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.

Teaching Methods

AP Physics C in the Accelerated Classroom: Addressing the Needs of the Gifted and Talented in Physics

Gifted and accelerated learners have specific needs in the classroom that frequently go unmet. It is a grievous error to assume that just because a student is gifted they will be successful. Differentiation is often viewed as incredibly labor-intensive on the part of the teacher with difficulty in grading different products fairly. This is of particular challenge in the current Advanced Placement (AP) Physics C program since, under the college board recommendations, many physics C students already have a strong foundation in mechanics from AP Physics 1 (algebra-based). This paper will share a particular example used in the lab in an AP Physics C gifted classroom and how the products are easily differentiated and scored in a fair manner.

 

Introduction to Gifted and Talented Learners

The first thing that must be noted is that gifted learners exist in every classroom. The second thing that must be noted is that gifted and talented looks different on each individual. Additionally, when students are put through an identification process, minority and English language learner students are overwhelmingly unidentified.

Identification of gifted and talented students is immensely important because research has shown that in the absence of the ability to nurture student talents, many of these students will, in fact, underperform. Students are either placed in environments that lack rigor and challenge and so they disengage because they are bored, or if the teacher identifies the student as “smart” the teacher often does not recognize specific markers of giftedness that contribute to student behavior in the classroom, prohibiting the teacher from allowing appropriate accommodations.

It is important that every classroom teacher become aware of giftedness so that they can best address their students. Much in the same way that we will readily allow a student with ADHD to stand during class, or use a fidget, we must also recognize that gifted and talented students have their own set of needs to be challenged and to grow.

Although there is no one blanket description for students who are gifted and talented, there are some unique markers. Much like a student who may be diagnosed with a special need, gifted and talented students’ brains are physiologically different. They have a thicker pre-frontal cortex that develops differently from their peers and they, in fact, have more and stronger neural pathways than their peers2. Not only do they think differently, they perceive the world in a different manner. In the absence of development of talent, gifted individuals can lose the strength of their pathways, rather than expanding them.

One of the most clear differences in gifted students is that they exhibit one or more over excitabilities. Overexcitabilities describe a series of traits and/or behaviors that gifted individuals feel on a level that is far more intense than the general population. These include the following: intellectual, emotional, psychomotor, sensory and imaginational. Intellectual is what people are most familiar with when they think of giftedness: avid readers, love of learning, independent thinking etc. Emotional are the students who often have an overwhelming sense of empathy for their friends and family. Due to this they are often the ones who will take up causes for advocacy. They also may exhibit extremely intense anxieties. Individuals with psychomotor over excitabilities are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD, they may talk fast, act impulsively and seem to run on little sleep. Sensory have a heightened sense in the five senses, they are often extremely interested in the arts and have a depth of interest in aesthetics. They may also, however, be unusually sensitive to smells and tastes. Individuals with imaginational overexcitabilities are the ones who are constantly daydreaming, visualizing, Males tend to score higher on the intellectual and psychomotor areas while females tend to score higher on the emotional and sensual over excitabilities3

AP Physics C for the Gifted and Talented

Acknowledging these needs for gifted students, what is a teacher to do? Two of the most important tools are acceleration and differentiation.

We often think of acceleration as grade skipping. While this is useful for many students, it is not in our grasp as classroom teachers. We should, however, not prohibit say, a sophomore, from enrolling in physics if they have met the appropriate math pre-requisites. Surprisingly, acceleration at the grade level has shown to somewhat close the gender gap in publication and salary for female students4. At the classroom level, where we have control, this means compaction of curriculum. I lean most heavily on this for my students.

Since the students in my class have all taken AP Physics 1, they have an incredible depth of conceptual foundation as it relates to mechanics. This was, indeed, the goal of the revised course. The challenge now, however, is to make AP Physics C exciting, interesting and challenging. At the same time the goal of any high school teacher should be to equip their students with the foundation for the skills needed in college.

For any STEM field, we know well that lab skills are indispensible. At the same time, we also know that creating a genuine lab experience when students have little to no lab experiences is extremely challenging. There is a certain level of base knowledge needed to have a valid lab experience from start to finish. Fortunately, students in AP Physics C have already obtained that base knowledge. The only difference is that now my students are required to incorporate calculus.

