, because my intentions are good, or whatever other soothing excuse I choose. But the absolution of White supremacy does not absolve me of a moral responsibility. I need to hold myself accountable to recognize and follow-through on the steps I can take, especially when my privilege gives me safety or authority to act. I want to make what I’m doing public not because I think I’m doing enough or because I believe I have expertise others should listen to. I want to make what I’m doing public to give myself a record of my commitments. It is critical that all of us, especially White people, go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy and hold ourselves accountable for pursuing sustained change.

Statewide, Black students in Minnesota have less access to rigorous coursework. In my school, we utilize tracking in our chemistry and physics courses. We also have math prerequisites for nearly all of our science courses that mean many students are not technically qualified for even our basic courses. As a result, my AP Physics 1 students are predominantly white while my Chemistry Essentials students are mostly Black and Latinix boys. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to participate in a team leading science curriculum revisions, and a critical part of my work there will be pushing to eliminate tracking and prerequisites in our science courses.

In the mean time, I can challenge my colleagues every time they suggest “those” kids just aren’t capable of challenging coursework and work to make my classroom one where every student is challenged and supported to engage deeply with the content. Especially in courses like Chemistry Essentials, I can use curriculum and make instructional decisions that center my students’ thinking, giving them the opportunity to do meaningful sense-making. This summer, I will be part of a team doing major curriculum revisions for Chemistry Essentials, which is an opportunity for me to make more room for student thinking in the materials I use and to push my colleagues to do the same. Opportunities like my school-wide book study of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain have helped me take steps in this direction, but I still have a long way to go.

Part of ensuring every student has access to challenging coursework is attending to the culture of my classroom so that every student has equitable opportunities to participate. I need to be aware of social status and group dynamics to make sure every student starts from the assumption that all of their peers have something of value to offer. I need to challenge the dominant view of what it means to be good at science to ensure every student sees their identity as compatible with being a science person. Most importantly, I want my students, especially my white students, to extend this learning beyond my classroom and have the tools to challenge toxic cultures wherever they encounter them. There are plenty of examples of one-off lessons, but I think the most important work is the everyday efforts to shape classroom culture. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom helped me begin working toward these goals, but I know I fall short.

Black students in Minnesota schools experience some of the most significant discipline disparities in the country. In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights intervened in districts with the most egregious disparities, including my own. Last year, my school started using some restorative justice practices. For years, I’ve tried to approach discipline issues and conflicts with students by listening to understand their perspectives and unmet needs, but having structures and facilitators in place has made me much more consistent in that goal and made students feel more comfortable sharing what they need. Thanks to restorative justice, getting the office involved is more likely to lead to me developing a better relationship with a student than to the student spending a day in ISS. We’ve started taking some shortcuts since the conversations are time-consuming, but there are ways I can push back. I can request a mediated conversation when I’m struggling with a student, I can make sure my administration knows I consider those conversations time well spent, and I can challenge colleagues who grumble about the time it takes. I can also pursue my own learning around restorative justice practices and make sure I carve out time to listen to students, with or without a facilitator. I also need to seek out learning on trauma-informed teaching if I truly want to make sure students are safe coming into my classroom, let alone telling me what they need.

None of this is enough. I am, at best, a novice in this work. But my shortcomings are not an excuse to do nothing. I’m grateful to not only work in a school with many teachers committed to equity, but also with an administration that prioritizes equity in their decision making and students willing to tell us how we fall short, even though no kid should have to. I am grateful to the faculty in my grad program who place social justice at the center of their work, both as teachers and researchers. I am grateful that I’ve been able to learn by lurking in chats like Clear the Air and by following people on Twitter like Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, Melinda D. Anderson, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Val Brown, Marian Dingle, Shana V. White, and many others.

Teachers, especially White teachers, what will you be doing when this round of protests is done to move us closer to a world where these protests are no longer necessary?

Distance Learning Week 9

This week has been very hard. Many of the people in our school’s community are feeling the killing of George Floyd very deeply. Yesterday, the rioting extended into the neighborhoods surrounding my school. Many of the stores in town closed due to fears of looting and many of my students and colleagues could see smoke from their homes. My heart is breaking for everyone in my community who is afraid right now. But it is breaking even more for my black friends, students, and neighbors who once again have to reckon with a life lost to white supremacy and the reality of just how elusive anything resembling justice is. I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This is not a moment to criticize the protesters expressing their anger and fear; this is a moment for those of us with white privilege to listen to what has gone unheard and use our privilege to amplify that message and promote structural change.

