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.

Days 112-114: Tri 2 Reflections

This was a strange week. Monday we had regular classes, Tuesday we had a professional development day since several of our schools were used for primary elections, then Wednesday and Thursday were final exams. Physics did a traditional written test, followed by a lab practical and AP Physics took a practice exam. While students took those exams, I took some time to reflect on the year so far.

AP Physics 1

This trimester, I’ve had a lot of students working on other things during class. I think part of the issue is I’ve been doing less whole-class discussion on problems this year, which has lead to less sense of collective responsibility. Going in to trimester 3, I need to think about how I can do a better job of making it clear that everyone has something they can contribute and everyone should contribute.

I made some changes to my circuits unit this year. In the past, I’ve relied almost entirely on PhET’s circuit construction kit. This year, in response to some findings in my PhD research so far, I combined the simulation with some real world labs, which paid off with my students feeling more confident and having higher achievement. I tend to rely heavily on Pivot Interactives for circular motion and rotation, which we’ll be starting right after spring break, but I need to make sure I’m connecting those computer-based labs to things my students can touch and manipulate directly.

Physics

One of the things I’ve done this trimester that’s had the biggest impact on whole-class discussions has been giving students time in small groups to have preliminary discussions for most class discussions. I’ve done that prior to board meetings for a while, but doing that before problems, as well, has made students much more comfortable speaking up. That time also needs to be explicit; if I don’t set aside specific time for preliminary discussions, most students won’t initiate those discussions in their groups. Especially at the start of the trimester when some of the students are new to me, I need to make sure I continue to give students that time.

Days 56 & 57: Finals & Reflecting on Tri 1

This week, we had finals on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was scheduled as a professional development day, but an early blizzard meant we had a remote work day for term transition, instead.

AP Physics 1

For the final exam, I had students take a modified practice AP exam. As usual, students did much better on the free response than the multiple choice. I need to give some thought to what shifts might address that. I’m also giving some thought to shifting how I use the formula sheet. Typically, hand out copies of the formula sheet they’ll get on the AP exam pretty early in the year and provide those on all of my assessments. This year, I have more students than usual trying to memorize equations, which tells me they aren’t seeing the formula sheet as a useful tool.

Bigger picture, I’ve been using some of the strategies for improving groupwork that I worked on in Physics last year, and I’m seeing good results, especially in my larger class. This year in general, I’ve been seeing more competitiveness than usual, but it’s been especially pronounced in my smaller class. The small class also has only two girls out of eleven students, and the girls have been vocal that it’s frustrating to often be the only girl in a group. I’ve got some students switching hours and both sections will have a pretty even gender distribution next tri, so I’m hoping that will help shift the tone in my smaller class.

Physics

We continued the two-stage final exam, where students complete a standard written final, then do a lab practical in small groups. I saw a lot of mistakes that I think are related to students struggling to differentiate different quantities and to recognize when a letter represents a variable and when it represents a unit. I need to give some thought to how I’ll help students distinguish those concepts moving forward.

My classes have been much quieter than usual this year, both in small group and whole class discussions. Over the course of the trimester, I’ve used some strategies, like giving more opportunity for small group talk before a whole-class discussion, that have helped. Over time, students have gotten more comfortable with each other and I’ve been able to cut back on the pre-discussions, but enough students are switching between hours for next tri that I’m going to go back to those strategies for at least a while as part of re-building the class culture.

Another aspect of the term transition I’m thinking about is the fact that around half of my students next tri will be coming to me from the other physics teacher. While we work very closely together and use the same materials, I consistently find many students do not transfer skills between our classrooms. I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on how to help students transfer skills like collaboration; I treat the start of the trimester the same way I treat the start of the school year and go back to building routines, norms, and a class culture with my students. I can back off quicker than in September, but it’s no less important than in the fall.

