Days 6-9: Problems

This week, both of my classes spent a lot of time working problems to practice translating between different representations of constant velocity. In Physics, velocity vs. time graphs seemed to either click immediately for students, or to be a big struggle. Usually, I have a lot more students with an experience somewhere in between. Regardless, by the end of the week even the students who found velocity vs. time graphs really challenging were getting the hang of them. In my AP Physics 1 class, most students seemed to be in a place where the velocity vs. time graphs were clicking pretty quickly.

AP Physics 1 also was able to do the dueling buggies lab practical. We had some great conversation about the sources of uncertainty in their predictions. Each group took a different approach, but got the same predictions for where the collision would happen, which is always fantastic. I’m also starting to see more of my students’ personalities in this class, which is making this class a lot of fun. AP is a lot smaller than my Physics classes, so I’m not surprised that is starting to feel like a cohesive class sooner than Physics.

A red buggy and a blue buggy with a measuring tape.

This week, I also had a lot more conversations than usual with students who said they “aren’t a science person” or “aren’t good at science”. I suspect some of it is rooted in all the challenges of what science classes looked like last year, but that doesn’t make it any less important for me to address. I’ve been slow to start discussions of what skills groups needed to complete a task, but I need to make sure I’m making time for those. I also found myself telling students if their answers were right a lot more than usual in order to help them get some immediate confidence to keep them moving forward on problems, but the downside is it really limits the discussion students have once one of them knows they have the right answer. I need to figure out how I’m going to balance the need to keep the door open for student discussion with how I’m going to help students feel more confident in my classroom.

Days 1-5: Tumble Buggies

After a year away, I am back in the classroom this year, teaching Physics and AP Physics 1. This past week was our first week back. Between having been away for a year and the continuing dangers of COVID-19, I have been very nervous about going back to the classroom, but this week reminded me why I decided to come back. It felt so good to be in a classroom with a bunch of teenagers doing physics together.

This year, I convinced the other physics teacher we should skip a short “intro to physics” unit and we dove straight in to the buggy lab, so both my courses looked pretty similar. On the first day, students were just given the vague direction to make some kind of graph or chart on a whiteboard that modeled the motion of the buggy, then we talked about what was making it easy or hard to compare results across groups. Throughout the activity, I emphasized that the choices students made were correct and valid in the context of the activity, but I needed to do more as a facilitator to prepare them to compare across groups.

A blue tumble buggy and a red tumble buggy sitting next to a measuring tape

We then did a second round of buggy data collection with more structure. I also had students do a linear regression for their data and “translate” the resulting equation into physics by adding units and substituting variables that matched their experiment. Interestingly, for all of the rhetoric about learning loss and concern about the gaps students will have this year, this is the smoothest the “translation” has ever gone for me. Even better, my students were thinking about what their regression line actually meant without any prompting from me. I had several groups call me over concerned because they had already figured out on their own that their intercept should match their buggy’s starting position, but the two values were different by 5-10 cm, which meant I got to have some great conversations about uncertainty much earlier than usual. I also had a student who was struggling with adding units to her slope. As I was asking her questions to try to better understand what she was having trouble with, her face suddenly changed and she said “Oh! The units mean the slope is how many centimeters the buggy travels every second!” and I realized she wasn’t struggling with the mechanics of placing the unit in her equation, she was struggling because she knew a number with a unit needs to mean something, which is a fantastic reason to be struggling.

My classes have been quieter and more still than usual, even in the first week, but I’m guessing they are also feeling nervous and overwhelmed about being in a full classroom again. But given the sensemaking they are doing without any direct pushes from me, I think my classes this year are going to be pretty great as long as we all stay healthy.

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 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.

Days 107-111: Final Review

Next week are trimester 2 final exams, so after wrapping up our last topic of the term, both my courses started reviewing for the final exam.

AP Physics 1: Model Summaries & AP Classroom

I’m generally skeptical of typical final review activities, but I really like starting with model summaries. I gave each group one of the major models from so far this year and asked them to prepare a whiteboard with the key diagrams, equations, and other representations for their model. A lot of groups found it helpful to start by coming up with a scenario where the model would be useful. Students really responded to the idea that a model is a toolkit, and the model summary is a reminder of the tools in that toolkit.

After the model summaries, I had students go on AP Classroom, where I’d unlocked multiple choice problems from each of the topics we’ve done so far and asked students to pick a topic to complete. Students liked choosing what they wanted to review, but really wanted a chance to whiteboard and discuss the problems. We ran out of time for any whiteboarding, but I’m glad that my students see the value in discussion.

Physics: Final Review Packet

Monday through Thursday we worked on wrapping up energy, then I handed out a fairly standard final review packet. While working through the packet is helping students to feel more confident goin g in to the final, it reminds me that we have a lot of room for improvement in spiraling content and helping students draw connections between models in this course. That said, students had a much easier time with some of the old problems than in past years, which suggests we’re moving in the right direction.

Days 103-106: Kirchoff’s Laws & Energy Card Sort

AP Physics 1: Kirchoff’s Laws

Students worked on developing Kirchoff’s Laws this week. We started with PhET’s circuit construction kit, then got out the power supplies and resistors. Some groups had trouble recognizing the simulation and the physical lab as addressing the same concepts, but explicitly asking groups how their results compared seemed to help students make the connections. There was also some good discussion about why the results in the physical lab didn’t match the simulation exactly. A thermal photo showed some heat at the alligator clips, which lead to some conversation about whether the wires we were using were ideal.

Physics: Energy Transfer Card Sort

This week we worked on starting energy conservation problems. To help the transition from bar charts to problems, I turned some problems Kelly O’Shea and Mark Schober wrote for the New Visions physics curriculum into a card sort. Seeing cards with two versions of the conservation of energy equation seemed to help a lot of students see how to build equations from the bar charts, which made the problems much smoother than in the past.

