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Dear universal gravity, why do I teach you?

March 27, 2012

I’ve been wrestling lately with what I teach and why I teach it. We skip Doppler shift calculations because the kids allegedly can’t handle the math (I dissent on that, but oh well), but we teach universal gravity because that math is pretty simple. These kids will all hear sirens changing pitch, but very few of them are likely to ever leave standard surface of the earth gravity. Why am I spending their valuable time on things that they’ll never experience when it’s clearly coming at the expense of explaining thing that they most certainly will experience?

If I do it because it is of great value to learn about things that you’ll never get a chance to see and touch then shouldn’t I be spending all year on quantum mechanics and special relativity? If it’s just a math differential then…well what the hell is up with that? Why am I letting that drive my curriculum decisions? And why do I allegedly have droves of students who can’t handle fractions coming to me in their junior year?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love universal gravity. It’s beautiful physics with a great story behind it. But I sit here planning my curriculum eyeballing Cavendish experiments and Doppler Frisbees, trying to weigh the cost-benefit ratios, and I feel like something doesn’t make sense. Not to say that it’s wrong, but I’m not certain I can defend what we do as The Correct Thing. A stance I find worrying.


Barbells, as promised

March 12, 2012

During the winter season I, along with another teacher, run a strength and conditioning program for out of season athletes. In practice this is 65ish kids who play soccer, football, lacrosse, or field hockey trying to get stronger for their sport and, I’d argue, for life. Now that the season is past and they’ve all moved on I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on how it went.

This year we went with a three day a week program, student lifted twice a week and did a simple metcon the other day. Metcons usually involved a rower and were in the 6-20 minute time domain, usually intervals of some sort. This year I didn’t program the metcons myself, which saved a fair bit of time and headache for me. Lifting sessions saw four groups of three kids with their own squat racks. Students were grouped by height which tended to correlate to age. We focused on the back squat (lowbar or high), the press, and to a lesser extent the bench press and the deadlift.

All in all we were pretty pleased with the season. A lot of kids made a lot of gains in strength and overall fitness. We have a couple of junior boys scratching at the boundary of a double body-weight back squat. One junior boy broke the #400 barrier, first time I’ve seen a student do that at this school. Several kids went from never squatting the naked bar with poor form to squatting body-weight with good form and depth. Four girls got their first pull ups ever. The only injury we had was one tweaked lower back which cleared up in about a week. Stronger fitter tiny humans will be taking to the field in the spring and the fall. I’m pleased to have been a part of it.

Getting girls to stick with the program has been a challenge and we’re still wrestling with what to do about it. One notion is that we’re going to make an entire session the girl’s session. Instead of three groups of boys and one group of girls (which is what each of our three daily (six total) sessions looked like) we’ll have an entire session made entirely of girls. In theory this will make them more comfortable and likely to stick with it? I’m skeptical. But my skepticism, my faith that if we just trusted them to be strong and lift hard led to something like a %20 attrition rate for girls. So we’ll listen to feedback of actual girls and former girls and see if putting them all together will help. Perhaps my wife will pitch in with the coaching again, that would surely help too. Seeing a thin athletic young woman squatting bodyweight might help convince them that they aren’t going to hulk out and be gross. I also want to sit them all down and do a tutorial on what photoshop and the media is doing to their brains, but oh well…

Programming. This year we went with a nice linear paradigm. 3sets 5 reps across, increasing by 5, or 10 pounds each workout. I think a few kids didn’t really buy in to the part of this where they pay attention to their weights, but by and large they knew what they were doing and that kept people on task. Only one kid outgrew this growth pattern, stalling when he got to around 335. We put him on a diet of speed sets and changed up his heavy days which got him moving again. Pleasing outcomes abounded. Looking forward to next year.

And as a bit of icing on the proverbial cake I hit a personal PR of 415 in the back squat, and hit a 250 power clean. Not bad for a 6’4″ physicist.

Extra tests and infrastructure

November 6, 2011

I’ve been wrestling with two main things lately in my teaching. Parent reactions, and managing extra test paperwork. My bosses (bless them) are keeping the brunt of the former off of me for now, and I’m making progress on the latter. In the interest of staying positive, I’ll talk about that a bit.

As I’ve mentioned earlier I give extra tests on Wednesdays after a student has filled out my google form to take an extra test. Bringing the webform online was a huge help in reducing the stress/workload and making things run more smoothly. Step 2 has started taking shape. I have set up a Word document on my computer for each standard. Each document has as many good quiz questions on it as I have come up with. My own personal test bank. When Tuesday night rolls around and I need to crank out between twelve and twenty extra tests, it should largely be a matter of copy and paste, rather than a matter of reinvention.

I went through a little Q and A with myself on this process; went something like this:

Me: “Why a test bank? Are you that lazy?”

Self: “To streamline the process and improve the results. Reinventing the wheel isn’t totally devoid of merit, but there’s something to be said for saving some intellectual energy. Creating the same test question over and over again just adds to burnout without improving a darn thing for the kids. I don’t mind spending sanity, but I want to spend it on something worthwhile. A test bank will allow me to ”

Me: “Surely you can pull decent physics questions out of the air on the spot in a matter of minutes?”