AP Physics 1: Wrapping Up

Today is officially the last day of school for seniors. I left this week for students to finish any missing work and complete an end of year survey. A few students who’ve been struggling without the structure and connection come from being in the classroom were able to not only take the remaining assessments, but do well on them. Even under normal conditions, I consider whether a student learns the physics more important than when they learn the physics. I’m especially glad right now that students felt like they had the opportunities they needed to learn right now.

Physics: Wrapping Up

Today is the last day for this class, as well. Similar to AP Physics, we left this week for students to finish any missing work and do a short end-of-course survey. A lot of students let us know that they would have preferred more lecture and less groupwork, which suggests we have room to do better on building a good classroom culture and equipping students to be successful in physics.

Chemistry Essentials: Balancing Summative

This class is mostly juniors, which means next week is their time for catching up. This week, I had students submit their balancing chemical reactions summative. Only around a third of the class has submitted work for the module on balancing, so I’m not expecting to see very many assessments turned in. But I have seen a lot of students turning in old work this week. Consistent, personal contacts seem to be the most important thing in helping my chem kids make progress in the course. It’s been very time-consuming and draining, but it’s good to see it paying off.

Distance Learning Week 8

We’re nearing the end of the school year. Seniors finish on May 29, and we’ve been asked to finish instruction by today so that next week can be reserved for students to work on missing work and reassessments.

AP Physics 1: Wrap-Up

Rather than start anything significant after the AP exam, I decided to keep this week fairly easy. I asked students to fill out an end-of-course survey and posted a discussion board where they can share how their family is celebrating graduation. Based on the responses so far, the most useful questions I put on the survey are about what other teachers did during distance learning that helped students learn and helped them feel connected to their class. I’ve had very few conversations about teaching with other staff in my building during distance learning, so it’s been very helpful to hear what’s happening in other classes and identify some teachers who’s brains I need to pick. Assuming we have some distance learning next year, I want to ask my building leadership to figure out ways for teachers to do a better job of sharing with each other.

Physics: Spring Period Calculations

Students finished up a lab to figure out what affects the period of a spring. It was a little frustrating that, just like in the period vs. length graphs on pendulum lab, most students described their period vs. mass graphs as linear, even after recognizing the intercept should be zero. While I was frustrating, it isn’t surprising that students struggled here. When we’re face-to-face, most students usually describe their graph as linear, too, until someone brings up the intercept during the board meeting. I think there are two main issues leading to this.

First, even though we have a question on our standard lab packet about whether the intercept makes sense, we haven’t done a great job of helping students connect the expected intercept to the shape of the graph. As a result, students treat questions about the intercept as completely separate from questions about the shape. Face-to-face, even if kids aren’t ready to make that connection independently, the conversation during the board meeting gets everyone there. I think I could make better use of discussion boards to get something similar in an online environment.

Second, we don’t talk much about uncertainty in this course, so students have trouble deciding whether an intercept is big enough to matter. At the start of the year, I see students giving a lot of weight to very small intercepts and, by the end of the year, I see the opposite with students quick to say fairly large intercepts are effectively zero. I think it would help if we incorporated some very basic uncertainty next year. One option may be to have students estimate how far they may be off on measurements on the vertical axis, then compare that to the intercept they get.

Chemistry Essentials: Balancing Practice

Students continued working on balancing chemical reactions by doing another set of practice problems, this time including some formulas with polyatomic ions. I haven’t heard from any kids with questions this week, so I assume it’s going smoothly. I’m focusing a lot of my time on students who haven’t been engaging in the course, and have gotten a few of the kids who weren’t on track to get a credit to turn some things in. Today is the last round of parent phone calls, so hopefully I can help a few more kids get on track to at least pass the class.

Distance Learning Week 7

AP Physics 1: AP Exam

With the AP Physics 1 exam on Thursday, I decided not to assign anything so students could focus on reviewing, especially since many of my students were taking other AP exams earlier in the week. The couple of students who checked in after the exam said they felt really good about how it went, which was great to hear.

Physics: Pendulum Assessment

Students worked on applying the equation for the period of a pendulum to some problems and a short summative assessment. Students felt really good about this module; it involved a lot less conceptual knowledge than previous modules and didn’t require students to connect to many old ideas, which I think made it easier. I recently heard from a few students that between being out of school for all of March and not having access to old packets they’d left in their locker, they were having a very difficult time with the fact that the first two modules revisited old concepts, like motion graphs. I think it’s worth putting some thought into how we can do a better job of giving kids resources for going back to old ideas during distance learning.

