Teacher Development Through a University Partnership AAPT SM 2022

I’ve written about this amazing partnership a few times. I gave a talk on the program at the summer national meeting this year. Check it out!


Room Ideas: 5 Myths and Alumni Wall

Full disclosure here: I am not a decorator. I don’t do cutsy anything. Aside from the fact that my perfectionism would take over and I would generally hate what I put up, I also refuse to dump cash into stuff I have to put up and tear down every year and in the grand scheme of things doesn’t make a huge difference to the majority of students in my class.


I do believe in the power of simplicity and powerful messages.

In my core beliefs I believe that every student has the capacity for physics because inquiring about the world around us is an intuitive piece of our humanity. The AAPT put together a brochure on “Myths about High School Physics” more than a decade ago. Needless to say, it was in need of a major update, and the result is beautiful. (You can access them here) When you download the file you get 6 high resolution images you could theoretically print in any size you like. I maxed them out on regular printer paper and arranged them on my door as shown

Adjacent to my door display is my alumni wall. Around October/November I reach out to former students who are in college and I ask for their school, major, favorite physics memory and advice to rising students. I think both of these are really important to have up in the room before parent teacher conferences because it’s certainly worth talking about!

I’m really excited because I mentioned this to our academy/career coach and together with the graphic design teacher they are going to create some beautiful posters featuring all of our alum all over the building!

Another great idea is that these look REALLY great next to the career profiles students generate as part of the STEPUP careers in physics lesson plan! And if you want to know how that fits into the scope of my class, check out my post Three Ideas for a Strong Start

Activities · In My Class Today · New Teacher

3 Ideas for a Strong Start

It is the end of July, the back to school sales have been running for a month, the #clearthelist movement is in full force. While I keep telling myself I have ALL of August left (that’s actually a lie, I have institute the 30th/31st) many of us are starting in just a few weeks. Here are three ideas to start physics strong. These ideas are grounded in my values and beliefs around teaching physics. You can read about those here

Physics is about EXPERIMENTS

I want students to know science is investigative and that anyone can do it. Many teachers will do a team-building activity on the first day, but I prefer to let students play. This gives me a chance to observe the dynamics of each class before I begin to influence the room and it also takes any pressure off of students to perform for one another or myself. I try to set up a demonstration or lab from each of the units for the entire year. Directions for observations are left on a notecard in front of the set up. Students are asked to write down detailed observations about each demonstration. Over the weekend I ask students to find the demonstration online and learn about how it works. Students are then asked to write a claim, evidence reasoning statement about a single demonstration. Here is my handout and some of the demos I set up

Getting to Know You

When we begin class I ask students to introduce themselves, rather than butchering their names on the roster. I take notes for myself. I ask students to share their name, and how they are feeling. I will also ask them to create a flipgrid introduction with a little more info. This allows me to have their pronunciation recorded so I can review it repeatedly. Here are the prompts:

1) State your first and last name
2) What is something you’re really into, or “your thing?” This could be an interest, hobby, job, talent, etc… anything!
3) Post a picture in your video of you doing your thing or a product from your thing
4) What is one thing you wonder about one (or more) of the demos from the first day? (I wonder why….)
5) Respond to at least TWO classmates!

Physics is for Everyone!

I am a STEP-UP advocate and one of the lesson plans in the program is the Careers in Physics. In the lesson students learn about the vast scope of employment opportunities with a physics degree and then are asked to create a career profile. Students do this by taking a super short survey where they check off their interests and values and then they are matched with a professional who shares their interests. You can access the lesson plan and resources here.

I hope you find these ideas useful! What else have you done to set the tone for the year? Drop it in the comments!


Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools Summer

I’m at physics summer camp.

That’s what I called the llinois Physics and Secondary Schools Partnership Program today while on the phone with my husband.

It’s not new information that teachers of physics are pulled in a lot of directions and are often under-trained.

Additionally, outside of major metropolitan areas, or areas with Universities, it’s not uncommon that a school has ONE physics teacher without any other physics teachers nearby. This is a deadly combination that not only leads to burnout, but in many cases mediocre to poor physics teaching. This is no fault of the teacher, but rather a consequence of their limited resources: knowledge, time and access.

Enter IPaSS. The program addresses all three.