Self: “Well, yes, sure, I can. Decent questions. Good questions? That’s somewhat up in the air. I don’t know how many of the off the cuff questions end up being all that great. And don’t forget that a matter of minutes adds up quickly when you’ve got over a dozen tiny stressed out people chomping at the metaphorical bit to demonstrate some mastery.”

Me: “…I still think that any attempt to avoid effort is a sign of weakness and you should be shunned.”

Self: “Yeah man, we really need to get over that.

So far there hasn’t been much of an upside to this. Indeed it’s been more work in the short term. I think and hope that it will pay dividends in the long term.

Full disclosure: I was inspired to write this up by Kelly O’Shea’s recent post on the subject. More often than not I’m inspired to write by something Kelly has done. She’s darn handy like that.

My introduction to webforms

October 17, 2011

Kelly O’Shea showed me the way again today. This time on the subject of web forms and how I can use them to streamline my extra test request process. I had been taking email requests from kids for their extra tests but those were a pain to keep track of and I found that the kids neglected key information, like, when they can take the test. My handy dandy newfangled web-form promises to sidestep at least some of these issues.

The required field utility is something I’m particularly excited about. No good answer for what specifically you did to prepare yourself? Perhaps you should ponder on that before jumping in to an assessment. The results interface for me is pretty easy to access as it just lives in my google docs folder.. Results are tabulated and timestamped. After a round of assessments happens I can easily (two clicks) go through and get rid of the now-superfluous data.

Now to put it in the hands of the kids and see how it plays out.

Mid semester grades continued…

October 12, 2011

Over at Quantum Progress today there was some great discussion about SBG and mid semester grades. Namely, how do you prevent these two notions from stepping on each other’s toes? I started off with:

“I’m getting into the same boat in the next couple of weeks. My kids have access to ActiveGrade, they know exactly where they stand, but I’m required to put an A through F letter grade. What am I to do with the kids who haven’t mastered a handful of Core objectives? I need to double check my school’s software but I think I can enter comments along with the mid semester grades. I’m hoping to write up a paragraph blurb about my grading practices and tag it on to the grades that go home. I think I’ve got a vibe going with my kids and parents that they’ll mostly get what’s going on. It helps that my school only ends up sending off year end grades to colleges, so there’s some built in structure to the “this grade doesn’t matter” argument. But I’m still two weeks out, perhaps the grade-grubbing toxins won’t be released for a little while yet.

One of my big concerns is my seniors in AP Physics. For most of them their college applications will include a transcript with a copy of this mid semester grade. How do I want to treat core standards when there’s been pretty limited time for growth and mastery?…I can tell I have more to say about this, but it’ll have to wait until after dinner.”

Before I indeed went and got some dinner. I’d like to expand on it now, as the issue of dealing with seniors in AP is particularly pertinent to me right now. What do I do with the kids who really should be pulling an A, but for some silly reason, aren’t? If I give them the benefit of the doubt will they end up showing me an effort that supports that? I got burned by some bad experiences with this last year and I don’t want to repeat that.

On the one hand I want to hold my students accountable for their performance and their efforts to date. If you can’t get your act together, I’m telling Snooty College X that you’re a B student. Hold the line. Stern scowls for all.

On the other hand, I know that these kids are swamped by college applications. Some of my AP kids are applying to over a dozen pretty competitive schools. They’re stressed. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and report what I suspect they’ll end up with.

Any solution other than the obvious find the happy medium that I hope exists somewhere between and do my best to do my best…Unsatisfyingly vague.

Writing SBG tests

October 7, 2011

I’m giving out the second round of tests for the year and I find that my first test is probably too short. Kids are handing it in 20 minute in to a 20 minute period. I’m not a priori opposed to this, but it does raise some questions for me. Are the tests challenging enough? Am I wasting there time? They aren’t hitting full mastery on the ones I have so far, so maybe I need to stress the importance of careful work? I’m not sure yet.

I am pretty sure that the tests are so short because I’m trying not to double test them on the objectives too much. I watched enough courtroom dramas as a kid to know that double jeopardy is a Bad Thing. What’s the collective take on this? If you use SBG do you test the same standard with multiple questions on a given assessment? Why am I troubled by this, should I just relax and let the standard for mastery be getting it right several times on a single test? Sounds masterful…

Tests and my new paradigm

September 23, 2011

It’s testing week for me which of course means stressed out high voiced people in my office more than usual. This will be my first go at actually grading things in a standards based manner. I wish I’d managed to get something in sooner than this. Ah well.

Looking at my first batch of tests (honors physics) I’m troubled. Not by the performances, we all need to start somewhere. I’m troubled because it looks like I didn’t write the tests all that well for use with SBG. I had my standards right next to me while I was writing the tests, I referenced them during my revision process, and still I feel like evaluating these concepts and the mastery thereof is going to be trickier than I’d envisioned. How do the pros handle a standard being touched on several times in a single test? Am I right in guessing that more frequent smaller assessments will smooth my life out a bit?

…time passes…

I just sat down with one of my AP students to go over her test. Having the conversation in the SBG paradigm was amazing. Instead of “you lost X points for Y reason and ended up at a 70%” she got specific feedback on how she did on the test, where she needs to improve and practice more, and tips on what she can do about it. Amazing. Now I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the other classes end up being so clear cut.

Even if ActiveGrade keeps being a pain in the butt I’m even more sold on this system. Of course, if neutrinos do go faster than light, perhaps all bets are off anyway and I shouldn’t worry about all this.

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