In My Class Today


When Rita Pierson’s TED talk “Teach Like a Champion” popped up, it quickly became THE teacher inspiration video of the year, and for one simple reason: it resonated. Probably the biggest part of resonance of her speech was when she lists the aspects of this job that are not the greatest, but we “teach anyway”. She ends it with “We’re educators. We’re born to make a difference.”

We know that, our kids know that, and you know what? Every single person who has been through the school system knows that. But this job is also the biggest job where that work goes mostly unrecognized until someones speaks up.

And that’s ok, because that’s not why we go into this job. If you went into this job for fame and fortune well….you had no clue what teaching in America really is. Folks who want those things typically leave teaching to pursue other avenues. If you can set up sweet speaking and consulting gigs, that’s probably the fastest route to “rich and famous” in the education world. But the problem with those gigs is that you lose the opportunity to be the person making a difference in a developing person’s life. Someone who doesn’t know who they are or where they’re going to go yet. If you go for those gigs, you may not get to see the long-term effects of your work because you don’t have the opportunity to develop sustained relationships.

Today. I was recognized. And it means a lot.

I have a lot of words and feelings about that, but the one I want to express the most is that it means a lot because it shows the community one more example of someone committed to their kids. That’s huge where I live.

I’m just gonna say though, it was the HOTTEST most HUMID day of the school year so far! My room was already 80 degrees with 79% humidity. My hair is super frizzy, and worst of all my son bashed my nose super hard the day before so it’s SWOLLEN AND he busted my classes, so they are being held together with some window foam tape and caulk…yeah…not the day.

Anyway, here is the link to the article with the news clip from the 5pm news attached at the bottom of the page.

I was a little bummed they clipped the part where I shared that there are so many amazing teachers in the building, as well as the part where I shared that my successes are because of my amazing community (especially twitter) because none of us is excellent in a bubble.

Classroom Issues

No, My Day’s Not Filled with Motivation

“Well YOU have no problems because YOU have all the GOOD kids”

Look, I have no problem recognizing the sweet deal that is my current job. I love getting to work with students who care deeply about their work and learning. But in the last ten years, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time teaching students who’s current life situation makes a typical high school course completely irrelevant. While many teachers may give these kids many names, they always share one thing in common: they have something in life way bigger than F=ma. While in that role I had to be an adult to connect with, first and foremost. You could argue that this is the job of any teacher, but trust me on this one: if you’ve only worked with motivated kids from solid, affluent homes…you have no. idea.

What does it take and how does it affect the classroom?

  1. TRUST: I cannot begin to describe the lack of trust some of these kids have. When every adult has failed on them, they don’t trust you to be there or stick around. What does that mean for the classroom? Your expectations/procedures/plans are everything. They can see right through your inconstancies. Where my AP kids might run me over for it and make demands to help themselves, or accuse me of not knowing what I’m doing, the “unmotivated” kid sees yet another adult who can’t stand by their word. If you can’t keep your calendar straight, why should they trust you at all? If they don’t trust you the classroom is an unsafe learning environment for them and it’s fight or flight. I’ve seen both the fight and the flight, which generally means shutting down before we’ve even started.
  2. FRIENDSHIP AND EQUITY: If you can gain their trust, the next step is to foster a friendship. Getting to really know these kids is so important. When you get to know them, they start opening up. But be ready. Cause you’re probably going to hurt deeply and cry for them. But here’s the other thing, you know this cartoon?IISC_EqualityEquityYou’ve seen it before. Yeah, that’s important in the classroom too. I had a kid who worked third shift every night. He was dead set on graduating, but there was no way in the world he was going to get his homework done or stay awake during a lecture. I couldn’t penalize him. Working a job out of necessity is the most common thing I run into when it comes to students trying to make it. I’ve had kids with bum alcoholic dads, older sisters raising their younger siblings, and students kicked out of their residence and forced to live outside of town. Folks…NONE of this is their fault. This is about kids trying to do whatever they can muster as the right thing to do who still love their parents, even if their parents are the worst, and still want their parents to love them. Because that’s what kids do. They need someone who is proud of them, they need someone who will tell them “you can keep going” but they also need someone who can say “I see you have a lot on your plate, let’s find a way to make this work”
  3. PATIENCE Yeah, it sounds like the canned response. But let me tell you, you won’t believe the amount of patience it take. I’ve decided that teachers need to read parenting books. In one of my favorites it’s emphasized that as a parent you need to be sure you “respond, don’t react” to your child’s behaviors. Along those same lines, from another book is “chase the why”. It goes something like this in the parenting book. You’ve come from from a long day of work, you’re going through the mail, decompressing from the day, and you see your kid jumping on top of the table yelling. Most of us would react: Get down from there now! And when our kid inevitably says “no!” the situation escalates. You know how it ends, and it doesn’t end pretty. The same thing happens in our classrooms. A student isn’t doing the “correct student behavior” so we snap. If they don’t stop, we get irate, then come the referrals and the consequences. There’s an alternative though: responding. With your kid it involves first and foremost a personal connection, often a physical one, in order to connect with that primal part of the brain. Next, getting to the root of the “issue” by talking to your kid. We have to do this with our students. No, I’m not saying we’re hugging our students that are flipping out…but we certainly can’t explode or escalate the tantrum, and certainly not in front of the whole class. So we take a deep breath, we get close to the kid, we bring our voice down low, and we show our student that we care for them first. It’s freakin’ HARD. But it pays off in the long run.