Where I feel stuck is with students who struggle to transfer physics skills between classrooms. I periodically hear from students that their class never learned a fundamental skill like drawing free-body diagrams or even entire topics, like balanced forces. Its tricky to coach a kid through that when I haven’t had a chance to build a relationship or get to know their strengths yet, so I tend to end up either helping to the point of giving answers or coming across as harsh about what students “should” know, neither of which is a good start. We’ll be starting tri 2 with unbalanced forces, so I’m giving some thought to how I can navigate these moments more productively. I want to try some open-ended approaches, like sketching a problem scenario I know was used in both courses and asking students very broad questions about what diagrams they might use. I’m also wondering if there are some ways I could involve other group members in these conversations to help them become more productive.

Day 111: Tri 2 Reflections

Today was our second day of final exams. While my students work, I’m taking some time to reflect on this term.

AP Physics 1

I’ve been moving a little bit slower than I have in past years, so the week we lost to cold and snow is going to make it tough to squeeze everything in before the exam in May. Looking ahead, I’ve got some ideas to integrate a review of linear mechanics into circular motion and rotation, so I think we’ll be okay, even though I won’t have as much dedicated review as in the past. I feel like I skipped a lot of activities that I did in past years, so I need to think about what slowed down the pace. I think part of the problem is this is the one course where I’m not collaborating with another teacher, which means its the prep I’m the most likely to let slide when I’m crunched for time. I need to make sure I’m managing my time in a way where I stay on top of AP going into the home stretch.

Physics

For the first time, I’ve been generating random groups for students almost daily, and I’ve been very surprised at how effective that’s been. Students tell me they feel like they actually know everyone in the class and I’ve noticed a very strong sense of class community. I need to start expanding the random groups into my other courses.

Chemistry Essentials

I’m continuing to really enjoy co-teaching this course. Its great to have another perspective on how to make the material accessible to the students in this course and even on how to best support individual students who are struggling.

This tri, we did a lot of work on making sure students had a strong conceptual foundation for what they were doing in the class. While we made a lot of good progress, I’ve noticed that while students may be able to connect a particle diagram to a written answer or a calculation, they often struggle to connect their conceptual understanding to the real world. Especially as we move into the second half of the course, which includes a lot of stoichiometry, I’m thinking about what it will look like to help students see how what they are learning relates to things they can actually see or measure.

Day 57: Reflections on Tri 1

Today was day 2 of final exams, so its a good time for me to reflect on how the year is going so far.

One thing I’ve been thinking about the past few weeks for all of my classes is how to communicate learning targets to my students in a way they find meaningful. This year, for the first time, I’ve had students tell me they find it confusing to be told a test is about a specific learning target, rather than a chapter or unit, even when I include the text of the learning target. My district has a policy that teachers should post learning targets, and administrators check for compliance during observations, and I think its become a box to check in enough classrooms that students glaze over the text. I’m thinking about what I could do differently to help students find more meaning in the learning targets.

AP Physics 1

I’ve been struggling more with class culture this year than I have with the course in the past. I’ve got some great students, but each section has some things that are making it tough for me to build a good culture. One of my sections has 36 students, while all my previous sections of AP have been 25 or less. I’m really excited that more students signed up for the course in the past, but I’m not able to spend as much time with each group as I typically do. I’m also not seeing as much interaction across groups as I’ve seen in the past, and I think the class size is a factor in that. I usually let students pick their groups, but I’m thinking it may be worthwhile to do some random grouping to encourage more cross-group interactions during labs or problems. That may also help with the fact that I can’t spend as much time with students as I’d like; if a student I’ve spent some time coaching visits another group to help, that might magnify the impact of the time I spend coaching individuals or small groups.

Physics

Last year, we really struggled with getting students to interact effectively. As a result, the other physics teacher and I agreed to put significant focus on teaching students to collaborate effectively. We’ve been assigning random groups that change almost every day, we started the year assigning roles within each group, and we have been including some kind of reflection on scientific abilities, including collaboration, on every packet. As a result, students are getting much more out of their time in small groups than last year and there is a much better class culture.

One of the problems I ran into last year is I took for granted that students had already learned how to be an effective student in a physics class, even if they had the other physics teacher, since we are very in-sync. However, students who came to me from the other teacher did not automatically transfer skills from their other physics class and students had been shuffled enough between sections that there was not a good sense of community. This year, I will be keeping that in mind and plan to return to the structures and strategies I used to teach how to be a physics student back in September to try for a smoother transition.

