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!

New Teacher

Rockford University Student Teacher Celebration Keynote

This week I had the incredible opportunity to keynote for RU’s student teacher celebration. I was super anxious about putting together such a speech… especially because I’ve sat through far too many graduation speeches I never liked… I had around 6 people read and listen to my drafts before delivering the final product. The result was deeply personal and really the product of my journey through education from student teacher until now, at the completion of my master’s.


On that first day of student teaching; the day we finally get to grasp the reigns; many of us believe we are more than ready to take on the world of education…though we might be grasping white-knuckled. We realize pretty quickly though that we still have a lot to learn

 Two weeks into my student teaching experience I was expected to do a series of demonstrations on circular motion. You know, swinging buckets of water over your head. I had practiced the night before and with full confidence did not feel the need to practice the morning of. I got this I thought. 

I grabbed the strings tied to the pie tin filled with red water, flung it over my head and SPLASH… red water everywhere…like a cheap horror flick. Except the only thing I had murdered was my pride. I learned one thing that day: always practice the demos that morning.

 I proceeded to successfully complete the demo the next hour, only for my nervous fidgeting fingers to dump the water AGAIN as I explained the demo, my cooperating teacher laughing uncontrollably at me. The story should end here, lesson learned… but it doesn’t.

 A week later I had the immense privilege of attending the national meeting for physics teachers which just happened to be in Chicago. I was sitting in a room with a handful of teachers I held in high regard, including my former AP Physics teacher. Teachers were presenting “take-5’s” 5 minutes to talk about a good idea for class, and one teacher shares the brilliant idea of using the cardboard circles from the pizza place as a platform for swinging water over your head.

 I tried to sink low in my chair to avoid the elbowing and snickering happening next to me.  After the take 5 the teacher asked if anyone wanted his sample. My cooperating teacher and his colleague sprung from their seats pointing at me: “she does!”… I was wishing I could dissolve into the chair. The story, of course, was shared with the REST of the teachers in the row (including my former AP teacher) but then…. something special happened. This cardboard circle got passed down the line of teachers and they each signed it leaving me words of encouragement and advice. 

Today I have the great privilege and honor of doing the same for you. Hopefully without any embarrassment on your part. 

If I were to ask what makes a great teacher we would all agree on one answer: relationships. A teacher who cares for their students as humans, shows compassion, goes above and beyond. We each know have been touched by at least one of these teachers. Many of you today might even be able to name THEE teacher who inspired you to go into the profession yourself. When tonight is over I call on each of you to send a note to that “one” great teacher. 

My one is John Lewis, my AP Physics teacher from 2005 whose life and legacy continue to impact me to this day. Mr. Lewis was…quirky. His voice would crack at random, he seemed far too fascinated in minutia, and every day we started class by playing a game by his rules, not the normal ones. For example, “one of these things is not like the other” but then he would ask us to find a way to make everything go together. Mr. Lewis believed in celebrating “yes moments” which are similar to Annie’s “bright spots” but are a specific celebration of tenacity and the final breakthrough when reaching an accomplishment. Mr. Lewis continued to act as a mentor to me throughout and beyond my college years, pushing me to be involved in our professional organizations, and in short order pushing me to present..  

I had the unique privilege of working with John back at my old high school. I got to observe him from a different lens, that of a colleague, and how he navigated negativity and school politics while continuously upholding his own values and morals. It is easy to believe that our systems are so broken that it is impossible to work in them when we are fundamentally at odds with the foundation of the system itself. John proved this to be otherwise: when you focus on that which you can control, you can create lasting impacts. 

John’s mentorship was so subtle I almost didn’t realize it was happening. I truly believed it was my unique and special relationship…until I I met another new teacher who was also his former student. We ended up casually comparing notes and found that we had both experienced very much the same process, down to the graduation card signed “your colleague, John” this process was now revealed to me as subtle, methodical and absolutely brilliant. It has taken over a decade for me to recognize and decipher everything John did for me as a student and as a mentee, and none of this would have happened without a genuine relationship. 

I want to pause for a moment and recognize that each and every one of you clearly has great capacity to be that teacher because you chose to complete this degree amidst a global pandemic. In a time where everything about relationship and connection was stripped from us. In a time of uncertainty, unrest and upheaval you finished this program and you are committed to this path. You already know that there is such a thing as depth of compassion that has no bounds, you have already gone above and beyond in so many ways and… haven’t even had to chaperone a field trip. 

