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26 December 2018

Setting up authentic AP problems in lab - 2015 P1 #3

One of the all-time best sources for college-level, open-ended laboratory ideas is the AP exam itself.  While some AP problems are explicitly posed in an experimental setting, the large majority of the released problems - free response and multiple choice - can lead to an interesting laboratory investigation for students in the latter half of the school year.  See this post, this post, this post... you get the idea.

It took me several attempts over the years to get decent data for 2015 AP Physics 1 problem 3.  (Here's the link to the 2015 free response questions.)  To summarize, the question posits a block in contact with a compressed spring on a frictionless surface.  The spring is released from rest.  At the spring's equilibrium position, the block comes off the spring onto a rough surface.

The primary experimental challenge is to produce data verifying the answer to part (a)(i): Sketch a graph of the block's kinetic energy as a function of position.  In particular, we need to show the correct shape of the graph before and after the block reaches the spring's equilibrium position.

The theory: Okay, obviously the kinetic energy increases to a maximum at the D = 0 equilibrium position, then decreases back to zero, because the speed increases than decreases.  The functional form of the graph is the complicated bit.  It's easiest to see through an energy approach:

Before D = 0, the potential energy of the spring is given by (1/2)kD2.  This means the potential energy drops to zero as D2, i.e. parobolically.  Since the sum of kinetic and potential energy must be a constant value on this frictionless surface, the kinetic energy curve must be an upside-down parabola.

After D = 0, the block loses kinetic energy because work is done on the block by the friction force.  Work is force times distance traveled parallel to the force... that is, linear with distance.  Thus, the kinetic energy drops linearly until the block stops.

The experiment: You'll need a compressible spring, a way of keeping the block moving in a straight line, and a device to record speed as a function of position.

(You DON'T need to worry about the "frictionless" surface before D = 0.  The shape of the graph is still parabolic, even if there's work done by friction before the block is released.  Why?  Because both the with- and without-friction mathematical functions -- (c - kD2) and (c - fD - kD2) -- are parabolic.)

My students and I flipped a PASCO two-meter track upside down to find a groove just about the right size to fit one of those wooden felt-covered friction blocks.  We stuck a Vernier sonic motion detector in the groove about a meter away from the track's edge.  The detector was set to acquire data at the highest possible frequency - I think we used 50 points per second, but I'm not entirely sure.  At the edge of the track, we pushed the block against the spring and let go.  The spring uncompressed, the block slid toward the clicking detector. 

Next came some serious data presentation work.  We had to figure out how to use the Vernier Labquest to graph calculated data columns - it only automatically produces distance, velocity, and acceleration data.  But this is a matter of programming, not physics.  We got the device to output (1/2)mv2 on the vertical axis; on the horizontal, we used a subtraction function to adjust the distance from the detector so that "zero" represented the location of the block with the spring uncompressed. 

And sure enough... though the function looks choppy because we only have one point every 0.02 s, it's the correct shape:

As an improvement, a student suggested using a PASCO smart cart on a track, attaching a crumpled piece of paper or similar to the front of the cart to produce some frictional drag on the track.  The motion encoder in the smart cart's wheels can take more frequent (and more precise) data than the sonic sensor.  However, I don't have enough familiarity with the sparkvue interface to create the derived graph from the raw data.  If you do, please try the experiment and email me the results - I'll post them here!

17 December 2018

Ask not what your students *should* do. Ask what they *do* do.

I was in high school marching band.  We won the Kentucky state title in my senior year.  Please hold your applause.

"I'll bet youall practiced a lot," you say.  Sure: we had summer band camps, and after-school practices equivalent to those of varsity athletic teams.

So, yes, the volume of practice time was certainly helpful to our success.  Nevertheless, we routinely defeated other bands who practiced similar hours.  How we practiced was as important as how much we practiced. 

Two questions to ask about our band director's pedagogy:

Question 1: Should voluntary participants in an elite high school ensemble, for which we were graded and earned academic credit, be expected to do independent, self-motivated practice?  Should band members come to rehearsal with their parts mastered, ready to work on fine tuning and advanced ensemble work?

Answer: Yes.

Question 1a: In actuality, out of 50 band members, how many dove into said independent, self-motivated practice?

Answer: Two.  On a good weekend.

Importantly, the band director didn't nag us about practicing our instruments on our own time.

Instead, he worked with us on difficult passages during rehearsals.  He showed us techniques that would help us improve.  So, using the regularly-scheduled rehearsal time alone, we got pretty good.  When he did need us to do some practicing outside of rehearsal time, he'd give specific goals -- "on Monday, you must be able to play measures 98-116.  I'll pick a couple of you randomly to play for all of us."  No nebulous and shaming "make sure you practice this weekend!" for us.

Question 2: Should the participants in the school's highest-level ensemble, one that expects to be competitive with the best bands in the state, have mastered basic skills prior to important mid-year rehearsals?  Should the participants retain training from practice to practice, from week to week, such that the director does not need to re-teach basic skills and already-taught elements of the competition show?

Answer: Sure.

Question 2a: In actuality, how well does the band retain skills and show content if they're not reinforced on a very regular basis after band camp ends?

Answer: Not well at all.

The band director didn't nag us about retaining skills.  He didn't complain that we should have learned these things by now.  Instead, he drilled us such that we didn't forget.

Every practice, all season, began with marching fundamentals - everyone in a block, at the command of the drum major performing a number of basic maneuvers, all the while the director and his assistants watched like hawks for uniformity of technique.  Then came the musical warm-up, reinforcing basic skills - perhaps today we did an exercise based on the E-flat scale, maybe tomorrow was a tuning/blending exercise, the next day rhythm or embouchure drills. 

This all took at least 30 minutes of a two to three hour practice.  And was worth every moment.  (It was, honestly, a bit drudgerous.  However, the first 30 minutes of practice became ritualistic, such that we felt a hole in our collective soul on those rare occasions when we didn't do fundamentals and warm-up.  I recall a couple of occasions when the upperclassmen practically demanded to start practice the "right way" when someone proposed to skip warm-ups.)

Next, we'd re-teach pieces of the competition show in small chunks on a regular basis.  By season's end, each segment of the show had been taught in the summer, then re-taught two to three times.

Physics teaching connections:  

(1) While students in an AP -- read "college level" -- class *should* be able and willing to put in many hours of engaged homework time each week, in practice they're not.  It's our job to design the course with expectations about out-of-class work which students can and will meet.  Then it's our job to find a way to use class time to develop physics skills such that students can make the best possible use of what time they do devote to out-of-class study.  We need to solve problems in-class.  We need to teach how *not* to ask for help fifteen seconds after reading a problem.  We need to teach how to start an unfamiliar problem, and how to collaborate with classmates to communicate understanding.  

(2) While students in an AP class *should* be able to retain basic facts and problem solving techniques from week to week; while elite-level students *should* come to our class with algebra skills; fact is, they don't.  It's our job to design the course to teach/reteach even things they should have already learned.  Give fundamentals quizzes.  Don't give unit tests, give cumulative tests.  Assign problems that require students to circle back to already-mastered material.  

Look, if you know anything about my classes, you know that I'm as far from a fluffy no-standards teacher as it's possible to be.  Yet teaching rigorous physics doesn't mean we have to expect monkish devotion from our students.  When we complain to our students or our colleagues about how the kids just aren't studying like they should, we alienate the audience.  Meet the class where they are, not where they should be, and everyone will be happier and more successful.  Yes, of course require the class to know and use appropriate skills as the year progresses... but continue to teach those skills in context, too, so that even those with weak backgrounds and minimal out-of-class devotion can eventually catch up.