Chemistry Essentials

This year, I am co-teaching the course with a special education teacher for the first time, and it has been a great experience. Not only does my co-teacher have some background in chemistry, but we have very similar beliefs about what a science class should look like and accomplish, which means we can focus on how to effectively teach our students, rather than on navigating conflicting perspectives. So far, I’ve lead the majority of the whole-class instruction, but we both move between groups supporting students during small-group work. Since next trimester will be a repeat of this one, but with different students, we are planning to split much more of the direct instruction.

Last year was my first time teaching the first trimester of the course, so this year I’ve been making more significant modifications to the curriculum. I brought in a lot more graph interpretation to develop new concepts, and found students really struggle with reading graphs and identifying important features. Going into tri 2, my co-teacher and I are thinking about ways to do a much better job of teaching those skills to scaffold students toward meaningful graph interpretation.

Day 0: New Year

My district wrapped up our welcome back week for staff yesterday and school begins on Tuesday, so I’m taking some time today to think through what I’m going to focus on this year.

Physics: Class Culture

I think a lot of the things I struggled with in this course last year can be attributed to falling short on building a good culture in my classes, so am trying to be much more intentional in that department this year. In particular, I really had trouble shifting students away from the belief that being confused at a given moment means they are bad at physics. I’m going to try posting signs for phases of the modeling cycle that have some information on how I expect students to feel and what supports they are likely to need. Especially during the first weeks of school, I’m planning to reference the sign as part of my introduction to what we will be working on that day.

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The other thing I want to work on is embedding more reflection into my class. Last spring, the other physics teacher and I worked on a cover sheet for our unit packets that will have space for students to track their progress on each learning target. I also put together a short reflection on collaboration that will be the last page of each packet. On at least the first few packets, I need to take time to respond to students’ comments on both the progress tracker and collaboration reflection to drive home that these tasks are worth their time.

I also need to remember it isn’t enough to have this very explicit, intentional focus on class culture at the start of the school year. Typically, a large fraction of the physics students will switch between the other physics teacher and me when we start a new trimester. Even though we stay very in-sync, our classes can feel very different to our students and they don’t automatically transfer skills and mindsets between our classrooms. I need to treat the start of each trimester like the start of the school year.

Chemistry Essentials: Collaboration

I’m thinking about collaboration in this course from a few different angles. First, I’ll be co-teaching the class for the first time this year. My co-teacher is a special education teacher; while he has a limited background in science, I expect his expertise in adapting and differentiating curriculum to be very valuable since many of the students in the course have unique academic needs. This is my first experience co-teaching, so I’m thinking a lot about how to make sure I’m using his expertise while sharing my knowledge of science teaching.

I’m also thinking a lot about collaboration on the student side. I think most of my chemistry students have very limited experience with effective groupwork, so I need to make sure I’m spending time teaching them how to collaborate effectively. During the first week, I’m planning to spend at least a few minutes each day having some discussion on collaboration, but I need to think about what it will look like to carry that through the entire term.

AP Physics 1: Lab Write-Ups

While I’m planning to bring some of the work I’m doing on class culture and collaboration into AP Physics, as well, they aren’t as big a need in this course right now. My biggest frustration last year was actually around lab reports; students didn’t see them as valuable and it showed in their writing. My students were very engaged in doing the labs and had fantastic board meetings, so I think the individual processing in the lab report just didn’t help much. I’m going to try replacing more traditional write-ups with some prompts inspired by the work Kelly O’Shea has done with journals in her class (she linked some blog posts on the subject in the comments). I’m wondering if some prompts like asking students to describe how their thinking has changed or to connect what they learned in the lab to something else they are thinking about would be a more valuable lab write-up. I’m not sure yet how to balance that with giving students practice with the kind of writing that shows up on the AP exam, like writing procedures or making claims based on a graph, but it takes a few weeks before we get to the first lab where I’d ask for a write-up, so I have some time to think and even get input from my students.

