Preparing for Distance Learning

My district was on spring break March 9-13. Near the end of our break, Minnesota’s governor announced Minnesota schools would suspend instruction until March 30 to give staff time to prepare for distance learning. Now that I’m a week in on planning, I wanted to take a step back from the details to reflect on what my priorities will be in the coming weeks.

Students Doing Sense-Making

On our first day of suspended instruction, my administration directed us to identify the most critical 30% to 50% of our curriculum for the remaining school year. I have no idea how to pick the most important content from my courses, especially since almost none of my students will take another high school science course. But, under normal circumstances, I’m quick to say opportunities for students to engage in reasoning and science practices are the most important part of my course, and I can’t think of any reason for that to change. My first question with any decision right now is how I can make sure students have opportunities for sense-making.

In Physics, this lead my PLC to decide to focus topics where students can collect their own data, so we’ll be starting with projectile motion, then shifting gears to work on pendulums. We’ll be making a lot of use of Vernier Video Analysis, though we are planning to do a similar pendulum lab to what we’d do in class. In AP Physics 1 and Chemistry Essentials, I’ll probably be making a lot of use of Pivot Interactives to collect data.

Teachers in my district are being asked to avoid synchronous instruction, so I’ll be making a lot of use of discussion forums to give students a chance to share their ideas. I think my general structure will be collect some data, post the results in a forum, then do a worksheet with some guided questions to get to big ideas from the class results.

Relationships Still Matter

A sense of relationships and a sense of community always matter, and I’m only expecting them to become more important as students are relatively isolated at home. For every class, I’ve created an off-topic discussion board to give students space to connect with others in their class. I’m also trying to create a sense of presence by recording a lot of videos for my classes; I’m planning to record one each week with an overview of what I’m asking students to complete.

I’m also trying to make sure students see me as accessible. We’re being asked to hold “office hours”. My plan is to have a Schoology conference open on my computer that any students who wants to can join. I’m also using the appointment slots feature on Google Calendar to make it easy for students to request a chat outside of my office hours.

The students in AP Physics 1 and most of my Physics students have been with me all year, but my Chemistry Essentials students are all new to me. I decided the first few days won’t have any content, and will simply be about connecting. In a Twitter conversation, Carol Braun suggested doing a short video chat with each student, so I’ve decided that will be my biggest priority for the first week of Chemistry Essentials.

Students are People

It seems safe to assume that whether or not students say anything, many of them are dealing with challenges beyond school, working around barriers to accessing online coursework, or focusing on other priorities right now. While this is always true, I’m assuming it applies to a much larger percentage of my students than under typical circumstances. I can’t remove those issues, but I can be flexible with students. As I plan, I’m avoiding synchronous requirements and posting as much as possible up front so students can access materials when it works for them. Once my district sets expectations for grading, I need to take some time to figure out how I can apply those expectations in the most humane way possible. Once instruction starts, I also need to keep this in mind during every interaction with a student or their family.

Managing My Needs

I can’t be the teacher my students need if I’m not taking care of both my physical and mental health. A lot of my first week was figuring out how I’m going to set boundaries. At the best of times, teaching is the kind of job that can become all-encompassing and trying to fundamentally change how we do this job doesn’t help. Usually, I don’t bring work home with me. Since that’s not an option right now, I’ve made myself a schedule and even gone so far as to set alarms on my phone to make sure I’m blocking out time for non-work parts of my life.

I’m fortunate to work in a district where the prevalent attitude is that we should work together on this seismic shift, which is helping reduce my workload. My building has two of us that teach Physics and we usually plan together, so we linked our courses in Schoology so we are collaboratively managing a single course. While I’m the only AP Physics 1 and Chemistry Essentials teacher in my building, I’ve been working with teachers from the other high school in my district to share materials and ideas.

Along with trying to keep work from overwhelming me, I’ve been figuring out how to manage my physical health. The first day, I didn’t drink enough and I didn’t move around enough, and I paid for it. Having a schedule has been helping me make sure I take stretch breaks and track how much I’m drinking. I’m also glad I took my physical therapist’s advice a few months ago and got a laptop stand and wireless keyboard; they’ve been helping me sit straight up when I’m working.

When I was student teaching, my mentor teacher liked to say the school year is a marathon, not a sprint and that feels more true than ever. Especially with all the uncertainty in what the coming weeks and months will bring, taking care of ourselves is a crucial piece of taking care of our students.

Day 161: Final Project Presentations, Lab Final, & Nuke Whiteboarding

This will probably be my last post of the year. Today was the last day for seniors, so my Physics and AP Physics 1 classes wrapped up today. My Chemistry Essentials class is mostly juniors, which means they will continue through the end of next week, but I’ll miss out since I’m going to the AP Physics reading.

