I’m writing for ArborSci!

Twitter did it’s thing! I hopped on Twitter and started this blog at roughly the same time. Part of it came from a place of recognizing that no one is ever going to know or understand what I do in the classroom unless I actively talk publicly about what I do! I think the meritocracy myth was embedded so deeply within myself (as it is for much of us who teach) that I figured my “work will speak for itself” and recognition would come when it was earned. The reality, however, was that no one aside from my students was really ever in my classroom. My work, my learning, my successes all stayed within the four walls that I make home for 173 days per year.

So I started networking on Twitter and I started a blog. Then something amazing happened. I felt like a new teacher all over again. There were so many ideas to try, books to read, questions to consider it was nearly a firehose! For a while I lurked because of major imposter syndrome, but then I started to get comfortable with my place. Over the years my network has grown and I’ve been able to actually interact with a lot of folks at events and conferences.

One of those folks is Nicole Murawski. She recently shifted from the classroom to Arbor and hasn’t looked back. She’s loving what she’s doing and has found the right balance for her life. She messaged me a few weeks ago to share that in a conversation with some of the folks there, she dropped my name.

I’ll be honest I had so much apprehension and I didn’t respond to her message for a bit. When I finally did that lead to the phone call with Arbor (more apprehension) and then another conversation with their marketing department. On the first call they asked if I had any ideas in mind. I was honest. I was burnt out so, no. I didn’t. This is why I was so apprehensive. I’m not one to be a constant fountain of ideas. When the come, they come in full force, but I just don’t come up with stuff on the fly. (Enter hating questions like “what’s your favorite” “if you could ____ anything, what would it be” and all related ice breakers)

Within a week I received an email that they wanted to do a “lifestyle” post about ways teachers can develop over the summer. As soon as I read the email I had an outline for a post in my brain within five minutes. I sent the pitch back and had a two-week deadline to write the story.

The article was posted yesterday and went out on the Cool Stuff mailing list! Check out a snippet below and read the rest on Arbor!

As the school year winds down and summer approaches I inevitably find myself more excited about next year than what I need to plan next week. While students are in a flurry studying for AP exams and final exams, I have the rare gift of time to begin to wind down and decompress a bit. Cognitive science tells us that creativity flows when we allow ourselves to get bored.  Perhaps proctoring state exams at the end of the school year comes at just the right time for us as we edge towards the burnout of another completed school year. Once the freedom of summer arrives, finding the right balance of boredom, rest and curiosity makes for the perfect cocktail for the months ahead. Here are four ways you can find that balance, rejuvenate your mind and refresh the joy in your craft. (read the rest!)

In My Class Today

That time I had to change my lesson in 15 minutes

So I’m taking a break between mechanics and waves/color/sound in regular physics to run the underrep curriculum. This week was mostly setting the stage and one of the projects students had was to research a black scientist, create a poster and write a bio. FIRST of all, some of the posters WERE AMAZING (YES, those are STUDENT CREATED posters)

One of my students decided to research Dorothy Vaughan, the first black female supervisor for NASA. Unfortunately she kept finding photos of other computers labeled with her name. One picture, in particular had us puzzled because she didn’t quite fit anyone’s visual. I commented on how this experience in and of itself made for an interesting statement on underrepresentation and marginalization.

So today I see the NASA announcement that one of the mountains on the moon is to be named after Melba Mouton. The photo? The same one we were puzzling over! I was eager to share this with my student and I started doing a google image search for Dorothy Vaughn, specifically looking for this photo of Melba.

And WHO has it mislabeled? None other than UC Berkeley!

So I scrapped the lesson for today and we wrote. First I had the student share her story with the picture situation and then I shared the news about the moon. I gave students a framework to then write a letter to the curators of the exhibit at Berkeley, asking them to put into consideration the bigger picture of our studies from the past week.

They did this on the big post it paper and then we had a gallery walk and students crafted a final version of their group letter.

I then went through submissions and put together a final letter of their writing to send off to the two individuals listed on the exhibit.

Of course my students’ first question “will they even do anything” stung a bit because I know that comes from a place of not being heard over and over again.

But they DID!

I promptly received an email back from Berkeley that they would correct the attribution and include Melba! I am SO excited to share with my students Tuesday!

Teaching Methods

Retrieval for Study

I love using retrieval practices.

And while the practice itself is valuable without the need to do more beyond the retrieving act, I really like to add student discourse to the mix.

Today we did retrieval with a homework problem. I’ve also done something similar with notes from class. One of the keys in this activity is color coding.

