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16 March 2020

Physics teaching in the time of COVID-19

If you’re from the future reading this - either as part of a historical investigation into the education industry, or perhaps as documentation of the End Times - know that schools across the USA are closed for at least the next few weeks.  It is not at all clear when we will open back up.  Many of us are being asked, encouraged, or allowed to run activities online.  

I am, in fact, going to use online platforms to work with my classes.  I’ll give details in a moment.  But first, let’s discuss what’s important.

I have repeatedly made the analogy between learning physics, and playing a sport.  I consciously treat my class as a team whose goal is to learn physics collaboratively, under my guidance as coach.  I think of tests and exams the same way as coaches think of games and meets.  The AP exam (or, in conceptual physics, the thesis-defense-style Physics Fights at year’s end) compare to the state championship events.  

We have a shared understanding as a society about the importance of sports.  Sports are an end unto themselves - we care deeply about winning or losing.  And, sports are a means to an end - for example, the physical fitness habits, the social skills of winning humbly and losing graciously, serve us well beyond this year’s season.

Yet when life interferes with sport, we all understand that life takes precedence.  Sport is meaningless in the shadow of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.

Right now, Pestilence (and in some cases even Death) have intruded on our school year.  That means we and our students must acknowledge different priorities.  That means physics simply is not important right now.

We should not, can not, talk about how to “hold students accountable for learning.”  We should not be judging students in any way for their participation or lack thereof in our online classes.  I think most teachers are aware how some students might not have strong internet connections at home, and so will have a hard time keeping up, or that some students may themselves be sick.  But are we thinking about the students who are being asked to perform child care, or grandparent care?  Are we thinking about the student whose parent has a fever, and can’t even know whether it’s The Disease or not?  Or even the healthy student listening to their parents worry out loud about jobs and health and income and quarantine… How can such students focus on physics?  Why should they even be given the guilt trip of being asked to focus on physics at all?

But Greg, you said you are going to hold online classes.

Yes.  Because plenty of my students will welcome the diversion of physics class.  They will want the semblance of normality that my class’s time together brings to them.  They will want (virtual) human contact with their classmates, their teammates.  They will want an intellectual escape from family burdens, from worry, from fear.  I will be there for those students who want me to be there.

Principles of my approach to online course delivery during the COVID crisis.

I’m going to continue teaching like a video game.  I’ll provide a list of problems / activities.  I’ll check student work - live via videochat, or via email - so that students can either move on or try again.  Advancement along the list will hopefully feel like “leveling up.”  

I will do everything in my power to avoid assigning grades.  Or to avoid anything that could be perceived by a student as shame or guilt for failure.  Yeah, I know some of us will be required to submit grades - well, then I’d be submitting A’s for all.  Phthphth.  See above, about what’s important right now.

My school is going to create some sort of schedule, so that I can do live online class.  I’ll try to hold as much of a normal class as possible: starting with a “quiz” (i.e. a common set of questions that we all respond to individually, then find out the solutions together), then taking questions on any topic, then working on “come and show me” problems and activities.  They’ll have to show me electronically, they’ll have to collaborate via text or private videochat… my hope is that for those who attend, just being together virtually can provide comfort, human contact, and perhaps a wee sense of normalcy or purpose.

I will focus on medium-term goals.  For my AP class, I have two goals:

(1) In the Pivot Interactives video of a marble colliding with the wooden block, I ask: is linear momentum conserved?  Angular momentum? Mechanical energy?  I’ll have interested students prepare a 2 minute presentation on one of these questions.  Then, I’ll have a veteran of my class serve as “examiner” in a physics fight, asking five minutes’ worth of questions.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to arrange for incoming students and their parents to serve as an audience.  This will hopefully happen the first weekend of April.

(2) Continue working toward the AP Physics 1 exam in May.  These folks have worked hard all year, and most could pass the exam today with no further effort.  Most of my class will want to continue preparing, the same way a sports team would want to keep practicing for the state championship.  So, we’ll keep physics fresh in everyone’s mind, we’ll do problems and experiments together.  I’ll suggest activities designed around Pivot Interactives and The Physics Aviary and The Physics Classroom.  We’ll do old AP questions, and score them together.  We took an AP practice exam on March 5 - I’m sending a corrections packet out via mail, so they can re-try the problems they missed (and they can show me via videochat or email for feedback).

For my conceptual class, I have one major goal: the May 17 tournament of physics fights.  In a normal year, students work from late April in groups led by AP students to prepare two college-level investigations.  This year, I’ll offer to help students learn about momentum and energy - not because they’ll be tested on this material, but because their work will help them in May when it’s physics fight time.  (Students are asked to choose two of three possible problems for the physics fights.  Only one of them involves momentum and energy, so even students who stay completely away from online study will be able to participate effectively in physics fights upon our return.)

Most importantly, I will adapt as things work or don’t work.  I have no idea how a month of online-only gatherings will go.  I’ll listen to students, try new things, find out what students figure out on their own to be more useful than my online “teaching.”  I’ll be supportive in every possible way of those students who are absent or unengaged - nothing is required.

If that means a student doesn’t want to do physics, but instead wants to tell me about the non-physics aspects of their life under the shadow of a pandemic, well, it’s my job to listen.  Literally.  We are called to “know, challenge, and love” our students.  Right now most of them have plenty of challenge in their lives, so I’ve got to focus on the knowing and the loving.

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