We also need to take a moment to recognize the community that formed and shaped you, supported you and grounded you. Whether this be a family member or a loved one, a friend or a faculty member. They need to know that this is their moment too. It is through the relationships around us that we are who we are. 

Our very humanity is built on relationships. Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built, and this household, when filled with the community becomes the home to many, and sometimes the children even come back to visit. Teachers do not get to know the idea of “empty nesting”. 

Teaching is unique because as students we often only truly see the value of what we learned long after we have left. Eventually we realized that Mr. Lewis’s voice cracked not because he had a problem, but because we had stopped paying attention. I realized when I began teaching in the gifted academy at Auburn that the games we played at the start of class were to coax us out of offering only the “right” answer when we were sure, and make us comfortable thinking outside of the box and offering anything we could think of 

As teachers we are not only shaping moments in our students lives in their present, but we are creating lessons, whether for good—-or bad, that will be carried a lifetime. This is a great responsibility. Are you creating a home of belonging for your children?

In each and every choice that you make, from the way you greet your students to how you offer feedback, to random interactions in the hallway, you are expressing to your students what you believe is important. 

Relationships can only begin through communication. The words we say carry weight and the way we say them determines their value. What are the values you wish to impart on your students? Who do you see yourself as? Are you the sage on the stage, the imparter of the gift of knowledge and wisdom to your students? Or are you a life-long learner? Fallible? A leader but also member and facilitator of your learning community? Our words should create the image that we desire our students to aspire. 

Relationships are built on compassion and understanding, when we listen to learn we can try to understand another point of view, even if we do not agree with it. If a student asks you a question and you can’t do better than “because that’s the way it is” or “that’s the rule” or “because I said so” you have not been intentional in your choices. Ask WHY all of the time. WHY did my student respond this way WHY do I feel so passionate about this? What does my identity, positonality, relationships and prior experience bring to this classroom? What do my students value and why? And most importantly, when you ask these questions about your students and their families, don’t answer the question based on your own observations. Ask THEM. 

Relationships are the foundation upon which the cornerstone of trust is laid. Trust is being able to say every day “Center your own learning. Ask for what you need, make space for what others’ need” and to be able to give that freely, even if it wasn’t the lesson plan today. Trust is believing that each child that walks through your door wants to be successful, even if every barrier has been built around them and thrown in their path that it seems the child in front of you is choosing to disengage. Trust is the space where “I don’t know yet,, I can’t do this yet” are valued for their honesty and openness to keep trying. When we lay the cornerstone of trust we set a precedent that all answers have validity, because even an incorrect answer or an answer steeped in misconceptions is an answer of value. Conversation is more important than correct responses. 

Relationships in education extend beyond your classroom. As a teacher you commit to being a life-long learner. The teacher who refuses to learn, to become stagnant in their ways because “it’s the way things have always been done” or because “it works for them” has reached a point of intellectual death. Keep your mind stimulated and alive and never be too afraid, too embarrassed or too proud to ask for help or feedback. Mentorship doesn’t end because your formal education has ended. Find your trusted group of colleagues and find a mentor (or two, or three!). They can be in your building, in another building, another district, another state even! The pandemic has shown us just how open our world can be. Go to the conferences, connect with the community, and before you even think you’re ready…. SHARE what you are learning with others in as many different ways as you can. 

We think we know what is best for us as we live in whatever moment we are in, but the wisdom in lived experience is how our mentors know how much discomfort is necessary for growth. Surrounded by teachers I admired, I never felt worthy of presenting in their company. But when you keep things to yourself you are keeping a gift away from someone who needs it.

Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built. Our students come to us with so many intersecting layers. Their identities are comprised of race, gender, class, citizenship, age, and ability. Students are also potentially coming to our classes with stereotype threat and imposter syndrome, which work together to cloud the joy and potential they could have in our classes. It is possible that for up to 17 years the child in front of you has been told explicitly or implicitly that they do not belong here, whether here means this country or this city, or this math class, or this AP class. Some of our students have been told they do not belong for so long they have no reason to believe otherwise. It is not our job to “save” the child. It is not our job to “inspire” our children. Children…yes, even the 17-year-old ones,  are inspired by their natural wonder in the world around them. It is our job to show them that they too are a part of and can join the community in the areas of our expertise and passion and also how to be stewards of our world because their unique contribution based on their unique experience matters. When we show a student they belong and are valued in our world, we show them that we believe their lives matter.