 

The Flipped Accelerated Classroom

I operate on the premise that first, the majority of the physics concepts should be review, and second, the lab experience is the most important experience in my classroom. While it is not imperative to student success that they be able to determine an obscure moment of inertia, it is imperative that they enter college with a basic skill set that includes troubleshooting, use of basic equipment, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving strategies. On the first day of school I gave my students the following assignment: design a product that demonstrates to me that you have mastery over all of the AP learning objectives for kinematics.

Immediately this assignment is differentiated: students have almost endless choice. They have full access to all lab equipment plus anything else they would like to use or bring in. This is, at first, an extremely challenging prospect to students. They are not used to having so much choice, their activities have more or less been dictated by the goal and/or equipment available. This is not true of real research; in that case you must select a project, investigate, and produce results.

We recently did the same with momentum. Since this topic is much more in-depth than kinematics, I assigned nightly homework sets and provided solutions the following day. The homework was not collected or scored as I am leaving it in the student’s hands to determine how much repetition is necessary for themselves. In this unit they were asked to design a lab in which all of the objectives are present. Since this project would inevitably include many other topics within mechanics I provided a little bit more guidance, encouraging students to start with a question. Within the first class period I had a group investigating a buoyant object dropped into a container of water (Fig 1)

and analyzing with Vernier VideoPhysics, another group analyzing the deflation of a balloon attached to a string with a straw, a third looking at spring pendulum, and a fourth examing a dynamics car attached to a spring on a horizontal surface. Each of these involved a varying force (not a requirement, but an option for the exemplary plus mark) and in the case of two of the experiments, students needed to study topics they had not yet covered as it related to their problem.

Student Products, Evaluation and Presentation

Student products vary n terms of level of complexity and interest, but they have always been exciting to grade. The first challenge, naturally, is scoring the product in a way that is fair for all students, given the large variety. To this end, I grade the products based on how well they meet each of the objectives, from Exemplary to Unsatisfactory. In order to permit students who are more mathematically advanced or who would like to go for the challenge, I include an exemplary plus category. At the beginning of the year this category was for any correct application of calculus, once the year progressed this category needed modification to ensure the same level of challenge.

Students are also expected to present their results and provide feedback to their peers. We do a type of poster presentation session. Students put their procedure, lab design and results on a large whiteboard. (Figure 2) , one partner circulates the room while the other remains at the board to present to their peers. During this time period students are to ask one another questions, whether it be for clarification, or as a way to offer a suggestion. (Figure 3) After students have moved through the room, original partners move together. The partner who circulated initially now must explain each board to their partner. As they do so, they are asked to leave feedback on a smaller board. At the end of this exercise, groups return to their boards and review the feedback. I then give students another few days to make adjustments and corrections before turning in the lab.

Applications for the Mixed Classroom

Allowing student choice and differentiation for gifted students is just as important as allowing other students extra time on exams or the ability to use a fidget. The reality is that just as our classrooms often will have students with special needs due to a disability, we likely also have a non-zero number of gifted students as well, who’s needs must also be met. In a mixed classroom, this might mean generating both the guided and open-ended lab. The modeling curriculum works very well for all students, but the differentiation component is key. Gifted learners should be permitted to do less repetition as long as they can prove mastery. They should be permitted to work together in class sometimes (ability-based grouping), rather than always grouped with the struggling students so they have the opportunity to flourish with like minds, much as we appreciate upon entering college.

 

Conclusions and Benefits

This type of activity and assessment has served multiple purposes. First, it allows for differentiation within the gifted classroom. Students have the ability to make their products as simple or complex as they determine, while still meeting the learning objectives. Secondly, it requires students to make a variety of considerations and assumptions such as which equipment will be best, how to control for a variety of variables, and which variables can be simplified due to assumptions or uncertainty measurements. (For example, in my group that examined the deflating balloon, they massed the weighted balloon on an extremely precise scale and noted it was loosing mass, even while tied. ) Students are using and improving on lab skills and techniques. Lastly, students are learning the importance of clear communication and critical evaluation. In a time where even undergraduates are expected to produce publishable research, communicating, evaluating and responding to evaluations become ever more important skills. By focusing on these at the high school level, students become better equipped for whatever their future holds.