Day 170: End of Year Reflections

We let our seniors go a week early, so I have no students today, making it a good time to reflect on the school year.

AP Physics

The more I look back on this year, the more excited I am about my plan to start next year with momentum. The big reason I’m making the switch is there are a lot of problems on the AP exam (and in physics in general!) that can be solved very elegantly with momentum and energy, but my students tend to default to kinematics and dynamics since those are the lenses they developed first. I’m hoping to make momentum their default approach, instead.

I’m also hoping starting with momentum will help with some of the divide between students during kinematics. Our calculus teacher emphasizes motion graphs, especially velocity vs. time, which is fantastic! The trick is about half of my students took her class last year, so they breezed through kinematics and kept asking when physics would get hard. The other half of my students often got frustrated that they needed time to master what their peers already knew. Starting with momentum will give the calculus kids something new to chew on from the start, while giving the rest of the students time to build a strong physics foundation that will put them on more even footing when we get to kinematics.

The other big thing I’m thinking about is reassessments and grading. I had a lot more students frustrated with standards-based grading this year than last, and I had very few students complete reassessments. Next year, I need to make sure I spend more time talking about the grading system with my students, especially how it translates into a letter grade. I also need to do a much better job of building in in-class reassessment opportunities. I give quizzes about once a week, so it shouldn’t be a huge leap to cover 2-3 weeks of standards on each quiz.

9th Grade Science (Earth Science & Physical Science)

While AP Physics felt much higher stakes, this was a more challenging prep. The last time I taught earth science as in 2008-2009, during my first year of teaching when I worked at a different school, so I was rusty on a lot of the content and relied heavily on the existing curriculum. The person I followed is very good at planning for what kinds of experiences will work well on a given day; for example, doing something simple during the first week so students can experience immediate success in the course or saving a particularly exciting lab for the day before a long weekend to help harness students’ energy. I had trouble, however, finding the storyline in this sequencing and a lot of the feedback I got from students was that the class felt very disjointed. The next time I teach earth science, I need to shore up my content knowledge so that I clearly see the connections between various learning targets and topics, in addition to rethinking the sequence within each unit.

My other big takeaway is I underestimated the need for classroom culture-setting at the start of a new trimester. The last few years, I’ve only had 9th graders 1st trimester. Since they expect high school to be a change, I didn’t have to work very hard to get them on board with what I was doing. This year, I taught 9th grade all year and each trimester, about 2/3 of my students were new to me. 2nd tri, I didn’t make explicit why I take the approaches I do, and I struggled to get students to see the value in some of what I asked of them. 3rd tri, I was more intentional about how I introduced the early discovery labs, talking not only about what I wanted to see from students, but why I wanted to see it, and the transition was much smoother as a result. It was a good reminder that I need to keep in mind the classrooms my students are coming from and be prepared to help them adjust to mine.

Day 115: Tri 2 Reflections

We are on day 2 of final exams, so I am taking the opportunity to reflect on this trimester while my students test.

AP Physics

I use standards-based grading in this course, but both trimesters so far I’ve had very few retakes. When I talk to students, I hear a lot of focus on the percentage their score translates to and many students are very demoralized by that. I think next year I need to spend more time on how the quiz scores fit with the gradebook. I may also switch to giving students a rating with words (mastery, partial mastery, not yet) or colors, rather than a number, to get more focus on what the rating means. I also want to take some time next week for an anonymous poll on what kept students from reassessing.

During the registration period for AP exams, I got word that a lot of students were hesitant to sign up because they didn’t think they’ll be ready for it in May. I’ve got a lot of evidence that students are in decent shape, but I need to make sure I am sharing that information with students. A lot of AP teachers in my building make it much more explicit that I did so far this year when students are working problems from past exams (like the AP chem teacher who does Free-Response Fridays), so I think many came to my class with that expectation. It should be a pretty easy shift to get better about naming it when we do problems off past exams.

Physical Science

My biggest issue this trimester was ignoring culture-setting. I’ve gotten much better at this in my senior classes, but I’ve been spoiled by the last few years when I only had 9th graders at the beginning of the year, which means I get to set their expectations for high school science. Since many of my students started the year with a different teacher, they needed more support to adjust to my expectations. Starting third trimester, I need to keep that in mind and make sure I am taking steps from day 1 to help students understand what I want and how to be successful in my classroom.

Day 58: Tri 1 Reflection

Its day 2 of final exams, so I took a few minutes to look back on the year so far.

