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Back to blogging with my best class ever

September 20, 2014

I’m sorry that I’ve neglected this blog for so long. I’ve got so many drafts stored away that I need to finish, but too much has been going on to find the time to write.

But today, I have to write, even if it means I’m doing it in the middle of the night.

I just had my very best class that I’ve had in 15 years of teaching. And thankfully, I have it all on tape so that I can remember it.

I have this really dumb habit of tearing up in the classroom when things are going really well, and today, I was almost wiping away rivers of tears at the end of class.

We were working on the same BFPM bridging activity that I’ve written about before, but this time, we made a few more modifications. We felt the old activity forced the students to wrestle too much with what was going on when the box was accelerating, particularly since we haven’t studied acceleration or unbalanced forces, so we modified the assignment so that students wouldn’t consider the times when the velocity of the box was changing. Here is the revised activity as a pdf.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to make this change, since in the past, students ultimately were about to come to good conclusions about the accelerated portions of the motion. But I was totally convinced when we tried this out in class—by reducing the complexity of this task, we allowed them to build up more confidence, and piqued their curiosity, so that they naturally wondered and asked great questions about what was happening in the accelerated phase, with out getting bogged down with all the details.

One other thing I’ve been doing this year that I think is starting to pay big dividends is giving short metacognative lessons. I’ve had students complete a couple of assignments on canvas where they respond to articles about feedback and why it is good to fail on assessments. I’ve also tried to take a minute or two here or there to talk specifically about how they are discussing ideas in class and offer suggestions for how we might continue to improve. Today I asked them to focus on speaking to one another and making sure they were involving everyone in the conversation.

And here is what I got (they are working on the second page of the activity when this starts).

I hardly have to speak at all. These are students who just figured out N1L two days ago. At around 8 minutes I step in and push them to think about what’s happening when I push on a box at rest. They have a great discussion, build up lots of confusion, and then are totally happy with putting this question aside and moving on to the next part of the activity.

So we move on to the third page—and they just nail it, which is pretty much to be expected. But even when I push them on giving multiple ways to explain how to test that the puck is moving at constant velocity, they do it.

Now, here’s where I think it gets really good. In the 4th page, we get them to think about a situation where you are pushing the block first at a constant slow speed, and then later at a constant fast speed. They do a great job of discussing this, checking their work, and collectively, they all come to the wrong answer that when the box is moving faster, you are pushing harder. All I have to do is tell them they are collectively wrong and they should check their assumptions, and they come back with two amazing explanations:

  • Maybe friction doesn’t depend on speed
  • Or, Maybe N1L needs to be modified—perhaps CVPM doesn’t mean Fnet=0.

The points they raise in discussion here with minimal assistance from me are stunning to me. They even get to the point where they figure out that they need to settle this with an experiment, and they do this. All of this is stuff I used to simply walk classes through in the past.

Now, they talk about the result of the experiment, and use it to definitely answer the 4th page of the activity, and along the way they come to so many more realizations—FBDs don’t tell you the velocity of an object, other things the frictional force might depend on, the threshold nature of the static frictional force, how drag forces depend on velocity, and much more.

Even though I’m amazed by all these students did today, in watching the video, I see few of them are taking notes, and it makes me wonder if many of the insights we realized today might be ephemeral, and wonder what I can do to help them preserve the understandings they came to today.

And, this is 80 solid minutes of discussion. Students are whiteboarding in parts, and we do some experiments, but I see some yawns, and certainly not everyone is engaged at every moment. I can also tell this is mentally exhausting—it makes me wonder what we can do to help students be more engaged in discussions like this.

And in the last segment, I’m doing quite a bit of leading—I wonder if I’m going to be able to find a way next year to turn even more of that over to students. If I do, I think I’m going to need to remember to bring a box of kleenex to class.

A solution to comment writing dread: video reflections

June 10, 2014

Writing comments/reports whatever you call them, it’s something many teachers dread—for many of us it involves writing thousands of words, doing hours of work, knowing they won’t be read for a week or more until after you write them, and in some cases, wondering if they’ll be read at all. I often find myself struggling to understand the audience and purpose of these comments—should I direct them to the students, or to the parents? Are the formative or summative? Sometimes, I feel like I’m trying to speculate about a student’s motivation or a cause for his or her actions. And even when I write my very best comments, I’m not sure I’m giving a student’s parents the clearest picture into what a student is learning in my class.