Three years ago the team at UIUC contacted me about being one of the “master teachers” for the first year of the program. The main intention was to see how AP Physics C teachers would incorporate the recently redeveloped intro sequence (211/212) in their classes. Our summer was a lot of training and messing around, and also some sharing of practices. The four of us all came from very different schools and philosophies of thought, even through 3 out of the 4 had an education from UIUC.

Last year the program started to formalize a little by introducing 8 new teachers to the program, and now we are fully formalized with another 12. We get to spend an entire week (ok 4 days) sharing experiences, pedagogies, philosophies and materials…and we also have access to the high quality research-based materials from the University.


By bringing together teachers with 0-30 years experience, there is a wealth of knowledge in the room. This knowledge is not limited to physics, but also pedagogy and classroom practices. After your first year you are expected to bring your wealth of knowledge to the table in a more formal manner by presenting or running sessionrs.


The University of Illinois has a large and strong Physics Education Research group. The main professor of the program, Tim Steltzer has been doing PER for decades. This program gives teachers access to all of the materials that University Students in introductory physics use in their courses. This includes supplying teachers with a class set of iOLabs.


One of the best parts of the summer institute is that we have concentrated time to focus on specific areas of our teaching that we simply don’t have during the school year. During this time we are working with other teachers who have similar values and goals. The sessions are set up with enough flexibility that if you need to go off and work independently on a project you are able to do so.

Another cool part of the program? It is whatever you choose to make of it.

IPaSS physics summer camp with a smorgasbord of anything your heart could desire:

  • You want to lead other teachers in awesome methods you’ve learned? You’ve come to the right place
  • You need to boost your practice because you’re out of field or new? You’ve come to the right place
  • You are an experienced teacher that feels stuck in old ways? You’ve come to the right place
  • Your school lacks resources for high quality instruction? You’ve come to the right place
  • You want to be involved in scholarly research, publishing and presenting? You’ve come to the right place
  • You’re a PER post-doc or professor and need access to high school students/teachers for research? You’ve come to the right place.

Literally anything you can fathom can come out of this space.

Here was the schedule the first day

I’m so thankful to be part of such an amazing group of educators.

Teaching Methods

My Favorite Retake

At some point while considering equitable grading practices, I found myself searching the archives of TPT looking for some ideas regarding retakes. While I appreciate the idea of an honest retake, my experience has been that it is simply more time and effort on my part, and minimal effort and a hope to just “do better this time” on the part of my students. I ran across Jeff McManus’ article regarding the “box score” (“Retests”: A better method of test corrections)

 In short, when the students turn in their exam, they receive a blank copy of the exam and they get to redo it, using any resources. If the redo is perfect, their old score gets a bump on the square root curve. I liked this notion,  but had a dilemma—my exams in AP Physics are taken from secure college board documents which are not to leave my classroom. Additionally, I knew that certain groups of kids would work together, while others would not take the initiative to join a group, attempt to work on their own, and not reap as much of the benefits. Not wanting to lose the integrity or security of the exams I needed to make a modification on the assignment.

I informed students of the opportunity to do a retake. Since they needed time to really work the exam, I offered them a “collaboration day” during lunch (our students have a shared lunch hour). The retake would be the following day at lunch as well. (Collaboration day came and I was enthralled. Two thirds of my students came (this has increased to as high as 80%) , received a blank copy of the test, and started talking and working together. Large groups of students formed around white boards to tackle problems, the energy was palatable and the camaraderie was invigorating. Since the students had no number to form an idea how they had actually done on the exam, there was a wide range of abilities in the room.

One of my best students commented to me after collaboration day, “I thought I did really well, but I realize there was a lot I didn’t know” The need to score a perfect in order to obtain an increase in points also motivated students to grill each other for explanations until they understood and could reproduce the work themselves.

Retake day arrived and I had a full house. Students were able to finish their previously 40 minute exam in 20 or less because they knew how to attack the problems and most students were able to perfectly answer the problems.

I struggled, however, with the notion that students might memorize steps to a solution, rather than it being truly valid. I added a reflection component to the retake. Students needed to explain to me what they had previously misunderstood that now they comprehended. The reflections were telling. Students who had obtained 100% on the exam could clearly indicate their faults in either concept or problem-solving approaches. Students who were unable to obtain 100% were unable to adequately reflect on what they misunderstood.