AP Physics

One of my goals this year has been to continue improving the quality of student discussions and I feel like I’m getting some really good discussions this year, though I find myself talking a lot less in 2nd hour. I think part of it is I’ve got some more vocal personalities in my 2nd hour, so I need to work on helping students in my 4th hour who have great things to say speak up more. Next tri, I’m going to try talking to each group about their results as they prep their whiteboards and point out questions or observations they should bring up or try to build on during the whole-class discussion.

At the start of the year, I thought a lot about group dynamics and wanted to work really teaching students how to collaborate effectively. I did some good things in that area at the start of the year, but let a lot of that fall by the wayside as the year progressed. A new trimester is a good time to bring back some of that explicit focus on group skills.

Earth Science

This was my first time teaching earth science since 2008, so I mostly followed the curriculum of a very experienced earth science teacher. If I teach this course again, I need to plan on changing the sequence quite a bit. The teacher I followed is very good about getting the right kind of activity at the right time (for example, something easy at the start of a term or something active on a Friday), but the conceptual development often felt very disjointed to me. I need to spend some time this summer working on the storylines that I want to use in earth science, then rebuilding the curriculum to fit that.

Day 173: Year End Reflection

Its the last day of school, but I’ve got no students today, so its a good opportunity for me to look back at this year. Plus, after managing to keep up with this blog all year, I couldn’t miss the very last day of school!

Classroom Culture

I’ve written about this before, but this year I was much more intentional about building a classroom culture and getting students to see the value in a student-centered approach. Students were much more willing to take intellectual risks early in the school year and were very positive about the course. I also heard a lot more growth mindset talk from my students. The time I spent on class culture was time well spent.

I was a little worried about culture building in my sections of 9th grade physical science and Chemistry Essentials since I only got 12 weeks with each of those sections, but getting students to buy-in and take risks was much quicker and easier than in my honors-level physics classes. I think a lot of it has to do with each groups prior experiences with school. The students who take physics have typically been very successful in school, so I’m changing the rules of a game they’ve been winning. My chemistry students tend to struggle in school, so the game of school seems broken to them and it can be a relief when a teacher does something different. I had my 9th graders their first trimester of high school, so it seemed natural that my science class was different.

Next year, I want to work on explicitly teaching students how to work collaboratively and building in more individual accountability. I had some lab groups that didn’t really know how to approach a task collaboratively where one person would take the lead while others acted as sponges. Not surprisingly, the students in these groups tended to get lower grades and show less growth on the Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. This summer, I’m going to spend some time working on how I can help students build the skills to truly work collaboratively.


This year I made the switch to standards-based grading (SBG) in my physics class, and I’m very happy with the change. A lot of students talked about how this approach encouraged them to really learn the material and they liked that they were encouraged to go back to what they didn’t understand. I think SBG also helped build the positive, growth-oriented classroom culture I was after.

The big question when I talk to colleagues about SBG is always how to get students to do the daily work. In physics, students figured out pretty quickly that they needed the daily work to prepare for the assessments. In chemistry, I had a lot of students who I never got out of the mindset that not graded means not worth doing; the students who expressed this belief most strongly were also the ones most surprised by what appeared on assessments. While I don’t want to start putting everything students do in the gradebook, giving students more feedback on their daily work could add some value to the daily work in students’ eyes.

I think this is also part of a larger pattern I saw in the course where many students seemed to view individual lessons as completely separate from each other; if each day stands alone, then why should what students do in class on Thursday affect how they do on the assessment Friday? I did some having students write summaries of the lesson and complete a warm-up at the start of the next, but I didn’t do it consistently and I didn’t put the time or effort into making it truly meaningful. If I teach a course like this one again, I need to put in the work to make the summaries and warm-ups more valuable so that the course shifts in the students’ eyes from being a series of isolated lessons to a coherent whole.

Day 116: Tri 2 Reflections

Its day 2 of final exams, so I’ve got some time before I get a nice stack of tests to grade and figured I’d use it to look back on the trimester.


This trimester, I saw many of my students truly become fearless when it comes to physics. They don’t hesitate to ask questions that go beyond how to do the day’s task and are quick to propose and try experiments just because they’re curious and not because it will be on the test. They are not only starting to think like scientists, but to embrace and enjoy the scientific process.

