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23 April 2015

Lessons from a year of teaching AP Physics 1, part 3: Culture Matters

And now for a series of posts reflecting on a year of teaching AP Physics 1.  I've already posted a bunch of stuff that worked well; but a good scientist publishes the results of all experiments.  

Part 3: The "physics culture" that you build over years matters.  A lot.

Twice in my career, I've moved to a new school and created a rigorous, successful algebra-based AP Physics program from scratch.  In both cases, it took three years to establish the program -- three years before student expectations matched what I delivered for them.  The pattern in both cases was the same.  I discuss this three-year pattern with participants at my AP Summer Institutes.  I share these as my personal experiences, but I've had numerous physics teachers discuss similar phenomena.

Read the pattern.  Then read to the bottom to see the IMPORTANT lesson learned from this year.

Year 1: Culture clash.  AP Physics is more difficult than most honors or AP courses.  The College Board has statistics to prove this.*  Yet, with no physics culture established, students have the expectation that AP Physics will be no different from other AP courses: work hard, do the reading, and you'll probably get an A and a 4 on the exam.

* For example:  Of students with an SAT verbal score of 700, about 80% earned a 4 or a 5 on AP English Lit; however, students with an SAT math score of 700 only earned 4s or 5s 54% of the time on AP Physics B.  Search for College Board Report 98-4.

In my first year at each school, many of my students fought me through much of the year.  The course was too fast-paced, too difficult, impossible, unfair, ridiculous.  They complained to teachers and administrators, telling tales about how mean I was, how I didn't care about them.  What was really going on was that I was teaching directly to level and difficulty of the AP exam without exception.  What made me "mean" in most cases was that I wouldn't give pity points or extra credit.  Folks were shocked by the black-and-white, right-or-wrong nature of physics.

Knowing the difficult position I was in, I reached out to my students.  I provided extra help, made personal connections in every way I could, hosted physics parties... Yet a bunch of my students -- predominantly seniors -- saw nothing but a grade less than an A, and felt that I, personally, was keeping them out of college.  Many came around by year's end, realizing how well they were prepared for the AP exam and for college physics.  Some never forgave me.

It hurt deeply when some of the students I worked hardest to win over made personal attacks.  In 1997, I played tennis with Jonathan, I encouraged him and made him a leader on our robotics team, I wrote him a wonderfully positive recommendation which I shared with his parents... and then mid-year I heard him and his parents telling a crowd how I had screwed up his college process and his quest for valedictorian because I didn't like Jonathan.  In 2000 I received a scathing evaluation from Jake the headmaster's advisee, saying primarily that I was never available to students and refused to help them... even though he was one of a group who was at my apartment two nights a week or more midyear.  And these weren't isolated cases.  The poison spewed by these few angry teenagers permeated the class, and colored their perception of me.

My class became much more positive at year's end, as college acceptances were known, and folks realized how confident about and prepared for the AP exam they were.  The quiet majority who appreciated my work emerged from the woodwork.  But boy, were those tough, draining years.

Year 2: Student leadership emerges

At both new schools, my class size in year 2 was reduced.  Students looking for an easy grade or a pushover teacher didn't bother to sign up; those who did sign up initially did so with some trepidation, but knew clearly the challenge they faced.

And, in the second year, the course was easier, the teacher "nicer", than they ever imagined.  Most of the improvement in the class's tenor can be attributed to the disconnect between expectation and reality.  In the first year, the class and I were more demanding than any student had anticipated, provoking hostility. In the second year, the horrible rumors about me actually helped the class's attitude.  They expected hostility from me, but they got a supportive and encouraging (but still demanding) teacher.

Was I any different?  Of course I was, but not in the way you might think.  I eliminated activities that didn't work, I changed my approach to assignments as fitted the school environment, I did more of the kinds of activities that DID work with the new student population I was facing.  But I did *not* change my fundamental attitude toward the students -- I still tried everything in my arsenal to build relationships outside of class.  I still didn't budge on the rightness or wrongness of my students' physics.  I still took incredible pains to point out when students were RIGHT, not just when they were wrong, so as to build confidence.

These students from the SECOND year at each school are now the alumni with whom I am closest.  They heard all the bad things about me, and plunged into my class regardless.  They had a universally positive experience, which they then shared enthusiastically with the next year's class.  They defended me emphatically to the numerous naysayers in the community who still believed rumors about my nastiness.  And they recruited for me, such that in year 3...

Year 3: A self-perpetuating physics culture 

In the third year at both schools, my class size swelled enormously, to a size much bigger than in year 1.  The absolute top students were going to take my class regardless.  But the type of not-quite-top students who had kvetched about me in year 1 and avoided me in year 2 suddenly were not only in the class, but doing extremely well.  Yes, I was better at teaching AP Physics aimed at the right student population based on three years of experience. But also, the students had established a correct perception of who I was, what my class was about.  In year 3 and beyond, students knew through accurate gossip exactly what to expect in AP Physics.

The result in both cases was a well-subscribed program where not just the 780-SAT-Math set was earning 5s on the AP exam.  Students experienced success, intellectual rigor, and real fun, and so they told their friends to jump on board.  Because of the positive team atmosphere in my class, year after year I was recruiting marginal students, teaching them physics, boosting their confidence such that they performed brilliantly.  My classes for years averaged about 63-65 on their PSAT math, yet all but two students passed the AP exam, and more than 70% earned 5s.  And the number of angry, hostile seniors was minimal.  (Non zero, especially in January, but negligible.)

So what is the "lesson" I learned from teaching AP Physics 1 this year?

We had not taught an official AP course for four years prior to this year.  I taught freshmen for the past two years; colleagues taught an honors course, but one without a high-stakes no-excuses AP Physics exam.  When I returned this year to teach AP Physics 1, I missed three important changes in the school's physics culture:

(1) I hadn't taught any of the current seniors, so I had none of the gossip mill matching expectations to reality.  These folks didn't know me, neither personally nor by reputation.
(2) Because of changes to our overall curriculum, the top students were no longer taking AP Physics as juniors and seniors.*  The population in this year's AP class was equivalent to the bottom half of the classes I had taught for decades.
(3) AP Physics 1 is a much more difficult course than AP Physics B, especially for students who are not top of their class.

*They had taken honors physics as freshmen, and were in either AP Physics 2 or a research course as seniors.

In other words, I was back to year 1.  And I didn't realize it, at least not until November.

In my junior-senior AP Physics 1 class, this year has been every bit as difficult as my first year at Woodberry, as my first year at my previous school.  My efforts to build personal relationships with students haven't flagged; but the majority of the class stayed distant and huffy, with several seniors attacking me ridiculously and personally on a mid-year evaluation.

My class has become much more positive now at year's end, as college acceptances are known, and folks realize how confident about and prepared for the AP exam they are.  The quiet majority who appreciate my work are emerging from the woodwork.  But deja vu: this was a tough, draining year.

Moral: Be conscious of your school physics culture.  Cultivate it.  

If you're had a tough year in this new AP Physics 1 program -- and I know many of you have, 'cause I've heard from you by email -- stay the course, and know that you are not alone.  Remain positive and recruit for next year.  Be as self-critical as you can be (more on that in the next post) in order to change what needs to be changed.... but also recognize the things you've done that worked well, the students who have had positive experiences with you and your class.  Know that next year will be better, and two years from now you will have a smoothly running physics teaching machine.  Eventually, students, parents, and administrators will match their expectations to the reality of your AP Physics 1 class.

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