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.

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 107-111: Final Review

Next week are trimester 2 final exams, so after wrapping up our last topic of the term, both my courses started reviewing for the final exam.

AP Physics 1: Model Summaries & AP Classroom

I’m generally skeptical of typical final review activities, but I really like starting with model summaries. I gave each group one of the major models from so far this year and asked them to prepare a whiteboard with the key diagrams, equations, and other representations for their model. A lot of groups found it helpful to start by coming up with a scenario where the model would be useful. Students really responded to the idea that a model is a toolkit, and the model summary is a reminder of the tools in that toolkit.

After the model summaries, I had students go on AP Classroom, where I’d unlocked multiple choice problems from each of the topics we’ve done so far and asked students to pick a topic to complete. Students liked choosing what they wanted to review, but really wanted a chance to whiteboard and discuss the problems. We ran out of time for any whiteboarding, but I’m glad that my students see the value in discussion.

Physics: Final Review Packet

Monday through Thursday we worked on wrapping up energy, then I handed out a fairly standard final review packet. While working through the packet is helping students to feel more confident goin g in to the final, it reminds me that we have a lot of room for improvement in spiraling content and helping students draw connections between models in this course. That said, students had a much easier time with some of the old problems than in past years, which suggests we’re moving in the right direction.

Days 103-106: Kirchoff’s Laws & Energy Card Sort

AP Physics 1: Kirchoff’s Laws

Students worked on developing Kirchoff’s Laws this week. We started with PhET’s circuit construction kit, then got out the power supplies and resistors. Some groups had trouble recognizing the simulation and the physical lab as addressing the same concepts, but explicitly asking groups how their results compared seemed to help students make the connections. There was also some good discussion about why the results in the physical lab didn’t match the simulation exactly. A thermal photo showed some heat at the alligator clips, which lead to some conversation about whether the wires we were using were ideal.

Physics: Energy Transfer Card Sort

This week we worked on starting energy conservation problems. To help the transition from bar charts to problems, I turned some problems Kelly O’Shea and Mark Schober wrote for the New Visions physics curriculum into a card sort. Seeing cards with two versions of the conservation of energy equation seemed to help a lot of students see how to build equations from the bar charts, which made the problems much smoother than in the past.

Days 98-102: Circuits Intro & Energy Bar Charts

AP Physics 1: Circuits Intro

We used PhET’s circuit construction kit to introduce some circuit basics and develop Ohm’s Law. Afterward, we used nichrome wire to test how the length of a wire affects its resistance. The data came out great, with groups that used thinner gauges of wire consistently getting larger slopes than groups who used thicker gauges. I usually skip over resistivity, but, at the AP reading last year, Wayne Mullins shared how he uses resistivity as a conceptual basis for Kirchoff’s Laws and I’m really excited to try that approach with my students this year.

Physics: Energy Bar Charts

This week was all about switching over to energy bar charts. I also noticed students are getting much more vocal during whiteboard sessions. I can’t figure out what’s behind it, but I’m really enjoying it. We’re getting close to the end of the trimester, and a lot of students switch between hours (or even between teachers), so I’m starting to think about how I can help students maintain this progress at the transition.

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.