Days 89-92: Waves & Momentum Practical

We had a four-day student week for a professional development day on Friday.

AP Physics 1: Waves

This week week we worked on developing and using the wave equation, as well as a few other concepts on mechanical waves. We started with a standing wave lab in Pivot Interactives. On a few labs this year, students haven’t taken the time to get good quality data, which has made it tough to make sense of the slopes during the board meeting. As students are getting better at constructing new ideas from lab results, they are starting to really see the value in having good results to discuss and this lab was a place I saw it really pay off. Students worked through linearizing their graphs and figuring out units of their slope with very little intervention from me partly because they knew those steps would help their sense-making and partly because they are getting more skilled and need less support. Every group had beautiful data for the board meeting and, as we worked on problems later in the week, I heard a lot of students referring back to their graphs or their qualitative observations to think through a problem. All around, this was a really fun week to watch and listen to my students.

Physics: Momentum Transfer Practical

Students worked on applying conservation of momentum to problems, including a lab practical. For the practical, students had to determine an unknown mass using photogates and a dynamics track. The groups that were able to sketch momentum bar charts that matched the collision they decided to do were typically able to find their mass pretty quickly, but a lot of students struggled to connect their bar charts to what was happening on their lab table. As we move into energy, I need to think about how I’m going to make sure students are connecting representations like bar charts to things they can observe or interact with in the lab and beyond. I did enjoy seeing the different approaches groups took to the practical. One based their approach on cart explosion lab and added mass to their empty cart until both carts had the same velocity after the explosion.

Days 85-88: SHM Representations & Momentum Card Sort

AP Physics 1: SHM Representations

This week was mostly about working problems for simple harmonic motion. I kept the focus on representations, including free-body diagrams, energy bar charts, and motion graphs, which made it a good review of a lot of mechanics topics. I also was really pleased when a student was checking out the topics we have left to cover on the AP Physics 1 Your Course at a Glance and asked if our unit on mechanical waves will have anything to do with the simple harmonic motion we’ve been working on.

Physics: Momentum Card Sort

This week, we worked on transitioning to calculations with conservation of momentum. We started with a collision lab from the Modeling Instruction curriculum, then did Kelly O’Shea’s momentum representations card sort. I’ve had a lot of students asking for me to do example problems before they work problems on paper, which I try to avoid. The card sort seemed to fill that need for a lot of students, while keeping the focus on their sense-making. I definitely want to work on a similar card sort for energy.

Days 80-84: SHM Labs & Momentum Bar Charts

AP Physics 1: SHM Labs

We worked on labs to determine what affects the period of objects in simple harmonic motion. I had half the class experiment with pendulums, while half the class used springs. During the board meeting, we did a lot of jumping back and forth between the two experiments; this lead to some good discussion about energy when we saw that mass mattered for the springs, but not for pendulums. I had each spring group use a spring with a different spring constant, which also lead to some good discussion about why the pendulum groups all got the same slope on their linearized graphs, while each spring group got a different slope.

Physics: Momentum Bar Charts

This week, we developed conservation with cart explosions, then worked on using momentum bar charts to represent conservation of momentum problems. After last week, I spent some time talking about the purpose of giving students time to work all (or most) of the problems on paper and warned them I would be unhelpful when they were preparing their whiteboards, then held to it. When we got to mistakes whiteboarding, I required groups to make at least one of their mistakes in the bar charts. While students were working on paper and preparing their whiteboards, I saw a lot more small-group discussion than usual, both within groups and across groups, which was fantastic. During the whole-class discussion, I also got some students speaking up who are usually pretty quiet and one of my classes even got some really good student-to-student exchanges, which have been very rare this year. On Friday’s quiz, students consistently felt really good about their performance. I’m hoping that the positive experience students had whiteboarding these problems coupled with good performance on the quiz will move the class culture in the right direction.

Days 75-79: Projectile Problems, Impulse, & Risk Taking

AP Physics 1: Projectile Motion & Free Fall

This week, we worked on problems and calculations for projectile motion and free-fall. A lot of students were rusty on velocity vs. time graphs (like we haven’t used them much in a while or something!), so it was helpful to revisit. I also continue to really like projectile motion as a wrap-up to linear mechanics since we had a chance to revisit pieces of each major topic so far. I was out sick for a day, which made it tough to fit in the practical I usually do while staying on track for pacing. I think the practical could be good for a review in April, especially since I’ve got some ideas for extensions to connect the lab to more concepts.

Physics: Impulse Problems & Risk Taking

We spent most of this week working problems using momentum and impulse and discussing them with mistakes whiteboarding. This week, I was particularly aware of two common behaviors during problems and whiteboarding that suggests students are still wary of taking risks in my classroom. First, when working the problems on paper, I had a lot of students who got off-task if I wasn’t at their table and were really resistant to sharing their thinking if I was. Second, most of the mistakes students picked for mistakes whiteboarding were in parts of the problems that relied on familiar representations, like vector addition diagrams and velocity vs. time graphs, rather than in the new material.

Recently, I had a conversation with an administrator about classroom environments that encourage academic risks and we agreed that before students can take a risk, they need (1) to feel safe and to know the stake are low and (2) a clear sense of how they will benefit or what they will gain, ideally regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure I need to put in work on both of those criteria. Some students who I know really appreciate the discussion that comes from mistakes on new material stuck to mistakes on the familiar content, which tells me they aren’t feeling as safe as I ‘d like. Several of the students who were off-task doing problems on paper find the whiteboard discussions extremely valuable, so I think they just didn’t see a benefit to taking the risk or effort of working through their confusion when we were still on paper. All of this tells me I need to keep working to make sure both requirements for academic risk taking are present in my classroom.