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16 June 2013

Structure of a class: AP Physics 1 [Formerly AP Physics B]

At Woodberry, the first-year AP class is generally taught to bright seniors.  Now, this includes a wide swath of folks, from the valedictorian all the way to the dedicated student with a 550 SAT math score.  Although everyone in the class is by definition a serious, motivated student, some are more motivated than others.  Even in AP it is still necessary to grade homework daily, hold students accountable for their preparation via quizzes and such, and provide entertainment enough to keep attention as the students trudge through a seven-period academic day.

A typical class starts with a quiz, which begins at the bell.  Daily quizzes in AP are sometimes 3-5 question multiple choice; sometimes a question about the previous night's homework; sometimes pure recall; sometimes even an authentic AP problem.  The purpose is not only to review, but to provoke a good discussion.

I collect the problems from each student's desk during the quiz.  

We take as long as necessary to discuss the quiz.  Then I'll ask the class pointed questions about the previous night's homework, possibly provoking a good discussion.*  Once questions about previous topics have petered out -- or once I decide we've talked long enough -- we move on to the day's lesson.

* Though I never just do the problem on the board for the class.  The dialogue here is more like "So, how did you figure out the mass of the cart, since it wasn't explicitly given?"

The "lesson" is generally an example problem that I pose and work through for the class.  Equipment is set up on the demonstration table so that the answer to the problem can be verified experimentally.  This is the "quantitative demonstration" -- we develop the intellectual habit of placing every problem in a laboratory context.  

This "lesson" is as much performance art as it is classical lecture.  I'm modeling the habits of good problem solving through the way I structure the board work; I'm interrupting frequently to ask "check your neighbor" questions; I'm engaging the class at every opportunity, and using every trick at my disposal, in order to maintain focus.  A typical demo takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to complete.  

I try to time the end of the lecture with some sort of cliffhanger -- "Now we've solved for the cart's speed, will the measurement match the prediction?"  or "So tomorrow, we'll double the mass of the cart, and decide how the cart's speed changes."  

Since AP Physics 1 is less broad than the B course, I frequently have time to end class with 5 minutes of individual problem solving on the night's homework.  Students are expected to get something accomplished in those five minutes: the "ticket out the door" is to show me the written work they've done.  (I don't care whether said work is right or wrong... the only way anyone gets in trouble is if he shows me a blank paper and says "I don't know what to do.")

What about lab days?

The above class structure is used about three days each week.  One double-period is used for laboratory work.  I discuss the specific structure of a lab day in this post.  

And tests?

In AP, I only test once a month or so.  Those tests are entire period tests, usually using the 90-minute lab class.  Sometimes I'll use a class day soon after to do corrections.  

Review for the AP exam in April requires a different structure, too -- but by then I've established the class norms enough that I can use the 9th grade class structure with music and independent work.  

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