I want to close with one last story. Teachers will never say they have a favorite class, but…. There are certain classes that are uniquely special. It was my 8th hour class my first year at Auburn. This class was special, not because of anything I did, but because of the love and joy of my students. In April, with only 8 weeks left, we received a new student into the class. She had moved from Chicago where she went to a magnet school and rode the public bus two hours each way to go back and forth from school. She was brilliant and motivated. She had a plan for her life she intended to execute. She was welcomed with open arms into the family home of our classroom. She shared that our class was the only one where she talked because it was the only class she felt she belonged. When finals week came around she was absent and I made the mistake of not following up. It was the last day of the school year and it’s not uncommon for students to come in and out of Rockford. I assumed she moved back to Chicago. 

Summer passed and a new school year started and I  ran into her in the hall. Shocked and surprised I asked her how her summer was and what happened to her during finals. She proceeded to share a lengthy story, none of which was her faulty, and resulted in her moving in with her grandma in Chicago during finals. I asked her if anyone else knew. She said no, she just wanted to get her credits so she could graduate and go to college. Standing before me was this brilliant, resilient young woman, so familiar with barriers that she had no fight left to give. I, on the other hand, was ready for battle. How could we make this girl make up 4 semester credits when we only knew her for 8 weeks? I went to the counselor and shared the story, he was on the same page as me and he worked with teachers to create a plan for the student to get her rightly deserved credits. She was able to graduate on time and with a scholarship to her college. It is important to note that this is not my success story. This is the success of that whole class who created a place where she belonged and felt valued. A place she knew she would be trusted, and that trust formed through the relationships in that class. 

Relationships are the foundation that lays the cornerstone of trust, and once the foundation and the cornerstone are laid, the household of belonging can be built, and this household, when filled with the community becomes the home to many. What is the house that you will build?

New Teacher

Using a Story Telling Model to Build your Presentation

Launching off of my previous post about sharing, I thought I’d share some ideas for putting together a presentation. Let’s be honest, we might all be teachers but if you’ve been to any meeting we’ve all definitely sat through really bad presentations.

First you choose the technique, demonstration, resource or activity you are going to share. Even a twist on an tried and true idea is valuable!

Remember the power of a story in lesson planning. The same holds true for a presentation. What are your four Cs (conflict, causality, complications, characters)?

Rather than start talking, draw your audience in with the main conflict. For example, if I were sharing one of my testing strategies I might open with:

Perhaps your conflict is a demo where students missed the point, or a lab that where students missed the big picture.

The next part is causality: what were the series of events linked to the conflict that make you adapt something new or shift? In the example I provided I would probably follow up with something like:

“AP Physics 1 has these exceptionally challenging multiple choice options on the exams. I need to give students real AP items as much as possible, but it’s not uncommon for students to miss EVERY item. “

It is at this point that you can start presenting your idea. Walk us through what you set up and why, making the your thought process visible to your audience. Did you run into challenges on the way? Or perhaps you had some concerns, initially. Did students end up doing something you hadn’t intended? All of these additional complications build a compelling story, and also help your audience begin to envision themselves going through your process.

Lastly, don’t forget your main characters! Your students! You know that, in truth, sharing of ideas is best done when you can actually do it yourself like in a workshop. When that isn’t possible lean heavily on pictures of students working, student samples and quotes from student feedback.

What about Slides?

While the meat of your presentation is truly in what you say and do, if you prepare slides it is equally important that they receive the same kind of care. Generally speaking you can plan on 1-2 slides per minutes of talking. Avoid font under 24. Avoid bullets. Avoid typing out anything you’re going to say. You know literally no one wants to hear you read your slides. If you need to say “I know you can’t really see this but” then you need to take it out. If you include any data, graphs or charts the point of the chart should hit you in the face. Don’t make your audience need to analyze the graph like an ACT exam! It’s a presentation!

Ok, so I’ve clearly nixed everything on the slides right?

Slides are a visual, so they should literally be that. Can you boil your idea for slide 3 into three words? Better yet a single word? What high quality images can you put on the slide? Keep the color schemes simple and readable. Bear in mind that if you have anyone in the audience who is colorblind pure colors might not be visible. Stephanie Evergreen has lots of great resources on this topic. Here’s a checklist for your presentation.

You Don’t Know Until You Try!

