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08 June 2014

Designing your new course in the fall – don't make too-specific plans right now.

As you’re planning a new course – one you’ve never taught before – for the fall, it’s tempting to use the available summer time to plan everything down to the day.  While that sounds great in principle, such an attempt is doomed to disappointment.  You’ll never actually finish the planning this summer, for one thing.  More importantly, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  You might have the most wondrous sequence for October 17-24 to study linear momentum… but all it takes is a missed day for a statewide power outage on October 1 plus an unscheduled pep rally, and suddenly you have to re-plan.

Before you even begin, recognize that course development is a long-term, multi-year process.  It takes me two to five years before I’m truly comfortable with a set of course materials.  Expect that you'll prepare for activities, structures, and assignments that simply don’t work.  Be ready to switch gears midstream.*  Be like the electron, with a wave function well-distributed among many possibilities, but uncollapsed until the school  year progresses.

* Mixed metaphors are legal in physics blogs.
I start the summer with the same sort of planning I’d do for a class I’ve taught before:  I choose a plan for testing*, and choose major test dates that are not likely to conflict with other school events.  I make a general outline of topics overlaid on my school calendar, so I can see the approximate pace I need to set.  I write a brief syllabus communicating expectations for problem sets and such.

* For AP Physics 1, I think I’m going to try giving a weekly 10 question multiple choice test on Fridays, and a free response test every three or four weeks on lab day. 

Next, I prepare to write my tests.  This doesn't mean I write my tests ahead of time!  Since I’m choosing only the test dates in advance, and since every test is cumulative, I can’t necessarily predict what kinds of questions my class will be ready for.  So all I can do in the summer is collect and organize as broad a swath of test questions as possible.

Organization is the key here.  My own choice is to print a dedicated hard copy of every source of test questions that I might use.  I put this stack of paper in a folder, with each source labeled.  I also have a PDF scan of these sources in a computer file marked “test sources for AP Physics 1.”  When it comes time during the year to write a test, I browse through this large stack of hard copy to find questions on the correct topics.  As I use a question, I mark it off on the hard copy so that I avoid later duplication.  Then I go to the PDF source to copy and paste the question into Microsoft word.  In the summer, the goal isn't to write the tests – it’s to make the eventual process into a straightforward exercise in compilation rather than a creative writing job.

I write about two weeks’ worth of problem sets and in-class exercises.  For these early classes, I can be pretty accurate about the day to day progress of the course.  I’m as much brainstorming the style and scope of the questions I’m intending to ask as I am finding just the right questions to provide content practice.  I don't do any detailed planning beyond about that two week window, though.  

And finally, I gather resources related to each topic.  In particular, I've been recasting some of the quantitative demonstrations I've done for years as in-class predictive lab exercises; and I've been gathering equipment and brainstorming rotational motion labs and demonstrations.  Here I'm not making specific plans.  The day-to-day choices about the sequencing of each topic are, I think, best left for later. In the past when I have attempted to make a day-by-day plan months in advance, I've found in the moment that all that work was for naught.  Early on, I learn how the students react to my course structure and style.  I change a lot based on what works and what doesn't.  So it's best to wait to plan later units until I've had some experiences to build on.

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