09 December 2018

Hints for preparing students for a physics presentation

I'm thrilled when I hear about physics teachers using student presentations and formal student-led discussions as teaching tools.  Students should come out of our classes with the ability to explain physics orally as well as in writing.  But that's easier said than done.

Think back to your high school (or college) days.  How did you feel about listening to your classmates when they did formal presentations?  (Not how did you feel about giving presentations -- since you became a teacher, you might have liked that just fine.)  Did you look forward to presentation day?  I doubt it.  Possibly you were neutral, taking the "at least we don't have to listen to the teacher for an hour today" approach.  

More likely, you dreaded those classes.  Student after poorly-prepared student with minimal public speaking skill, some reading (badly) straight off of hastily-written notes.  Aargh, it was academic torture.

So don't make your own students suffer.  If you're going to do formal presentations, prepare for them with tremendous care and detail.

Set time limits, and enforce themSet a timer on your phone with a loud alarm at the end.  The students must know going in that if the buzzer goes off before they're done, they're done anyway.  No pity, no remorse, no exceptions.  Don't yield to the temptation to allow a student just to finish a thought, or to give them just a bit more time because they didn't quite get to the important part of the presentation.  You're teaching a life skill here.  Let them fail - then next time they probably won't fail.

Presentations can be very, very short and still be useful.  Even a long-term project can often be summarized in three minutes.  In fact, it is a valuable skill to learn how to communicate complicated ideas in such a short period.  What makes student presentations so painful is often the attention they give to irrelevant details, while the audience rolls its collective eyes saying "arrgh, get to the point."

Do not allow powerpoint.  Slides are too often used as a substitute for substantive communication.  See also this post. 

Practice, practice, practice.  Ideally, you'll go through the class for several days before the presentations, watching each student in turn and giving feedback.  You'll also have students giving their presentations to each other for days before the actual event, giving each other feedback.  Make a video recording of students speaking - it's painful but important for students to see themselves droning on without eye contact, repeating themselves without communicating anything important.  Force students to see these mistakes while they still have the opportunity to correct them before presentation day.

If nothing else, assign presentations for homework - require three dry runs in front of another human.  I mean, you know darned well that typically students try to wing presentations without appropriate preparation.  So require that preparation in and out of class.  Give the students a homework sheet that asks for the signature of the person who watched each presentation.  If each presentation is only three minutes without powerpoint, that's not a burden at all - it's a ten minute assignment.  

Too many teachers throughout the years have assumed that their students know already about basic speaking-to-an-audience skills, have assumed their students will be self-motivated to practice and perfect their presentation.  Then when the horrible presentation starts, everyone is embarrassed, just like when the kid at the talent show didn't practice his clarinet solo and now has no choice but to honk on.  It's our job to insist on the practice that we know teenagers won't likely do.  It's our job to teach the speaking skills that students haven't internalized yet.  

Eyes up.  The first thing I do in practice is start making faces at the students who stare at the whiteboard or at their notes instead of making eye contact with the audience.  Pretty soon, the whole class is helping each other keep their eyes up.  This good posture subsequently encourages students to speak naturally, telling their story to the audience rather than talking to themselves.

Who is the audience?  It's not good enough to tell the class "you will be speaking to your classmates and two other science teachers - all of whom are familiar with the first-year physics that you have learned."  It's not even good enough to explain what that means in front of the class.  You must allow the students to make mistakes in their assumptions about the audience, and then learn from those mistakes.

For example, a student will write an equation like d = vt, then spend 45 s of their three minutes umming and hmmming through an explanation of what d and v and t stand for.  It's never occurred to this student that the audience is familiar with this equation. That all they need to say is "We use d = vt because the cart's speed is unchanging." That the audience is more interested in the physical prediction made by this equation, and how that prediction is verified experimentally.  

So tell this student right now!  Right now, your feedback is in context.  You're not droning on about something that your quite intelligent and experienced-at-school student thinks that she already knows.  You're gently correcting a serious error immediately after it's made.  Your student can't tune you out, or say to herself "whatever, I know that."  She's just screwed up.  If you speak firmly and with love, showing with your whole being that you are helping prevent a mistake on a bigger stage, your student will listen, and appreciate your helpful feedback.

And the message will spread throughout the class.  The student you just critiqued will, in turn, share that feedback with the person she watches for practice.  And everyone will get better, as a team.

25 November 2018

Do the arrows in free body diagrams have to be the right length?


Draw the tail of the arrow starting on the object, pointing away from the object in the direction that the force acts.  Don't worry about the arrow's length.  Label the arrow with a descriptive variable, such as "T" for tension in a rope or "mg" or "Fg" for the gravitational force.  Off to the side, indicate the object providing and experiencing each force, as "T: force of the rope on the cart, and mg: force of the Earth on the cart."

What?  The length of each vector should be proportional to the magnitude of the force represented, as everyone knows, and as the AP exam occasionally requires.  And no one, let alone the AP exam, requires such precise descriptions of each force.  Whatchu talkin' bout, Jacobs?

I'm talkin' pedagogy.

Free body diagrams are one of the first physics skills I teach each year.  They're intended to give students a starting point for a three-step process:

   (1) Draw free body
   (2) Break angled forces into components, if necessary
   (3) Write two equations for newton's second law:
              (up - down) = may
              (left - right) = max

The physics teaching literature abounds with discussions of conquering a student's fear of mistakes.  In the educational culture that our students so often inherit from middle school, a wrong answer equates morally with being a bad boy/girl.  From such a source springs the trope that all physics teachers have observed: student proffers a blank paper, saying "teacher, help me, I don't know what to do."

The free body diagram provides a clear starting point to solve any force problem.  I can - and do - refuse to discuss a problem with a student who has not carried through all three steps in the procedure above.  Usually, once they attempt all three steps, my students suddenly find that they no longer have such an urgent need for "help."  And when they do ask for assistance, we can discuss the details of their problem solving process rather than the waily-waily woe of how impossible the problems are.

Thus, my requirements about free body diagrams must focus only on the elements that will most likely lead to problem solving success when students move on to steps (2) and (3) above.

I don't want students worrying about the length of their arrows.  That's not in any way important to breaking forces into components, or to writing Newton's second law in each direction.  In fact, it's not always clear at the very beginning of a problem which forces are bigger than others - often knowing the relative magnitude of forces requires significant reasoning involving an analysis of an object's motion, or consideration of the values of trigonometric functions.

Such reasoning can not be part of a student's initial approach to a problem - that's exactly how paralysis by analysis takes hold.  If I look at a student's solution and say "that's great, but the pushing force arrow seems longer than the weight arrow, and it turns out that the pushing force is smaller than the weight, so your free body is wrong..."

...then I've played straight into the waily-waily trope.  What the student hears isn't "almost right, missed one wee detail."  What the student hears is BAD BOY.  BAD GIRL.  YOU FAILED.

Similarly, I find it unproductive to think about starting the force vector at the point of application of the force.  (That is, a normal force arrow should start at the contact point between the object and the surface; the weight arrow should start at the object's center of gravity.)  This subtle convention is in no way important to solving Newton's laws problems in the first month of physics class.

I *do* want students thinking about the source of each force.  In order to be successful at steps (2) and (3), the free body has to be close to correct.  By insisting that students write the object applying and experiencing each force, I force* them to focus carefully on each arrow.  Without this focus mechanism, students tend to draw arrows almost at random, then hang their heads (BAD BOY) when they're wrong.  Don't believe me?  Watch your class work sometime.  I see, again and again, someone draw silly arrows (sometimes before even labeling them!).