It’s ironic that as teachers we effectively present daily, and yet presenting in front of collegues (or god-forbid college faculty!) is terrifying! Remember a few things:

  • Everyone is together to learn and grow together! No one is going to chew you out. Even the absolute worst presentations I’ve seen still get a few questions asked afterwards.
  • You Got this! You’re talking about something you do in your own space. You are the master of it! I mean.. in as much as you can get up with confidence that you’re not going to mess up.
  • The positive feedback loop is real and addictive! Once you start you won’e stop! The encouragement and continued conversations from your peers after that first time make it so much easier to present again and again. Before you know it you’re running workshops!

New Teacher

Use What You’ve Got

When I student teaching my former AP teacher told me I should come to a Physics Northwest meeting. PNW meets monthly during the school year at different high schools so teachers from all over can get together for “Phood, Phellowship and Phun”. The host school provides dinner and after an hour teachers get up and share different ideas from their classroom.

After attending several my former AP teacher nudges my shoulder and tells me next time I should get up and present.

Mentally I scoffed at the idea. All of the teachers presenting had 15-20 years of experience. They were incredible at their craft and obvioulsy way better than me. (cue imposter syndrome). There is NO WAY that I could possibly have anything of worth to share!

However, as I continued to attend meetings what I noticed was that often teachers did share something familiar, and other teachers would share hints, tips or a twist. This was truly a collaborative environment. So eventually, I got up and shared. Feedback was really positive. About two years later another new face shared the same resource, and still received positive feedback! While I still get anxious about sharing (I presented at a national conference for gifted education before any AAPT meeting), sharing makes everyone better. Even if you think you have nothing to share. Everything is new for someone in the room.

I presented at my first state section AAPT meeting only recently. Those presentations are far more formal than PNW, last 15 minutes and typically include a slide deck. I decided since I likely wouldn’t know too many people at the state meeting I could present something possible valuable. I got up to present and there wasn’t a single high school teacher in the room. I was presenting exclusively to college faculty. Add to this that one of the long-time, major members, who tends to comment and ask tough questions on every presentation was in my room. I was so anxious. Yet, by the time I was done I had great interactions with everyone (including the one faculty member who made me most anxious).

About six months later I signed up to present at the Chicago Section. This was the most nerve-wracking of all. There reason being that Chicago Section is packed with teachers I admire and aspire to be like. Teachers who have all been teaching since I was in high school. Teachers who train and speak and publish. I know that we all support each other, but for me the stakes were high. I was pregnant so my already elevated heart rate peaked to 120 as I sat in my seat during the presentation before mine. On top of this, I had decided it would be a great idea to bring four students with me.

Once again, I was shocked and surprised (I really shouldn’t be at this point). My presentation had one of the highest rates of engagement and conversations lasted all the way through lunch break. Naturally, the positive feedback loop makes it a little easier to share the next time around.

Not only are sharing or presenting a way to build connections (especially hard if you’re super introverted like me!) but it allows you to get some great feedback. After all, we are better together. Everything is new to someone in the room.

Find your local section of AAPT, post some pictures of something you did this week on twitter using the #ITeachPhysics hashtag and welcome to the family.

New Teacher

Culture of Communication

This is part of a series for new teachers. See the other posts here

In my letter to a student teacher the first piece of advice I shared was that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I want to take that a bit further to discuss not only communication with students, but interactions on a broader scale.

My first encounter with the importance of language was working with 4th-6th graders at Northwestern’s Gifted summer program. I had only completed my first year teaching, but it was my 5th year working for this program. This blog is about physics teaching, and that typically means high school. If you’ve never taught 4th-6th grade: they don’t hold back. I had collected some surveys for feedback from my kids and one comment in particular stood out, “when you said “what” to me it felt like you were annoyed with me” I had a stone drop in my stomach. I knew exactly what the student was referencing. They were busy creating mousetrap cars. Summer programming often put classes in the most absurd spaces and I had 18 nine, ten and eleven year olds crammed in a conference room for 10 adults. We only had the large conference table for workspace each 8 hour day for two weeks. In the chaos of building if I heard my name I responded “what” not at all with any poor intent, but simply “what?” as I would respond to anyone. However, this student communicated to me that single word made them feel uncomfortable. With a single word I had destroyed what should be a safe space. From that moment on I made it a point to always respond to my name with “yes” or “how can I help you” or something comparable. Perhaps it seems silly, or even obvious that I should have used a different response, but in the moment it can be hard to be intentional until intention becomes habit.

