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17 September 2016

A tribute to Clint Alexander

Folks, it's been a rough, rough week for me at Woodberry.  On Thursday the school announced that my great friend and the school's head football coach, Clint Alexander, would not be returning after this season.

What's that got to do with a physics teaching blog?

Know that Clint has been the best academic mentor I've ever known.  He helped me understand how to build relationships with students I hadn't previously connected with.  His willingness to involve me in his program -- as coach for a few years, and as broadcaster for a decade -- gave me the basis for relationships with countless boys who took my class.  

When I have a problem with a student in physics, I go to Clint for help in figuring it out.  He knows nothing of physics.  But he knows everything about teaching.

Below is the short halftime segment I did during the audio broadcast of today's football game.  I will miss him.

-- GCJ

Under Clint Alexander’s reign as coach, football here at Woodberry has become the epicenter for positive leadership in the school.  Our football players are the embodiment of the Woodberry mandate to work hard, build character, and take care of each other.  

That wasn’t always true.  I remember, years ago, pushing a baby stroller (with my baby in it) past the field before a practice.  Some players whom I didn’t even know loudly catcalled from afar.  They succeeded in making me uncomfortable at my own school, my own home.  I questioned my place here.  If *I’m* being treated this way, how would I feel as a new boy?  Especially a new boy who didn’t play football?  

That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.  I proudly now live at a kinder, gentler Woodberry.  

Clint’s influence began with the football team, of course.  He convinced them that the depth of their commitment and love for each other would translate both into success on the field, and to lasting friendships.  He was right, as seven graduated classes would attest.  He sold his vision to parents, telling them famously that their boys “will be husbands and fathers far longer than they’ll be football players.”  

But his message of inclusive values permeated the campus, not just the football team.  

I have always known that I’m an outsider here at Woodberry.  I don’t share an ethnic, religious, or cultural background with anyone.  Physicists aren’t generally known for their ability to fit in socially.  Yet, Clint welcomed me, made me feel like I belonged.  Clint has reached out to everyone, not merely the popular, athletic, and large.  He sponsored the Korean barbecue team.  He worked with the smallest of freshmen, and even faculty spouses, in the weight room.  He was the one who took Keith Johnson and Abbie Ryan seriously about coaching football - even though 15 years ago, appointing a grounds staff member or a woman as a football coach simply was Not Done.

“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”  I’ve heard us read that verse in chapel; I’ve never seen anyone who lives those words more authentically than Clint Alexander.  

I’ll end with a note from Pete Cashwell, longtime play-by-play man for the Woodberry Forest Sports Network -- another of the many outsiders, non-”football people” whom Clint has welcomed as part of his program.   “In the last decade,” Pete says, “no member of the Woodberry faculty or staff has done more than Clint Alexander to help strengthen the school's community on campus and enhance its reputation off campus. I'm saddened that his efforts will not be continuing after this season's end and wish him the best of luck wherever he goes from here.”  

Pete -- word.

08 September 2016

AP Physics 1 mail time: Relative motion, and how do you handle calculus-laden responses?

Hibisca, who was in my Walton High School APSI last June, writes:

1. When do you teach relative motion, if you do at all? I could not find any direct references to it in the course description, but there is a multiple choice question in the 2014 practice exam (#35) about frames of reference. I also did not find any direct references to it in your "info to memorize" sheets or other materials.

I don't formally teach it at all... usually a discussion comes up at some point, though.  That #35 is the one about two balls colliding in a moving train car.  I think of it more as a center of mass question -- the center of mass of the two balls keeps going at constant velocity, whether we're observing inside or outside the train car.  (See, I'm phrasing it so "relative motion" doesn't come into play -- just the terminology causes headaches with students, so I try to get the concept without the terminology.)

2. How do you handle students who give answers/explanations with calculus? I can't imagine that would be a common issue on the AP exam, since there aren't any calculations, but I did have an issue on their last quiz where I asked students to determine the final position of an object based on a v-t graph. All of the students except for one used the formula for a triangle; one student set up an integral instead. Do you emphasize the need to approach everything algebraically, or do you give full credit to students who correctly use calculus?

They get full credit, as long as the calculus is clearly communicated.  As you say, the AP question would be "explain how you could determine", and if the student says, "we need to know how far the ball went from its initial position, that's the integral of the velocity function with limits 2 s and 5 s, that works out to 10 m, so add that to the initial position of 1 m to get 11 m final position" that's beautiful.

If you're worried that such a student might not truly understand what he or she is doing, or if the student uses calculus without words and gets huffy when you don't count it right... then the next quiz question might be "explain how to determine the final position of the object" rather than "determine the final position of the object." 

Not that you shouldn't have asked them to "determine the final position of the object."  I start there, too.  But then after I'm comfortable that everyone can do the calculation, I insist on the AP Physics 1-level explanation.

More questions about your physics classes?  Send 'em via email, and I may publish as a Mail Time.