I was originally going to write this about small successes I saw today in my non-AP physics course. I’m still trying to build a culture of trust, and I saw the sparks today for the first time. But I think I’ll save that for another day.

In My Class Today · Teaching Methods

Day 2: Thinking about Relationships

Day 1 I run a HUGE physics smorgy: 11-15 demos/lab set ups with minimal directions. Students are told to play, investigate, explore, PAY ATTENTION and ask lots of questions. This is my hook into the class for the year. I’m able to observe the students, act ridiculous and ease the MASSIVE anxiety they walk into this class with.

The next four days we actually spend working with data and relationships. Specifically to build the skills necessary to analyze data on a graph and straighten it when needed. I have a reading I ask students to do ahead of time and then we go through the straightening process. These brilliant students (half of whom are in AP Calc) are completely flabbergasted by the straightening process. It just doesn’t. make. sense to them.

I decided to try something different today on the fly, and it brought about some great conversations. First I put up blank sketches of graphs depicting a linear, squared, inverse and square root function. I asked them to put the graphs on their white boards and write the relationships. The answers consisted of the following:

  • “linear, squared, inverse and square root”
  • y=x, y=x^2 (etc)
  • y∝x y∝x^2 (etc)

This kicked off some great conversations. Are we in agreement, generally, about which is which? (yes). Are the equations really representative of the sketches? (We don’t know, there are no labels or numbers on the axes)

Next, I gave students four statements

  1. “Momentum is proportional to velocity”
  2. “A spring loaded gun is fired upward. The height of the bullet is proportional to the compression squared”
  3. “Velocity is inversely proportional to mass”
  4. “The period squared is proportional to the length of a simple pendulum”

I asked them to label the axes of their graphs with the physical quantities to match the statements. Here’s where the fun began. Students took a lot longer than I had originally anticipated completing this task. Here were the great conversations to be had:

  • In science, we usually put the independent and dependent variables on the x and y axis. With these statements, is it obvious which is which?
  • Since it’s not obvious, are answers where the axis are flipped wrong? (Not if they picked the appropriate shape!)
  • So, we often are going to use slope to talk about relationships. Like, say, if we plotted distance on the y and time on the x what would we get? (speed…minds are blown)  The cool thing is if you plot the graph “wrong” you can look at the units,  and decide if they need to flip because you’d have seconds per meter or something. The important thing is whatever you tell me the relationship is, needs to match your graph.
  • Then, of course, I let them in on the secret: we always list the y thing first. Literally all we are doing in these sentences is taking the math proportions, like y∝x^2 and saying, instead, height ∝ compression^2. It’s like the hugest lightbulb moment for students ever.

Now that they have that substitution thing in their brain, explaining how to straighten graphs is a snap. I was really pleased with the lack of frustrated and confused faces. Last year, I sadly, lost several kids during this unit. I wanted to cry so hard because we hadn’t even started physics and seriously questioned my lesson plans.

Tomorrow they finish their pendulum labs, so we’ll see how this all goes.

Meanwhile, AP Physics C is dabbling in computational physics for kinematics. More on that later.


In My Class Today

Day -2 (Teacher Institute #1)

It’s WELCOME BACK TEACHERS DAY! For the next two days we get to be immersed in three hour PD sessions morning and afternoon. I was also starkly reminded of the fact that I chose a profession that values, favors and upholds extroversion as ideal.

This morning’s activities consisted of the following:

An all staff competition of rock, paper, scissors, where the winner had to be followed around and cheered on by all the foes they had overcome. I lost on purpose (people love rocks) because I didn’t want to be followed around.

A request that we not only stand in the hallways at passing period, but come up with a greeting for all kids that is uniquely “us” and a competition for the teacher who gets to know the largest number of random students in the hallway that is not their own. I can tell you right now, as a student…I probably wouldn’t be able to survive the school day.

This afternoon I attended a well done session that was intended as an overview to trauma and how it affects students and classroom interactions. We were asked to “discuss with our neighbors” frequently as there were 400 of us in the room from across the whole K-12 district.

We need to remember that nearly HALF of the population is introverted. This means nearly half of our students are, and that many of our colleagues are as well. For those of us who are introverts, school is exhausting on an emotional level that has nothing to do with having a good day. We need to keep this in mind as we plan our beginning of the year activities, and activities throughout the year. Providing both the opportunities to be loud, boisterous and extroverted, but also the time to quietly reflect and engage in deeper, meaningful conversations.