* hah!

But if I let them struggle through without asking questions, I often see the same student stop as they start to write the source of each force, stare at the ceiling... then erase the incorrect arrow.

Since I started requiring a list of the source of each force in every free body diagram, I hardly ever see silliness like "force of momentum" in the direction of motion, or the "force of push" when an object was given an initial push, but is now moving without that push happening anymore.

But what happens when the AP exam comes?  It does sometimes require correct arrow lengths, correct starting points for arrows, and not any time-wasting list of sources for forces.

Gotcha.  The AP exam is in May.  I'm teaching free-body diagrams in August; I'm not wholly confident in my students' understanding of Newton's laws until we're reviewing in March or April.

At that point, it's simple to explain this added layer of complexity.  If required, draw bigger forces bigger.  If asked, put arrows for weight at the center of gravity, but arrows for contact forces at the point of contact.

As for the list of sources for forces... these are still worth writing, even on the AP exam, I think.  An ambiguous label like "F1" might not earn credit; but if F1 is clearly defined as "the force of person 1 on the ball", then that could hardly be clearer and will certainly earn credit.  More importantly, even on the AP exam, even after lots of prep, students tend to panic and revert to making novice mistakes.  By disciplining themselves to write the sources of forces - as they have been doing all year - they're more likely to find their groove, letting their knowledge flow.

11 November 2018

Dealing with the inauthenticity of formal teacher evaluations

Prologue: It seems I need to be clear that the issues I describe below are NOT happening to me at my current school, Woodberry Forest.  No, the vast majority of my administrators here have had my back regarding anything in the classroom, and I appreciate it.  That - and the honor system - are why I continue to teach at Woodberry.  And while I have indeed experienced some of these issues at previous schools, the post below is not  intended to be autobiographical.  

I talk to probably a dozen physics teachers each year who are dealing with some subset of the story below.  These teachers aren't always perfect, but they are invariably working hard to improve their skills in a difficult profession.  This post is for them.  They need to know they are not alone in their struggles; they need support from those of us who have overcome similar situations.

If you're an administrator reading this... it's likely that you're not part of the problem, because, well, you're taking the time to read this.  But know that being the administrator for a physics teacher is too often similar to adopting a shelter dog. Whatever happened to the dog previously is in no way your fault, and you want nothing but the best for the dog now.  Yet, you are a person, and it's possible - even likely - that the dog has negative associations with some of the things people do.  It's not productive to blame the dog for her skittishness.  All you can do is work every day to build trust.

How many times have I heard the story?

1) Physics teacher doesn't hand out high grades for poor work
2) Students complain to parents and other teachers on ridiculous grounds*
3) Parents fight blindly for their children
4) Administrators either believe the parents uncritically, or set up a "he said, she said" false equivalence between the parents' complaints and the teacher's defense
5) Administrators give teacher a formal list of things to improve, most of which are unrelated to good physics teaching
6) Teacher follows administrator instructions to the letter
6a) Sometimes, administrator moves goalposts, demanding more "items for improvement" that are even more unrelated to good pedagogy
7) Teacher is informed that his or her contract will not be renewed.

* "He makes people sing a song if they forget their homework. How can the school support a teacher who embarrasses his students like this?" There are bigger hills to die on, kid.  Even if your complaint were, well, true.

Physics is different from most other subjects.  For one thing, physics has right and wrong answers; there's no way to BS a physics test by writing an essay with advanced vocabulary and a few buzzwords sprinkled in.  For another, good physics teachers don't play the "game of school" the same way that others do.  Like all good teachers, we expect more from our students than spitting back memorized facts and algorithms.  Yet, experience (and stats from the College Board's exams) show that it's much more difficult to pass a physics class than it is to pass in history, math, English, or language.  Thus, for parents and students it's too often easier to try to fight us politically than to intellectually engage with the subject.

In your first year at a school, or in your first year teaching an advanced class, you cannot do much about items 1) to 3) above.  Expect these to happen to you.  The only antidote is culture building, such that those who advance these complaints become social pariahs.  That takes years - and the timescale of the effect of the complaints is weeks or months. Be prepared.

We can start our riposte with item 4).  Assume - at least until you have serious evidence to the contrary - that your administrators are well-meaning.  In fact, that's usually the case.  Yet, it's overwhelmingly likely that your administrators are benignly ignorant about physics teaching.  So, develop a collegial relationship with them.  Copy them on email updates to your class's parents.  Warn them ahead of time if you know or suspect that a ridiculous complaint might come to them: "Hey, I'm giving my first AP test tomorrow.  Know that my students will all think they failed (they won't have), and they'll work themselves into a state about their grades, because I'm giving authentic AP-style questions.  Please don't respond to any complaints for a few days!  By week's end the students will have done their corrections and seen more clearly how well they did.  If you'd like to talk Friday after school, I'll be around."

If your administrator still brings silly complaints to you uncritically, don't defend yourself.  Point out the ridiculousness of the complaint.  I was recently talking to a teacher whose administrator came to her yet again with something stupid... for example, "Parents are telling me that your class timer ends with a cartoon dynamite explosion, and the students feel uncomfortable because of all the terrorism in the news."  On one hand, sure, it's not a big deal to change timers.

But my response to this administrator would be polite yet aggressive: "For the sake of peace, I'm happy to change the timer.  But I want you to consider your approach here.  Do you truly believe that I'm promoting terrorism, or that I'm bullying students into feeling uncomfortable?  Because if you do, you need to fire me right now - that's not acceptable in this or any school.  Or, do you think that students and parents are finding any little thing they can think of to discredit a new teacher who teaches rigorously?   The next time you hear something silly like this, would you please support me by shutting it down?"

If your administrator is competent, they'll see your point, and listen.  Sure, they may feel obliged to bring a few more of these silly things to you, but they'll do so with a wink; and, hopefully, they'll be more aggressive about shutting down parents.  By calling attention to the lack of intellectual basis for these sorts of complaints, you're forcing the administrator to recognize and acknowledge the falseness of the false equivalence.

And what if the administrator isn't competent?  What if they say something huffy like, "Our parents and students are our customers.  We must always take their concerns seriously.  I'm disappointed that you would dismiss their thoughts as invalid.  Remember, perception is reality."

Then you're on to 5), 6), and 7) above.  But now you know not to take your administrator seriously.

What to do, then, when the administrator responds to complaints with a checklist of elements of your teaching to improve?

Do nothing.  Don't engage a vacuous argument on its merits; don't play a rigged game by the rules.

Understand that a formal evaluation of teaching means nothing.  Yeah, sure, you can make checklists that sound objective, with goals that are black-and-white achieved or not achieved.  It still means nothing.

If the head of the school - the one who decides who is hired and fired - knows your value and wants to keep you, (s)he will do so.  If you don't meet some of the black-and-white evaluation objectives, this school head will suggest that you're improving on those items, or that they don't apply to your class, or that your overall value to the students and the school outweighs the few "deficiencies" in your teaching.  Just keep doing what you think is right for your students, and outlast whichever administrative flunky is giving you trouble.

If the head of school wants you gone, there's nothing you can or should do - (s)he will find a way.  As you meet checklist objectives, more will suddenly appear.  Or, as you seem to meet a black-and-white objective, the school head will suggest that you didn't actually meet it.  (Perhaps they will instead merely rubber stamp the judgment of a subordinate who wants to get rid of you.  That's the same thing.)  You'll be gaslit, undermined, Huckabee-Sandersed, and, eventually, let go.  Nothing you say about meeting your improvement objectives will matter. 

