End of Year Reflections

This week was the end of our school year. It was extremely difficult end, as we reach 11 days since the murder of George Floyd. For 11 days, Black communities in the Twin Cities and many other places have been ravaged not only by grief, but by escalating police violence, an influx of right-wing extremists, and arson targeting Black neighborhoods and businesses. These 11 days are a mere sliver of the over 400 years of on-going violence Black people have endured in this country. And, while George Floyd’s murder looms large for those of us in the Twin Cities, he is only one of many Black people murdered by police in recent months, including, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDate, and far too many others. In the face of this devastation and on-going trauma, anything I have to say, especially as a White woman, seems trivial.

But, as a White woman, I benefit from and contribute to the systemic racism that makes Minnesota one of the most racially inequitable states in the US. As a teacher, I bear a particular responsibility for the long list of inequities in Minnesota’s education system. One of the most seductive aspects of White privilege is the privilege to absolve myself of responsibility because the problems are too big, because my intentions are good, or whatever other soothing excuse I choose. But the absolution of White supremacy does not absolve me of a moral responsibility. I need to hold myself accountable to recognize and follow-through on the steps I can take, especially when my privilege gives me safety or authority to act. I want to make what I’m doing public not because I think I’m doing enough or because I believe I have expertise others should listen. I want to make what I’m doing public to give myself a record of my commitments. It is critical that all of us, especially White people, go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy and hold ourselves accountable for pursuing sustained change.

Statewide, Black students in Minnesota have less access to rigorous coursework. In my school, we utilize tracking in our chemistry and physics courses. We also have math prerequisites for nearly all of our science courses that mean many students are not technically qualified for even our basic courses. As a result, my AP Physics 1 students are predominantly white while my Chemistry Essentials students are mostly Black and Latinix boys. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to participate in a team leading science curriculum revisions, and a critical part of my work will be pushing to eliminate tracking and prerequisites in our science courses.

In the mean time, I can challenge my colleagues every time they suggest “those” kids just aren’t capable of challenging coursework and work to make my classroom one where every student is challenged and supported to engage deeply with the content. Especially in courses like Chemistry Essentials, I can use curricula and make instructional decisions that center my students’ thinking, giving them the opportunity to do meaningful sense-making. This summer, I will be part of a team doing major curriculum revisions for Chemistry Essentials, which is an opportunity for me to make more room for student thinking in the materials I use and to push my colleagues to do the same. Opportunities like my school-wide book study of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain have helped me take steps in this direction, but I still have a long way to go.

Part of ensuring every student has access to challenging coursework is attending to the culture of my classroom so that every student has equitable opportunities to participate. I need to be aware of social status and group dynamics to make sure every student starts from the assumption that all of their peers have something of value to offer. I need to challenge the dominant view of what it means to be good at science to ensure every student sees their identity as compatible with being a science person. Mostly importantly, I want my students, especially my white students, to extend this learning beyond my classroom and have the tools to challenge toxic cultures beyond my classroom. There are plenty of examples of one-off lessons, but I think the most important work is the everyday efforts to shape classroom culture. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom helped me begin working toward these goals, but I know I fall short.

Black students in Minnesota schools experience some of the most significant discipline disparities in the country. In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights intervened in districts with the most egregious disparities, including my own. Last year, my school started using some restorative justice practices. For years, I’ve tried to approach discipline issues and conflict with students by listening to understand their perspectives and unmet needs, but having structures and facilitators in place has made me much more consistent in that goal and made students feel more comfortable sharing what they need. Thanks to restorative justice, getting the office is more likely to lead me to develop a better relationship with a student than to the student spending a day in ISS. We’ve started taking some shortcuts since the conversations are time-consuming, but there are ways I can push back. I can request a mediated conversation when I’m struggling with a student, I can make sure my administration knows I consider those conversations time well spent, and I can challenge colleagues who grumble about the time it takes. I can also pursue my own learning around restorative justice practices and making sure I carve out time to listen to students, with or without a facilitator. I also need to seek out learning on trauma-informed teaching if I truly want to make sure students are safe coming into my classroom, let alone telling me what they need.

