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08 August 2009

First day of school -- DO PHYSICS

Think about the experience of high school students on the first day of school. They will likely attend four to six academic classes, each for somewhere between 40 and 90 minutes. What will happen in those classes?

Most teachers will take care of administrative minutia. Pass out and read the syllabus, hand out and sign for textbooks, go over rules of the class, how grades are assigned, and blah b-b-blah blah blah. Perhaps a few perceptive teachers might undertake a short discussion about the class’s overall goals, like “What was the most important event in American History?” But I would hazard that in most classes, the actual content covered on the first day is minimal, passive, and non-essential.

Physics can be different.

I teach juniors and seniors only, in general and in AP physics. Presumably the 16-18 year olds in my classes can read; so I send them the syllabus ahead of time via email, and make them read it. Presumably my upperclassmen have learned how to behave in a high school class; so I consider it unnecessary and condescending to discuss a list of class rules such as “respect one another” or “no chewing gum.” (How would YOU feel if you attended a conference which started with a litany of restrictive, prescriptive rules behind which is the underlying assumption that you will do all of these naughty things but for the recitation of said rules?)

Within fifteen minutes of my students’ arrival on the first day of AP, I dive into physics. We define a force as a push or a pull, measured on a scale; I write the definition of an object in equilibrium, and show how to solve equilibrium problems. By the end of the first day, the class is ready for the following quiz (which leads off day 2):

The box pictured above moves at constant speed to the left. Which of the following is correct?

(A) The situation is impossible. Since more forces act right, the block must move to the right.
(B) T3 > T1 + T2
(C) T3 < T2 + T2
(D) T3 = T1 + T2
(E) A relationship between the forces cannot be determined.

And then on day 2, I show with a quantitative demonstration how to deal with a force that acts at an angle. We’re off and running, such that the problems on the SECOND NIGHT OF CLASS are at the AP-level.

The same principle applies to general physics – on the very first day we are making position-time graphs with the motion detector, such that the second night’s problems can involve serious graphical kinematics.

And since most other teachers are talking about the penalties for late work while I’m holding an active class complete with demonstrations, I instantly capture attention. I do think that, in general, physics is more entertaining than most other subjects. But if nothing else, on day one I’ve made students FEEL like my class is special.


  1. Thanks for the pep talk. We start Monday and will hit the ground running!

  2. Wow, already?!? I'm leaving for vacation tomorrow. Of course, I have to teach on Satudays... :-(

    I'll whip up a post about my first night assignment.

  3. Just curious to see how you proceed from here. Are you introducing unbalanced forces to explain why things move, then immediately proceed into Kinematics or do you complete the forces unit prior to kinematics? I'm actually using your new Elite book to help me focus my instruction this year. I feel like I have spent too much time on kinematics and forces in the past, considering the number of questions asked specifically about those topics. Also, do you teach 1D and 2D motion in the same unit? Just trying to get an idea of your pacing. Thank you for all your help and resources!

  4. Wendy, I start with about a week of equilibrium situations only, then move away from forces into motion graphs, kinematics, and projectiles for a couple of weeks. Then I come back to unbalanced forces and N2L. If you'll email me, I'll send you my assignments fo you can derive my pacing.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. Are you willing to share your pacing with me as well? I am a bio teacher teaching physics, and for the last two years I have not been able to find a good timeline for myself to get everything in.

  5. Of course, Kathryn! Contact me via email.

  6. I think this is awesome! So inspiring I was just looking for first day info and this was the first google hit :) I think this standard that you hold your classes to should be the norm and not the exception. I did have a question about pacing and flow. I have been teaching physics for a few years but am teaching AP for the first time and am planning on starting with Kinematics, do you have any pacing advice?