(Imagine that, as Lando lay down his winning hand to take Han's ship, Han had pulled out the thick Sabacc rulebook.  "No," Han told the braying crowd as they reveled in Lando's smackdown.  "Rule 23.1a, section viii allows the opponent to call for an Imperial tournament director to inspect the cards, if the opponent has adhered scrupulously to sections i, ii, and iv-vii inclusive."  Don't you think the Rancor would have shown up five movies early?  That's what we sound like when disputing teacher evaluations - even, especially, if we are right.)

If you're being gaslit, stop trying to please those who are unpleaseable.  Let it go.  Polish your resume, talk frankly to whatever allies you have, and figure out what is best for you in the long term.  A good physics teacher can usually find a job without trouble.  If you absolutely need this particular job for the sake of your family's finances, well, hunker down and live like Syme in 1984 until you don't need the job, or until the revolution comes.  All reigns end eventually.

Your sanity and self respect is important.  Move on to the next job.  Learn from the one you left - but don't try to learn how to please a boss who refuses to be pleased, nor how to better meet teacher evaluation standards.  Learn instead how to get out ahead of whiny parents.  Learn how to judge which colleagues and administrators to trust, and which not to.  Learn how the (often silent) majority of students at your old school are uncomfortable or even angry that you're gone.

And throw yourself into knowing, challenging, and caring for the students at the new place.  Somewhere, you'll find a school who appreciates expertise, and allows room for you to develop even more expertise.

30 October 2018

This is not a political post. Fighting hatred is not politics.

I spoke in my school's chapel in March of 2017.  Here is what I said, along with an epilogue written today.

Why do I teach at Woodberry Forest?

I’m an outsider to Woodberry’s culture.  I’m neither black nor white; I’m not Christian, I’m not southern. 

I teach here because we care about character.  We don’t lie, cheat, or steal.  We live in a community where we are consciously kind to one another; where, even when I disagree strongly with my colleagues, I feel that I and my family are welcome here.  My job description is NOT just to raise AP physics scores; no, I’m directed to know, challenge, and love my students.  And I do that.  Sure, it may take three weeks for me to learn faces, to tell the difference between a Cooper and a Barker… but I figure it out. (I also know that it took you a lot more than three weeks to understand Newton’s second law… but I’ll forgive you if you’ll forgive me.)  I know you.  I do challenge you, as everyone who’s been in my class can attest.  And I love you, unconditionally.  I taught a large portion of the senior and sophomore class… ask them.  Ask them if I ever lost faith in them.  Ask them how I showed my love through my actions.

Nevertheless, I’m an outsider here.

My mom’s family was Syrian/Lebanese refugees in the 1920s.  My dad’s family were refugees from when eastern Europeans were killing Jews in the 1890s.

Dad was born in 1942 - only three months after Pearl Harbor - in California.  On a couple of occasions growing up I heard Dad say, “If the Nazis came again, this is who I’d trust to hide my family.”   I thought he was joking, using hyperbole.  In retrospect, I realize that he was deadly serious. 

He knew how a community could and did turn upon the outsider, the other.  Dad met Jewish refugees who came to America after the Holocaust.  He saw what had happened to the Japanese-Americans who were sent to America’s own version of concentration camps.  He always kept, in the back of his mind, a plan to take care of us if things were to turn ugly.

I see your faces… “Oh, no, I thought he was going to talk about physics, but instead he’s going to preach Democratic politics at us.”  Relax.  I’m not even a Democrat.  I’m not condemning anyone’s politics.  I have voted Republican.  I’m probably more economically conservative than you – you’d be shocked.  Cut taxes to reduce the size of government?  Watch me.  I don’t object to anyone’s rational position on the Affordable Care Act.  Or affirmative action.  Or any political hot button topic.  I’m a debate coach - I believe deeply in political discourse.  Argue with me, argue with your friends, argue with your teachers.  I hope you listen; I hope you occasionally change your mind under the weight of logical argument.  (If you’ve never changed your mind, you’ve been cheerleading, not arguing or discussing.)

I remember some classmates in high school who “joked” about my family.  Jeff wrote in my yearbook, while smiling, “I wish your relatives had died in the holocaust, Jew!”  He was harmless, I thought then, a friend who went too far.  My dad saw what Jeff wrote, and was deeply saddened and hurt.  To dad – to the guy who saw the aftermath of the horrors of 1940s Europe – Jeff’s words were setting the stage for a deeper hatred.  They were normalizing hate.

Hatred for others is not politics.

When a large segment of this school flies Trump flags months after the election, when some even hang confederate flags, when you joke about black or hispanic or Jewish or Muslim or female people as being stupid or un-American or less important than you… your actions suggest hate, not love.  And I, personally, feel hated.  And hurt, because my dedication and love for you has been reciprocated with venom.  

Please don’t be defensive right now.  Remember, I have nothing but love for you.  You didn’t intend this hatred and hurt.  I know none of you truly harbors any ill will toward me, or toward anyone in this community.  I know that, because I know you.  You’re just showing which political “team” you’re on, the same way you’d hang a Duke basketball or Alabama football flag.  

But politics are not sports.  

In a fierce sports rivalry, taunting and teasing and chest-thumping banter is not just okay, it’s expected. You’re supposed to remind Cincinnati Bengals fans like me about how we’ve never won the Super Bowl. You’re supposed to exaggerate your team’s chances, to make ridiculous excuses for your team’s failures. Skip Bayless has made a million-dollar career of not letting facts get in the way of a good sick burn.  And as much as the debate coach in me hates him, he earns his money.  

Skip and Stephen A have set the example for the sports arguments you all have.  And, so what. It’s sports.  We care deeply, then we move on with our lives.  

But losing a political fight often has real consequences for real people.

In the early 80s, air traffic controllers employed by the government went on strike for better working conditions. My dad was incensed - he was fiercely anti-union anyway, the strike was sorta illegal, and it majorly disrupted the travel necessary for his job.  Dad cheered at the television the night he found out that president Reagan had fired all the strikers and replaced them with non-union workers.

He carefully pointed out to me, though, that my friend’s dad Bill was an air traffic controller who had been fired.  Dad made sure I understood that one should never, ever deliberately pick political arguments. President Reagan’s action had hurt Bill deeply:  Bill became unemployed, facing an uncertain future for him and his family.  Reagan’s decision was the right one, Dad thought, but it still hurt Bill’s family, and Dad insisted that we be respectful of that hurt. I watched - on the one or two occasions when Bill ranted about Reagan, my Republican father listened politely, nodded… and let it go. Dad disagreed with Bill, but he still loved Bill.   

Politics is not sports. Politics has real consequences for real people.  You Falcons fans are sad, but fine, even after a devastating Super Bowl loss. The folks deported back to horrific war zones are not fine.  The Muslim Americans who face hostile catcalls from strangers, whose homes and places of worship have been vandalized… they’re not fine.  The hispanic families who are targets of suspicion and harassment from their neighbors and the police, despite being legal, tax paying citizens -- they are not fine.  

Real consequences for real people.  Folks who loudly proclaim themselves to be supporters of the current administration have burned down black churches, destroyed mosques, set upon a campaign of terror against Jewish Community Centers.  When confronted, the President of the United States and his cronies have refused to condemn such terror.

