School in a Sitcom Structure

25 minutes. In the length of time it takes to watch a sitcom on Netflix, I’m expected to engage 25-30 students in physics. Time has a funny way of shaping our priorities.

This week I started reading Ainissa Ramierez’ book The Alchemy of Us. It is a new release and if you are the kind of person who loves fascinating connections I strongly recommend this read. In the first three chapters Ramierez focuses on time and clocks, steel and the railway system and the telegraph and communication. What endures for me is the thread within these three chapters of time. Modern transportation and telecommunications effectively shrink our world, bringing all of us closer together by reducing the time required for an interaction.

The time permitted for interactions with our students has been slashed dramatically. In a normal school year I would have 50×5=250 contact minutes with each class. In our pandemic model that time has been cut in half.

Teachers have panicked about “getting through” material and wondering how much more they can sacrifice from their curricula. Meanwhile administration and society continues to discuss the “learning loss” or COVID-slide, which, mark my words will end up being measured by some new costly exam from Pearson.

When time is stolen from us, we have the opportunity to recognize what is important.

As a teacher it’s important for me to recognize that the enduring teachings and understandings my students will walk away with have little to nothing to do with physics content. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. Who would I be, to think that my teaching of physics content is so life-changing that it is absolutely critical to a student’s future? The sheer diversity and variety of curricula attest to this fact. Yet, students can choose to pursue whatever field they desire, provided the opportunities, the awareness, and most importantly, mentorship.

What is enduring?

Problem solving skills. The ability to question. Discernment. Attention to details. Skepticism.

If we can teach our students to think like experts, and masterfully tackle a challenge, does it really matter the volume of content we use to teach these skills?

I’ve had similar conversations regarding final exams. At 20% of the overall grade, finals do very little to move a student’s letter grade. Final exams provide me with little information I already know from weekly assessments, except for showing me who studied for finals and who did not. Our administration has directed us to give “holds harmless” finals, meaning a final exam cannot hurt, but only help a student’s grade. Many teachers are insistent on giving their traditional finals, even though the district is not providing us with a traditional finals schedule. Add to the fact that the PSAT has taken away one day during finals week (because, clearly the answer to learning loss is running the PSAT/SAT not one, but five times this year), and a second day is purely for enrichment and student support, yet teachers are going to force this upon students anyway. I cannot help but ask “to what end?” What is engrained so deeply in our own academic culture that we feel this is the only way learning can and should happen? Is it, perhaps, a byproduct of the Puritan mentality that every minute must be spent in productivity, that “time is money?”

There have been numerous reports that black and brown students have thrived in remote learning. Many of these reflect specifically on microaggressions in schools, but I cannot help but wonder if perhaps a component has been the ability for students to take ownership of their own time through asynchronous learning opportunities. I consider how, in my own circles, we often joke about “Greek time” or “Arab time” and wonder if the strict, factory-like bell schedules and “on time every time” mentality potentially creates another layer of hostility to the learning environment.

In a time of great opportunity to shift the narrative of what it means to teach and learn, so many have dug their heels into the ground of a crumbling system. If Schitt’s Creek and Arrested Development can tell a compelling story in 30 minutes, why can’t we teach meaningful academic lessons in the same time?


Not all SciComm is Excellent Teaching

I haven’t blogged recently, but in the midst of a pandemic, when teaching is really hard I take the art and the craft of teaching more seriously than ever. Unfortunately the phrase “those who can’t do, teach” has become a popular motto, bolstered by the way in which teachers are generally treated as simple public servants rather than highly educated and trained professionals. Along with this comes all of the opinions that everyone has about education. The common rebuttal is that just because I’ve been sick doesn’t mean I diagnose and treat myself…I go see the doctor. 

It seems that everyone thinks they can teach, but teaching is hard. Teaching physics is harder. Teaching so students can be successful on AP Physics 1 is arguably the hardest endeavor I’ve taken on. 

So The Physics Girl, Dianna Cowern, has decided that she is going to teach the world physics. Specifically for the AP Physics 1 exam. I have loved all of Diana’s work since I caught her “what is color” challenge video and I have used many of her videos ever since to excite and inspire students. Dianna has a degree in physics, worked and studied at top institutions, she has also done extensive outreach work prior to being a major scicomm personality and has received numerous accolades for her work in education. I love and have great respect for Dianna and her work. Naturally, I wanted to watch her Physics 101 videos to see if they would be a great resource for my students. I’m always looking for good resources, especially right now. 