My students were given an AP problem to work on over the weekend. When they arrived in class today I informed them we were going to discuss the problem but don’t pull it out! I proceeded to give students a blank copy of the problem. Students had 10 minutes to complete the problem using only their brains.

In phase two I had students discuss the problem within their table groups. At the beginning of the year I had put students in groups based on the scores of their cognitive reflection test. Students were initially in mixed groups with the hope that reflective ideas could spread. Unfortunately this backfired a bit as students on the lower end started taking passive roles. For this semester I put similar-scoring students together while also accounting for the personalities I’ve come to know. This means that I knew when I had students talking they were working in similar-ability teams. As students added or changed answers they highlighted the revisions with a highlighter.

For phase three I counted off students in groups of 4 so ideas could spread and mix. Again, students highlighted anything they added or changed with a second color.

Lastly, I went through the solutions formally, but because they had spent so much time on the nitty-gritty I was able to talk about the problem in terms of the big picture. Any lingering revisions needed to be coded in a third color.

When we finished I pointed out that the colors give them an idea of where their studies and focus need to be. Start with the first color: they have lots of resources to help them with those ideas. The second color required a spread of ideas and perhaps had a few more challenging ones in the mix.

Students commented on how they felt more confident about the work we are doing after this activity, and I just love that the paper creates a really clear visual of where they are. The best part is that this paper is just for them. No reason to feel shame because you’re in the middle of the learning process.


“The 100% is always in the room!”

“Ms. Ruggerio, is this correct?”

I get asked this question so many times in a day. Early in my career I felt like lots of student questions were a sign of my relationship with students and their willingness to have a conversation to get to an answer. I quickly discovered, however, that preconceived notion was about how I asked questions of my teachers. My students, on the other hand, are usually looking to be told how to do something explicitly so they can then mimic it, rather than wrestle with the ideas on their own. This became particularly apparent with a student my second year who was clearly brilliant but would literally check in with me every step of the way. Eventually, my intervention at the time was that he could ask me two questions per class period, so he needed to choose wisely about which questions would best help him.

In hindsight, this was too harsh of a response. As the adult in in the room it is my responsibility to create an environment where students can learn and must think. Singling this student out in this way likely shamed the student and without any other kind of support there was no way for him to know what a good question necessarily was, only that his teacher was refusing to answer them.

As my classroom has moved towards more student-driven discourse and less teacher-driven lecture, so too does the responsibility for learning and thinking shift from the teacher to the student. My students just found out this week that the time has come for their big energy retake. It’s a special retake I run once a year for this assessment in particular for a number of reasons, but none more important than to teach the valuable lesson: The 100% is in the room.

It is a phrase that has become synonymous with my name amongst my students, they know it’s my thing. Whether they are in lab, or whiteboarding problems or working on a retake, I will often announce at some point in the midst of the productive struggle “the 100% is in the room!” it’s met with some eye rolls, but it’s true. And something that’s really important for me to remind them is that the 100% is not in the room because Will got 100%, the 100% is in the room because each student has some piece of knowledge that is valuable to the whole, and if they can come together as a class they can get to the 100%. Regardless of the task, individual students aren’t done until everyone is done. They need to come to consensus on an answer.

There’s a deeper lesson here about science too: the real world doesn’t provide correct answers. In science, we can declare something is true to the best of our knowledge because enough scientists have come to consensus about an idea and have the evidence to support it. There’s no science god to tell them “yes, that’s correct”. You must hold a firm belief that you have the best possible understanding with the evidence you currently have access.

I have no problem accepting the reality that the vast majority of my students will leave my classroom with little lasting knowledge of physics, and that’s ok. What I hope my students can walk away with for life is the ability to communicate, collaborate, persist, and mentally wrestle with problems, knowing that the best solutions come when we work as a team. The “smartest” people are rarely the best because they are geniuses, they are the best because they know how to pull the genius of everyone together to reach for more.

Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Energy Part 4 – Lab!

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 3 (problem solving)

I have this lab I received from a colleague, it’s an iteration of a lab I’ve seen in other places. Basically an object goes down a ramp, gets caught by a paper catch/index card etc and students are looking for some iteration of work and energy.

In the version I have students are asked to find a relationship between height and distance. The cool thing about this is it ends up that height is directly proportional to distance and related by the coefficient of kinetic friction alone.

