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Parents night post-mortem

September 24, 2010

Since our classes meet for double periods, we essentially get to meet our parents for a whopping 25 minutes on parents night (most other classes just get 10 minutes for parents night). Some faculty just have a 10 minute presentation and help the parents find their way to the next class, but I decided to do something a bit different and give my parents a fuller flavor for the class I’m teaching, and many of the new approaches we are taking.

I started by going through this slideshow (it seems everyone has to have a powerpoint these days—I thought I was being a rebel by using keynote).

After going through this and getting to some of the student comments, I took questions (something that we are advised by older and wiser faculty not to do). Mostly I got a lot of praise and good vibes from parents “I see why X likes this class so much,” or “it must be a huge relief for kids not to have to get everything perfect the first time,” but I did get a few challenges, particularly from one parent about us not having a textbook, enough “practice problems” and my insistence that they put units on every number to get full credit. While I didn’t have enough time to answer all of this parent’s questions, I asked him to email me, which he did, the very next day. I’ve included that email below.

Dear Mr. B,
Nice to talk with you on the Class Rotation Night 2010.   Per our conversation, could you kindly send me the list of contents for the Honors Physics course for this academic year?   Also, is there any textbook type of reference that students could find in the — I’ve briefly visited the website and can not find it?

Here’s my response:

Thanks for writing. I’ve attached a tentative syllabus of the topics we’ll be covering for the rest of the year. This curriculum is adapted from the Modeling Physics curriculum, a physics curriculum that has been developed by leading physics education researchers at Arizona State University, and is currently deployed at thousands of high schools around the nation. Basically is a model is a set of ideas that can be used to describe a natural phenomenon, but with limitations. By learning physics this way, students should begin to see that models are the key to understanding many fields and not just in the sciences. To learn more about Modeling Instruction, you can go here

Regarding resources that A can use to study physics, I want to stress first that I think the best resources for her are the ones she already has. Each student gets an extensive packet (~20 pages) for every unit, which contains readings, practice sheets, challenge problems and spaces to record observations and data from labs. My intent is that students treat these like a textbook, and annotate them carefully with the ideas they are learning in discussions, example problems we work through and more. Part of what I aim to do is teach students how to read a science text, so we begin with short readings, and as the year progresses, the readings will grow in length and complexity. In addition, rather than working through hundreds of example problems on a particular topic, I encourage my students to focus on deeply engaging and really tearing apart the problems they have to gain more understanding and see new insights. Resolving problems from scratch (without notes) is probably one of the very best ways to learn.

However, as you know, the internet was invented more or less for physicists to share data and do their jobs, so there are a ton of resources out there:

The physics classroom is fairly good web-based textbook that contains interactive problems and worked out solutions. (It’s free)

Kahn Academy also has a ton of short online videos that explain most of the concepts in introductory physics

There are tons of other physics sites out there that contain tutorials, explanations, worked out problems, etc that can be found on google.

As for texts, I honestly feel very few texts do a good job of capturing the sense of inquiry and “how do we know this is true” that is at the hart of this course, but one text I like more than most is “The physics of everyday phenomena” by Thomas Griffith.

Finally, I think A is doing quite well in physics, and at the moment, her only hindrance is her slight unwillingness to participate in the class dialogue. I completely understand that not all students are comfortable  speaking up in groups, and I’ve already seen A making great strides in this area, both from my observations of her in class, and in debate. But she should know that she can do more to set up a dialogue with me. If she isn’t comfortable asking a question in class, she should write it down and email me, I will usually respond very quickly. Similarly, she has a blog, on this class, which can be a wonderful resource for her to post and refine her understanding of physics.


I did not hear back from this parent.

Best Advice I’ve Gotten

Incidentally, the best advice about interacting with parents I’ve every gotten is this from famous psychologist Michael Thompson (and it has rung true throughout my teaching career and even during my stent as a college counselor):

Most parents simply want to know that you know and appreciate their child. They are incredibly nervous when meeting the “teacher” because it brings up all sorts of feelings from their own days in school, and since our children are often such clear reflections of ourselves, discussion of a child’s shortcomings can often quickly feel like talking about the parent’s shortcomings, and is super-intimidating. So with these parents, you’ll go a long way by letting them know you know and care for their child. The remaining tiny fraction of parents (let’s call them 5 percenters) cannot be pleased no matter what you say or do. In these instances, your job is to realize as quickly as possible that you are dealing with a 5%er, and you need to get that parent to the next person up on the administrative food chain as quickly as possible. “Thanks so much for your concern, this is something I would love for us to talk about with our headmaster. Do you want to walk over with me?”

Having dealt with both types of parents, I can say Dr. Thompson is right on the money.

To show this is the case, here’s another email I got from a different parent on the next day.

Mr. B,

What a treat to see your class last night! It is easy to see why Kenji is so enthusiastic about science this year. I know we aren’t supposed to approach or bug the teachers but I just wanted to say thank you.

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