Sadly, I was completely disappointed, although not particularly surprised. I shared a quick blurb on Twitter and quickly got attacked by random followers of hers. One even asking “as a baseline, what is your physics education” 

Over the years I’ve learned a great way to get a sense of a source’s pedagogy in physics is to check out how they discuss work and energy. You could argue that the whole of science is summed up in this topic. 

In my course, and in AP Physics 1, we start by defining systems. Then we can discuss how work adds or removes energy from the environment to the system and the transfer of energy within the system. We spend several days working with these conceptual models before even touching equations or calculations. Dianna’s video starts by defining work as force times distance. I will be the first to admit that this is exactly how I started the unit when I was a novice teacher! That is part of the trouble, as a novice you tend to teach how you’ve been taught, not necessarily through evidence based research methods (an unfortunate pitfall of too many teacher prep programs). From there, you have to get about half-way through the video before Dianna begins to explain the concept of changes, transfers and reference points. This part of energy is absolutely critical to comprehension, but it is a side conversation without any accompanying visuals or further discussion. Instead, she jumps into the potential energy calculation. 

Another topic that I’ve shifted over the course of my career is forces. Within the #iteachphysics twitterverse we had intense conversations about inertia (thanks Joe) and why the typical phrasing of Newton’s Laws is problematic. When I taught Newton’s three laws formally, I had my students change the words “action” and “reaction” in the third law to “force”. Furthermore, I now define a force, not as a “push or pull” but as an interaction between objects. This is so important because it now becomes really difficult for students to make up random forces. Students love to make up random forces on force diagrams. Fapp shows up all the time, but when you require students to define a force as an interaction and name the objects interacting, not only does the ambiguous Fapp become obsolete, Newton’s third law becomes a natural consequence. 

However, aside from these language and pedagogy criticisms, my problem with Dianna’s work runs far deeper. Physics has the reputation of being too hard for most people to do or understand. Dianna has this incredible platform that has made physics accessible and interesting to so many people. On top of it, she’s not an old white guy with spectacles talking about the secrets of the universe, she’s a bubbly, attractive young woman and she frequently features a diverse range of other scientists in her videos. This is such important work and cannot be diminished. She had an incredible idea to create these videos and they really could have served as an incredible launch point for students interested in physics thinking “maybe I can do this”

Unfortunately, in our nation only 24% of teachers who teach a physics course have a degree in physics. I don’t have the numbers, but I would argue even fewer pay attention to the latest in Physics Education Research and evidence based methods. The biggest challenge in teaching physics is helping students work through the first 6-8 weeks of the course. I am very clear with my students that this is a normal adjustment period that all first-year students of physics experience regardless of age or level of the course. The challenge in physics is that to truly tackle problems efficiently you need to be able to look at a problem, identify the big idea, and then pull out the necessary components about that big idea to apply to the problem. This is what has been defined in the research as “expert thinking” which differs from “novice thinking”. Essentially, a novice will see a problem and try to force it into a previous homework problem based on whatever minutia is presented to them. A great example of this is when my AP students are presented with a graph of velocity vs time of two objects and they are asked to determine if there is an external force. To be completely honest, most students just guess. They typically say “no” because the velocities end up coming to the same place on the graph. The expert recognizes this as an Impulse-Momentum problem. The expert will then find the change in velocity of each object and see if there is an equal transfer of momentum between the two. Asking students to approach problems in this manner has never been required of them before, especially at the high-school level. The only way to get students there is to model the process, and require them to actively engage and wrestle with the material frequently. None of this is about equations. Equations and math are simply the tool. Weaving the concepts together and identifying what is important is the art of physics. 

When I made my initial post I had a lot of backlash from random, non-educator followers of Dianna insisting that physics is math therefore I shouldn’t criticize the math approach in the videos. What Dianna’s videos are creating is a misleading sense of familiarity with equations, but familiarity is not comprehension, nor is it what is required of a physics student. Physics students need to be able to apply and synthesize concepts in order to properly apply the mathematics. I often tell my students that math will never be the hard part of this course. Half of my AP1 students are taking calculus, and the hardest math thing in AP1 is solving a system of two equations! As for familiarity with equations, if that was all that was required to be a great physics student then the equation sheet should serve as a cheat-sheet to success. Teaching physics is truly an art, and I am 100% confident had Dianna reached out to excellent AP teachers she would have had lots of wonderful ideas and support. Once again, teachers are put on the sidelines and our expertise is neglected. 


