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25 May 2009

The Wall of 5s: Inspire your students with local history

Sports teams are nearly obsessed with their history. Who was the best catcher in Cincinnati Reds history? Johnny Bench’s jersey is prominently displayed above the outfield fence. In what years did the Boston Celtics win the NBA title? Look at their banners. Even at the high school level, one is likely to see championship banners hanging from the rafters in the gym. For those with competitive swim teams, it’s impossible to avoid the large board with pool records, team records, league records, state meet records, national records, world records, solar system records, and so on.

Why do sports teams advertise their individual and team successes so blatantly? For one, public displays help build a community of fans and team alumni. History is a huge part of sport. People want to point to an artifact, turn to the person next to them and say, “I was there.”

(Baseball is my favorite professional sport. I watch games with thirty seasons of context, even more than that if you count how much I’ve read and the stories passed down from older generations. Yet, I’m cognizant that without history, baseball seems like merely a lot of random throwing, occasional running, and men scratching themselves in polyester suits.)

Furthermore, public reverence for history inspires a new generation of players and aspiring players. Little catchers in Cincinnati pretended to be Johnny Bench. It’s humbling for a 21 year old first-time major leaguer to enter Yankee Stadium, knowing he’s playing on the same grounds* as the holy trinity of Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. Rookies are not only awed by history, though, they are inspired by it. Someone who sees the pool record in the 400 individual medley displayed prominently on the wall might, consciously or not, make it her goal to get her own name up there someday.
*Or, as of 2009, next door to the same grounds, anyway

So why do I mention all this in the context of a physics teaching blog? I encourage you to build your own community of physics students through recognition of your own class history.

In my classroom, I hang banners from the walls. A poster with a giant “5” on it hangs for each year I have taught AP physics; on that poster are written the names of each person from that class who scored a 5 on the exam. We sometimes come in first or second in or region in the AAPT Physics Bowl; when that happens, we hang a poster. We’ve had success in the US Invitational Young Physicist Tournament; that means a banner for each year of coming in first or second.

Now, I faced some criticism for my “Wall of 5s” in my early days of teaching. Administrators and parents fretted that I didn’t care about my students who were going to earn less than a 5. Well, that was a ridiculous and offensive suggestion, I thought. The track team proudly displays their team records, but does anyone ever suggest that the track coach doesn’t care about his runners who aren’t record holders? Lower Marion High School in suburban Philadelphia retired Kobe Bryant’s jersey; does that mean that their basketball coach cares any less about his current team than his NBA all-star alumnus? Of course not. So I didn’t appreciate the suggestion that I was incapable of teaching ALL my students in the presence of a board honoring the best.

(That said, I do make a point to repeatedly remind the class that, during the school year, I care less about their scores than about their progress, and that I do love and support every one of my students regardless of what score they end up with. I concede that students need to see that love and care in my words as well as in my actions.)

The other objection I heard regularly was that honoring my students with 5s so prominently might cause hopelessness or intimidation in the next year’s class. However, I’ve found precisely the opposite effect: the Wall of 5s is INSPIRING to the next year. Why? In the fall, my current students see the names on the Wall, they know these Jacobs Physics alumni who are just one year older than they. Current students see that not only the very top “genius” level folks are getting 5s, but also some of the folks who come off as ordinary get their names up there. They see viscerally that it doesn’t take an 800 SAT math in order to ace the AP physics exam, because they know people who had only 600 SATs but who nevertheless made it onto the Wall. The Wall of 5s buys me a lot of credibility: “If THAT guy can get a 5, then so can I.”

In the end, these objections quieted, and my class just made the blank template for my 12th poster in the Wall of 5s. It is not at all uncommon for an alumnus to make a special trip down to my classroom for the express purpose of showing his sibling / parent / girlfriend his name up on the Wall of 5s. Occasionally they take pictures.

I’ve a couple times had parents offer to revise my crudely hand-drawn posters into framed, professional-looking wall hangings. I don’t want that. I love the fact that the design for the “5” posters initiated with a student (I think it was Katie Toews, class of 1998 at my previous school); I love the fact that since Katie made the first few, each class has colored in their own poster. It's all about building community.

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