Initially, I pose as an extrovert on the first day of school. After brief introductions it’s a day of physics demos. Students form their own groups and move flexibly from station to station. I do this because I want students to get their hands dirty without having to worry about the social aspect of school on the first day.

I, on the other hand, do a LOT of observation that day. I observe student interactions, I observe who the “outliers” are, who is quiet, who is a leader, etc. I use the combination of their assignment for that activity and their student information surveys to get a bigger picture of who they are socially and academically, and then we begin.

Have a great school year everyone!

I’m going to go take a quiet walk outside now.


book review

“Aside from the Obvious Differences, I Don’t Think There Are Any” (Sally Ride 1982)

Late mornings, leisurely lunches, time to rediscover and enjoy hobbies. These are the best parts of summers as a teacher. All of which are desperately needed in a position that takes literally every shred of your personhood, physically and emotionally for 180 days.

I have a 2 year old, so I’m up up at 5am everyday because the sun is up at 4:30, lunch is a different kind of frenzied fiasco most days, and I’m doing the taxi-mom shuffle back and forth from story time to soccer to birthday parties and playdates. Also, somehow, I’ve spent two weeks horribly sick with first the flu (serious wtf) followed by the worst food poisoning of my life, AFTER escaping the worst flu season of history.

But I digress.

What I HAVE been able to do is READ. Like actually books. Yes, in plural. I’ve read three books so far this summer, and although the days of my youth where I would knock out 200-300 pages in one day are long gone, it’s nice to be able to start and finish something and LEARN along the way. In my adulthood I’ve decided I have no time for frivolity when I read, because there are so many things to learn, so I have a hard time selecting works of fiction. Besides that, real live tends to be far more fascinating. The first book I read this summer was an excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott, which contained far more history on America and the transcendentalist movement than I would have imagined. It was weird, and intriguing and ultimately the story of an iron wrought woman “living in the wrong century” because she wasn’t one to succumb to gender norms of her time.

The latest biography I finished, however, was Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Very quickly I decided I need to recommend this book to one of my students who is starting her studying in astrophysics this fall, and not long thereafter I feel this is a book all my students need to read, especially my female students.

Our culture praises the barrier-breakers, but rarely praises the person beyond the title. With the recent fame of the film Hidden Figures, I could not help but also have that story running in the background as I read Sally’s.

What do we find with Sally that I feel is so important for our students?

  1. A girl who was raised to follow the things she loved, and encouraged in them regardless of any other thought, concern or bias.
  2. A woman who insisted she was going to be the best at whatever she did. Katherine Johnson echoed this same mentality in her commencement speech last year.
  3. A woman who lived by reality, facts, and hard work. Not a battlecry.
  4. A teacher so passionate about what she did, she was able to convey not only her passion, but her standards of excellence to all of her students.
  5. A woman who felt strongly convicted to civic duty utilizing all of her strengths for the betterment of our nation, but without needing to have a seat in the bureaucracy.

Over the last quarter century so much time, energy and money has been spent trying to “stop up the leaky pipeline” and “close the gap” and “insprire girls” etc etc etc blah blah blah, and, don’t misinterpret me here—I am very much in the club to be a part of the movement.


I also feel strongly that far too many of these initiatives are pushed in the wrong direction. There’s no need to “inspire” girls, and a pink lego set is still gender-normative (and super-restrictive), and if girls are solely being promoted in STEM areas without being truly supportive we run into problems of (1) not really encouraging the growth of future engineers and (2) shunning the boys.

In my personal experience, my absolute best mentors (male and female) were the ones who demanded excellence. period. How you demand that excellence and pull it out of a student and nurture it is going to look a little different for each student, particularly if it’s a male vs female, but it’s not a “thing” the thing is excellence.

Sally double majored in Physics and English, and found that the classes she had to work the hardest at were her physics classes. She wasn’t a straight A student for four years. I can’t even begin to talk about the number of students who decide they “can’t” do physics because an “A” doesn’t come easy to them or they think “physics isn’t my thing” because they have to work at it, but they don’t have to work as hard in any other area. Grit is the defining factor that makes the difference between the movers and the shakers and the folks who settle for mediocrity and less than they are worth.

So many of Sally’s encounters carried many of the same challenges and frustrations we can still find in academia and the workplace today. When greeted by her adviser in college he said, “Well! A physics girl major! I’ve been waiting to see what you’d look like–I haven’t seen one in years!” while this may seem like a kind sentiment, there’s nothing obviously negative, it also is a confirmation of the “weirdness” of being a female physics major. Another professor said, “what are these girls doing here? You are taking jobs away from men!” When I was in college and founded the Society for Women in Physics we made a conscious decision to “flood” quantum physics. On the first day of class, there four of us sat in a row, in our “This is what a Physicist” tee shirts and the professor said “wow, why are there so many girls here”

I loved reading about when Sally  secretly had a meeting arranged with Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space while in Budapest. The Americans were under strict orders not to entertain the Russians, but Sally couldn’t help the connection she shared with Svetlana. Reading about their lively encounter reminded me of when I finally realized the importance of having a network of women in a male-dominated field. Up until that point in college I had a “so what” mentality regarding my love for physics. I think most of us do. We just love it and we don’t really care about being a minority, rather, we just want to be excellent. At the same time, there is so much value in being able to share experiences in a similar manner that can only be done in the circle of sisterhood. It doesn’t define us, nor does it inhibit us, but it is incredibly validating.