The M.Ed Journey I Wasn’t Expecting

Two years ago in November I sat in one of the large conference rooms at the district office with 19 other teachers, 17 of whom I’d never met before. Dr. Swindle, the program director, informed us that we needed to prepare to commit 24 hours per week to our new studies and reminded us that this wasn’t a free master’s because it wasn’t free to the community or our families.

I was 3 months pregnant and bracing for what I thought was going to be the biggest challenge yet: starting a master’s and delivering a newborn. We left the conference room with a Rockford University coffee mug, excitement and apprehension. Over the next year the 20 of us became family. I delivered George and edited my relevant topic paper in the hospital the following morning. I showed up to class 9 days after delivery and was quickly reminded why we are supposed to take 6 weeks to rest and heal. I thought the most challenging part was over. I had no idea.

In September on the first week of school, our district was hit by ransomware. We had no internet, no printers, no phones, no clocks, no bells, no PA system, no access to years of resources on district servers (this is part of the reason I haven’t blogged) Even still, we persisted in our studies, all the while reinventing our craft and our materials for our jobs. In December 2019 we all attended cohort 2’s research symposium, excitedly supporting our colleagues and talking about our own day soon to come. The ransomware attack had mostly been resolved and we thought we could get back to normal. We had no idea.

By March the University announced classes would no longer be in person and we shifted to zoom, where we remain. Many of us have children at home and having class over dinner time and bedtime is not exactly easy. Meanwhile many of us had to shift and rethink our research projects, now severely impacted by the pandemic. Once again we found ourselves reinventing our craft as we struggled to find effective ways to teach online learners, hybrid learners with less contact time and constantly changing schedules and constant uncertainty about what tomorrow would look like. When I entered this program, I entered with a mindset that I would just “get it done”. Completion wasn’t something to be particularly proud of because getting a master’s is just a thing “you do” as a teacher. All of that has changed. And in the process we’ve been transformed as educators and bonded forever as friends.


Encouraging women in STEM: What is a teacher to do? (I got published!)

This spring will mark 10 years since I stepped foot in the classroom as a student teacher. It’s always difficult for me to wrap my head around that length of time. By the 10-year mark, it would seem reasonable that a teacher could feel established and start making her way toward mastery…and yet, I still feel like a first year teacher. Due simply to life changes I have worked in five different buildings spanning 3 districts, on 2 sides of the state and have never once had the same set of preps. Only in the last two years have I felt I had the opportunity to truly build and grow a program and the students along with it.

The past two years have also been what can only be described as a special and unique experience. I had a phenominal group of students genuinely interested in the subject matter. So much so I managed to convince three of them that majoring in physics would be a great idea. All three are female.

My breadth of experiences has made me take a very critical look at what encourages student choices and what discourages them. I think too often we attribute outcomes to interest and drive, rather than inspiration and grit. I also firmly believe that while interest and drive are outside of my control, inspiration and grit are within it.

When I ran across a book review discussing a woman’s in a man’s world, specifically a “boy’s club” it immediately inspired me to write and share my experiences to expound on the question, “what do teachers do?” The answer to that question is far more multifaceted than one concluding sentence can contain.

My thoughts were accepted for publication in The Physics Teacher for the February edition, and I’m so thrilled!



Teaching Methods · Uncategorized

Teaching to Reach the Introvert

My second-grade teacher called my mom concerned that I didn’t play with any of the kids at recess: I read a book under a tree instead. When my mom asked if this was a problem the teacher reported that I wouldn’t have any friends. I was elected to represent our class for the school council that year.

Research indicates that as much as 50-74% of the population is extroverted. It is generally viewed as a valued quality: put yourself out there, be friendly, be social. These are the rules society dictates whether it is on the elementary playground or in the workplace. Our culture favors extroversion, and many of the qualities associated with introversion are erroneously viewed as a failure to be able to advocate and insecurities with oneself.

Nowhere does extroversion seem to get a higher reward than in the classroom.  There is a huge emphasis on team and group projects, and the excellent teacher is often seen as the one where energy runs high in the room, rather than examining student behaviors and conversations. During the majority of my high school experience, most classes had a participation grade. If I did not speak in class I was guaranteed nothing higher than an 80% for participation, regardless of the fact that the rest of my work was A-work. I despised the participation grade. Some teachers pride themselves on their use of the Socratic method, but research has indicated that it’s execution this can offer the opportunity for gender bias: male students are more likely than female students to shout out or offer answers to questions, regardless of if they are correct. Teachers, in turn, are more likely to respond to those students and the quiet students are left in the dust.