How we respond and who we respond to shapes our classroom in subtle but massively impactful ways. Research has shown that boys often blurt out answers and be called upon than girls. Studies also show that when race is layered into the mix teachers will not engage or primarily engage negatively with Black and Hispanic students. None of us wants to think that we do such a thing in our classroom, but our preconceived notions, stereotypes and biases, all of which are founded in our previous experiences, shape how we interact and respond, especially when we do things without intention.

It is a common practice during an observation that the observer will ask you what you would like them to focus on during the lesson. It’s really hard to think critically and reflectively on our own practice, especially as a new teacher. Ask your observer to keep a log of who you are interacting with and what those interactions are (alternatively you can record the lesson and do this yourself). This can be done easily by giving the observer a seating chart where they can indicate positive (+) , redirection(⤾), neutral(Ø) and question(?) interactions with simple marks. When the lesson is complete you can look at the marks and analyze and interpret your data. Who received the most interaction from you? The least? The most positive attention? Negative attention? Are there any trends in terms of race and/or gender? Awareness is the first step in course-correction.

There are so many ways to ensure voices are equally heard and respected (and no, not just with cold-calling). Creating this space is part of building your classroom culture and climate. If you were to implement a single thing today to begin to create this culture it would be this norm: when a student speaks they have the right to the space to speak without interruption, and the rest of the class (and you the teacher!) has the right to listen without distraction.

I would be remiss if I skipped this opportunity to discuss conflict in the classroom. The biggest challenge regarding conflict is taking your own emotions out of the equation so you can work through the conflict with your student. You might be agitated or frustrated, you might feel indignant if the behavior is directed towards you. You might be anxious about what happens next. All of these emotions are real, and necessary and important. You can acknowledge these but then you need to move forward. This conversation deserves it’s own blog post, so for this one I will leave you with this: be curious. Have curiosity with your own response and emotions. Be curious about why your student feels the way they do right now. Consider what alternatives might be available to your gut response.

Your students have developing minds and we cannot forget that. We have a responsibility to keep our own cool so we can help our students work through their struggles while also giving them the tools to work through future conflicts independently. We also have a responsibility to ensure our classrooms are safe spaces for each and every voice to be heard and for each and every student to learn and grow.

New Teacher

Time for Reflection, Reflection for Time

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose

This is part of a series for new teachers. See the other posts here

The other night I ran across this tweet from a first year teacher asking for some perspective

There is a lot of good advice in the thread, but I couldn’t help but notice the teachers who shared that this is a normal career thing.

Let me be very clear: it is not normal for the rest of your career.

Maybe let me clarify: Normal is what you choose it to be.

To answer Caroline’s actual question: yes. As a first year teacher you put in ridiculous hours. Full disclosure: every teacher is putting in ridiculous hours right now thanks to the pandemic. However, it is something that can and should get better as you gain experience.

I know plenty of teachers who work 10+ hours on the weekends. They wear it like a badge of honor, talking in the breakroom about how much work they put in over the weekend. My observations have lead me to understand that experienced teachers (5+ years) who put in this time fall into one of three camps, although I think the vast majority of teachers (and likely you, reader) fall into the last one:

The Aggressive Complainers: These teachers spend every valuable minute at school complaining about every aspect of their job. They rarely complete any work at school so it all comes home with them. Side-note: it’s really easy to get caught up in this, and often the complaints aren’t wrong. However, constant complaining is toxic and leads to burnout. If you find yourself caught in a word-vomit spiral, step out and away. Write down three things you are grateful for or appreciative of today. You need to find your own bright spots to avoid the death spiral.

The Chronic Obsessors: These teachers feel that every minute detail is of utmost importance. They struggle to see the bigger picture and feel that the only way their students will learn adequately is by meticulously offering feedback for each fraction of a point they award or remove.

The Compassionate Perfectionists: These teachers often have the biggest hearts. They want their students to succeed. Each and every one. They also want to ensure they are doing their absolute best work in every single aspect of teaching and learning. None of this is a bad thing! This was (is) me, and I think the overwhelming majority of over-worked teachers are in this camp. This is a really hard thing to reconcile. Many of us were “good students” in school and our perfectionism drove us in a positive way to excel in all of our classes. When you are good at the school game, doing well at everything is within grasp. Life is not like that though. We have to realize that being a teacher is being immersed in the lives of our students, our colleagues and teaching is only an aspect of our own life. We cannot be a perfect teacher in all ways at all times. It’s not reality, and it quickly leads to burn-out.

