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Just give them the grade they earn

January 8, 2013

I hear this a lot from fellow teachers. Just give them an honest grade. Just give them what they earn. Just fail them….I’ve been scratching my head about this advice for a couple of years and the other day it clicked for me. This advice sees my students as the enemy. I see my students as my collaborators. If there’s trench warfare going on it’s us against ignorance, not me vs them. Or at least, that’s my goal. I wonder how they see it? Can I possibly find out?

I was talking with another teacher the other day, lamenting some weaker performances I’m seeing and pondering over proverbial eggnog how best to get these kids moving in the right direction. “Just fail them, they’ll get the message.” What message? The message that they can’t physics and should throw in the towel? The message that only by learning things perfectly and quickly can they achieve success? Perhaps the message is that if you don’t get something at first then you aren’t very smart and you should find something easier to do with your time and meager intellect? I just don’t know. I find it mostly offensively closed minded. But part of me steps back and says unto me “Dude, physics section X is quite a bit behind where it was last year. That’s a problem, what are you going to do about it?”

I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset a summer or two ago, right around the time I started moving to an SBG model for my classes. It’s all rather inspiring. Anyone can do anything if they try!…but…that’s not really the case in my experience. Truth be told, I think she goes too far. Not everyone seems to be able to do everything. People do underestimate how much they can achieve, learn, etc. They underestimate it hugely. But the sky isn’t the limit, we don’t all play with the same starting conditions. Michael Jordan worked hard, but we’re not all sitting on a pile of Michael Jordan just waiting for hard work to unlock our potential.

With this in mind, what does it mean for a class to be Honors Physics? Who should I have in these classes? When does encouraging a kid who is struggling turn into feeding a kid false hope?

To the elevator!

January 3, 2013

AP Physics C.

Student W: Hey Dr. B. Are we doing a lab today?

Me: Hadn’t really planned on it, but I guess if you guys have a great idea, then that’s cool.

Student T: Ooh! Let’s get scales and measure the speed of the elevator! I’ve always wanted to do that!

Now this is a bright kid, but I knew him well enough to know that he had just been loudly and excitedly wrong in class, but in a totally awesome way. So as a group we spent several minutes sorting out what you would need to do to figure out the speed of the school’s elevator using scales, the idea that had clearly been in his head of just looking at how much you weighed as it moved up was replaced by a slow-motion video iphone ap, some force probes, some ring stands, and a notion of Reimann sums. Science was afoot!

I sent them all off to gather data, wandered around the school a bit hushing them when they got too loud, pointing out units when needed, and we finally gathered up for analysis. Some estimates were way off. “85m/s seems too high…” “.007m/s seems really low…” But in the end most groups nailed down a result just under 1m/s. Which happily jived with our notion of how high the school was and how long it takes to elevate from bottom to top.

Enterprising Student J hopped on the phone to the elevator manufacturer  rattled off the model number and proudly reported that they’re designed for 1m/s. Science!

Self study: Money meet mouth

January 2, 2013

My wife and I just booked a trip to Turkey for mid-February. Neither of us speak a lick of Turkish, and now we have six weeks to gain some degree of proficiency. Clearly it’s time for some self study. As I wade into this I realize that I am suffering from one of the consequences of age, my memories of ignorance and struggle aren’t as fresh as they once were. I spend so much time in my comfort zone these days (I teach what I breathe, physics and fitness) that I worry the struggle of learning has become remote. I have two key hopes for this experiment in teaching myself Turkish. 1) To learn enough Turkish to get by in Turkey and b) to reopen my eyes to the struggles of self study.

I land in Turkey in 47 days. I know three words of Turkish. Tool gathering has begun.

The Talent Code for tips, guidance and advice. The main lessons I’ve pulled from this blog are to tackle the hard parts, avoid my comfort zones, and stick to bite sized chunks.

Tim Ferriss on meeting a new language.

Memrise The folks over at Memrise have what looks to be a great program for shoving facts into one’s brain. I’m using it to jump start vocabulary which has always been a weak spot for me with language. Back when I was taking French and Japanese I rarely struggled with grammar or pronunciation, but keeping vocabulary in my head was tough. I don’t see ads when I’m practicing on the site, nor did I pay a fee, so I’m not clear on what their business model is. Am I product or consumer? /shrug. For now I’m just a happy little learner.

I picked up an intro Pimsleur Turkish program to hold my hand. My hope/goal is to knock out the sixteen lessons in eight days and use that foundation to expand with daily practice and exploration.