At the end of the biography, Sherr details Sally’s 27 year relationship with her partner, Tam. Sally didn’t “come out” until it was in her obituary in 2012, and as Sherr reports, her biggest critics were those in the LGBT community themselves complaining that she should have been advocating. There is no need for any woman’s relationship to define her. A woman is not defined by the man, or woman, with whom who she is most intimate. And a person’s spouse is certainly not their defining factor in their career and achievements. Had Sally lived her story 30 years later I doubt she would have made a big deal of her relationship even in a climate where it is far more acceptable than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. Sally did not discuss her private life or her emotions with anyone, even those closest to her. What was important to her as far as the public eye was concern4ed was how she could advance her mission, whether it be Mission to Earth or encouraging girls in STEM.

To my students: In whatever you do, be the best you can be. If it’s not your thing, at least you’ll know how far you can go before you quit.

In My Class Today · Teaching Methods

I did something I would NEVER do in most classrooms

Anyone I have spoken to one on one knows that my group of AP Physics C students is truly a unique group. They are the kind of group that comes around once every few years and makes your teacher heart soar…so you bring them up with you and cast them off and they fly higher than even you could have imagined.

So I thought I’d try something radical. Work on a skill that was far greater than their ability to do physics. I wanted them to focus on the learning process.

We are starting the Biot-Savart Law. Students need to do the derivations for a line, ring and ring segment of current. The reality is that the math skills are no different from anything they haven’t already seen before. But as we know, often times when students are presented with a new application it’s like everything they’ve learned is back to zero. The reality, of course, is that they lack the experience and mastry to be able to make those connections as we do as teachers. So I assigned the reading several nights ago. I asked students to take particular note of the three examples, and then I assigned the students in groups to one of the three examples.


The paper they received, however, was not a carbon copy of the book’s example. Because we know what students do when we ask them to read. They skim. They decide they can understand how the author got from step 1 to step end and they move on. But we know if we asked them to do a similar problem they would barely know where to start. I wanted them to actively engage in the material in the text. So I told them they had to prepare their assigned problem to teach to the class, instead of me teaching it.

Students had 2 nights to prepare plus 30 minutes to discuss in their groups the day before. Today was presentation day.

Imagine your first year teaching and that lesson you thought you’d be fine at, so you didn’t quite prepare it the way you should have. That’s what happened. But it was ok because I knew that all of my students would be ok. They challenged each other, they forced the students presenting to slow down, they asked the necessary clarification questions that required the presenters to really think about what they were doing rather than regurgitating text.

After the group had come to the end, I stepped in. I asked the group to step back for a moment so we could summarize (because we all know what happens when we get lost in the details and the mistakes…) I asked the students to explain why we did each step and connected it to what they had seen before. If notes or annotations needed to be added to the board, we added them. Once we were certain everyone was securely on the same page we moved on.

At the end I explained my goals of this exercise  to my students. Not only do I want them actively engaging and learning (and seeing you CAN learn) from the text, the reality is that since they are ALL pursuing STEM majors there is a VERY REAL possibility that they will each be in a teaching assistantship in the next 3-5 years. They are going to need to learn how to teach what they are comfortable with, what they may not have been comfortable with, or something they learned 4-5 years ago. These teaching and communication skills are so valuable and go well beyond the world of academia.

I almost backtracked on this assignment and took over today, but I’m really glad I didn’t. My students once again rose way above and beyond what I expected. Working with a group of gifted AP Physics C students can be really challenging because finding the sweet spot of struggle vs overwhelming is a lot higher than one might anticipate, and in this course I think that sweet spot is higher than even the students realize. But that sweet spot is where the largest amount of growth happens, and I think we hit it today.

Classroom Issues

Physics Teacher Shortage? Not so Sure

“You will be SO markatable”

“You will have NO problem finding a job”

“You’re certified in physics, chemistry AND math?! You can get a job anywhere!”

Those comments have all been said to me. Because, you know, I have a physics degree, I’m a woman, and I have a pretty cool set of experiences. And yet in 2011, when the recession hit the teacher landscape, I found myself sitting in over 20 interviews with no success. I spent the next two years working as a tutor after being rejected from the physics teaching job at that school and also teaching math at night school and chemistry at summer school. I was also teaching summers and Saturdays at Northwestern’s gifted program. All of these things together plus private tutoring scrapped together a decent salary. But after 20 interviews and no success getting a full-time teaching job…I won’t even get into what that did to my feeling of self-worth, especially when I caught a student from summer school telling her classmate about me, “she’s not even a REAL teacher”, a day after which her mom showed up “lost” so she could scope me out.