Now, I don’t see anyone here personally encouraging violence or harassment.  In taking a dispassionate political position, you might not have considered its effects on individual people, especially if you don’t personally know any of the people who would be affected by your argument.  “I have nothing against Mexicans or Syrians, and I certainly don’t support violence,” you say, “I just support enforcing the law.”

Well, I’ve heard that rhetoric before.  “Teenaged boys are so wild and unmanageable.  Let’s enforce the laws we have to keep them out of trouble.”  

Should we strictly enforce, say, the laws against underage possession of drugs, tobacco, alcohol?   You could go to jail for a long time if you have contraband on dorm.  No, it doesn’t matter if it was your roommate’s, you’re still responsible in your room. Oh, and pictures of your girlfriend on your phone -- those are possibly child pornography, punishable by even longer jail time and sex-offender registration for life.  Your parents aren’t necessarily safe, either, because if the phone is on their account, if they offered you a sip of champagne at Aunt Matilda’s wedding, they broke the law, too, and face jail time.

Imagine that an armed police task force showed up at the front gate of Woodberry, stating that they intend to search the dorms to discover all violators of these laws.  That ain’t so far fetched -- I’ve been on a college dorm when the police conducted a sting against some partiers next door.  It was scary, especially for Catherine, who now has a criminal record even though she was merely hauling her laundry when the cops showed up.  She was in the presence of underage drinking, and so she was hauled away.

How do you want our school administration to react to such a police operation?  Consider two extreme options.

“Well, we do want to see the laws enforced.  The dorms are up the hill.  Go get those bad hombres out of Woodberry Forest."  Judging by the results of the recent amnesty on Turner hall, there might not be a lot of hombres of any sort left here.

Or, the headmaster and the dean of students could meet the police task force at the gate, perhaps alongside the hunting club as they just happen to be making their way to the lake.  They could ask to see a signed search warrant; and when the police couldn’t produce one, they’d send the police away until they could.  The administrators could then send runners, Paul Revere style, warning of the impending sting.  And then teachers could video every action of a police officer on our campus, so that we can be sure that “enforcing the law” doesn’t turn into bullying, into destroying the lives of a bunch of scared teenagers.

Obviously there’s a middle ground between these two extremes.  But if it came down to just one of these two options, I sure hope we’d choose the second one.  The one where we would actively protect you, the students we pledge to know, challenge, and love.

Jesus healed the sick.  He did NOT say, “we have to be careful of contagious disease -- send those lepers back to Samaria or wherever they came from to keep us safe.”  

During the election last fall, a campaign post characterized the refugee and immigrant “problem” with the question: If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you three of them were poison, would you take a handful?  The expectation was that fear of terrorism would cause Americans to say no, I’d keep that bowl of skittles far away from me.

That’s not what I’d say.  I quote Eli Bosnick now:

Do these skittles represent human lives?

Like, is there a good chance, a really good chance, I would be saving someone from a war zone and probably their life it I took a skittle?

I would take the skittles.

I would GORGE myself on skittles.  I would take every single skittle I could find.  I would STUFF myself with skittles.  

And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also took skittle after skittle until there were no skittles remaining in the bowl.  And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for.  We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by taking skittles.

Because the REAL question -- the one hiding behind a horrible little inaccurate, insensitive, dehumanizing candy metaphor -- is, IS MY LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF MEN, WOMEN, AND TERRIFIED CHILDREN?

And what kind of person, what kind of Christian, would think the answer to that question is “yes”?

As a result of his blindness, Bartimaeus had been shunned by his neighbors, neighbors who (without modern medical knowledge) believed his blindness was a curse that would fall upon them if they weren’t careful. Jesus not only healed Bartimaeus; Jesus welcomed the outcast Bartimaeus once again into the wider community, despite people’s fears.  Jesus set a pretty great example.

Folks, none of you here intend to cause hurt to me, or to the many others on campus who feel like I do.  I know that, and I do not bear a grudge.  Forgiveness is a virtue.

Intentional or not, though, hurt has been caused.  And responsible people who inadvertently hurt others attempt to alleviate that hurt.  Here are two steps you can take.

Step 1: Acknowledge the hurt that your public political cheerleading has caused.  That doesn’t mean you should give up on your conservative politics, nor should you ever be ashamed of your rational political positions. It means, though: take down your flag, stop joking about hateful political policies, and stop making fun of “liberals.”  Instead, bend over backwards to show love and respect to those with whom you disagree.

Step 2: Speak out.  Say clearly to your friends, teachers, and neighbors, that you do not support hate, even if you (like I) do support lower taxes. Condemn those who commit racist acts with clear, direct language.  Call out those who make excuses for hate, even if they be your friends, your parents, or your congresspeople.  Actively seek ways to bridge social gaps with those who feel like outcasts, as Jesus reconciled Bartimaeus with his neighbors.  Do everything in your power to convince people like me -- people who are outsiders, people who are afraid -- that you still welcome us as EQUALS, both at Woodberry and in America.

Epilogue, October 2018:

The very positive news is, the Trump flags and the confederate flags have come down.  I still hear students spreading conspiracy theories, but I think and hope this is out of ignorance rather than hate.  Our small community has become much less outwardly hateful in the 1.5 years since I spoke in chapel.

However, I am more scared now than ever.  Last week the USA suffered three terrorist attacks in three days, all by American white nationalists, two of the three racially motivated.  Hatemongering continues unabated on Fox News and on social media platforms, which unfathomably refuse to take large-scale action to curb racist trolls and propaganda-spreading bots.  

It’s time to hold accountable not only those who commit hateful acts; not only those who spew hate online and on television; but also those who stand by and give tacit support to the hatemongers.  If you - yes, YOU, reading this - if you will not speak out against white nationalism, who will?  

24 October 2018

Positive work done on a gas, and the new Pretty Good Physics - Secure site

"Pretty Good Physics - Secure" is essentially a wiki for physics teachers.  It includes all sorts of files - old tests, lab activity sheets, quizzes, homework problems, whatever people have shared.  It also includes most publicly released AP materials.  The College Board is okay with that, because we are sharing teacher-to-teacher.  Gardner Friedlander and Paul Lulai do tremendous work managing the wiki, being sure that yes indeed everyone who accesses it is an actual physics teacher.

You can access the site here, and follow the directions to join.  (If you're a physics student, you must ask your teacher to join.  Gardner brings out the nuclear arsenal upon non teachers who request access.  And he does know some nuclear physics.  :-)  )

One of the new features of the wiki, since it migrated to google this summer, is that it's easy to subscribe to an email list for all members.  People can ask physics teaching questions of the community, and generally a response comes back within hours.  Don't worry, you don't have to subscribe to this list to access the wiki.  I like it, though, because it has provided a venue for some excellent discussions, it's helped a lot of relatively new teachers, and it has a positive vibe (unlike some other notorious teacher message boards).  One commenter mentioned that it's "just like the old days", presumably harkening back to USENET or stone tablets or something. 

Just yesterday, a participant asked for clarification about a problem in the 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 2 book.  Before I answer, a disclaimer - while I wrote the Physics 1 and Physics C versions of the 5 Steps series, I didn't write the Physics 2 book.  This is not my question.  I very much LIKE this question.

A teacher said he was "boggled" - great, great word choice there - with the sign convention for positive and negative work.  And in particular, what is up with the signs in the solution?  Why are there so many negative signs?  Aarrgh!  Boggled, indeed.

Much as I like this question, I would have written the answer very differently.  It's making this teacher and his students think about irrelevant mathematical details rather than concepts.