None of this is enough. I am, at best, a novice in this work. But my shortcomings are not an excuse to do nothing. I’m grateful to not only work in a school with many teachers committed to equity, with an administration that prioritizes equity in their decision making, and students willing to tell us how we fall short, even though no kid should have to. I am grateful to the faculty in my grad program who place social justice at the center of their work, both as teachers and researchers. I am grateful that I’ve been able to learn by lurking in chats like Clear the Air and by following people on Twitter like Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, Melinda D. Anderson, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Val Brown, Marian Dingle, Shana V. White, and many others.

Teachers, especially White teachers, what will you be doing when this round of protests is done to move us closer to a world where these protests are no longer necessary?

Days 93-97: Coulomb’s Law & Energy Pie Charts

AP Physics 1: Coulomb’s Law

We did a lab in Pivot Interactives to find Coulomb’s Law. I debate every year whether I want to take the time for doing a lab, but I’m always glad when I do. In previous courses, students have simply taken it on faith that like charges repel and opposite charges attract, so it’s really powerful for students to make observations that support that rule. My students in AP Chem have also learned Coulomb’s Law is an inverse-square rule and get excited when the realize their physics lab backs up what they learned in chemistry.

Physics: Energy Pie Charts

We did a lot of work this week on what energy is and practice sketching energy pie charts. One of the best activities we did was “Representations Jeopardy”, where each group whiteboarded a set of energy pie charts. Then, they gave their whiteboard to another group who had to come up with a scenario or story to fit the pie charts. In a class where I usually struggle to get students talking to each other, it was great to hear all the noise, laughter, and engagement. During both phases of the activity, students were genuinely having fun coming up with wild stories to fit the pie charts.

Students were also very vocal this week that mistakes whiteboarding is one of the most useful activities we do and is when they feel like the material really clicks. I’ve been thinking about doing less mistakes whiteboarding since I’m really struggling to get kids to speak up during those discussions this year, so those student comments were a good reminder I should be thinking about how to help them speak up more, instead.

Days 68-72: Energy Practical & Pushing Boxes

AP Physics 1: Energy Practical

This week, students worked on applying conservation of energy. We wrapped it up with a lab practical to find the spring constant of a popper toy. To help with what makes a good procedure, I had groups start by writing out the steps they were going to follow on a whiteboard. Then, they traded whiteboards with another group and had to follow the procedure they were given to actually collect data. One group came up with a nice strategy of writing out the equation they’d use in their calculations, then checking off each variable as they added a step to measure it.

Physics: Pushing Boxes

Students spent a lot of time this week on problems applying Newton’s 3rd Law and synthesizing Newton’s Laws, including some great problems originally from Matt Greenwolfe where students draw free-body diagrams and velocity vs. time graphs for boxes pushed across various floors. While there was some great discussion, I think these problems would have been more valuable much earlier in the forces model. In general, I think Newton’s 3rd Law feels like an afterthought in how we approach forces. With some shifts in what we’re doing early in this model, we could better integrate key elements of this model and reduce the need for doing some kind of synthesis at this point in the unit.

Week 0: New Year

Tuesday will be my district’s first day of school! Its been a good week of in-service, but I’m looking forward to being back with students, putting my conversations and learning from this week and beyond into practice.

This year, I’m planning to switch this blog from daily to weekly posts. Along with teaching high school, I’m going to grad school, working on research, and teaching a college course, so I need to take something off my plate. Plus, I think I’m into the double digits on posts that talk about the buggy lab, and I only have so much to say about it! I might try a daily tweet (á la Frank Noschese), but I don’t want to give up blogging because I get a lot out of the reflection it takes to write a post.

I’m also excited to be down to two preps for most of the year. During trimesters 1 and 2, I’m just teaching AP Physics 1 and Physics. Trimester 3, I’ll add in a section of the second half of Chemistry Essentials. I’m not thinking too much about Chemistry Essentials yet, but I do have some things I’m planning to focus on in my other courses.