I know that the answer “it gets better” does nothing to help a new teacher right now. So instead I’m going to leave you with a few questions. Bear in mind that these questions are really part of a career-long journey and they will shift and change as your career progresses. As such I think these questions are important to circle around to each year.

  1. What is most important to you this year? This question really drives a lot of decision making. You cannot excel at all things, so you need to pick a single thing that you can really focus on. As a new teacher this might very simply be routines and reflection. I distinctively recall that feeling as a new teacher of needing and wanting to make everything about my teaching excellent now. Over time I have come to terms with the fact that in order to make anything excellent, I need to focus my efforts in a very specific place. In light of the pandemic this thing for me has been building relationships and forming science identities in my class. In other years I’ve focused on a specific prep or a skill for students. What is your one thing that you want to rock? Feedback is important, but are you giving students the kind of feedback that they are actually reflecting upon, or are they just looking at the number? How much of the grading you are doing is directly correlated to the demonstration and encouragement of student learning? What do you want your students to walk away from your class with more than anything else?
  2. What is absolutely critical for your students? I’ve had to give up a lot this year. In the past I frequently mix my student groups, I do a lot of collaboration and student-led discussions. I do the traditional homework and lab experiences, I have unit exams. With the pandemic, its critical that my students demonstrate evidence of learning and growth. I’ve significantly cut down the homework I normally assign. I’ve eliminated all late policies. I am ok with letting students skip assignments all together if they can demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives. At the same time if you were to ask what the most important thing students learn from me is, I would answer scientific thinking. I have made it a focus to continue to get students to observe, question and structure arguments based on evidence. I continue to emphasize structures for students to solve problems, pushing them a little closer to expert thinking every day.
  3. What is the specific learning outcome of (fill in the blank practice). If your answer to this question ultimately comes down to it was how you were taught, then you need to reevaluate its place in your work. Homework points, late policies, grading schemes, there is a lot that we often do without thinking critically about the practice. Is your practice helping or hurting your students? If it’s helping, how does it help? Does it help because it inspires growth and learning or because it instills fear of losing an A? If the practice is neither helping nor hurting then can you forgo it all together? Practices that hurt or have no purpose might as well be scrapped so you can expend your energy elsewhere.
  4. Who can you talk to? Start building your network. There are a lot of incredible people out there who want to mentor you and help you out. No one needs to reinvent the wheel and no one’s circumstances are so unique that you have to do this alone. Find your people. They might be at your school, but they might not be, and that’s ok. Find your professional organizations and tap into them. Find folks on Twitter and tap in to the conversations.

Somewhere there is a statistic that teachers make more decisions in a day than brain surgeons. It’s true that teaching is an incredibly dynamic, mentally-challenging art. As such, choosing to reflect and think critically on our practice feels like extra, unneeded work. However, in the long run, thinking critically about our practices makes us more efficient and more intentional in our work.

New Teacher

An Ounce of Preparation is Worth a Pound of Cure…and embarrassment.

“Those that know do, those that understand teach.”

It was the first day of circular motion. My cooperating teacher had a smorgasboard of demonstrations to perform for the class. I walked in fully confident that this would be no big deal. After all, how much skill is required to spin a pie plate around?

The fun part of the demo was you told the students it was a plate of jello. It was actually water that was dyed red. I picked up the plate by the strings whipped it over my head with full confidence and…SPLASH…Red water absolutely everywhere. It was a huge mess, I was thoroughly embarrassed, and the demo was a flop.

Always. Always practice the demos the morning of the class.

I realized that I had grabbed the strings under the knot, rather than above. This caused me to pull unevenly which tilted the tray. I was ready for the afternoon class. Will full confidence I whiled the pie tray over my head. Success! Pleased with myself I began to talk to the class about the forces keeping the water in the tray. As I talked…SPLASH

I dumped the red water everywhere. AGAIN. When I was a student teacher, in my nervousness, I tended to fidget with whatever was in my hands. Often this was the cap of the whiteboard marker, but with the demo in hand I tugged on one of the strings under the knot.

As a student teacher you are entering the classroom with a wealth of content knowledge as well as a solid foundation of pedagogical practices.

But knowing content is not teaching.