Chemistry Essentials: Balancing

Students worked on some problems balancing chemical equations. The couple of kids I’ve talked to are now buying in to particle diagrams since they make balancing so much more concrete. Prior to balancing, particle diagrams were the first truly new content we’d done via distance learning, and I had some students who really pushed back on trying to get them down. It’s great to see some of those same students now recognizing the value of that representation.

Distance Learning Week 6

AP Physics 1: Angular Momentum

This is the last topic students need before the AP Physics 1 exam. Students built the model using a Pivot Interactives activity where a marble is fired at a block. One of the questions I asked is whether the distance between the block’s center of mass and the point where the marble strikes has any impact on whether the momentum of the block-marble system is conserved, and I was surprised to see most of my students said yes. I’ve done this activity in the classroom, and I underestimated the importance of the conversations students have on their way to answering the question. I think if I had explicitly prompted students to use tools like an SOS diagram before answering, they would have been more likely to recognize momentum is conserved.

Physics: Pendulum Equation

Students wrapped up the pendulum lab. At the end of last week, I noticed in a discussion board that a lot of students saw their period vs. length graph as linear, so I made a short video talking about how the intercept affects that interpretation. Their first assignment this week was to finish their data analysis and answer a few questions. Most of my students still said their period vs. length graph was linear, which tells me they either didn’t watch the video or didn’t incorporate that information into their work. For my grad class, I’ve been reading about constructivist learning theories in online science courses, and one of the big challenges is most platforms emphasize results and answers, rather than process. Without feedback on their process, students are likely to resist changing a conclusion they’ve arrived at. I need to think about what it looks like to create the space and the expectation for students to share their process in an online environment.

Chemistry Essentials: Balancing

Students have been gradually catching up on old work thanks to the pause I took last week. There’s still a lot of students who aren’t taking visible steps to get caught up, but I’m glad to see some progress.

This week’s assignment was to use PhET’s balancing chemical reactions sim to get an idea of what it means for a reaction to be balanced. I usually start balancing with this activity, and it was really nice to have something that translated so easily to an online environment. Only a few students have completed the assignment so far, but those who have are showing a solid conceptual understanding of what it means for a reaction to be balanced.

Distance Learning Week 5

AP Physics 1: Unbalanced Torque

Students used Pivot Interactives to find a relationship between torque and angular acceleration. The activity has several different bicycle wheels, which lead to some good discussion on the forum as students first compared their results to someone with the same wheel, then compared results to someone with a different wheel.

In both the questions I got about the activity and in the grading I was doing this week, I saw a lot of students struggling with the distinction between different terms related to gravity. That’s been an on-going challenge this year that I think is related to having some students who use a lot of verbal shortcuts. We’ve made a lot of progress on that front this year, and a lot of students were joining me in pushing back whenever someone used imprecise language. I think with out that consistent feedback on language, some students are falling back to old habits. I’m giving feedback on language in students’ written work and sent out a vocab review to all of my students, but am thinking about other options.

Physics: Pendulums

Students used Pivot Interactives to collect data we’ll use to get the equation for the period of a pendulum. This week, we had students collect data, then post their graphs and answers to a few questions to a forum. Next week, they’ll start by linearizing the period vs. length graph. Based on the forum, I’m glad we split the lab up. In the questions, students recognized angle and mass don’t affect the period and correctly explained why the period vs. length graph should have a zero intercept. However, most students described their period vs. length graphs as linear in spite of the large intercepts. Using the discussion and splitting up the lab gave me a chance to catch the issue and record a short video before students started their linearization. It’s been hard to be responsive when I have almost no contact with my students right now, so it felt good to have this opportunity to shift my instruction based on students’ current thinking.

Chemistry Essentials: Pressing Pause

The representing reactions summative was due on Tuesday, and only two of my students had turned in work for the module. Rather than sticking to my plan to start balancing, I pushed everything back so that students have an extra week to catch up before their next assignment is due. I also spread out the remaining work in an effort to reduce the workload. We’re shooting for each class to have around 90 min of work per week, so I’ve been assigning what would take around 30 to 45 min in the classroom each week, but the students I’ve heard from are spending around 3 hours a week on chem. I’ve only gotten work or heard from a few kids since Tuesday, but even if just a few more kids get a credit required for graduation as a result of this week’s adjustments, I’m happy with my decision.