Here’s a snapshot as of right now within a 50-mile radius of where I live

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 8.35.32 PM

That’s right! One job. And guess what is under the job description “chemistry endorsement desirable” Yep. This is not a 100% physics job. This is a physics job with a chemistry prep.

Mind you, there is no shortage of people here! My city is just under 150,000 people and our public school system consists of 5 high schools. There are numerous private schools in the area representing the Catholics, Lutherans and several other Christian denominations. There is one teacher in each building who teaches physics and I am the only teacher who gets to teach physics all day. I am also the only teacher with a degree in physics. (I am part of the 12% nationwide that’s a woman physics teacher with a degree in physics) The second sentence is the one that seems to get all of the attention by Universities and PER groups.

APS put out this report which doesn’t quite sit with me right. You see, they reported these findings, among others, regarding why individuals want to and don’t want to teach:

“by far” as the report mentions, the number one reason why individuals don’t want to teach is because they fear “uncontrollable or uninterested students”

The minute I saw this I questioned the results. WHO ON EARTH are they talking to? Well, APS, you got me to check out the whole report. Here’s who they surveyed:

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 8.44.44 PM

Only 64 people who completed the survey are committed teachers of high school physics! Most everyone else involved was currently within the University setting (students).

Newsflash: You have NO idea what the classroom is like until you get there. Betsy Devos is a fantastic example of this.

Turns out, when you put a person who’s mildly competent at teaching and cares for the craft, the ‘disinterest’ and misbehavior are rather subdued. Make no mistake: it takes 3-5 years to get into a groove and to start to master the management aspect, but that can be said of most any job.

The report also discussed the various incentives people are given to go into teaching:

1. “Access to high-quality courses at my institution that prepared me to be a successful teacher.” 2. “All my student loans could be forgiven if I were to teach for 5 years.” 3. “Better teaching salary.” 4. “I would not have to spend extra time in school to obtain a teaching certificate.” 5. “I would be given free tuition for extra time spent obtaining my teaching certificate.” 6. “There are currently scholarships available for people in science and math teaching certification programs. Scholarships up to $20,000/year are awarded on the condition that, after earning a certificate, one teaches two years in high-needs areas for each year of financial support.”

No surprises here, but every single one of these is an extrinsic motivating factor. While usually somewhat effective in getting the ball rolling, it is hardly sustainable when the rubber meets the road and the nitty gritty nastiness of this job break forth. And let’s be real here, if it’s money that motivates you and you’re smart in the sciences, it doesn’t take too long before you realize an engineering job in the private sector is going to let you pursue your passion AND be up for raises AND get you 6 figures a lot faster. (and you get to pee whenever you want).

I would like to posit that there are three things that need to happen if we really care about highly qualified teachers in STEM

(1) We need to devote SERIOUS time, energy, effort and money into the teachers who care about their craft of teaching and get them the support to teach physics well. PhysTec is trying to do this and is providing amazing opportunities for teachers. We need more of this. New Jersey also implemented teacher training to boost physics in their schools. They actually see physics as the gateway to STEM careers. Turns out, the results were amazing. Not only has physics enrollment boomed, it has boomed amongst minority students, and their AP scores have boomed along with it.

(2) We need to advocate for physics and STEM education outside of our STEM bubbles. Too many of us are like our students, solving the problems we already know how to solve because it feels good. Telling each other about the importance of physics makes us feel good, but how much of that is getting out to the public? To parents? To students? To board members? To administrators? To politicians? Here’s an example of the difference in two districts:

District A has a strong STEM program, including an exclusive engineering academy. District A historically has offered Conceptual, Regular, Honors, Engineering and AP Physics C. There are 11 teachers who teach physics at some point in the day and although physics is not a graduation requirement, it is a norm that all students take physics before graduation. Since district A does not offer AP Physics 1, parents band together to ask the administration to run the course so that students who want to take an AP Physics can, even if they are not engineering bound. 

District B has a weak physics program and would like to promote more students taking AP courses. However, district B refuses to run a course if less than 24 students enroll. None of the schools in the district are able to offer AP Physics. AP Biology runs sporadically. One year 20 kids signed up for AP biology but the district said this number was too small and canceled the course. Infrastructure is falling apart and although there is a 10-year facilities plan, staff have been told that they will only consider re-evaluating science rooms when they see if any money is left over. 

These kinds of things go on all over the country. The simple matter of fact is this: unless a district is well-endowed with funds and/or parent advocacy, STEM is not supported on a very basal level. Because STEM requires space and equipment, which requires funds, and requires a continuous influx of funds in order to maintain the space and equipment and up to date texts.

