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.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

In My Class Today · Teaching Methods

A Spin on Energy

Last week I ran a pretty straightforward lab:

  1. Put 120cm of hot wheel track into a design of your choosing
  2. Run a ball down the track
  3. Record velocity with a photogate
  4. Repeat at 10-12 locations
  5. Plot the energy curves.
  6. Plot Translational vs Rotational Kinetic energies and find the rotational inertia constant.

 

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Sample track set up

 

Students should see a transfer of kinetic and potential energy which makes sense. Of course, students should also expect to see a decreasing total energy curve because of friction constantly taking energy from the system.

I had two fun surprises I got to incorporate:

  1. The shape of the TME curve

Inevitably this curve had a particularly sharp drop off at one moment in time. I had students sketch their tracks on their whiteboards in addition to their lab results. IMG-2087IMG-2088Do you notice anything? The largest drop off in TME corresponds to the moment where the ball is at the bottom of the hill. This serves as a great review of work and circular motion. Frictional force, as we know, is dependant on normal force. The normal force of the track changes and corresponds with its shape. We can actually predict the drop-offs in TME based on shape and even determine the work done by friction.

  1. A group with “bad” data.

Their data wasn’t actually bad, they obviously had forgotten something when they set up their formulas in the spreadsheet. But was there a way to find this without redoing the whole data spread? Absolutely. After creating a large circle to share whiteboards, we honed in on the group where the TME curve was mirroring the potential energy curve. The rest of the data seemed good…there was an obvious trade-off of PE and KE…although the curves weren’t as high as they should have been. So what was the problem? I selected a student to draw in where the energy curve should be, based on the shape of their track and everyone else’s data. She drew in the curve. Next, I asked students to note where this curve was and where the PE curve began. It was at 0.3 J with PE starting at 0.6 J Then I asked them to note where the KE curves were at… they were at 0.03 J. Notice anything??? They were off by a factor a 10! Where could a factor of 10 be? Did they forget a 9.8? Did they convert grams to kilograms properly? cm to m? Upon examination of their equations, they found the missing 10 and…TA-DA! Fantastic results.

I think it’s really important to note the value of both exercises. The lab itself was relatively simplistic, but it lent itself to fairly complex conversations.  I think this is especially true for the group with the “bad” results. How often do our students present with this and either (1) Default to “well my data must be bad” or (2) Start from scratch, rather than locating the mistake? In this way, students were able to critically analyze, strategize and problem-solve. It turned out to be a really easy fix.

Oh and the slope of the translational vs rotational KE? Yea that came out to 2/5….exactly. That’s super exciting!

In My Class Today

Flying a Plane with a Falling Bathtub

It’s 2014…I’m teaching 5 sections of Earth Science and visiting my parents. They have PBS on and we’re in the middle of this documentary about World War II. Except it’s not quite that, it’s actually about one of the escape attempts from Colditz Castle: the place where any POW was sent if they had attempted to escape the German prisons.

Now just imagine that for a moment.

It takes a special kind of person to plan, execute and attempt an escape. You need to be creative, clever and bold. ::cough::gifted kid::cough my students relate strongly.

And then the Germans think it’s a good idea to put all of these brilliant, audacious minds in one place.

So one of the prisoners gets this idea: let’s build a glider out of the stuff laying around the castle and launch it off the roof by attaching it to a bathtub. It’s a crazy idea, and it’s a perfect two-body physics problem, and I’m going crazy that I can’t show this movie to my students right now.

 

Originalglider
The original glider from 1945

 

Now I teach a full load of physics and it is an annual treat in my introductory course. First, I have my students decide what types of things will need to be taken into consideration. The questions fly: where did they get a bathtub? Where did they get concrete? How did no one see them? They actually built the glider?

Then I have them do the two-body problem. I have had them calculate whether the original specs would have allowed the plane to fly, and also had them calculate the drag force from the test run on the model Professor Hunt riggs up when they need 1.1g.

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The students get an incredible history lesson, and get to see the physics they just learned in legit action. I always pause the video when Professor Hunt is rambling off how he analyzed the data to determine the plane’s acceleration and ask my students if they caught it all. Then we go back to the video of the launch. LOOK! There are distances marked on the runway! We discuss how Professor Hunt would have determined the acceleration. How plotting d vs t is the best option. How we’ve been doing precisely that with the motion detectors in our recent pulley labs.

My first year doing this I split the film up over the course of three days. On the final day I asked my students to write reflective letters to Professor Hunt.

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Professor Hunt actually obliged and wrote personal letters to each of the students!

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I think it’s an amazing story and my students get a lot out of it each year. When I set the video up for 7th hour after AP Physics C one of my students said to another, “oh look what they’re watching today! I love that movie!”