I have continued this practice, in particular with the energy exam, for the last 5 years since I first came across the article. It is not my first or only method for re-assessments, but it is certainly a powerful one. A few changes and observations I’ve made over the years:

  1. To avoid the memorization piece, instead of testing next day, we test 5-7 days after the collaboration day in order for students to “forget”
  2. I had a really hard time not bumping a student who earned a 60% and then got all of the FRQ right and missed one MC. So I do a half-bump… so if the full bump is 10*sqrt(60) = 77, the half bump is 77-60/2 = 8.5 60+8.5 = 68.5, which I’ll likely round to 70 out of generosity.
  3. I’ve had one instance where a student with extreme anxiety and perfectionism this was problematic. I made alternative arrangements for that student ahead of the retake (they got 100 anyway).
Teaching Methods · Uncategorized

“Physics of” Projects – End of Year

Did you come here from a schoolology link? I’d love to know how you’re using this post! Feel free to contact me!

That time between AP exams and summer break is weird and special all at the same time. (If you’re looking for review ideas, here’s what I do before the exam) Depending on when your year starts it’s also possibly extensive. Watching movies and playing games is really only fun for about a week. If you are in all AP classes it gets old pretty fast when the whole day is mind-numbing for the next four weeks.

To use the time productively, and enjoyably, I assign a “physics of project”. I was actually inspired to do something like this after seeing Professor Gordon Ramsey continuously bring his undergraduate students in to Chicago Section AAPT meetings to present their original research. Most memorably I recall a project on music. The student who played saxophone in marching band, make a sax out of PVC and compared the tonal quality to a real sax using the same mouthpiece. He also did an acoustical analysis of his playing vs Professor Ramsey’s playing (which was really cool to basically see the differences between a “novice” marching band player vs an experienced improvisational player).

I believe that same meeting was the one where we hosted Rhett Allain who presented on the Science of Superheros.

The Prompt and Parameters

The prompt is simple: students are asked to research the physics behind anything they want.

The only real parameter is that whatever they choose they need to be able to collect and analyze data. If they cannot directly collect data then they need to find a way to come up with assumptions for measurements (analyzing videos, researching quantities) or find a way to model what they hope to research.

That’s it.

Ok, ok… I provide a little more structure than that, because we all know if given 2-4 weeks to complete a major project most students will put in 40 hours of work the 2 days before the deadline.

Here is what I provide:

Your task: In a group of 1-3 people:

  • Pick a topic to study the physics of. This can literally be anything, but it needs to be something that you can find a way to either physically model and/or otherwise collect data.
  • Research the topic and collect data. You may collect data inside or outside the classroom. Inside the classroom you have access to all probeware and software. If you are wondering if I have something, ask because I probably do. Outside the classroom your cell phone is your largest asset. Additionally, I have 4 iOLabs from the University of Illinois that can run nearly all of the data collection as my Vernier probes can. You may check one out for 2 consecutive days at a time. A sign up will be available next week.
  • Write a formal lab report (background, theory, purpose, procedure, data, analysis, conclusion etc)
  • Present your results in a 10-15 minute presentation. Come prepared with either a poster or slides because physics is visual!
    • When you present, you will be asked questions about the physics of your project and considerations to make it better. Be sure you’ve considered all of the assumptions you’ve made carefully and intentionally!

The first assignment students must provide me with is a project proposal. They need to have a concrete plan for how they plan to measure and analyze their data. This is submitted to me within the first week of the project. I provide students with feedback regarding their plans and suggestions as appropriate.

Next, I ask them to do some background research. It’s like a super watered down literature review. I want them using sources and learning a bit about what they are planning to study before they dive in. I ask for just a page.

The following few weeks they have a simple check in: what have you accomplished, what challenges are you running into, what do you need to do next. These check ins hold them accountable. All of the smaller assignments are included in the final grade.

The final product is a presentation and a paper. The paper is effectively a large lab report.

Students are given the following outline (dates were when we used to end on Memorial Day)

Student Products

Student projects are AMAZING

I will have many students analyze real data they’ve collected like this student who looked at the oscillations of her dog drying himself

Or I will have students analyze the physics of something they maybe cannot capture data directly, but they find ways to make estimates. Like this project on the physics of Nathen Chen

These projects have spanned everything from “is it possible?” in the movies, to students analyzing themselves in their own sport, to topics like rainbows that we don’t cover in AP Physics 1.