Most of the folks way up high in school systems are pretty clueless when it comes to the needs of STEM classes. It’s not their fault, but if no one is truly advocating, they have no reason to funnel funds in that direction

(3) Our current physics teachers need to feel valued. They need great mentors. They need networks. I was really fortunate to have this “growing up” my AP Physics teacher was huge on intentional mentoring of rising teachers, he introduced me to Physics Northwest, which got me tapped into AAPT. From there I developed an amazing network of Chicago teachers. One of the teachers I met through this network, Shannon Hughs wrote an article in The Physics Teacher about the importance of this mentorship. Shannon probably doesn’t remember this, but at one of my first PNW meetings, she was sure to come up to me and tell me about an opening at her high school. The manner in which she approached me stood out and I regretted the fact I had accepted a job already. She was already putting to work what she had learned from her mentor. Then I moved an hour and a half away from Chicago and I lost this network. After 5 years of living out here I discovered the amazing community of #iteachphysics on twitter. It is these communities and mentorships that re-invigorate my passion for teaching.

Here’s the deal: no one goes into teaching for the money. We go into it for the passion. The passion of our subject, the passion to invigorate our students, the passion to see others learn and grow. The best teachers are these people. You can’t train that and you can’t crank that out of any big PER study or think-tank group. But there’s a catch…if I can’t do my passion every day, why would I stay in it? For me, it’s because my passion for teaching and students is greater than my passion for physics. If it were the other way around I probably would have finished the MS in electrical engineering I started in 2013 and I would be working in the industry now. Yea, that’s right, I was almost one of those numbers who left the field. Because the reality was that the field left me. I was moving to a place with no jobs and I had a department head who was almost begging me to join the department (this is a much longer story than is appropriate for this blog post). I am incredibly fortunate that I am in the position I serve now, it is literally everything I have dreamed of doing.

Pushing a bunch of physics undergrads into becoming high school teachers with extrinsic motivators is only going to create two things: teachers who lack the true empathy, patience and motivation to serve a student population and a bunch of graduates who think there’s a million jobs out there when actually there are just a handful. If they land one, chances are they won’t teach physics all day. In 2014 I taught 5 sections of Earth Science with the promise that if I took that job I would have physics the following year. I love teaching, but when I got those physics classes in 2015 after not being a physics teacher proper for 4 year, it was incredible how my motivation and job satisfaction sky-rocketed.

The very real fact is that physics is still undervalued. Everyone assumes it’s too hard and unnecessary. Much like the “Oh I never did well in math” statements that can cause math anxiety in children. Every kid who walks into my classroom walks in with fear and dread because they have heard horror stories. And yet, if they talk to any single student who made it past October, the critical 10-week learning curve, that student will tell you “it’s hard, but it’s fun” or “it’s hard, but you just have to think about it” I fight these preconceived notions tooth and nail every day, but when adults everywhere are telling them otherwise, they have no reason to believe the physics teacher that physics is a good place for them to be.

Concept Modeling · In My Class Today · Teaching Methods

Pass Along – Modeling Waves

The pass along activity is one I developed shortly after attending a Kelly OShea workshop. I wanted to combine modeling with the strengths of white board speed dating and board walks. At the time I didn’t have the large whiteboards and for this particular activity I decided a piece of paper would work best.

Students have already done a reading on waves ahead of time (hopefully).

Part I: I ask students to draw in a pictorial representation of what a longitudinal and a transverse wave might look like.

This is inevitably the most common drawing. Students obviously did the reading, but struggle with a pictorial representation

Students are then told to pass along their paper. I predetermine groups randomly for this activity. Three is best, but if I don’t have a factor of 3 then I put the stragglers into groups of 4. It looks like this:

Student 1 -> Student 2 -> Student 3 -> Student 1

Part II: After students have passed along, they are required to look at the work done by their peer and explain, in words, why that person drew what they drew. Much like speed dating, this requires each of the students to get in the minds of their peers, but without the opportunity for their peers to explain.


Students then pass along again.

The third person takes a look at the previous two answers and then has to think of a way to model each wave type with their bodies.

After the three pass alongs, students get into groups, at this point each paper has been touched by the same persons. They discuss their answers and then they have to get up in front of the class and model with their bodies each wave type.


The physical modeling is great in that the kids are up and moving, but it also provides an opportunity to have a discussion about the model. 7th hour we had a discussion about whether or not doing the worm accurately models a wave (nope, the particle is moving across the room). Similarly, I had a few groups move their whole line down the room which brought up the discussion point about what a wave transfers and doesn’t transfer.

Afterwards, we will go out as a whole class and model transverse and longitudinal waves using an 8-step count.

A unique representation of a longitudinal wave I hadn’t seen before
current news

17 Lives is the Only Thing That Matters

There are certain times where I feel strongly and deeply about an issue and trapped at the same time. This week is one of them. There is an unrelated post sitting in my drafts in part, because I have considered making it a vlog post, rather than a written one and in part because I know how it will be received. At the core of that message and this one is one thing: exhausted frustration.