It’s challenging to try and anticipate every single question that a student might ask, or point of confusion. This is even more true the first time teaching a topic. The most important thing we can do is prepare and practice on repeat. As a new teacher this means doing every demo, every lab and every homework problem in advance. Even if it looks like something you could do in your sleep. Even if you know the outcome of the lab. Even if you’ve done the demo before. Do it anyway. Weird quirks always manage to pop up, especially on the day you didn’t practice in advance. Lab equipment fails, software decides to be incompatible. Murphy’s Law.

The other component of preparation that I hadn’t previously considered was the importance of thinking critically about the guiding questions I would ask in class. While the concept of not telling students the answer and getting them to build their knowledge came naturally to me, how to do that really well did not. I would often start with a generalized idea of what I wanted to get to and how I’d get there, and it showed. My cooperating teacher pointed out that often times I would pose a question and the students had no idea what I was even asking. Early on in teaching I was told my methods would be good “for honor’s students, but not these kids (which is another post, entirely). Writing down my thoughts ahead of time and then drafting the scaffolded questions was critical in my early years.

Here’s an example from today. I’m having students work through the impulse-change in momentum relationship. Students had the item below and were asked to rank by change in momentum.

A student asked me a question, “So D is first because it has the biggest force right?” I could have jumped to the answer “yes” but students often oversimplify and “correct” answers lack deep understanding. So I asked her how she knew to rank by force if change in momentum is m∆v. At first she was puzzled, but then she realized, “well because impulse and change in momentum are the same thing!”

It’s too easy to rush through these important conversations to “get to the point” of the lesson. However, once again, we must ask ourselves, what is actually important? What are the enduring skills and understandings we hope students leave us with? If I really think about it, I could care less what my students can name and calculate. What I want my students to do is to be able to question, discern and analyze. I want them to engage in deep, critical conversations. I want them to be able to listen and argue logically and with evidence. These skills are all developed while students are engaged in the process of doing science, not “the point” of whatever the lesson is that day. Only recently I’ve begun to learn how to get the students to be the drivers of these conversations rather than myself.

If you thought my embarrassing story was over on the second splash, it’s not. A month after the pie-plate water fiasco I attended the national winter AAPT meeting that happened to be in Chicago, where I lived. I was in a room for “Take 5’s”, where teachers took five minutes to share an idea or demo. I sat in a row with some of the most well-loved and respected teachers in the Chicago-area, including my cooperating teacher and my former AP Physics teacher. The teacher presenting was sharing the brilliance of using the cardboard pizza circle for nothing less than…you guessed it…the spin some water in a circle demo. The teacher asked if anyone wanted their sample. My cooperating teacher stands up and points at me, “this one! Right here!” I was mortified all over again. Naturally the story then had to be told of my epic disaster. The cardboard circle did not get to me until it was passed around all of the Chicago-area teachers who signed it with words of encouragement and advice. I still have it as a reminder to always prepare, never take myself too seriously, and remember that there are a lot of people in my court to help and encourage me each step of the way.

New Teacher

Letter to a student teacher

You may also be interested in:
For the New TeacherStudent Teacher Celebration KeynoteThe Science of Learning Physics

Congratulations! Your student teaching semester has finally arrived!

If you are looking to this post for virtual hugs and encouragement, you will not find them here. Not because I’m bitter and jaded, but because for you to enter student teaching in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, you clearly have the drive, passion and motivation for this work and certainly do not need my encouragement.

Rather, I think back on my student teaching experience and my first few years teaching in conjunction with my current experience and I think “wow, if only I knew then”