I prefer the simple and conceptual approach - work done ON a gas is considered positive, because work done ON the gas generally contributes to an increase in the gas's internal energy.  Compression is work done ON the gas.  In every case in the problem, the volume is compressed - therefore, each process represents positive W.

Then, the amount of work done is the area under the PV graph.  By inspection, the area under the D graph is greater than under E or F.  So more positive work done in the D process.  THAT'S IT!

18 October 2018

College credit and placement for AP Physics C - take the credit, not the placement!

I've been reading an excellent discussion about different schools' philosophies about what to teach as a second year high school physics class after AP Physics 1.  I strongly prefer AP Physics 2; others prefer AP Physics C, especially as taught in the sequence described here

AP 2 is my preference because of the deep conceptual nature of the course.  Calculus-based physics is easy - yes, truly, I mean EASY - for anyone who has a serious and deep understanding of the underlying concepts.  And the high school environment is better than the college environment to develop conceptual understanding.  We can do things college professors can't - we have smaller classes, a closer relationship with our students, the ability to do hands-on laboratory work integrated with the entire course rather than in isolated weekly sessions; and we have the AP exam as a motivating and evaluative tool.

Those teachers who prefer to follow AP 1 with AP C are not wrong.  Students find value in approaching mechanics and E&M with calculus, especially during their senior year when it's important that the latter half of the course is easy.  They are learning skills that will serve them well in college.

But I see too many teachers and administrators making choices about AP courses for the wrong reasons.  

Specifically, a lot of amateur (and professional) college counselors see the words "calculus" and "algebra" and assume that physics C must be the better and harder course.  That's not true.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are much harder, and better as an introduction to physics.  A student with high level skills at physics 1 can pass physics C mechanics even with little or further preparation; that might also be true for AP physics 2 and C-E&M, but I don't have evidence.  There's a reason that I and many other experienced physics teachers recommend that even a Physics C E&M course begin with months of algebra-based material before ever touching the calculus.

Then there's the "colleges don't give credit" argument, which includes two major fallacies.

Firstly, don't believe anything you hear about college credit and placement policies unless you're talking directly to the registrar.  I've heard so many counterfactual rumors that I'm tempted to get Snopes involved.  People conflate placement with credit; people conflate credit toward a major with credit toward general requirements; people conflate different colleges with one another; people who should know better conflate the four current exams with each other and with old Physics B.  Be skeptical.

But more importantly... your students should most likely not be accepting placement out of calculus-based introductory physics, even if such placement is offered.  Okay, I'm not talking about a student trying to graduate early for whatever reason, or a student who needs to reach a certain level of work quickly to get a physics minor on their transcript or something like that.  I'm talking about the typical four-year college student who is considering a major in the physical sciences, and who needs to take upper-level physics as part of their course of study.

I've had numerous students over the years get 5s on both sections of the AP Physics C exams.  These folks are invariably offered the chance to start in the 200-level physics sequence as a freshman - usually a waves/optics course followed by introductory quantum mechanics.  I've had some students accept that placement; I've had others demure, preferring to begin in the standard 100-level introductory sequence that's essentially a fast moving AP Physics C course.

The feedback has never varied: the students who began in the 200-level sequence as a freshman all say they wish they had taken the 100-level introduction instead.  And those who started with the 100-level introduction were very happy with their decision.  

Remember, the 200-level waves/optics/quantum sequence is heavily mathematical, using linear algebra and differential equations fluently.  Even students who are comfortable with the calculus in AP Physics C will get lost applying matrix mechanics and differential equations to physical situations - especially when those physical situations have become even more abstract, even more removed from the laboratory experience and intuition they developed in your high school class. 

Furthermore, it's a difficult adjustment for a first-semester freshman to jump right in with sophomore physics majors.  Many freshmen have to figure out, well, life in general: how to live with a roommate, how to do laundry, how to handle the independence suddenly thrust upon them.  Even the most diligent and dedicated students often take time before they are back in the academic groove.  Trying to figure out quantum mechanics and the calculus-based wave propagation equation at the same time?  Um, difficult.  Survivable, sure, but perhaps a bridge too far.

Yet, those who take the 100-level Physics C equivalent become class leaders.  They have all reported (at many different universities) that the class still challenges them; they're not repeating already-learned material in a boring way.  Instead these veterans make friends among their classmates as they help out, figuring out new complexities in the process.  The relationships they build, and the confidence they develop in their skills, serves them well as they progress into the upper level courses.

And if they are mentally absent for a few weeks because they partied too much, or because they are dealing with personal crises as they learn to live on their own?  Well, they can catch up, because they know from your excellent high school tutelage how to learn the same mechanics and E&M topics they're faced with.

01 October 2018

Nice free-fall data with a motion detector

On the second or third day of kinematics, after we've discussed position-time and velocity-time graphs, I introduce acceleration.  I start by handing out the four - yes, only four - facts about acceleration.  

(1) Acceleration tells how much an object’s speed changes in one second.

This is the fundamental definition, one we'll use again and again.  It leads to stating acceleration in units of m/s per second - that way, every time a student writes a numerical acceleration with units, that student is reinforcing in her or his mind the physical meaning of acceleration.

(2) When an object speeds up, its acceleration is in the direction of motion.  (3) When an object slows down, its acceleration is opposite the direction of motion.

These indicate the direction of acceleration in words students can understand.  Note that I don't use the words "negative" or "positive" anywhere!  Directions of acceleration and velocity are stated as left, right, up, down, north, south, etc.  The language used matters here.  Students may never, ever say "acceleration moves left."  Nor may they say "the object accelerates to the left."  They must state either fact (2) or (3), and conclude with "the object's acceleration is left." 

Some practice with a PASCO visual accelerometer helps here.  In the linked post, I'm using this tool to work on misconceptions about the direction of force and motion; but just stick this accelerometer on a cart on an incline, and you can have all sorts of conversations about the direction of an object's acceleration.  

(4) Objects in free fall gain or lose 10 m/s of speed every second

Once we understand facts (1) through (3), then (4) is just telling us about a special case in which we know the value of acceleration.  That's it.  Pedagogically, it's important not to treat free fall as a BIG DEAL.  Just give evidence that objects in free fall do, in fact, experience 10 m/s per second acceleration, and be done with it.

Since at this point my students are well familiar with velocity-time graphs, I like to show that the slope of a velocity-time graph will be 10 m/s per second for an object in free fall.  That's easier said than done.  Motion detectors generally have trouble getting good data above 20 data points per second, and classrooms aren't usually more than 2-3 meters high.  Even if you're dropping a full 3 m, that gives a fall time of only 0.77 s, and only about 15 data points for the detector.  Don't even talk to me about getting an object large enough and flat enough to reflect detector's sound waves consistently, but heavy enough such that air resistance can be ignored.

Oh.  But I found such an object.  Look at the picture. 

I stored a 15 pound medicine ball for a year in a cabinet.  One side flattened, as you see; and it doesn't unflatten easily.  Awesome.

So a student stood on a lab table holding a motion detector on the ceiling, pointed down.  A second student dropped the ball from 20 cm below the detector, with the flattened side pointing up.  I got the cleanest line on a velocity-time graph that I've ever gotten from a free fall experiment! I told the LabQuest to do a linear fit on just the straight segment, and voila... 10 m/s/s was the slope.

30 September 2018

My week-long kinematics approach, including the facts

In 9th grade AP Physics 1, my initial work with kinematics takes a week and a half.  That's it.  How do I do that?

