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 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 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 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.

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.

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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.

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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.