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30 September 2019

Right before the first test...

We are a month into my senior AP Physics 1 class.  Therefore, our first test is coming up.  It involves everything we've discussed so far - equilibrium, kinematics (including projectiles), and Newton's second law in one dimension.

Students have been solving AP level problems this whole time, both in class and on homework.  They've been taking (timed) daily quizzes, involving both basic fundamentals questions and more involved problem solving.  They've done lab activities, including data collection and analysis.  

But with the test coming up, &#*@ just got real.  I need simultaneously to build confidence, but also to create realistic expectations.  These folks will be working under some time pressure, and without a safety net - no collaboration, no questions, no notes, no coming back later to finish a tough problem.

So I gave the quiz below in the first five minutes of class today, the class before the test.  I had students trade and grade it (though I didn't collect it).  

My top students got 7 out of 11 on this quiz.  My not-top students, um, didn't get 7 out of 11.  Everyone had deer-in-headlights faces.  The subsequent discussion was about...

Building realistic expectations:  "Folks, these aren't just memorize-and-spit back questions, eh?  You've got to know your facts, but also how to apply them to completely new situations.  This is what an AP exam is like!  Better get used to it... the level of the exam comes from the College Board and their development committee, not from me.  It is what it is, and is not changing.  No whining.  Deal."

...but also building confidence: "Once I explained each answer, it made perfect sense, right?  I saw you nodding your heads, or smacking yourselves on the forehead 'cause you understood just fine in retrospect.  You get this stuff.  And, remember the grading scale: 65-70 percent is a 5; 50% or so is a 4.  Most of you got the equivalent of 3s and 4s.  You're expected to be brave, not perfect.  Relax, show me what you know, and expect to figure the rest out when we do test corrections."

24 September 2019

The most profound math lesson

Mrs. Barson (my kidnergarten teacher at Lotspeich School, Cincinnati) still holds my standard for the most profound moment in math teaching.

It's 1978.  We’re in a circle during math time. Each person in turn says a number.  After which, the whole circle is supposed to say the next two numbers in sequence.  Like, Amanda said “156”, and we all counted together, “157, 158.”  

After a bit of this, my girlfriend Rebecca* looks mischievous.  Something fun is about to happen.

* Our favorite activity as a couple was to pick *four* digit numbers and harass Mrs. Barson by telling her what the number was called.  The class had been told not to pick more than three digits. Rebecca and I were offended by that rule - we knew about numbers in the thousands! Don’t doubt our intellect!  I suspect, with 40 years of perspective, that the rule was less about our intelligence and more about the limits of Mrs. Barson’s patience for showing her excitement at 5 year olds spitting out super-long words.

Our class has been proudly spreading the secret that “infinity” is the biggest possible number.  We are collectively smug in the knowledge that we have somehow thereby conquered mathematics.

"Infinity," says Rebecca.  She smiles, thinking she’s somehow “won” the game.

Mrs. Barson doesn’t miss a beat.  She leads the chant:  “infinity plus one, infinity plus two...”

[Five year old mind explodes.]

05 September 2019

What do I do if I am teaching AP Physics but I don't know physics?

A teacher got switched from teaching chemistry, in which she is a subject matter expert, to teaching AP Physics 1, in which she is emphatically NOT expert.  She is well aware that students in high-level courses like this tend to be "students who care," and she fears also that such students "can tell when a teacher has no idea what they are doing."  This teacher is quite worried about the high-stakes of the AP Physics 1 exam; she feels behind already, like she can't give her students the education they deserve.  

On one hand, it is entirely unfair - to this teacher AND to her students - for the district to put them in this situation.  "Here, Greg, teach AP art and design!"  Yeah, right.  Not gonna go well.  

However, for all kinds of systemic reasons, an enormous number of science teachers are forced into this same situation every year.  I meet them in my summer institutes.  What advice can I give?  

Look... you can't fake physics.  Students do and will know that you're not an expert.  But, and this is important... THAT'S OKAY.  I've had plenty of teachers just like you in the APSIs that I run, and they do very well - as measured over a three year period.  

The suggestion is, be open and honest with your students that you are learning AP physics alongside them.  Do every assignment with them.  Put yourself in lab groups with them.  You can use my tests - and take them yourself, with the students.  Use the AP Classroom personal progress checks, just like the students do.  Don't be the authority figure, because students will rebel.  Instead, be the captain of their team.

Your goal this year should not be to know anything about physics now, or next week; but instead, to get a 5 on the AP Physics 1 exam in May, if you were allowed to take it.  :-)

Then, have a three year outlook.  That's how long it takes to become comfortable teaching AP Physics.  You are not doing your students a disservice - you're giving them the education they deserve, because they deserve an ally who will do whatever it takes to learn physics alongside them.  You have to learn sometime.  And if this year's class gets the less-than-perfect you, so what, because you have a long career ahead of you; if you have a couple of rough years followed by decades of hard-earned expertise, well, you're serving the next generation more than well.  

The students will respond to your humility, earnestness, and hard work.  Okay, well, MOST of them will.  That's okay, 'cause after 24 years I don't always get every student to respond to me.  I have to be like a football cornerback, who usually prevents touchdowns, who cares deeply about preventing touchdowns... but who has to be able to recover instantly when he gives one up.

Oh, and do make extensive use of the AP Physics 1 workbook, available through your course audit.  It's designed explicitly for people in your situation.  You have students (and yourself) working through that, you'll be pointed in the right direction.  I'd also say get the 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 1 book, but that'd be self-promotion and I don't do that, at least not very often.  :-)

Good luck...