Today is the second day of final exams, so today I’m taking some time to look back on how I think the trimester went.
This year, I decided to change my order of topics to start with a unit on energy. Part of the appeal is its very natural to address the other topics in the course (motion, forces, sound, light, electricity, and magnetism) in terms of the energy. My students became very skilled at applying what they knew so far to new situations and, for the first time, I saw my students connecting ideas across topics, rather than treating each unit as a set of separate, unrelated ideas. I ended up really happy with how the new sequence worked.
The other big change I made to course content was taking out the majority of the calculations. In the past, students have been able to memorize how to use the formulas, but don’t get the relationships. By getting rid of the days spent learning and practicing the formulas, I was able to give students more time developing their conceptual understanding. Not surprisingly, they not only understood the concepts better, but they actually got the relationships that are summarized in the formulas. I know at least one of the other physical science teachers is interested in taking a similar approach, so I’m hoping this will be the norm in physical science.
Since the changes I made to the course content forced me to rethink most of my materials, it was a very natural time to shift from periodic inquiry labs to a truly inquiry-based approach. My 9th graders loved this approach and were fearless about sharing ideas, blurting out questions, and exploring whatever I put in front of them. They embraced ambiguity and mistakes much more easily than my seniors typically do, so I had to put very little effort in to culture building. The time I spent re-working my lessons paid huge dividends in student engagement and understanding.
The big change I made this year was the shift to standards-based grading. I’m much more confident in the grades I’m assigning to students this year, given how many students have shown growth over the course of a trimester. Just like last year, I had some students who struggled with constant acceleration continue to work on those skills, then absolutely shine by the time we got to projectile motion. Unlike last year, those students’ grades now reflect that they mastered constant acceleration, even if it wasn’t by the date of the original assessment. My only complaint is how many students waited until the end of the term to complete retakes; it not only was stressful for both my students and I to juggle that many retakes, but many of the students who waited just got further and further behind as we built on previous concepts to develop new ones. 2nd trimester, I’m going to have a strict limit on how many retakes a student may do per week and make sure I remind them of it regularly.
This fall, I also paid much more attention to culture building than I did last year. I introduced this as a course about process, not content, and periodically shared some of why I take this approach. I also had students play the mistakes game within the first week to start normalizing mistakes as part of the learning process. At this point in the year, my students seem much more comfortable with the structure of the class than last year’s group. When I used a very traditional curriculum, the culture could build very naturally, but now that I’m intentionally making students confused and uncomfortable almost daily, I need to be very conscious of giving students a sense of safety in my classroom.