Classroom Issues · In My Class Today

Identity Development in the Physics Classroom

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Why do you teach? It’s certainly not for the competitive salary, the great respect from society or the flexible work schedule. Do you remember writing that philosophy of education statement? What did it say then, what does it say now? Most statements say something along the lines of “I believe all students can learn” “students learn at different rates” “students need to be met where they are at” so on and so forth. What is critical here, is the use of the word “all”.

The reality is that while every teacher might say they believe in “all” our school systems are not designed for “all”. They never were designed for all. When the rubber hits the road and we’re deep in the muck of teaching we categorize “those” students, whatever that means. “Those students” will go straight to military/factory/automotive shop so “they” aren’t interested in higher math or physics. “Those” students don’t need physics because they aren’t majoring in science. A far more insidious part of this reality is that “those” students are overwhelmingly growing up in poverty and are often our Black and Hispanic students.

Furthermore, in spaces such as physics, this idea of “who” does physics is even more exacerbated in the larger scientific community. The work of identity building, literacy development and social justice do not exclusively live in the realm of english and history courses and “African American Study” courses, it is work that belongs to every single teacher who claims “all students” deserve the opportunity to learn and grow.

This work is challenging and it begins with most of us sitting with a lot of discomfort. It also involves a large volume of reading and listening on our part. In physics, especially, this work can seem even more challenging (and some argue unnecessary!) because it is not clear how this work fits in the scope of a physics class or perhaps if you are ready to tackle the work you are unsure where to begin.

I had the pleasure of diving into two incredible books this year, Culturally Reponsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond and Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Mohammed. I truly believe that these two texts together serve as an excellent foundation for engaging in the work of narrative shifting within you classroom. Hammond shows us how our cultural underpinnings shape the way we interpret and learn information while Mohammed brings hundreds of years of Black excellence and literacy to the forefront of education in today’s classroom.

Muhammed lays out what she calls the Historical Relevant Literacy (HRL) framework. In the framework she identifies four critical components: identity, skill development, criticality and intellectualism. One of the most important details of the framework is that culturally relevant learning should not be a one-off lesson in a particular month to celebrate a particular group, but rather engrained in every fiber of the curriculum to consistently give students the opportunity to learn about others and themselves within their coursework. 

Physics Identity Encounters

For the last few years I’ve made a deep dive into issues of representation in physics and the largest recurring theme is the importance of developing a physics identity. It became clear to me how the HRL framework could apply to my own classroom. With the added challenge of the pandemic I knew that trying to recreate and do everything with excellence would quickly lead to burn-out and failure, so I made the decision before the year began that I would make connections and relationships my number one priority, with identity development as a critical component of that priority.

Twitter and the sweeping social justice conversations has made it easier than ever. With everyone working, teaching and learning from home, many people began to develop content that was accessible to all in the form of webinars and other livestreams. I began to integrate these opportunities in a rather fluid manner into my classes. For each, I asked students to reflect on what they had heard. Specifically, I asked them to do the following:

  • Discuss a concept or theory that resonated with you
  • Discuss a concept or theory that challenged you
  • Discuss a concept or theory that left you wondering
  • Discuss a concept or theory that resulted in an “aha” moment for you.
  • Last, (if not included already), discuss how the concepts discussed might apply to you as a student.

In October I livestreamed an event from Women in Science that featured Dr. Jessica Esquivel (here’s a link to the talk). She talked about identity and the sciences, but perhaps more importantly she told her story as an AfroLatinx woman from Texas who wanted to pursue a PhD in physics and what that meant as she navigated conversations with her family, peers and colleagues.

Dr. Esquivel was also a foundational member of the #BlackInPhysics movement, which was primarily geared towards college physics students. The movement included a roll call, in which black physicists used the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work. Through this movement I learned about Tamia Williams who has put together an incredible project called Being Seen of interviews where physicists and physics students talk about how they integrate physics into their passion for the arts. Her participants reflect an immense diversity of backgrounds. Aside from the obvious coolness of this, many of my students are part of our district’s highly competitive creative and performing arts program.

The last guest of the year was a former student of mine who is finishing her physics degree. She already has an incredible story about her own journey and future plans. Not only did my students get to interact with someone who is underrepresented in physics, they heard it from someone who has truly been in their shoes.

Student Reactions

Students shared how much they enjoyed the assignments. Many of my students saw themselves in the stories that were shared. One of my students, after reflecting on her shared experience ended her reflection with, “I think videos like this should be shown more often to high school students. It was inspiring to me so I know it will be to others as well.”

Students shared themes of resilience and recognition of the systems in play in their reflections. “a theory that blew my mind was that if you can’t go down the path that you want. then you should make your pack and do not let anyone bring down your path and not let you reach your goal.”

“How and when can we all breakout of that cycle and until when will we be able to help each other instead of judging and being ashamed of mistakes that we will learn from? She really opened my eyes to see how not just physics in general but all types of sciences are competitive expertise and how some people really struggle with the subject and that it’s ok to not get it right away. Her words were comforting for me and now I really have a different perspective and input on physics from listening to her.”