Students regularly report that this is their favorite activity the entire year, and the activity they are most proud of. (It also gives me a great story to tell in rec letters!)

When students give their presentations I want to run this much like if they were presenting research. I expect them to talk about what they might do or change if they did it again, or if they wanted to explore further. I ask them questions about their methodology and assumptions. During this process we also open the discussion to the whole class to brainstorm ideas as well.

Student work

If you want to see a sample, here is The Physics of Nathen Chen paper and the Wet Dog Slides and because we all need a little Monty Python, here’s a really extensive student paper on the Black Knight

Teaching Methods

Student Self-Evaluations for Growth

Grading. Feedback. Oh how we want it to be effective, but too often our time is not exchanged for valuable student learning. When the focus is the grade, rather than the learning, and the grade is “final” with no opportunities to grow, why would students care about the feedback? They look at the grade, make a judgment of themselves as learners of physics, and toss it. Not only do they miss out on the growth opportunity, they miss out on all of the things they did correctly. 

I always love when students come to me and we have one on one conversations because these are really fruitful, but there’s literally not enough time in the day to do this for 100-200 students. 

Besides, as a high school teacher my lasting lessons need to be the ones that will carry them through college and beyond. None of those have to do with properly using F=ma. 

Recently in my regular physics classes I’ve worked to make the process more transparent. We do regular “check-in’s” (yes, they are quizzes) that are focused on 1-2 objectives, but the other piece I’ve added is having students self-evaluate their work in the same way I evaluate their work. 

This is not about providing solutions (yes, it’s part of it). It’s about making the students go through the process in a non-threatening way so they can look for trends and patterns in their work. 

Here’s what it looks like

Currently we are wrapping up reflection. I want students to be able to do ray tracing and mathematical calculations. 

One of the changes I made years ago was to ask students to do the ray diagram first, making it roughly proportional, and then work the math and verify the two answers check out with one another. I proclaim to students they won’t need me to ask if they did it right, they should know

Historically I’ve had the solutions available at my desk for students to check the work. But you know what they do? They look at the final answer and move on. 

My biggest problem? Students just will not draw that image in on their ray diagram! I also have a problem with students not putting arrowheads on their light rays. Now, from a student learning objective process, both of these omissions are not problematic if the goal is to locate and describe the image. However, for a student who is struggling, these omissions can make it really difficult. I don’t want to punish students who clearly know what’s going on, but I don’t want to settle for incomplete work, either. 

Enter the self-evaluation. 

I create a checklist for students to go through, and I have them go through this checklist for each question. I reproduce the checklist for each question so students are required to look at each piece of their work rather than trying to summarize everything from the start. Why do I do this? I want them to see patterns in their work.

Here’s what it looks like for ray diagrams

Here’s what the math check list looks like. 

I ask students to evaluate their answers with my solution guide. I also ask them to give themselves a score. 2 points if everything is right. 1 point if something is right but there are things missing or incorrect. 0 points if nothing is correct. Their score out of 4 gives them an idea of the letter grade they would earn from the work. 

So the whole document looks like this:

I explain they might notice they are marking “no” over and over again. When they notice this, that piece is the piece they now know they need to work on. 

To make sure students are self-aware, I asked them to summarize what they did correctly, and what they did incorrectly or omitted. 

I will be honest, part of me expected students to kind of half-ass the assignment. But something magical happened: students who hadn’t finished the assignment evaluated the ones they did… and then they worked the rest of the problems and corrected themselves!!!

We will see how the test goes next week, but I’m really hopeful! 

Teaching Methods

AP Physics 1 Review Unit

As a general rule I kind of hate reviews. They make the students feel good, but I’m not sure how much they actually get from the traditional review session a day or so before the test. I do a lot of problem solving work with my students all year long, using different strategies to help maximize their efforts on both the multiple choice and the FRQs. So by the time we are two weeks from the AP exam I want to build their confidence, let them have some fun and have some meaningful conversations along the way.

We dedicate a day to each of the topics on the AP exam. Each day there is a new challenge. (Links to activities provided!)

For the kinematics challenge students have to “match the graph” but unlike the first week of school, I want them matching the values and intercepts as well!

Last year for day 2 we did a long forces FRQ practice. We had 25 minute classes in SY 2020-21, so I did not have time to do the practice as I described in this post until finals week. My practicum asks students to determine coefficients of friction using only a meterstick.