Google Translate I’m sure it’s crummy at best, but the fact that an at the fingertips conjugation guide and dictionary is available anywhere with internet access is amazing. We live in the future.

I’m missing some basic Turkish language stories or comics, that’ll come next…Surely I’m missing other things too, I wonder what they are.


October 17, 2012

This year I find myself teaching two sections of honors physics. These students come in with a somewhat stronger math background and generally a higher level of interest in science. In years past success with projectile motion has been mixed. I know that there’s an easy road out there. I know that if I just ask them to calculate say, max height with formula X, and range across a flat surface with equation Y that I’ll get reliable success.

I also know that I’m entirely uninterested in that outcome. Yes I can train students to be reliable calculators, but what’s the point? Where’s the learning value in doing the same thing over and over again. 53% of the benefit of doing physics is in tuning the brain into a lean mean problem solving system grokking machine. Rote plug and chug misses this completely.

My students this year, and every other year, have been struggling with projectile motion. Struggling to embrace the essential 2-d equations of motion. I made this little summary sheet for them. I wonder if it helps? What extra resources might you point out to kids working their way through projectile motion?


Today’s lesson

October 17, 2012

Today’s lesson started with two key physics videos.


I didn’t do much talking around these videos, just let them sink in. One class asked a question or made a comment which prompted me to point out that water is the natural domain of the duck, just as thinking is the natural domain of the human.

User facility science

October 3, 2012

Back in grad school I bounced around between a lot of labs before settling on (for) the lab I did my dissertation in. Many of these labs had cool on-campus facilities. The lab I ended up working in did not have on campus facilities. A couple times a year I would fly down to Berkeley to spend a sleepless week pulling data out of the ALS. Ups and downs aside it was an interesting time.
Today in AP Physics we started a user facility lab. I only have one reliable launcher (the Launcher of Science), it became our ALS. I introduced the class to the device and told them they each had two five minute research sessions during which they would have access to the device. The “goal” of the lab was to launch a ball bearing to a yet-to-be-defined target across the room. They needed to use their two chunks of five minutes wisely to get all the data needed to plot their course. Before and after their five minutes sessions they plotted and schemed over exactly what data they wanted to take and how they were going to get it in in just five minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them come up with plans and strategies for the impending Science.

Pros: The stopwatch really did tighten up their focus. Having a goal dumped a dash of excitement into the lab. We all have a laugh when they ask me “but wait, do bonus points do anything?” “No, no they don’t.”

Cons: I made the challenge too easy, fixed launch location would have constrained the variables they had access to in a way that would have required more physics from them…Or so I suspect. Perhaps they’ll all miss tomorrow when they show up to take their shots.

Do-Now: Is this a bandwagon I need to be on?

June 17, 2012

In my end of year meetings, and throughout the year, I hear my colleagues discuss the do-now that they use for their classes. Kids walk in, they do a thing, class begins. Presumably the thing relates to the work they did last night, or the day before. I’ve never done this in any concrete way. Perhaps I should?

I’ve been toying with some sort of a 5% doing-your-stuff grade chunk, a do-now homework wrap up seems like a decent way to do that. One clear problem I see is that, in general, I’m bad at asking easy questions. I don’t understand them. When I sit down to write a test my brain initially sorts the questions it comes up with into too-easy, easy, hard, and too-hard. The too-easy questions barely seem like questions, they’re more like vocabulary binaries, and that category largely goes unpopulated, I just don’t think of the questions at all. “What is the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the earth?” At most that’s one step. I would never ask a question like that on a test (I stared at the screen for a couple of minutes before I was able to come up with something that easy), but perhaps that’s the sort of thing I need to shoot for on a do-now?  If they did their reading or paid attention yesterday, full marks, if not, no credit. Coming up with these questions will be a challenge. My usual technique of taking the pulse of the class and directing accordingly won’t fly. I’ll need to come in with a specific do-now, left to my impromptu devices I’ll start ratcheting up the difficulty so that I avoid boring or insulting them. No matter how many times I remind myself I just can’t seem to process the fact that they are not going to be insulted, and they’re largely ok with being bored by easy. Who is ok with being bored by easy? Who doesn’t get insulted by easy questions?!…

Kids, dummy. Kids. Kids who don’t necessarily want to become physicists. Kids who are often still scared and scarred by science and math and their own brains in general.

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