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 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.

Days 1-4: Dowels & Buggies

School started on Tuesday! This week was all about setting the culture for my classes.

AP Physics 1: Buggy Lab

We dove right in and started the buggy lab on day 1 to start building the constant velocity model. Once again, I used Frank Noschese’s take that “Any lab worth doing is worth doing twice.” On day 1, I just told students to make a graph on a whiteboard that represented their buggy’s motion. There was a lot of variation and other messiness in the whitebaords, which lead the post-lab discussion naturally into how we could prepare whiteboards in a way that set us up for a better discussion. On Day 2 and 3, we repeated the lab, but with some agreements in place to make the whiteboards easier to discuss.

Last year, this approach felt like I was doing some “expose and shame”, but I really liked that it gave an authentic reason to agree on certain details as a class before data collection. This year, I tried to address that by starting the discussion on day 1 by explicitly addressing the fact that every group met the standard set in the directions I gave and talking about the benefits of the different representations we saw. When we switched to talking about changes to the lab, I emphasized that we would be approaching the second round with a focus on being able to communicate and compare results. I also kept the focus on what students needed from me, rather than what students needed to do differently, if we were going to focus on communicating and comparing. This framing of the discussion felt much better to me.


Physics: Dowels

Partly to avoid sharing equipment and partly to limit how much students have to retain from the first lab, we started by asking students to predict the mass of a large dowel by finding a relationship between the mass and volume of smaller dowels. Similar to AP, we did the lab twice. On the first day, I just asked students to predict the mass of the large dowel, and many ended up using measurements from a single smaller dowel. That lead to some nice discussion on how measuring more small dowels would reduce uncertainty. It also lead nicely into graphs as an easy way to look at the ratio between mass and volume of several dowels simultaneously. For the second round of the lab, students used the lab template I put together for the course.



Day 112: Coulomb’s Law, Spring Force Revisited, & Skew Dice

Today was our first day back from spring break and the first day of a new trimester.

AP Physics 1: Coulomb’s Law

I am a part of the Pivot Interactive’s Chemistry Fellows program.

We dove right in with a lab on Pivot Interactives to discover Coulomb’s Law. We’re going to be cutting it pretty close on squeezing everything in before the AP exam, so I was much more direct than usual about what needed to be done by the end of the hour and how long I expected tasks to take, and that seemed to help students meet the timeline I had in mind. I need to make that a habit for the next few weeks.

pivot coulomb.PNG

Physics: Spring Force Revisited

We’re getting ready to start vibrating springs, so today we revisited Hooke’s Law. I asked students to make some predictions about how the slope of two different springs should compare before collecting any data, which was tricky since they haven’t thought about what the spring constant actually means for a while, but I think they got where I want them to be.

Chemistry Essentials: Skew Dice

A lot of my students either haven’t had chemistry since trimester 1 or came to me from the other Chemistry Essentials teacher, so I treated today like the first day of school and tried to set a tone for the term. I tasked students with writing a CER to answer whether skew dice are fair. In the past with this activity, I’ve had some trouble convincing students they need a lot of data, so I started by asking students to collect evidence that a regular dice is fair before we got out the skew dice, and students pretty easily recognized they needed a lot of rolls with the regular dice to get a distribution that makes sense.

skew dice.jpg

Day 58: N2L, Momentum Intro, & Mystery Tubes

AP Physics 1: Newton’s 2nd Law

Students worked on collecting data for a relationship between force and acceleration. It was a lot of fun to see students able to just dive right in to a lab like this; it was a good reminder of the growth students have made so far this year.


Physics: Momentum Intro

Students worked on a lab my colleague came up to introduce momentum. Students caught a cart at the bottom of the ramp, then came up with as many ways as they could to make it tougher to catch the cart, similar to the chalk smashing analogy used in the Physics Union Mathematics curriculum to introduce energy.

cart catch.jpg

Chemistry Essentials: Mystery Tubes

This trimester, I’m re-teaching the first half of the course to a brand-new group of students. We started today by getting out the mystery tubes. There was a lot of great conversation, both in small groups and in the whole-class, which was a lot of fun, especially since we really struggled to get that in the class last trimester. I’m really excited for this group of students.

mystery tube

Day 4: FCI, Board Meeting, & Mass and Change

AP Physics: FCI

Students took the FCI pre-test. When I asked what they thought of it, several students said it was fun, which bodes really well for the rest of the year.