Student’s work looks like this:

Students are asked to complete the lab with a hot wheel car and then again with a small mass attached to the car. To students’ surprise the lines are not identical. This really bothers students until we discuss what we were actually looking for. See, the lines are still parallel, but the car with more mass is going to have a greater momentum at the bottom and will require a greater impulse to stop. It’s a fantastic conversation piece.

Student generated graph from lab

I really enjoy this lab because it requires students to consider a new problem and then apply that knowledge to a lab setting. Research has shown that students don’t really learn content in the lab, they learn lab skills. I was always a little frustrated with the disconnect between all of the work students put into the theory and then the lab results themselves. So this time I changed things up.

Instead of giving students the lab hand out and letting them work in groups, when students walked into the room they were put into visibly random groups. Visibly random grouping just means you create the random groups in front of students so they see it was truly random. I’ve been immersed in the book Building Thinking Classrooms and the research on this is really cool.

Once students are in their groups and at a white board that is vertically mounted, I’m in the middle of the room at a lab table with the lab set-up. I verbally explain the set up and that I want them to derive a mathematical model for the relationship between height and distance.

Vertical whiteboarding is really cool and has several advantages. First, students are standing which puts them into a more active position, this gets more of them working. Second, it’s really easy to just look around and snag ideas from other classmates. Third, since they’re already standing it’s really easy to move around the room and discuss with other groups. The first time I did this what astounded me was the sheer number of students talking. Instead of it being maybe 4 or 5 leaders it was nearly everyone in the room! There was so much collaboration and ownership of learning it was magical.

Taking a peek to get ideas is easy!

So I did this with the first part of the lab. Next, I asked them to sketch what the graph will look like with the two lines. Almost all of the students sketched the two lines on top of each other. I want them to have the experience of their data not aligning with their previous ideas and having to reconsider, so we left it at that. Then students were off.

I’m going to finish this lab this week, so I’ll have to come back to update this post, but I love this activity and vertical whiteboarding gets a 10/10 every time.

Teaching Methods

How I teach… Work & Energy Part 3 – The Math!

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 4 (Vertical Whiteboard +Lab)

After over a week of work and various representations and practicing energy bar charts we finally dive into the math. We’ve already created mathematical models for spring energy and gravitational potential energy and I give them kinetic. Now we begin.

I want to press on the students that there isn’t an “equation” for energy problems that they are looking for. They need to determine thee equation from their bar chart and physics they already know.

We will start with another example problem and generate the equation through the bar chart. Students then have the opportunity to try a bunch more iterations on their own. This is about the time I will do the hopper popper lab energy style.

In AP I will open the following day a step further by giving them the problem below as a warm up (students do NOT have the bar charts provided!)

Students are first asked to create the bar charts because there’s no point in trying to write equations and solve for anything until the bar chart is correct. In the first part most students will neglect to include friction. In the second, students will say the ball only has potential energy at the peak, forgetting that the horizontal component stays constant!

The purpose of this exercise is twofold: first, it’s a great opportunity for interleaving. Second, it demonstrates to students they need to be ready for anything!

This year I’ve been incorporating vertical white boarding from Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics and it’s been truly amazing. After this exercise we went to vertical boards where students had two more problems, one was straightforward with friction while the other was solving for the height of a ramp needed so a ball can just make it around the loop.

The following day students engage in my conceptual whiteboard challenge where I help scaffold an expert approach to problem solving.

Next up, what my mathematical lab looks like for energy. Time to bring out the toys!

Turns out I also have a lecture video for this one (thanks COVID!)

Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Work & Energy (part 2)

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 3 (problem solving) Part 4 (Lab)

We move into energy conservation pretty quickly. Similar to our introduction to work, I pull on prior student knowledge. How many energy forms can you name? As students list them I copy them on the board, sorting them into mechanical and non-mechanical forms. Once we’ve exhausted this list I give them the category names and also the definitions of potential energy as energy of position and kinetic as energy of motion. We discuss how potential energy requires a position that can be measured within the system.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to support students is to teach them to create bar charts. I’ve seen many iterations of this, in the modeling community these are LOL charts. I, personally, haven’t been convinced to continue to use quite as much time on the systems part as many in the modeling community do (literally for the sake of time) but the key feature here is that we are taking concepts and translating them into a kind of visual, mathematical model.

So this is what we do first. We do a few examples (it’s like a checklist!) and then students are on their own for some samples. Emphasis is placed on the process:

  1. Identify your initital and final states
  2. Sketch a picture of each state
  3. Identify your system
  4. Identify which energy/ies are present
  5. If there is a change between initial and final then we need to include work.
  6. Double check that you have, in fact, accounted for any possible external forces that may have done work.

