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03 May 2010

Is your class sick of seeing you? Put them in charge!

In my AP sections, we've been in review mode for a while.  Typically, we do a couple of free response questions each night for homework.  In class we take a quiz, go over the quiz, and go over the homework.  I try to spice things up with clicker exercises, a physics walk, and other special events.  Nevertheless, especially now that ALL of my students' AP classes are pushing hard toward next week's exams, my students' focus is flagging.

For today's class, I put my students in charge.  That got their attention.

At the beginning of last week, an informal survey indicated that people wanted to review circuits, and especially capacitors in circuits.  On Wednesday, I asked the class to vote in secret ballot for the classmate they'd prefer to lead a discussion of these topics.  On Wednesday night, I asked the leading vote-getters (two classmates tied in one section) if they would be willing to lead the class on Monday.  They all agreed.

For Monday, then, I distributed the homework assignment, which was two resistor-capacitor circuit problems from old AP exams.  I wrote a multiple choice quiz based on one of the problems.  I forwarded an advance copy of the quiz to the student leaders, along with the rubric to the AP problems, a few hours before class.

It was important that I not be in attendance.  If I had been there, the temptation for all would be to defer to mefor an explanation.  (And I would be tempted to give said explanation.)  Without me, the class worked through the issues together. 

How did I arrange not to be there?  In past years, I arranged this class for a day when I had to be out of town for one reason or another.  This year, I just traded classes with a colleague, so I taught conceptual physics today while he sat in the back of my class.  I instructed him NOT to participate, other than to maintain order or focus if necessary.  (In four years of doing this exercise, I've never had a colleague report that he had to step in to maintain order.  I think my class is so happy to be doing something unusual without me there that they are extra-careful to show respect to the appointed class leader.)

Student response has generally been fabulous.  "I figured out circuits after the homework and today's class," Kevin told me this morning. 

A couple of hints in case you try this exercise:

* Don't warn the class ahead of time that they will be able to vote for a student to lead the class.  There would be politicing, blocks of votes, hurt feelings, and general mayhem.  Just suddenly distribute ballots and ask for an immediate vote.

* It's better to use a colleague than a "substitute teacher" for this lesson.  Since the faculty member who sat in the back of the room is a member of the science department, the students all knew that I would get a clear report of what went on.  And so, they took the review seriously.  There was no baggage associated with a substitute who may or may not have any interest in what went on.

* This takes a LOT of preparation on the teacher's part.  I had to have the homework and quiz prepared well ahead of time, I had to be sure that answers were available to the student leaders, I had to follow up with my colleague, and, today, anyway, I had to prepare and teach my colleague's class.  The student-run class does not save time.  It's just something fun to do as spring rolls along.

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