Physics: Board Meeting

Students whiteboarded the dowel lab we’ve been working on for a board meeting. Time got tight, especially the last period of the day, partly because I was wiped out and didn’t keep as on top of my students as I needed to at this point in the year. In the lab template I’m using, students have a space to do a gallery walk with their lab group and start jotting down some observations, which seemed to help with the discussion during the actual board meeting.

dowel lab board

Chemistry Essentials: Mass and Change

We continued the mass and change sequence today with water melting into ice and a chemical reaction that forms a precipitate. Students consistently resist setting their ice aside to melt while they work on other parts of the lab, so I need to think about how to make things like that feel comfortable.

mass and change

Day 3: Board Meeting, Lab Template, & Burning Steel Wool

AP Physics: Board Meeting

We did the first real board meeting using yesterday’s results from the buggy lab. Once again, I borrowed Casey Rutherford’s Observations, Claims, & Evidence structure. Some of the chemistry teachers have been integrating techniques from Modeling Instruction, and I got to reap rewards in a really good first board meeting. There was some discussion about whether some intercepts were small enough to call zero, which, along with a whiteboad where students plotted multiple trials, lead really nicely into an introduction to uncertainty. Next year, I think that would go even smoother if I push all groups to truly make time the independent variable and complete multiple trials.

Physics: Lab Template

For the second round of the dowel lab, I had students follow the lab template we’ll be using this year. I also changed the guiding question to “What is the relationship between the mass and volume of these dowels?” since that more naturally motivates measuring multiple dowels and is closer to the kind of guiding questions we’ll have on future labs.


Chemistry Essentials: Burning Steel Wool

We wrapped up yesterday’s lab by making a post-it histogram of the results students got yesterday, then had some discussion on the significance of those results. Afterward, we continued the mass and change sequence from Modeling Instruction by measuring changes in mass as steel wool burned.

steel wool.jpg

Day 1: Buggies, Broken Circles, & Mystery Tubes

AP Physics 1: Buggies

I took a page from Frank Noschese and embraced the idea that “Any lab worth doing is worth doing twice.” I gave groups the very vague directive to collect data on the buggy’s motion, then represent it on a whiteboard and turned them loose. My students seemed very comfortable with the ambiguity and dove right in, which was fantastic. I had a good mix of data tables and graphs on whiteboards, along with a lot of variations on graphs, which led to some good conversation on what would make it easier for us to compare results. Tomorrow, we’ll re-do the lab with a focus on being able to compare results. I talked more than I’d like today, but that’s pretty typical of when I do a new discussion.


Physics: Broken Circles

To start building class culture and learning how to collaborate, I started today with Frank Noschese’s subversive lab groups. Once they were in groups, students did the broken circles activity from Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous ClassroomEach student got an envelope with pieces of a circle inside. As a group, they had to assemble four complete circles without talking. Afterward, we had some discussion about what skills groups needed to complete the task.

broken circles

Chemistry Essentials: Mystery Tubes

Today was also about class culture in chemistry. This class also started with subversive lab grouping, but  I stepped in more than I did in physics. There were more students in this class who seemed nervous about approaching their peers and it was tougher for them to identify other possible solutions when a group got too big. Afterward, we got out the mystery tubes. I could tell I didn’t make the goal as clear as I sometimes do; while there were a lot of groups who were very engaged and had great conversations, others had trouble getting started.

mystery tube

Day 69: Quizzes Galore

Today is the last day before winter break.

AP Physics & Physics: Quiz & Mystery Tubes

AP quizzed over conservation of energy while regular quizzed on Newton’s Laws in 2D. Afterward, I got out the Mystery Tubes rather than starting a new topic. Students were a little fried since they had tests in just about every class, so I think they appreciated the chance to do something low-stakes after their quiz. My students were definitely loopier than usual, and that lead to some creative models of what’s inside the tubes. Next year, it might be worth putting a lab practical on this day instead of a typical quiz.

todd the bug.jpg

This bug’s name is Todd. He lives inside the tube and moves the ropes.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Game & Quiz

There was only time for one group to present their board yesterday, so we continued the mistakes game today before students took a short quiz on density. The mistakes game was fairly chaotic, but there were also some really good questions. I need to put in some more time working on norms for discussion, but I’m hopeful they will be able to have some good whiteboard discussions.

Day 65: Multiple Choice, Elevator Wrap-Up, & Mystery Tubes

AP Physics: Multiple Choice

Today was a quiz day. This tri, I’m making quizzes the last thing we do for the day to build in a natural time limit. Before the quiz, we used Plickers to go over some multiple choice questions that were tricky on the final exam. I had one class where scores on the final came up, and that seemed to put a damper on some of the conversations. I’ll have some conversation with them on Monday to reinforce that we are after everyone’s success.


Physics: Elevator Wrap-Up

I gave students some time to do a summary table from Casey Rutherford’s elevator situations. Afterward, they took their quiz on Newton’s 2nd Law.

Chemistry Essentials: Mystery Tubes

Today was a quiz day. About half of my students take their assessments elsewhere due to IEPs or 504s and most of them need the whole hour, but the students who stay in the room usually only need about half the period, so I’ve been doing nature of science activities once all the students in the room are done. Today, I pulled out the mystery tubes. Compared to last trimester, my current students were less interested and quicker to look for answers online. I think if I’m going to do it early in the trimester, I need to spend a little more time than I did today introducing it and brainstorming strategies.

mystery tube