Distance Learning Week 4

Based on how we’re being encouraged to approach distance learning, I’ve been posting at least one full week of material for students at once. This week, the mental switching it takes to grade last week’s work, answer questions about this week’s work, and plan next week’s work, especially with three different courses, started to get to me. I’m working on planning out my work tasks better so that I’m not switching gears quite as often.

Thursday and Friday were especially tough this week. Governor Walz announced on Thursday that schools will be continuing distance learning through the end of the school year. While it is absolutely the right call and we’ve been expecting it for a while, it was tough for staff and students to hear for sure that we won’t be back together this year.

AP Physics 1: Balanced Torques

Students used PhET’s Balancing Act simulation to develop rules that lead into balanced torque. Based on the discussion board, students were pretty successful at getting the ideas I wanted them to get. They also seemed to have a lot of success applying their rules to the problems.

I also saw signs of some fatigue setting in among my students. Some kids were missing written information I think they would normally catch and many are quicker to get frustrated than I’m used to. Based on a survey I gave my students to see about how many hours per week they are spending on school, it is no wonder they are getting worn out. While students consistently said my class has a relatively light workload, I need to do what I can to keep it light and even reduce it. It’s hard when I still have content to cover and the AP exam is close, but my students’ well-being is more important than a test score.

Physics: Pendulum Representations

Students did some video analysis of a pendulum to start thinking about motion graphs and other representations, including free-body diagrams and energy bar charts, for simple harmonic motion. Students struggled to make some of the connections I usually ask for, which I think is a result of most kids working independently rather than having the opportunity to talk things over with each other.

I’m seeing fewer signs of strain from my physics students. Most are putting in 1-2 hours per week on Physics, which they consider reasonable. I’m also hearing from students that they really appreciate having deadlines every few days, rather than having everything due on Friday as a lot of classes are doing, since it helps them spread out their work.

Chemistry Essentials: Representing Reactions

This week, we continued working on translating between words, formulas, and particle diagrams for complete chemical reactions. The students I’ve talked to are making good connections with what they learned in the formula writing module and mostly need confidence and reassurance rather than significant help with the content.

This is the class where I’m feeling the absence of face-to-face instruction the most. About half of my students haven’t done anything on the Schoology site or responded to my emails or phone calls, which is tough to see. I had a conversation with the para who supports the course this week, and we see two major challenges. First, we see a lot of students who get off-task when they are confused or stuck. In the face-to-face classroom, we can not only redirect them, but sit down with the student to work through their questions. Based on what we’ve heard from a few parents, we think some students are getting stuck in this avoidance. Second, I find I have to earn the trust of students in this course before they are comfortable asking me questions, but it’s been tough to earn that trust when we’ve never met. I’ve had some success texting with kids since it is a very low-stakes interaction, but teaching chemistry by text message is hard. The good news is the para has good relationships with many of the kids struggling and is very comfortable with the curriculum for this class, so she’s been able to step in with some kids too nervous to ask me questions.

Distance Learning Week 3

I think my students and I are getting into routines and things are starting to run smoother.

AP Physics 1: Central Net Force

Students worked on central net force and universal gravitation this week. We moved through the content fairly quickly since the AP exam is looming. On the summative assessment, a lot of students talked about a force pushing outward on objects moving along a circular path, which is a common preconception. It’s frustrating to know exactly what questions and discussion moves I would use to address this in a face-to-face classroom, but to feel like my options are limited in an asynchronous setting. With the remaining topics, I need to think about how I can proactively get students thinking in ways that challenge preconceptions rather than relying on my ability to react in the moment.

Physics: Pendulum Representations

Students did some video analysis of a pendulum to start thinking about the motion graphs for a pendulum. In the discussion board where students shared their graphs, I also had students respond to some questions about similarities and differences between the posted graphs. This seemed to help students get past the superficial differences in graphs and focus on the major concepts shown by the graphs.

Chemistry Essentials: Formula Writing

This week wrapped up formula writing. On the summative assessment, a few students included a comment along the lines that they’d never learned to draw particle diagrams. Checking in with those kids, they are relying on the Schoology calendar, which shows assignments that are due, rather than visiting the course page where I’ve posted some instructional videos and other resources. I’m not interested in using an assignment to verify students use those resources, so need to think about other ways I can make sure students are aware of materials on the course page. In my email for Monday morning, I added a reminder to use the resources in the folder for each topic. I’ve been putting together an overview of all the tasks for each learning target, and may start including that in the weekly email.