For UCM I focus students in on rote practice drawing force diagrams and writing sum of forces expressions for multiple scenarios.

Work and energy has so many cool opportunities for a lab practicum. I have students choose their own adventure from one of several Pivot Interactives videos

For momentum I give students a random ziploc bag of stuff (beans, pennies, highlighters…literally anything I can find)… and I ask students to come up with two methods to determine the mass of the bag!

Simple harmonic motion is a card sort. I have position, velocity and acceleration vs time graphs generated for a mass-spring system and a simple pendulum. (link to jamboard version from 2020-21 SY) I also have some extra graphs. (Here’s an example of a completed assignment!)

I believe firmly in the power of deep conversations. The challenge is making those conversations into something cohesive and reflective. Each year I move further away from “traditional” review. At some point we have to trust that we’ve done the best we can as their educators and that at some point we have to let them fly.

Teaching Methods

Tackling the Long AP FRQ

Sometimes APP1 is literally the worst.

The folks on the writing committee for questions must get really excited about writing interesting questions for the long FRQs… the issue, however, is that students generally suck at them.

Average and standard deviations for the last 4 years of long FRQs (2020 omitted for obvious reasons)

Here’s the thing though: I know that in a non-testing environment, my students should be able to perform way better than these national numbers. However student responses in an exam setting tend to be long-winded, lacking a clearly defined direction and often taking too much time down useless avenues.

So how do we correct this?

Firstly, I believe it is more important to give students the confidence that they can tackle these problems than insisting they do tackle these on a unit exam. Mindset makes a major difference.

Also, given the suggested time of 25 minutes, it’s not fair or appropriate to put one of these on a unit exam because it means the students grade will mostly be based on the question type, rather than their actual mastery.

To build student skills and prepare for the exam I set a few days aside during the year to specifically practice the long FRQs. Sometimes it’s the lab question, sometimes it’s the quantitative reasoning problem, but I try to do it at least once per unit.

Here’s the cycle:

Round 1: Skim and annotate on your own (5 minutes) I want students to have the feeling of sitting down for this question cold, with only their brain available to them. However, I also want to build their testing strategies and problem solving skills. For English we teach students to skim the passage and annotate the text by making a note of big ideas for each paragraph (I’ve worked as an ACT tutor). Why shouldn’t we do the exact same thing for these items in physics?! In fact, sometimes there are some easy points nestled in at the end… or… we can find the meat of the problem doesn’t show up until part c or d. Students often sit at the problem and begin at the begining and work until the end. While this is ok for homework, on a high stakes exam they are possibly leaving minutes and points to waste.

Round 2: Friends No Pens (10 minutes) you may have seen me talk about this strategy before a test. Many folks comment about how this reduces anxiety. I see friends no pens serving two extremely valuable purposes. First, it helps students organize their thoughts by saying them aloud. Second, it forces students to clearly and accurately communicate with their peers. By doing this, they will write more succinctly when it comes time to do the work.

Round 3: Individual Work (10-15 minutes). I explain to students they’ve already had 15 minutes to “work” the problem, so they should only need 10 more to finish. I ask them to complete as much as they can in the time.

Round 4: Discuss in a group: Sometimes I omit this phase and give them the scoring guides immediately. Other times I let them discuss their solutions in a group. When I do this, I mix up the groups from the students they talked with during friends no pens. Students are asked to make corrections as needed

Round 5: Self-score: Lastly I give students the AP scoring guidelines. This is a really important piece because they should see exactly how they are evaluated. A student noticed today “Ms R… there’s no point for the answer” NOPE! It’s all about the work. Other students noticed how stating momentum is conserved is worth points. At this time in the year we’ve pretty much covered all of the physics and now I want to work to maximize the points they can earn on the exam so their score reflects what they are actually capable of.

Sometimes (especially the first one we do) we debrief afterwards about the activity. Sometimes I have them turn these in for quiz points. Sometimes I let them keep the assignment. Sometimes I skip friends no pens. I will have them annotate, then solve the problem then discuss. I ask them to give themselves a “my score” grade and a “with friends” grade so they can see the difference between the two. Much of our conversation is focused on identifying big ideas and writing in a conscience manner.

How do you tackle preparing students for these items on the AP exam?