My biggest frustration is that I’m still talking a lot during discussions. Some students tell me they aren’t usually sure what’s worth saying or talking about and worry about taking the class on a tangent. That tells me I’m framing the discussion in a way where its about what I want them to learn from a task, not what they found confusing or interesting or what they notice looking at other whiteboards. Before the next board meeting, I want to take a few minutes to have a conversation with my students to help them see their questions and observations are the point of the discussion, not a distraction, and assure them its my problem, not theirs, if we somehow don’t get to the intended content.

Next year, I need to work on the storyline I use for electricity and magnetism. Both my students and I felt like the concepts never really came together as nicely as mechanics does. I’m not sure E&M will ever build as seamlessly as mechanics can, but I want to spend some time this summer revising my sequence to at least improve the connections. I did manage to bring in a lot more concepts from mechanics to use as a foundation for E&M, and am pleased by how that went.


This course as typically been taught with a fairly traditional approach, so this time around I’ve been revising or replacing a lot of materials to put much more emphasis on conceptual understanding and active learning. There were some aspects it was fairly easy to get students to embrace. A lot of them really liked some of the visual representations I borrowed from the Modeling Chemistry curriculum. Students not only used those representations unprompted, but a few came up with ways to effectively apply those representations to new situations that surprised me. It was great to see.

The biggest struggle, however, was getting students out of a very passive approach to school. Since this course is the lowest of our four levels of chemistry, it is a class filled with “those kids” and I think that’s what they’ve gotten used to. Its interesting to me how often students would show me they could reason through how to do a problem using their conceptual understanding, but not recognize what they’d done and ask me for the steps. I shied away from doing much culture-building or metacognitive reflection since the course is pretty short, but I think I need to invest that time if I’m going to continue the changes I made. I may not cover as much chemistry, but its worth it for students to truly understand the chemistry we do get to. Even more importantly, I’d love for “those kids” to leave my class believing that they can construct knowledge, and not just receive it.

Day 58: Tri 1 Reflections

Today is the second day of final exams, so today I’m taking some time to look back on how I think the trimester went.



Some students did a few minutes of power-posing to prep for their physics final

Physical Science

This year, I decided to change my order of topics to start with a unit on energy. Part of the appeal is its very natural to address the other topics in the course (motion, forces, sound, light, electricity, and magnetism) in terms of the energy. My students became very skilled at applying what they knew so far to new situations and, for the first time, I saw my students connecting ideas across topics, rather than treating each unit as a set of separate, unrelated ideas. I ended up really happy with how the new sequence worked.

The other big change I made to course content was taking out the majority of the calculations. In the past, students have been able to memorize how to use the formulas, but don’t get the relationships. By getting rid of the days spent learning and practicing the formulas, I was able to give students more time developing their conceptual understanding. Not surprisingly, they not only understood the concepts better, but they actually got the relationships that are summarized in the formulas. I know at least one of the other physical science teachers is interested in taking a similar approach, so I’m hoping this will be the norm in physical science.

Since the changes I made to the course content forced me to rethink most of my materials, it was a very natural time to shift from periodic inquiry labs to a truly inquiry-based approach. My 9th graders loved this approach and were fearless about sharing ideas, blurting out questions, and exploring whatever I put in front of them. They embraced ambiguity and mistakes much more easily than my seniors typically do, so I had to put very little effort in to culture building. The time I spent re-working my lessons paid huge dividends in student engagement and understanding.


The big change I made this year was the shift to standards-based grading. I’m much more confident in the grades I’m assigning to students this year, given how many students have shown growth over the course of a trimester. Just like last year, I had some students who struggled with constant acceleration continue to work on those skills, then absolutely shine by the time we got to projectile motion. Unlike last year, those students’ grades now reflect that they mastered constant acceleration, even if it wasn’t by the date of the original assessment. My only complaint is how many students waited until the end of the term to complete retakes; it not only was stressful for both my students and I to juggle that many retakes, but many of the students who waited just got further and further behind as we built on previous concepts to develop new ones. 2nd trimester, I’m going to have a strict limit on how many retakes a student may do per week and make sure I remind them of it regularly.

This fall, I also paid much more attention to culture building than I did last year. I introduced this as a course about process, not content, and periodically shared some of why I take this approach. I also had students play the mistakes game within the first week to start normalizing mistakes as part of the learning process. At this point in the year, my students seem much more comfortable with the structure of the class than last year’s group. When I used a very traditional curriculum, the culture could build very naturally, but now that I’m intentionally making students confused and uncomfortable almost daily, I need to be very conscious of giving students a sense of safety in my classroom.