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20 June 2014

Mail Time: Struggling with the deeper content on the new AP 1 and 2 exams

Chris wrote in to ask for advice and guidance with the physics content on the new AP exams.  He has taught physics for a number of years, but he felt quite overwhelmed at his College Board workshop last week.  He feels unprepared to teach the new courses.  I have little doubt that I will be encountering a number of participants who feel similarly as I embark on my own summer institutes.  Here's my response:

Chris,

I hear you that you struggle with the deep nature of the content in AP Physics 1.  And I'm well aware that you're hardly alone.

You ask for links or lectures, but I have nothing magical.  The only way to get good at the deeper physics content is to engage with it the same way you ask your students to.  

As you design your course for next year, do the problems; present them to the level you'd expect your students to present them.  When you get stuck, ask someone you trust for help.  (That could be the consultant or a colleague from the workshop you just finished, or me, or a local college professor, or the AP teacher community on AP Central, or even an alumnus/a who has taken college physics.)  Pledge not to assign a problem this year that you haven't extensively worked through yourself.  This work doesn't have to be done in the summer: In my own first year teaching AP I spent essentially every fall Sunday at the bar watching NFL Sunday Ticket, while I wrote up solutions to the upcoming week's problems.  There's nothing wrong with being only a few days ahead of the students, as long as you're ahead.

Then get into your lab.  I'm a big fan of setting up the example problems you do in class (or the problems you assign for homework) as demonstrations or lab exercises.  Practice making measurements to experimentally verify the answer to a couple of problems that you've worked through.  You might find that you need some new equipment; get it before the school year starts, figure out where to borrow it, or put it on a wish list for when you are asked what money to spend.  Where you can't obtain new equipment, find alternate ways of making measurements.  Then when the school year starts, spend an hour each week in lab doing creative work figuring out how to verify predictions that you've made in class.  Nothing wrong with asking students to help out with this process -- late in the year especially, they might become better lab putterers than you are.

And finally, don't expect to be perfect when the school year starts.  Be honest with your students: you're learning along with them.  Don't be intimidated when you solve a problem incorrectly -- just figure out how to do it right, show the class, and move on.  Go ahead and assign a lab exercise that you've never done yourself, or one for which you only have a vague idea how to approach.  Put yourself in a lab group and work alongside your students.  When you become stumped in lab, again ask someone you trust for ideas.   Don't expect everything to succeed -- instead, just make good notes for next year about what worked and what didn't.

The goal should be that by the end (not the beginning) of the school year, you should be able to get a 5 on the AP Physics 1 exam.  Don't worry about what scores your students get.  In the second and third year, you can work on adding the cool teaching ideas that you discussed in your workshop or that you read online.

Point is, while you've definitely got a bunch of work ahead of you, don't discourage yourself by expecting to learn everything immediately.  Learning how to teach physics is a three year process.  Expect to feel somewhat inadequate leading into your first year -- I know I did.  But don't evaluate your progress until the third year is finished.  If at that point you still are having major content difficulties and your students are not passing, then it's time to find another line of work.  More likely, in May of 2017 you'll find that your students are doing well, you're confident in your understanding of the material, and you're excited to try out new teaching ideas that seemed ridiculous back when you took that June 2014 workshop.

Good luck.

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