* Monday (45 minutes): position-time graphs, learned through facts and a graph-matching exercise.  Homework is about position-time graphs.

* Wednesday (90 minutes): velocity-time facts and graph-matching exercise; acceleration facts with demos using the PASCO visual accelerometer; demonstrate free-fall acceleration with a motion detector.  Homework is about velocity-time graphs.

* Friday (90 minutes): motion diagrams with a 10-Hz dot machine; make a position-time graph from the dot machine output; use two slopes of that graph to find an acceleration.  Then, two quantitative demonstrations with the projectile launcher and algebraic kinematics.  Homework is about the definition of acceleration.

* Monday (45 minutes): finish dot machine lab, correct any issues with the first homeworks.  Homework is several algebraic kinematics problems.  

Then on Wednesday we're moving into equilibrium of forces.  (Those of you who have taken my workshops might be confused - for my upperclassmen, I start the year with equilibrium of forces, and then move into kinematics in the style above.  But for 3rd formers who are more at home with real inquiry from the beginning of the class, I dive into motion.)

How, you might ask, does this minimal treatment lead to deep understanding?

Well, it only kinda does right away.  It's the long-term re-visitation of these concepts, the integration of kinematics into problem solving with other topics, that truly ingrains deep understanding.  Yet, my students average a full two points higher than the national average on the AP Physics 1 exam.  They're getting kinematics just fine with my approach.

I use fact sheets, and demand direct reference to the facts on every problem.

A big part of why students struggle at first with understanding motion is that they rely on their prior knowledge.  I mean, AP physics students are generally at the top of their class.  They are used to half-listening in math or science class, then using their natural talent to reach in the direction of an answer or written justification.*

*Then they're used to using their debate skills to argue why their answer is technically correct and should earn points.

I don't provide the class with a lot of facts; but those facts get directly to the point of kinematics concepts.  And direct reference to these facts will lead students to correct answers and justifications... if the students can be arsed to use them.

Here are the facts.  No justification is accepted unless the student has quoted at least one of these facts nearly verbatim.  (When there's a numerical or semi-quantitative problem using the constant acceleration equations, those equations are used instead of these facts.)

And yes, really, these facts and a week of experiments/demonstrations/practice is all that's necessary to dive into kinematics.  In my next post, I'll explain how I use the acceleration facts with demonstration to stamp out misconceptions.

Displacement indicates how far an object ends up from its initial position, regardless of its total distance traveled.

Average velocity is displacement divided by the time interval over which that displacement occurred.

Instantaneous velocity is how fast an object is moving at a specific moment in time.

Position-time graphs
To determine how far from the detector an object is located, look at the vertical axis of the position-time graph.

To determine how fast an object is moving, look at the steepness (i.e. the slope) of the position-time graph.

To determine which way the object is moving, look at which way the position-time graph is sloped.

A position-time slope like a front slash / means the object is moving away from the detector.

A position-time slope like a back slash \ means the object is moving toward the detector.

Instantaneous velocity is found by taking the slope of the tangent line to a position-time graph

Velocity-time graphs
To determine how fast an object is moving, look at the vertical axis of the velocity-time graph.

To determine which way the object is moving, look at whether the velocity-time graph is above or below the horizontal axis.

An object is moving away from the detector if the velocity-time graph is above the horizontal axis.

An object is moving toward the detector if the velocity-time graph is below the horizontal axis. 

To determine how far an object travels, determine the area between the velocity-time graph and the horizontal axis.

On a velocity-time graph it is not possible to determine how far from the detector the object is located.

Most everyday motion can be represented with straight segments on a velocity-time graph.

Acceleration tells how much an object’s speed changes in one second.

When an object speeds up, its acceleration is in the direction of motion.

When an object slows down, its acceleration is opposite the direction of motion.

Objects in free fall gain or lose 10 m/s of speed every second

25 September 2018

From Umpire School, 2008 - good and bad teaching from a student's point of view.

I wrote the following in 2008 at the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Florida. This year, our faculty has been discussing and giving significant attention toward the relationships we build with our students. This post was a response to relationship building from a student's point of view - in this case, I was the student.

Woodberry Forest School has allowed me to come to Umpire School as the major part of my sabbatical.  In principle, the sabbatical should involve professional development that is somehow related to one’s role at the school.  Umpire School was not intended as true professional development, but rather was a lark, a way to get myself out of the classroom for a while so as to avoid burning out my enthusiasm for teaching.  It’s turned out, though, that this place has given me all kinds of worthwhile perspective about my day job.  Think about it…

I teach at a boys’ boarding school.  Here, I am a student at a “school” for 120 “boys”[1] who live not in a dorm but in a beachside hotel.  Woodberry is all about bonding with classmates and making friends, yet those friends are ever competitors for spots on varsity sports teams, in the plays, for valedictorian… here, though the student umpires are friendly and supportive to each other, we all know we’re competing for maybe 20 positions in the professional ranks.  In other words, my sabbatical has turned into role reversal.  Talk about gaining perspective…

So as the professional teacher thrust into the student role, I’ve continued to observe the instructors, what they do, how I and my classmates react.  I’ve already posted some thoughts on our major league instructors.  They’ve been uniformly awesome.  The instructors who are minor league umpires, though, have been a mixed bag.  A couple have been wonderful.  Most have been acceptable, though not special.  At least one is horrendous.  Though they all know their stuff, what separates the great from the just-okay is their attitude toward the students.  Too many of the minor leaguers are easily frustrated, occasionally obnoxious, or overeager to snap at reasonable questions.

My colleague Dan suggested, perhaps perceptively, that some minor leaguers might be teaching here for the cash and the politics rather than for a true love of teaching their craft; whereas, the major leaguers are already set financially and professionally, and so choose to come here for the right reasons.  While that’s an excellent point, I’ve chalked up much of the poor teaching to inexperience more than motivation.  I know that my own major deficiency in my first years of teaching was that I showed frustration too easily.

Thursday’s class included an hour-long review of the mechanics of the 2-person system that we’ve been learning all along.  The two highest ranking minor league umpires took the stage to run the review.  Boy, did they destroy the day’s morale… the timbre of their voice and their body language figuratively screamed, “My God, we’ve told you this already, why are you all too stupid to do it right?!?”  I do see where they’re coming from, ‘cause we do keep screwing up some of the basics on the field.  The review was necessary.  But an occasional smile, some sort of token admission that “you’re doing it all for the first time so you really aren’t dumb just inexperienced,” would have been appreciated.

Now, I’m not complaining about a bit of intensity, or even about them yelling at us.  We were warned from day one: the instructors will yell, not to embarrass us, but so that *everyone* can hear and thus everyone can learn from one person’s mistake.  Heck, that’s my philosophy in physics class.  Ask any of my students – I get loud and intense.  I tell you when you screwed up.  I try to do so with a smile on my face, but nevertheless, I yell.  Of course, I temper that yelling with encouragement, with whatever is necessary for the class to know that I love them even when they tell me that an object moving at constant speed must have a force acting on it.  Whether my students know it or not, I think deeply every day about whether I’ve shown enough love to temper my intensity.  Here at Umpire School, I have no problem being yelled at when I deserve it.

I’m concerned about instructors who assume that a student who messes up must not have been paying attention, or has a bad work ethic.  The students have heard at least seven lectures about how success at Umpire School requires individual effort beyond merely performing in drills.  Practice, study, attention while in line for drills, attention in class… all of these things are not really optional if we want to do well.  Well, the vast majority of the class seems to have taken this message to heart.  Many of us stay an extra hour or more at the fields to practice each day.  Others can be heard practicing on the beach.  My study group has been well attended, and I know that many other study groups can be found around the hotel.  Those in line for drills are often seen going through their mechanics.  I never see students talking in class or distracting their neighbors.  Everyone that I’ve seen has the right attitude.