I want to make perfectly clear that I am in no way, shape or form suggesting that classroom participation, presentations, and conversations should be abandoned, far from it! All of these skills are important and required for any field and for success. At the same time, if we are trying to reach all students in a way that they learn best, then we have to offer comfortable environments for the introverts in addition to the extroverts.

One of my extroverts discussing the solution to the problem. All students in this group worked on the same problem in pairs, then came to consensus before presenting to the class

Science is all about collaboration and presentation. Students who think otherwise are in for a very rude awakening as they approach their senior year of college and enter the workforce or graduate school. A method I have recently adopted is whiteboarding. At the spring meeting of the Chicago Section of AAPT, Kelley O’Shea presented on standards-based grading in physics and lead a workshop on whiteboarding methods. (See her blog!) One of the most important aspects of whiteboarding (and teaching, for that matter) is fostering an environment where it is safe to share and safe to be wrong. In the lab setting, this consists of all of the students putting their lab results on a large whiteboard and standing in a large circle. Students comment on similarities and ask questions about differences on the boards.


Sample board and commentary from students. Students assess each other’s final answers and reasoning in addition to the quality of the presented work. 

I have used this method in my teaching, but I have also included a variation on the model. Occasionally (and in the interest of time and space) I have students circulate the room to examine each of the boards. They are still asked to consider similarities and differences, but I ask them to write questions and comment down on a smaller whiteboard next to each of the large ones. After we have done this, students return to their boards, read the feedback and then I open the floor to comment on similarities and differences. This provides the introverts with a huge advantage: they still get to collaborate in their small groups, but they receive the wealth of information in the large group as well as having another avenue to participate in the whole group discussion.


The second whiteboarding method I find to be highly effective with my introverts, shy students and students who struggle is what Kelley fondly dubs, “whiteboard speed dating”. In this exercise, students are paired at a board and the entire class is given the same problem. Here’s the catch: the problem is goalless, it does not end in “calculate the _____”. Students are two write anything on the board they can (diagrams, equations, graphs, etc) in the time allotted (1-3 minutes). When time is up, partners split, everyone moves around the room to an adjacent desk and now they have a new board, a new partner, and a new perspective. The first time I tried this I, admittedly, was anxious for my most introverted student. She did not speak. ever. even to me. ever. even when asked a question. about anything. Within 3 rotations she was explaining the problem to her partner, and I’ll add: not a student she typically worked with. Working in this manner gave her the confidence to collaborate with another student. Would she get up in front of the class and explain the problem? Not today. But maybe eventually.



“Don’t be scared…it’s me. Love you”

The title is the first instant message sent by AOL instant messenger in 1993. I find it to be a fitting start to this blog.

13 years ago I was one quarter into my junior year of high school. I was unwillingly forced into my first physics class and within a week I was hooked (thanks mom) My teacher seemed to be on one too many Mountain Dews…he talked more rapidly than I do (I talk really fast), he was excited all the time, and clearly brilliant.

At the same time, I was enrolled in a precalculus class with a teacher who often made me uncomfortable, his familiarity becoming increasingly bothersome.

By the time November rolled around I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: Physics. I was going to apply to the most elite Universities, explore the possibility of engineering, but still a 100% focus on physics and awesomeness. I was infected with an overwhelming amount of excitement and I literally could not stay in my seat during class. November was also the time for course recommendations for the following year. My math teacher did everything in his power to tell me I was inadequate and I had to fight tooth and nail to get into AP Calculus. My physics teacher, on the other hand, suggested I take AP Physics. I was so nervous and shy that I could not muster the gumption to assert that was the class I deeply wanted prior to him suggesting it. When he did I shook my head vigorously.

In the years following I had mostly excellent instructors, mentors and role models. First and foremost my AP Physics teacher, John Lewis. I can only dream to be half the teacher he is. His methodology and pedagogy were so subtle I am still recognizing and uncovering his amazing talent as a teacher.

In college, I was fortunate to not only have amazing professors, but amazing friends, starting the Society for Women in Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and all the while learning how to become a strong, assertive woman in STEM.

Now, I do the very thing that got me started in the first place: I teach high school physics. Too often my graduation plans were met with an unenthusiastic “oh” by my college professors. I was one of the drips leaking out of the pipeline, not pursuing the ultimate goal of the PhD. It made me question if I was settling for less than that which I was capable.

Yet I realize that my work is the only work I could ever pursue with as deep a passion and energy as I do. That is only topped by my work as a wife and mom.

I do all three. I am a Physics Teacher Momma