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of work to try and build a strong whole-class culture and, compared to previous years, I had a lot more students talk about how they’ll missing being in their specific hour of physics, suggesting there was a strong sense of community. That was a really exciting element of my last day for the year.

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We finished up final project presentations. There was one group that designed and built a rig to reliably launch a hockey puck to measure the stopping distance along various surfaces in order to determine toe coefficient of friction. For the final, students were given a spring with a known spring constant and tasked with finding the mass of a mystery object.

phys lab final

Physics: Lab Final

Students did a lab practical for the second half of their final exam. There was lots of great conversation as students worked through the problem and it was a lot of fun for me to see students using so many of the skills we’ve been working on this year.

Chemistry Essentials: Nuke Whiteboarding

We did a quick refresher on nuclear decay using the whiteboards before taking the quiz on nuclear chemistry.

chem wb.jpg

Day 160: Final Project Presentations, Final Exam Part 1, & Mistakes Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We started presenting final projects. I have each group prepare a presentation, but am pretty lenient on length. I have a couple of students on the trap shooting team that presented today on their examination of the recoil on a shotgun. I hadn’t realized the shotgun barrel is above the center of mass, so there is an upward recoil in addition to the backward recoil.

Physics: Final Exam Part 1

Seniors are done tomorrow, but we’re on a standard schedule both today and tomorrow. To accommodate that, we split the physics final exam into two parts. Today, students took a pretty standard written final.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

I showed students a table to organize their work on half life calculations, then we did some mistakes whiteboarding on yesterday’s problems. The table made the problems much easier for a lot of students, which was great.

chem mistake (1).jpg

Day 159: Final Project Work, Review Whiteboarding, & Half Life Problems

AP Physics 1: Final Project Work

Students worked on polishing their final projects. One student needed to measure some angles in a video clip on Netflix, and had the brilliantly simple idea to just hold a protractor against her screen.

Physics: Review Whiteboarding

Students whiteboarded problems off the final review. A few students asked to chose their own groups since this would be our final round of whiteboarding, but I’m glad I stuck with shuffling them since there was some great conversation during the first few minutes when students were comparing answers on their problems.

Chemistry Essentials: Half Life Problems

We had a board meeting with the results of yesterday’s lab, then students worked on some half life problems. I don’t think I do a great job of linking the lab to the calculations, and I could see it in the ways students were struggling with the calculations.

half life graph.jpg

Day 158: Final Project Work, Final Review, & Half-Life Lab

AP Physics 1: Final Project Work

Students worked on finalizing data collection for their final projects. One group engineered a clever rig to measure how much a fishing rod bent when there was a load.

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It was also PJ day for seniors

Physics: Final Review

Students started working on their final review. We didn’t do anything too exciting, just a selection of problems from each topic, but there was a lot of great discussion as students sought out peers who could help with topics they were rusty on.

Chemistry Essentials: Half Life Lab

Students used paper “pennies” for the classic half-life lab. I have student submit their group’s results in a Google form I’ve been using for a few years; it currently has data from 54 groups, which will be nice for tomorrow’s discussion.

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Day 157: Senior Skip Day & Mistakes Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1 & Physics: Senior Skip Day

Today was senior skip day, so only a few of my students were in class. Most of the AP students opted to work on their final project and some of the Physics students started reviewing for the final.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

We did some mistakes whiteboarding with problems for nuclear decay. I had a few students ask how we know alpha particles are always helium-4, which got me wondering if there’s a better way I could introduce the types of nuclear decay we study than just giving some notes on the types of decay we’ll be using.

nuke decay.jpg



Day 156: Final Project Work & Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1: Final Project Work

Students continued working on their final projects. One group is working on how the speed of a basketball affects the rebound of a backboard. They were working on some energy bar charts today and came up with some interesting notation; they labeled their kinetic energy blocks with “H” and “V” to keep track of how the components of the velocity were changing and how that fit with the energy.

Physics: Mirror Calculations Gallery Walk

Students did a gallery walk of yesterday’s problems. My sub from yesterday commented on how well they’d collaborated on the problems, so I was surprised that my students felt very lost on the problems. Once we started whiteboarding, it was clear they knew how to do the problems, but just weren’t confident yet.

I’ve also been randomly assigning groups almost every day, and I’ve come to enjoy the first few minutes of whiteboarding. Students immediately start comparing answers and approaches with the other people in their group and have lots of great conversation about similarities and differences in their work.

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Chemistry Essentials: Nuclear Notation Gallery Walk

Students whiteboarded yesterday’s problems translating between different representations of an isotope for a gallery walk. Afterward, we started working on some problems writing out nuclear reactions for alpha and beta decay. I wish the decay problems started with some where the nucleus is reasonable to draw to help make identifying the products of the decay more concrete.

chem nuke.jpg