Distance Learning Week 2

AP Physics 1: Video Summative

Students started the week by wrapping up angular motion graphs. I took a page from Andy Rundquist and Rhett Allain by doing video assessments. I posted a goal-less problem, and each student had to record a short video explaining their work. I really enjoyed watching the videos, especially because a lot of students talked about things that almost tripped them up, but a lot of students had technical issues submitting their work. For the next assessment, I may give students the option of doing a video or a purely written version.

Physics: Projectile Motion Problems

Students worked some problems representing projectile motion, then did a video summative assessment. I tried designating part of my office hours specifically for discussing the problems, and I had a few students take me up on it. It was very different from talking in person, but the students who came felt like they got a lot out of it. Since I’m doing office hours anyway, that will be a pretty easy routine to continue.

Chemistry Essentials: Formula Writing

Students worked on translating between chemical formulas, names, and particle diagrams. Students learned how to go between names and formulas in the first half of the course, but a lot of my students took the first half trimester 1 and haven’t had chemistry since November, so it was worth some review. Plus, the particle diagrams are new to all of my students. Going by their work and the students I’ve had a chance to talk to, a lot of them needed this week, but have now gotten the hang of these representations.

The biggest issue was helping students figure out how to submit their work through Schoology. Many of them rarely visited Schoology before we switched to distance learning, so this is a lot to take in. I decided that I need to hold the line on getting students to submit assignments on Schoology rather than emailing their work to me to keep myself from getting overwhelmed. Fortunately, our digital learning coach has been putting together videos and other resources I can send along and the para supporting the course is willing to walk students through submitting their work.

Distance Learning Week 1

After a three-week break, we started distance learning this week. Schoology had some outages and other issues from the increase in traffic that made things trickier. My district asked teachers to emphasize asynchronous instruction, which made the outages easier to work around. In spite of the challenges, it was good to connect with students again.

AP Physics 1: Circular Motion

My classes still need to do circular motion and rotation before the AP exam. I started this week with circular motion, emphasizing motion graphs. Since we’ve made a lot of use of linear motion graphs this year, students were quick to grasp the concepts and I think the relatively easy content helped students ease in to distance learning. Students collected data in Pivot Interactives, then posted their graphs to a discussion board for a virtual version of a “board meeting”. I didn’t have much interaction with my students since they didn’t have many questions, but, based on their work, they were able to get the concepts I was after and made sense of the graphs in the discussion board.

Physics: Projectile Motion Graphs

We usually start trimester 3 with projectile motion, and decided to stick with that plan since, like AP, working with velocity vs. time graphs let students ease in to distance learning with relatively familiar content. This also gave us the opportunity to have students collect their own data; they recorded their own videos of projectiles, then used Vernier Video Analysis to get the graphs. Like AP, they posted their graphs to a discussion board before answering some questions interpreting the graphs.

Students were consistently figuring out what I wanted them to, but struggled to feel confident in their answers, so I answered a lot of emails and had several video chats with students to work through questions. I also got some useful feedback from students. One commented that looking at the graphs on the discussion board wasn’t helpful because everyone’s graphs seemed really different, even though they all looked similar to me. I think some questions about the discussion board to steer students to key features would have been useful. In AP, I asked students to first post their graphs, then make a second post commenting on similarities and differences between their peer’s graphs, which I think would have been useful in this class, too.

A student also told me that she misses the collaboration and group work from our face-to-face class, because she found that extremely valuable for learning physics. Teachers in my building are holding office hours each week, and I am going to try designating a chunk of my office hours for student collaboration on a specific task. I’m also looking for ideas for asynchronous collaboration strategies, and would love to hear any!

Chemistry Essentials: Introductions

This is the course I’m the most worried about. It is the lowest (I hate that term) of our four levels of chemistry, so many of the students have not been well-served by our school. I find building relationships with students in this course is even more critical than in my physics courses. The trick is the start of the tri coincided with the start of distance learning, so I haven’t had the chance to meet any of my students face-to-face. I decided to make this week about connecting with students and helping them find their way around the course site. Their biggest assignment was to use the appointment slots in my Google Calendar to schedule an informal, one-on-one chat. I found it really valuable to hear about the things my students care about and to talk through their fears about distance learning. I’m hoping this will lower the threshold for them to come to office hours or make an appointment when they have a question about chemistry.