Yet, I repeatedly observe instructors becoming angry or extremely frustrated with student(s), even though those students had shown considerable diligence.  In one case, at the huddle after a long drill, my field was reminded again[2] that we should be paying attention while waiting our turn.  “I’ve gotta tell you,” one instructor said with nods from his colleagues, “it gets really frustrating for us when we tell you the same thing again and again.  If you weren’t *$&#ing around in line, you wouldn’t make the same mistake that the guy in front of you made.  Don’t *$&# around in line, and then maybe we wouldn’t have to go over this same stuff so many times.  If you’re paying attention, you won’t screw up.”

This instructor’s statement contained two major fallacies.  For one,  I am capable of explaining exactly what I am supposed to do in any given drill.  But that does not mean that, when it comes time to make my body go through the actual motions, I won’t forget something.  For example, the first time I did the “pivot” drill I forgot to watch the ball in the outfield.  All the way until my next turn, I practiced in my mind, reminding myself, “watch the ball, watch the ball, ball, ball…”  When it came back to my turn, I started out watching the ball just fine; but then, after I properly glanced at first base to watch the runner touch, I forgot to turn my eyes back to watch the ball.  Now, I knew I’d get this eventually.  It’s not nuclear physics.[3]  But at that point, my mistake was simply born of inexperience rather than lack of dedication.  I paid attention; I still screwed up.

The second fallacy made me want to ask a smart-arse question.  I wanted to say, “Mr. Instructor, did you see anyone, anyone at all, *$&#ing around in line?”  I was smart enough to hold my tongue.

One instructor in particular, Jordan, has three times hollered at me as if I were a serf.  On Thursday, one of the fields needed some volunteers to bat – I didn’t need to be asked twice, especially because I had been sitting bored on the bench.  I grounded into a force play[4] to put runners on first and second with one out.  Now, when we are running the bases, we’re told to take two bases where possible in order to give the umpires something to call.  The next batter singled on a line drive to very, very shallow centerfield.  I properly held up, then ran when it was apparent the ball would not be caught.  As I approached second base, the ball was thrown toward the infield.  I was aware of the “go two bases” guideline, but the guy holding the ball probably would have been able to tag me out himself had I run to third.  So I stayed there.  After the third out, Jordan screamed across the field, “Greg Jacobs, how many times have we told you to go two bases on a base hit?  What’s your problem?”  I tried to defuse the situation… my intent was to say humbly, “I know, but the ball was in the infield while I was standing on second base… I thought running to third would be unrealistic.”[5]  As soon as three or four words were out of my mouth, Jordan snapped, “I don’t want to hear excuses, I want you to do what you’re told!”

Well, I’ll be danged… I avoided that argument by walking off the field, figuring that while I won’t get into a shouting match, I also won’t volunteer to take that kind of abuse. 

But sure enough, on Friday Jordan was in charge of our field during drills.  I ran out a ground ball to first base.  The first baseman booted the ball, and it trickled behind him.  I figured that I had a slight shot at making it to second base.  In a game, I would not likely have made the attempt; however, under the dictum of “make plays for the umpires,” and especially considering my verbal lashing the day before, I didn’t hesitate – I ran to second, beating the tag by half a step. 

And Jordan looked at me, shook his head angrily, and said to all, “That would never happen.  What’s wrong with you, Greg?  You’re supposed to run like you know what you’re doing!” 

Nothing I can do here short of getting into a screaming match, and there’s nothing to be gained with that.  I explained my conundrum privately to one of the better instructors, and I quietly go to the back of the running line when Jordan is on our field. 

Okay, so there’s my huge beef about the worst instructor here.  On a positive note, it’s time for a heartwarming story about Rob, a minor leaguer who earned our respect and made my day on Monday.  In one moment he showed more teaching talent than the rest of his compadres combined.

First of all, you must understand the nature of CJ the Crazy Braves Fan.  This 19 year old has had a difficult time of it at Umpire School.  To start with, he’s a bit of a natural social outcast.  His slight speech impediment makes him sound dumber than he actually is.  He has limited athletic ability – when he runs, he waves his arms, and he looks like he’s going to fall with every step.  CJ knows baseball, but he’s probably overly enthusiastic about the Braves and Bobby Cox.[6]  No one loves to play the game more than CJ, who puts himself first in line to bat (even though he can barely make contact), and who jumps at every chance to play the field (even though he can’t really throw or catch).  He shows that same enthusiasm for umpiring.  Everywhere you look around the fields, CJ can be seen practicing his “strike three!” or his ejection mechanic.  He keeps a list in his breast pocket of every instructor whom he has “thrown out” of our drills.  Unfortunately, CJ often has trouble getting his umpiring exactly right on the field.  At first a lot of students were a bit cruel to CJ, but by now the class has rallied around him… he’s almost a class mascot.  Most folks now treat him as a pleasant and amusing character.

CJ’s stated goal is to become a major league umpire, but he’s recently realizing that his talent might not be enough to carry him that far.  It was my group’s turn with the pitching machine, CJ was the umpire, and I was the pretend batter.[7]  Poor CJ just couldn’t get anything right this time.  He failed to see a swing; his mechanics were all over the place; Rob the instructor had to correct his stance two or three times.  For probably the first time at school, CJ hung his head.  He knew he had stunk it up, and it was hurting him.  His last two pitches were disasters, where CJ barely made any call at all.  He looked like he might cry at any moment.

Rather than giving CJ the typical formal evaluation that usually follows cage work, Rob brought CJ over to him and looked him in the eye.  “CJ, you can not hang your head,” Rob said.  “We think too much of you to allow you to give up on yourself like that.  Who here works harder than you?  Who here is more enthusiastic?  When everyone else is sitting on the bench trying to avoid helping, you’re the first one to volunteer to play, to bat, or to run.  We see that.  I see that.  The instructors appreciate your efforts, we know how much you care, we want you to be the best umpire you can be.  So we will NOT let you hang your head and give up on yourself just because you had a bad turn in the cage.  Think about how much you’ve improved in three weeks…” and so on, encouraging CJ firmly but supportively for about two minutes, obviously in earshot of a whole bunch of people. 

I kept a poker face, but inside I was rooting Rob on.  The staff might talk all the time about how much they want us all to succeed, but here was one instructor showing with his *actions* how much he cared about a student on the margins.  Me, I didn’t do so well in my drills on Monday.  Yet, Rob made my day.  I came off the fields feeling just that much better about my classmates and Umpire School.

[1] The “boys” range from 18 to 55 years of age, and our class includes a 39 year old “girl”
[2] For now the thirteenth time
[3] And I’ve done some nuclear physics.
[4] Making my batting stats on the season 7-14 with a double.
[5] What I WANTED to say was, “You idiot, what kind of baseball player takes third in that situation?  You lecture about umpires developing instincts, and then you expect us to make dumb plays like that?  What’s YOUR problem?”
[6] I can tell that it hurts him that seemingly every story about situations in the major leagues ends with “And then we had to throw Bobby out of the game.”
[7] The pitching machine is where we practice behind-the-plate mechanics.  The pretend batter holds a whiffle bat, and is occasionally instructed to execute a check swing, giving the plate umpire an opportunity to say “yes he did” or “no he didn’t”.