Another reflected (unknowingly) on stereotype threat, “Most of the time I do ask whatever questions I have to those around me but I often hesitate in doing so for fear of sounding unintelligent. But like Olivia Lowe said, we’re all learning. No one in the class is an expert in physics. It’s likely everyone’s first course and even if it isn’t, physics is a difficult subject. It’s okay to be confused. No one should have a fear of getting the help they need.”

I was also really impressed by the impact the assignments had on my white students. One shared “I was just wondering why people struggle for being different. I don’t understand because I have never had that experience.”

I could say all of these things to my students all day long, but hearing it from someone who is in the field, who is a current student and who has shared lived experiences is far more powerful than anything I could ever lecture them about.

In case you were wondering, this is what I believe about teaching and learning. As a teacher in physics, and as a female teacher in physics, I believe it is my obligation to give all students who come to me the opportunity to expand their minds not just as students of science, but as stewards of our world and society. I belong to a school where the rich student diversity in background and expression is what gives life and vibrance to our school hallways. As an educator it is my responsibility to show students that they belong and are capable of success in any course of study they desire, because we need that same vibrance from diversity of thought and experience in order to tackle the complex problems in our world.

Teaching is so much more than ensuring students have content and content-related skills. We have the very special opportunity to help children envision and create their future trajectories in life. This is a great responsibility that we can never forget.

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.

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.

Classroom Issues

Squishing Miss Giggles

We have a problem.

It’s a big one.

And it’s one of those problems we, as teachers, need to fix.

Unfortunately, some of the teachers are part of the problem.

msgigglesHer name is Miss Giggles. She’s actually a virus. She preys on girls who either lack confidence in their skills or actively hide their skills in order to maintain social status. Miss Giggles boasts a high of popularity, boys, and conformity.

The reality is much darker.

Miss Giggles undermines that which is unique about a girl who is talented. It undermines the strength of a woman. And it forms a false perception of the girl she has infected, to her future detriment.

You would like to think that as this girl matures, goes to college and enters the workforce she will develop antibodies to Miss Giggles and move on. Unfortunately, that is not so.

I had attended a physics teacher association meeting and a colleague infected with Miss Giggles got up to present. She literally giggled during the whole presentation. I know this is her personality, and I also know she is an amazing teacher and brilliant, but quite frankly in front of our group of peers, in that moment, she came off as silly and stupid. In fact, they were unable to answer the question they had sought out to answer in the first place, so by ending the talk with a jovial, “and we have no idea” and a laugh, it seemed as if she had wasted the mega-grant she had obtained. All the while, her arguably inferior male partner came off as put together and knowledgeable.

At a meeting at the start of the school year, we were asked to watch a video an give our impressions. Nearly every female gifted teacher who responded started her response with “I’m sorry if this isn’t right, but I thought…” I was infuriated. WE WERE ASKED OUR OPINION! YOU CAN’T BE WRONG. And yet my female colleagues were dumming themselves down in front of our (female) principal and peers.

Psychology tells us two things: first impressions are quick to form, long-lasting and difficult to change.

Miss Giggles creates a grave problem here: she creates a first impression that is incorrect, but very difficult to change. Meanwhile, we live in a world where women still strugle to have equal status with men and are minorities in highly technical fields such as physics. We have to prove our worth moreso than our male counterparts. Yet, there are a huge group of women who are undermining these efforts for equality!

I often have this conversation with my students: first about the science of impressions, and second that people will form those impressions based on how you carry yourself and how you speak. (Since they are formed in the first 10 seconds). Too often our girls will sell themselves short, “I don’t know anything! I’m going to fail this test” and more often than not, these are the smart ones. I quickly and semi-jokingly snap back at them and follow it up with a lesson in gender bias: first of all, everyone is going to believe you and judge you and secondly, would you ever hear a guy saying that? Does that mean he is actually smarter than you? Obviously, the answers are no and no. In specific cases I have had more serious, private conversations because when I know the student plans on majoring in engineering or physics I tell them that that is their goal this school year: to work on their presentation of themselves as confident and intelligent, because they are.

As teachers, I believe we have an incredibly important role with our students as mentors. First to model behaviors of strong, capable women, and secondly to tell them to cut the crap when they start exhibiting any symptoms of Miss Giggles.

I really think Hidden Figures was an incredibly powerful movie. Not just because of the story it told, but because of the brilliant job it did at portaying these women’s personalities and attitudes in a man’s world where they would certainly not be viewed as equal by their peers.

In her commencement address for Hampton College Katherine Johnson said, “Whatever I’m doing, I do the best that I can, not the best that’s available, but the best that I can, so I can’t give you any more, you have to get something more from someone else. But at all times, at all times, I do my best. You will do better if you cause other people to want to learn and you will do it better, too, all the time. You want to learn, want to teach, want to help.”

Her words are so wise and I think should be taken to heart by each of our students. Be your best. Be confident in your best.