I am tired of every issue being an either/or and I am tired of every politicized issue meaning one part of one thing in one party and a different part of the same thing in another. Why is there no party that simply cares for people?

As the human race, as the most advanced, complex, highest-order being on this planet, we are wired to lean on each other and to sacrifice and care for one another and to do so with empathy.

The tragic school shootings are not an either/or. This cannot be mental health/parenting/reporting vs gun laws. It’s both.

I have contention with some other either/or issues split down party lines, but that is another post.

None of the problems we are faced with are going to be solved by arguing each other and blaming a single issue. The only thing we can do is come together, accept the brokenness of humanity, the brokenness of our laws, the brokenness of our systems and consider for just a moment that maybe there are aspects of both arguments that are wrong and aspects of both arguments that are correct. At the end of the day, there is one truth: we need change and we need action.

17 people died this past week. Hundreds of their loved ones, friends and peers have been irreparably affected and the social media world blows up with the classic arguments, inevitably tearing each other down insisting the other side is wrong.

17 people died and the rest of the unaffected world is at each other’s virtual throats over the right thing to do.

17 futures stopped Wednesday and too many of us are now consumed with a personal conviction that aligns to a political party and are more concerned with the future of our followers than the lives directly impacted.

This is not happening worldwide, and so yes, we are doing something wrong. It’s time to take a step back, swallow our pride, and come together and be human.


Teaching Methods

AP Physics C in the Accelerated Classroom: Addressing the Needs of the Gifted and Talented in Physics

Gifted and accelerated learners have specific needs in the classroom that frequently go unmet. It is a grievous error to assume that just because a student is gifted they will be successful. Differentiation is often viewed as incredibly labor-intensive on the part of the teacher with difficulty in grading different products fairly. This is of particular challenge in the current Advanced Placement (AP) Physics C program since, under the college board recommendations, many physics C students already have a strong foundation in mechanics from AP Physics 1 (algebra-based). This paper will share a particular example used in the lab in an AP Physics C gifted classroom and how the products are easily differentiated and scored in a fair manner.


Introduction to Gifted and Talented Learners

The first thing that must be noted is that gifted learners exist in every classroom. The second thing that must be noted is that gifted and talented looks different on each individual. Additionally, when students are put through an identification process, minority and English language learner students are overwhelmingly unidentified.

Identification of gifted and talented students is immensely important because research has shown that in the absence of the ability to nurture student talents, many of these students will, in fact, underperform. Students are either placed in environments that lack rigor and challenge and so they disengage because they are bored, or if the teacher identifies the student as “smart” the teacher often does not recognize specific markers of giftedness that contribute to student behavior in the classroom, prohibiting the teacher from allowing appropriate accommodations.

It is important that every classroom teacher become aware of giftedness so that they can best address their students. Much in the same way that we will readily allow a student with ADHD to stand during class, or use a fidget, we must also recognize that gifted and talented students have their own set of needs to be challenged and to grow.

Although there is no one blanket description for students who are gifted and talented, there are some unique markers. Much like a student who may be diagnosed with a special need, gifted and talented students’ brains are physiologically different. They have a thicker pre-frontal cortex that develops differently from their peers and they, in fact, have more and stronger neural pathways than their peers2. Not only do they think differently, they perceive the world in a different manner. In the absence of development of talent, gifted individuals can lose the strength of their pathways, rather than expanding them.

One of the most clear differences in gifted students is that they exhibit one or more over excitabilities. Overexcitabilities describe a series of traits and/or behaviors that gifted individuals feel on a level that is far more intense than the general population. These include the following: intellectual, emotional, psychomotor, sensory and imaginational. Intellectual is what people are most familiar with when they think of giftedness: avid readers, love of learning, independent thinking etc. Emotional are the students who often have an overwhelming sense of empathy for their friends and family. Due to this they are often the ones who will take up causes for advocacy. They also may exhibit extremely intense anxieties. Individuals with psychomotor over excitabilities are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD, they may talk fast, act impulsively and seem to run on little sleep. Sensory have a heightened sense in the five senses, they are often extremely interested in the arts and have a depth of interest in aesthetics. They may also, however, be unusually sensitive to smells and tastes. Individuals with imaginational overexcitabilities are the ones who are constantly daydreaming, visualizing, Males tend to score higher on the intellectual and psychomotor areas while females tend to score higher on the emotional and sensual over excitabilities3

AP Physics C for the Gifted and Talented

Acknowledging these needs for gifted students, what is a teacher to do? Two of the most important tools are acceleration and differentiation.

We often think of acceleration as grade skipping. While this is useful for many students, it is not in our grasp as classroom teachers. We should, however, not prohibit say, a sophomore, from enrolling in physics if they have met the appropriate math pre-requisites. Surprisingly, acceleration at the grade level has shown to somewhat close the gender gap in publication and salary for female students4. At the classroom level, where we have control, this means compaction of curriculum. I lean most heavily on this for my students.