  1. Sarcasm has no place in education. None. It doesn’t matter if that’s just who you are, students will. not. take it the way you intend. Even though you certainly don’t feel like it, you are an authority figure to the kids, even if they are only two years younger than you. It’s weird, but it’s real, and so is the hurt if you use sarcasm.
  2. No matter how much you think you know, the best teachers are the ones who are always intellectually humble and curious. Even if you think your cooperating teacher is the complete opposite of what you believe in your core “should” be, keep your mind and heart open because their vast breadth of experience means there is something you will glean from them. (Tl;dr: Don’t be an ass)
    • My story: When I was a college student I worked at a summer program with a teacher that, frankly, I thought was gruff and lazy. He would say to me all the time “you know…there’s always only so much you can do” I scoffed at this statement, thinking of it as his excuse to kick back. I realized later that this was about maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I also recognized, in hindsight, that my overdrive, perfectionist attitude is likely what prompted him to tell me this.
  3. Back to number 1, if a veteren teacher reflects on your teaching or their teaching, remember that it is because the purpose of student teaching is for you to LEARN. Don’t get defensive about your beliefs. If you’re lucky to have to video tape yourself you’ll be shocked at what you learn!
    • My story: My student teaching advisor (NOT my cooperating teacher, this woman met with me only 3 times) was hyper-critical of my laid-back, inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning. While I’m sure we probably still wouldn’t click as colleagues, when I got my own classroom I learned quickly that her criticism of me was 100% legit and the only reason I wasn’t eaten alive during student teaching was because of the relationship and routines the students had with their actual teacher. Student teaching is a safe place to make mistakes, learn and grow, but the fall is softer than when you have your own classroom. Take in and reflect on all of the feedback. Everyone wants to help you.
  4. You’re most worried about classroom management. To be honest, 50% of management is careful planning and 50% of is experience. The best you can do right now is tot be really thoughtful about your rules and procedures. It’s hard to anticipate exactly what you will do under different scenarios because you haven’t lived them yet, but things like material distribution, attendance and so on you can plan. You will likely have this part easy because routines will already be established, so keep it on the back burner as you prepare for the fall.
    • My story: I remember this was all we wanted to know before we entered student teaching. I honestly wish someone told us to STOP focusing on that. First of all, we can go all day on this topic as it relates to equity, but as a new teacher what I needed was the establishment of procedures, routines, and the ability to be super clear and explicit about my expectations and outcomes in order to provide my students with the maximum amount of consistency possible, 90% of management “issues” are a direct result of lack of preparation and lack oof consistency. The other 10% is whether or not you are listening to your students.
  5. Ok well maybe you’re not worried most about management because its 2021, we’re still in the pandemic and you are doing some crazy hybrid-flex-virtual model..which is still pandemic teaching. Many of us have gotten in a groove by now, some might have been tossed a curveball this new term. Extend grace to everyone. What worked for you last semester and what works in K12 is not entirely transferrable. There are different challenges and barriers, but you have a really unique perspective in that you’ve already lived the online schooling process. You are familiar with the lack of relationship and decreased motivation. Use that to be empathic with your students.
  6. Knowing your content is not the same as knowing how to teach your content. Focus on how you scaffold your lessons and units, and what your classroom procedures look like. You know your stuff, but actually teaching real live K12 kids is a very different skill:
    • Prepare your worked examples ahead of time and put yourself back into student mode to ask WHY on each step
    • Prepare your questions ahead of time so they are really targeted not just opening questions, but all of those probing questions. Your language is really important, so you want to ensure you are saying what you hope to say and that it is received the way in which you intend it to be received.
    • Solve all of the student homework problems yourself before you help students. You never know when a curveball is going to show up!
    • Do all of the labs and demos yourself before you do them for and with the students. First rule of physics teaching: the demo always fails if you didn’t do it that morning.
  7. Be a scientist and ask WHY about everything. WHY do I think my students/cooperating teacher etc. do this in that way? WHY do I feel so strongly about ____? What does my identity, positonality, relationships and prior experience bring to this classroom? What do my students value and why? And most importantly, when you ask these questions about your students and their families, don’t answer the question based on your own observations. Literally ask them.
  8. Find the Bright Spots and celebrate them. This year is hard on all of us. Even still, those bright spots tend to pop up. Find them, write them down, celebrate them. You chose this path for a reason. This work is challenging, but it can also be invigorating, rewarding and more meaningful to your students than you might ever know.

With so much joy, support and anticipation,
Marianna Ruggerio

Your “Do Now” List:

  1. Sign up for AAPT. The student rate is super-crazy cheap! Opt for the hard copies of The Physics Teacher journal and skim through them. There are so many excellent nuggets!
  2. Find your local section(s) of AAPT and get on the mailing lists. Go to whatever meetings you can.
  3. Go to at least one National AAPT meeting in the next 3 years. Make a point to go to high school teacher camp and/or one of the other big workshops.
  4. Get a twitter. Now. Let me know you joined from my post and I’ll help get you connected.
  5. Look up Eugina Etkina and her facebook page Exploring Physics and start getting connected
  6. Purchase and read the book The Science of Learning Physics by Jose Mestre and Jennifer Docktor.
Parting letter from my cooperating teacher to me upon completing student teaching