I show students how defining different systems can still get you to the same answer and WOW! Work done by gravity is the same as the potential energy due to gravity… the difference is the system.

I actually have the COVID-lecture version of this video when I wasn’t able to run this lesson with the whole class. While you’ll notice I do go into the math here, it’s really not an emphasis until later. In my regular class I don’t touch it at all until the next day

Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Work & Energy

Interestingly enough the work and energy unit/chapter has become my litmus test for whether or not I’m going to invest time in a resource. It was what spurred my frustration with The Physics Girl’s AP review series (although I’ve learned that when you’re actually commissioned by someone like PBS you have to bend to the whims of the corporation).

So what’s the litmus test? Open the resource to the first page of the Work & Energy chapter. If you see “work is defined as force times distance” close it and move along! First of all, let me be totally clear, that was me early in my career. I taught that work was the dot product of force and distance, we did a lot of different calculations and then we defined energy and did conservation of energy. My frustrations began with the fact that students were not transferring the idea of work over to conservation of energy. They deepened when upon reflection I realized my angst was because the core idea is not just that “energy is conserved” but that work causes a change of energy in a system.

Enter the new dynamics. I’ve talked about how the structure of your units is really going to guide students to what is important. If you start the lesson with an equation, then they are going to assume that equations are what’s most important. However, if we start with their preconceptions, build on that knowledge and form models we can get a little farther than equation hunting.

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 3 (problem solving) Part 4 (Lab)

I start by asking students to name types of work. The list looks something like this:

  • Homework
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • work work (a job)
  • Wood working

and so on…

Then I ask students what is shared amongst all of those ideas. I’m looking for two answers, that they all require effort and that they all end in a change: Do your homework and your brain grows, work a job and you get paid… and so on.

So then I give students a list of tasks: lifting your backpack, holding your backpack, dropping your backpack, walking with your backpack (at a constant speed), climbing the stairs with your backpack, and I ask students which of the following are an example of doing work. We don’t share answers quite yet because I don’t want to participate in “expose and shame” where we trick students into marking the wrong answer. After they come up with this list then we formally discuss work as “a change in energy of a system due to the application of forces”. I emphasize the change which is in alignment with our original definition and “application of forces” which is the “effort” part they mentioned earlier. We go back through the examples and have a discussion about which are work and how.

Note: We’ve already discussed systems when we did forces, so there is a review of this idea as well.. the concept of systems is critical to student understanding of work and energy so if you’ve not done systems yet you need to hit this hard!

I’m going to include a few of the sample problems we work together in class to hit different ideas:

I ask this question right after our intro to work. I let students come up with lots of ways to reason the answer. The “correct” answer is that the force is perpendicular to the displacement, but this is also a good time to discuss that a “before” and “after” snapshot would also look identical, or that with each orbit the displacement is zero!

I ask this question in two ways: first as presented, then I ask them how the ranking changes if they were asked about the work done on the OBJECT. This is also a good place to discuss what negative means in the sense of work (positive work ADDS to the system while negative work takes away from the system)

Also of note: in AP I tell them that any time they get a graph they should ask themselves “does the slope tell me anything, does the area tell me anything” slope is essentially dividing the properties while area is multiplying (I know this is a major oversimplification, but it’s an algebra based course). I show them a graph of force vs displacement and ask how they find the work done (area!) they have a few practice items with these.

We run the spring lab where students discover Hooke’s Law and then I ask them to determine the amount of work done on the spring. Most students are able to get to the idea that its 1/2kx^2, but I do always have a few groups that want to just sub in kx for force and end up omitting the 1/2. This is a great conversation to have in a board meeting.

In my regular classes I run this great desmos activity I found by another teacher (try it out here).

First, students move the sliders to make the graph match the scenario…

Then that graph is reproduced on the next slide so students can use it to perform the calculation

This familiarizes students with graphical representations and the idea of how positive and negative work affect the system. I added one last slide to the original asking students to review what they learned in the activity and predict the work done by the spring in their lab

When we are ready to move to energy, I open with the following question:

A ball is dropped from rest.

  1. Define the system to be just the ball. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.
  2. Define the system to be the ball and the earth. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.

This is a great way to talk about how the same situation can describe work or not. The gravitational force is clearly inside of the system in #2 and therefore is a NON example of work.

We’ll discuss how I move from work to energy another day!


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