Since the students in my class have all taken AP Physics 1, they have an incredible depth of conceptual foundation as it relates to mechanics. This was, indeed, the goal of the revised course. The challenge now, however, is to make AP Physics C exciting, interesting and challenging. At the same time the goal of any high school teacher should be to equip their students with the foundation for the skills needed in college.

For any STEM field, we know well that lab skills are indispensible. At the same time, we also know that creating a genuine lab experience when students have little to no lab experiences is extremely challenging. There is a certain level of base knowledge needed to have a valid lab experience from start to finish. Fortunately, students in AP Physics C have already obtained that base knowledge. The only difference is that now my students are required to incorporate calculus.


The Flipped Accelerated Classroom

I operate on the premise that first, the majority of the physics concepts should be review, and second, the lab experience is the most important experience in my classroom. While it is not imperative to student success that they be able to determine an obscure moment of inertia, it is imperative that they enter college with a basic skill set that includes troubleshooting, use of basic equipment, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving strategies. On the first day of school I gave my students the following assignment: design a product that demonstrates to me that you have mastery over all of the AP learning objectives for kinematics.

Immediately this assignment is differentiated: students have almost endless choice. They have full access to all lab equipment plus anything else they would like to use or bring in. This is, at first, an extremely challenging prospect to students. They are not used to having so much choice, their activities have more or less been dictated by the goal and/or equipment available. This is not true of real research; in that case you must select a project, investigate, and produce results.

We recently did the same with momentum. Since this topic is much more in-depth than kinematics, I assigned nightly homework sets and provided solutions the following day. The homework was not collected or scored as I am leaving it in the student’s hands to determine how much repetition is necessary for themselves. In this unit they were asked to design a lab in which all of the objectives are present. Since this project would inevitably include many other topics within mechanics I provided a little bit more guidance, encouraging students to start with a question. Within the first class period I had a group investigating a buoyant object dropped into a container of water (Fig 1)

and analyzing with Vernier VideoPhysics, another group analyzing the deflation of a balloon attached to a string with a straw, a third looking at spring pendulum, and a fourth examing a dynamics car attached to a spring on a horizontal surface. Each of these involved a varying force (not a requirement, but an option for the exemplary plus mark) and in the case of two of the experiments, students needed to study topics they had not yet covered as it related to their problem.

Student Products, Evaluation and Presentation

Student products vary n terms of level of complexity and interest, but they have always been exciting to grade. The first challenge, naturally, is scoring the product in a way that is fair for all students, given the large variety. To this end, I grade the products based on how well they meet each of the objectives, from Exemplary to Unsatisfactory. In order to permit students who are more mathematically advanced or who would like to go for the challenge, I include an exemplary plus category. At the beginning of the year this category was for any correct application of calculus, once the year progressed this category needed modification to ensure the same level of challenge.

Students are also expected to present their results and provide feedback to their peers. We do a type of poster presentation session. Students put their procedure, lab design and results on a large whiteboard. (Figure 2) , one partner circulates the room while the other remains at the board to present to their peers. During this time period students are to ask one another questions, whether it be for clarification, or as a way to offer a suggestion. (Figure 3) After students have moved through the room, original partners move together. The partner who circulated initially now must explain each board to their partner. As they do so, they are asked to leave feedback on a smaller board. At the end of this exercise, groups return to their boards and review the feedback. I then give students another few days to make adjustments and corrections before turning in the lab.

Applications for the Mixed Classroom

Allowing student choice and differentiation for gifted students is just as important as allowing other students extra time on exams or the ability to use a fidget. The reality is that just as our classrooms often will have students with special needs due to a disability, we likely also have a non-zero number of gifted students as well, who’s needs must also be met. In a mixed classroom, this might mean generating both the guided and open-ended lab. The modeling curriculum works very well for all students, but the differentiation component is key. Gifted learners should be permitted to do less repetition as long as they can prove mastery. They should be permitted to work together in class sometimes (ability-based grouping), rather than always grouped with the struggling students so they have the opportunity to flourish with like minds, much as we appreciate upon entering college.


Conclusions and Benefits

This type of activity and assessment has served multiple purposes. First, it allows for differentiation within the gifted classroom. Students have the ability to make their products as simple or complex as they determine, while still meeting the learning objectives. Secondly, it requires students to make a variety of considerations and assumptions such as which equipment will be best, how to control for a variety of variables, and which variables can be simplified due to assumptions or uncertainty measurements. (For example, in my group that examined the deflating balloon, they massed the weighted balloon on an extremely precise scale and noted it was loosing mass, even while tied. ) Students are using and improving on lab skills and techniques. Lastly, students are learning the importance of clear communication and critical evaluation. In a time where even undergraduates are expected to produce publishable research, communicating, evaluating and responding to evaluations become ever more important skills. By focusing on these at the high school level, students become better equipped for whatever their future holds.