Physics

The other Physics teacher and I have agree to build on the progress we made last year in developing a whole-class culture. There’s a lot of room for us to be more consistent and more intentional in how we apply the strategies we started using last year. We especially want to look at the ways we’re having students reflect on group work and individual engagement; we’re thinking that if we can get students talking to each other about their reflections, the reflections will be more meaningful, so we’re modifying some of the reflections to try to encourage discussion.

We’ve also decided our PLC goal is going to be related to social safety and growth mindset. A lot of students drop the course each year, with white girls and students of color dropping at a higher rate than white boys. When we talk to the students who drop, we hear Physics is “too hard”, even from students who are getting A’s and B’s. That tells us we need to take a critical look at what messages we’re sending students about how they should interpret the struggles, frustrations, and mistakes they encounter in Physics. We didn’t have time to figure out what concrete steps we’re going to take, but one of the things I’ve found in my research so far is early experiences have a lasting impact on what students believe about their physics ability, so I’m planning to get us talking about it now even though official goals aren’t due until October.

AP Physics 1

My AP students tend to come in pretty comfortable and skilled at working in groups and, unlike Physics, the students stay with me all year with minimal shuffling between hours, so I tend to take the classroom culture for granted and skipped over some of the strategies I was using in Physics last year. However, by the end of last year, Physics had much higher functioning groups and more cohesion as a whole class. This year, I’m going to make the time to work on teaching group work and developing that whole class culture.

The other big thing I’m planning to work on is pacing. I tend to let students drive the pace more than I should and last year that resulted in the class moving a fair bit slower than in previous years. Around January, I started making some shifts to make up time, but we lost a few weeks due to the Polar Vortex and some nasty blizzards. Along with less time, the disruptions and constant shifting made it tough to change classroom routines and habits.

One of the places I can take much more control of the pace is on preparing whiteboards. On problems, I typically give a full class period for students to work problems on paper, then, the next day, groups prepare whiteboards and we have some discussion. Last year, the whiteboard prep often took half the class period for some groups. This year, I’m going to have students prepare whiteboards the same day they are working problems on paper and emphasize the end of class as the deadline. For labs, I’m planning to give students a specific time when their whiteboards need to be ready, then stick to it, even if it means some groups don’t have a board.

Final Thoughts

I’m really excited to see how the things I’m interested in fit with this year’s schoolwide professional development. Our focus is on The Opportunity Myth, in particular looking at how do we provide meaningful rigor in our classrooms and how do we make our classrooms where all students have full access to the opportunities and challenges. The problems I want to address in my Physics and AP Physics 1 classrooms fit right in with these ideas, so I’m expecting the conversations and learning that will be a part of our schoolwide work to support the changes I’m trying to make.

Day 155: FCI, Mirror Calculations, & Nuclear Notation

I had a sub today so that I could spend my day interviewing students for a research project I’m working on.

AP Physics: FCI

Students took the post-test of the FCI. I prefer to give it before the AP exam to identify misconceptions I should take one more stab at before the big day, but the combination of snow days and the slower pace this year made it tough to justify giving up a day before the test this year.

Physics: Mirror Calculations

Students worked on some problems using the mirror equation. Its been a while since we looked at the mirror equation, so I’m wary about how this will go. I want to revamp this unit next year to try and get a better storyline.

Chemistry Essentials: Nuclear Notation

Students worked on some problems translating between different ways of representing an isotope to prepare for writing out nuclear reactions.

Day 33: Problems, Board Meeting, & Assessment

AP Physics 1: Problems

Students worked on some conservation of momentum problems, including Michael Lerner‘s watermelon on wheels, that require them to be flexible about the system they are using. A lot of groups went straight for a whiteboard once the work time started, which lead to some great discussion and collaboration on the problems.