Day 166: Year-End Reflections

Tomorrow is our last day of school, but, with our finals schedule, I don’t have any students today, so its a good time for me to look back on the school year.

AP Physics

Overall, I’m very happy with how this year went. I felt more confident my second time through the AP curriculum and my students came into the course eager for lots of collaboration, discourse, and reasoning.

One of the big changes I made this year was starting with momentum. In terms of conceptual development, I liked how that worked out and enough of my students took calculus last year that students were able to implicitly make sense of constant velocity. However, the first labs I did were a tough starting point. The bowling balls and mallets were a fun way to start the course, but coming up with a rule or pattern at the end was a bigger intellectual risk that most students were ready for on day 1 before I’d done much culture setting. The first quantitative lab was on impulse and had lots of little details going on that made it very challenging when students were also getting one of their first experiences designing physics experiments. Next year, I think I’m going to start with a brief constant velocity unit where I can set the class culture and start working on science practices when the content is relatively easy.

This summer, I want to spend some time rethinking how I approach lab write-ups. Write-ups were officially due a few days after the board meeting for a lab, but I have some philosophical objections to deducting points for late work, so I ended up getting almost all of the lab write-ups the last week of the trimester, which has not been an issue in my classes in the past. I think in the past, doing the write-up helped students finish the sense-making process, but this year, students took to board meetings very quickly, so there was less intellectual work left for them to do on the write-up. On a survey I gave this spring, one student put it well when they said the lab write-ups “feel more like an assignment than a learning tool.” Abandoning lab write-ups isn’t a great option; my school mandates at formative category in the gradebook that the labs work well in and a few colleges in the area request lab portfolios before granting AP credit. I don’t have any bright ideas yet, but I want to think about ways to make lab portfolio more of a learning tool.

Physics

The other physics teacher and I got a lot of feedback that students felt like they had a good experience in the course, but we both struggled to get our students to move away from dependent learning patterns. We’re talking about how to better scaffold skills and habits next year, including working on a template we can give to students for model-building labs. I also started to get better whole-class discussions this year when I was very conscious about the time I gave students to pre-talk with their groups. I found I needed to have students move to their lab tables and write ideas down to get the best results; it took me a good chunk of the year to figure that out, so next year I want to start that form of pre-talk with the very first board meeting.

This year I had more students switch teachers at trimester than in the past with this course, which drove home how much I rely on long-term results, ranging from big things like class culture and quality discourse, down to the smaller nuts and bolts, like submitting a meaningful retake request. For some pieces, like requesting a retake, there are relatively easy fixes; the other physics teacher and I have agreed on a procedure for next year that’s a hybrid of what we’ve each been doing. For the bigger issues, like building a strong class culture and teaching students how to talk and write about physics, its going to be a lot tougher. The other physics teacher and I are going to start PLC-ing together again next year to give ourselves some space to dig into these issues.

Chemistry Essentials

This year was the first time I taught the first half of the course, so it was rough. The existing curriculum is heavily influenced by our textbook and approaches a lot of topics as very discrete ideas. This summer, I want to spend some time working on weaving a more meaningful storyline for the course. I also want to do a better job of embedding Modeling Instruction into the course, which I think will help with the storyline in addition to the other benefits of the Modeling approach.

My other big source of frustration was grading. This was the only course where I was not using standards-based grading, and I consistently felt like my students did not have as clear an idea of where they are at or what they need to work on as I’d like them to. I also found many students improved on skills that appear throughout the course, like balancing reactions or finding molar mass, but was frustrated the grading system did not have an avenue for me to acknowledge their growth. The other Chemistry Essentials teacher is excited about the idea, so its time to take the plunge.

Looking ahead to next year, most of my sections will be co-taught with a special education teacher. There’s some question about who I will be co-teaching with, but it will most likely be someone with a limited science background. I’m starting to think about how to introduce whoever my partner is to my vision and goals for the course. I am excited to collaborate with someone much more knowledgeable than I am about special education; typically, about half of the students in the course qualify for special education and many other students have other significant needs, so the skills many special education teachers have with adapting and scaffolding curriculum could add a lot to the course.