Physics: Board Meeting

We had a board meeting for yesterday’s force of gravity lab. This was actually the first traditional formula students got from a lab this year. During the discussion, I could tell my students are getting much better at making “for every” statements about the slope and describing the meaning of the intercept.

force of gravity wb.jpg

Chemistry Essentials: Assessment

Students took their quiz on phase changes. One problem talked about a generic chemical, rather than something specific, which threw several students off. It was a good reminder to keep problems firmly rooted in real situations. Afterward, we revisited the mystery tubes from the first day of class as preparation to start talking about the periodic table and atomic models.

mystery tube

Day 16: Interaction Stations, Data Collection, & Describing Substances

AP Physics 1: Interaction Stations

Students worked through Brian Frank’s interaction stations to start thinking about different types of forces. I included one with a buggy spinning its wheels on a brush, which lead to some nice discussion about the way friction plays an important role in forward motion.

Physics: Data Collection

Students continued working on collecting data for a cart on a ramp. Today, I gave the additional task of collecting velocity vs. time data for their cart. Today was much smoother than yesterday now that students have had some practice with the equipment.

ramp lab

Chemistry Essentials: Describing Substances

Students mixed pure iron and pure sulfur, then heated them to start thinking about physical and chemical changes, as well as to introduce language for different combinations. I introduced a lot more vocab today than I normally would, so I need to think about better ways to split this up. Students did make some great observations as they worked through the lab.

fe s.jpg

Day 154: Resistivity, Ray Diagrams, & More Activity Series

AP Physics: Resistivity

This year, I skipped over resistivity, so my students who took the AP Physics 1 exam last week had some trouble with free-response problem 2. Today, we took some time to look at the problem and discuss strategies for solving without any knowledge of resistivity. The students who took the test last week were very willing to share how they approached the problem, which was better than anything I could have said.

Physics: Ray Diagrams

Students worked through a worksheet on ray diagrams for pinholes. Students worked pretty quickly and confidently, so we had time to whiteboard answers for a gallery walk. There were some great conversations where students brought up their observations from the lab the past few days to decide whether their ray diagrams made sense.

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Chemistry Essentials: More Activity Series

Students worked on some additional problems identifying probably reactions using an activity series. I also had students predict the products of the reactions; since we haven’t done formula writing in a while, a lot of students needed a refresher. Once they got started, however, the problems quickly became pretty easy for students.

Day 73: Multiple Choice, Forces, & Gas Laws

AP Physics: Multiple Choice

After a quiz on projectile motion graphs, we spent some time using Plickers to practice multiple choice on energy and projectiles. One of my classes pretty openly started guessing, rather than thinking about the problems, so I think we may be doing multiple choice a little too regularly. I may start either alternating each week between relevant multiple choice and free response or just use quiz days for explicit AP practice less often.

Physics: Forces

Before today’s quiz, students whiteboarded their diagrams for the problems earlier this week. Pretty consistently at this point, the students who take the time to get their diagrams right do fine on the calculations, which is not surprising. Getting students to put units in their work is still a challenge, but I saw a lot more confidence from my students today than I have in a while.

forces wb.jpg

Chemistry Essentials: Gas Laws

Before today’s quiz, we did a quick debrief of yesterday’s lab on the gas laws. Since the ice water didn’t work well yesterday, I tried putting them outside (the air temperature was -10 degrees F today!), but still didn’t see much change, so I think the syringes I have just don’t seal well enough. We’ll finish the post-lab discussion on Monday.

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Day 45: Net Force, Systems, & Quiz

I’m at a conference today, so no pictures.

AP Physics: Net Force

We are starting unbalanced forces on Monday, so I left students some problems using vector addition diagrams to find net force. It’s a little bit of a stretch at this point, but I’m hoping they’ll be able to make the leap.

Physics: Systems

I left students some problems where they need to start translating between different systems to draw FBDs. On Thursday, a few of my students were nervous about doing problems without me, so we talked about some strategies for working through confusion.

Chemistry Essentials: Quiz

Students are assessing over periodic trends and describing substances.