Here’s what I’d like for my comments to be. I’d like them to be part of a conversation. I’d like for students to have some input into to content of their comment. I’d like to give them specific feedback and advice on how to improve, and I’d like to emphasize and highlight the things that the student is doing best, and to have a clearer picture of what’s motivating the student.

Here’s an idea I had after my latest 20,000 word comment writing adventure. Why not ask students to make a video reflection before each comment writing period? I think I could ask each student to compose a 5 minute video showing me 3 things:

  • Show me an example from your work that shows strong understanding of a physics concept.
  • Show me and example from your work that shows improvement in your understanding of physics.
  • Show me an example from your work that shows a concept that you are still working to improve your understanding.

I could then ask students to comment on their work and study habits, goals and more. What I find most useful about this is that like screencasts, I think this video would paint a clear picture of that student in my class. Students who are doing well in the course would present clear and specific answers to the three points above, which vague responses would be one more indicator of struggle.

My comments could then be written reposes to these student videos, which would allow me to enter a conversation with the student and make specific comments on the understanding demonstrated in the video. Maybe one day, my comments could even be videos themselves.

So what do you think? At 5 minutes a video, it would take an hour and 15 minutes to watch all of the videos for my class (assuming I didn’t watch them at double speed). This seems like a reasonable investment for significantly improved comments.

I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions you may have to ease the comment writing process.

A workshop on screencasting

May 30, 2014

On Monday, I’ll be leading a workshop for our Math department on creating screencasts. Our 9th grade math program uses the Exeter 1 and 2 Curriculum, and they are looking to augment it with screencasts that students will view. The content of these screencasts mostly undecided, but could contain some of the background material and definitions students might need to get started with a set of problems, or might contain challenges that extend problems or try to hook students into thinking more deeply about a particular problem.

I’ve tried to develop a very interactive workshop that starts by getting our faculty experience learning via video by watching three great talks about by

From there, my hope is to launch them very quickly into designing ideas for possible screencasts for a given page of Exeter problems, and then to go out and create a prototype video in less than half an hour.

After all the videos are created, faculty pairs will pitch them, Shark Tank style, to a group of students I’ve assembled that will help us to see how engaging they are and offer suggestions for improving our next revisions.

I’ve created a Google doc with a fairly detailed outline of the workshop, and I’d love any feedback you may have. You can comment directly on the document, or you can view it below and simply leave a comment on this post.

One of the things I’m most interested in is other teaching or technical tips for creating and using screencasts.

Here’s my list of tips so far:

Basic tips

  • Write a script, or at least an outline of what you want to say before you start recording. It will save you a ton of time.
  • Never make a video longer than 10 minutes (there are those who argue this limit is even shorter).
  • Include an index at the start of the video that gives students times of various parts of the video.
  • Try to stick to the the principle of one concept per video.

Learning tips

  • Frequently ask students to pause the video and a try a problem for themselves. You could even ask students to email you a photograph of that work.
  • Create a space for students to be able to ask and answer one another’s questions about the video. Youtube comments are a good start. Canvas can also do this.

Advanced tips

  • How to create a link to a particular location in a video (great for making an interactive index).  Just add “#t=Xm&Ys” to the end of the link, where X is the time in minutes and Y is the time in seconds of where you want to link to. You can also use this handy site:
  • How to add annotations to a Youtube video. add callouts links and hotspots over your videos.
    • This is an awesome tool for asking a question, and then putting possible responses up on the screen and asking the students to click the appropriate response, which will link them to different videos that can then follow up on the student’s answer. Here’s a great example of this: Buoyancy Quiz.
  • If you have students create their own screencasts, you can easily ask them to submit them via a google form, or in an assignment canvas.
  • You can enable variable speed playback on Youtube. This lets you watch screencasts at 1.5 and 2x speed, which can be great for watching student submitted screencasts.

Thanks for any suggestions or feedback you may have.

Quick insights from twitter into vector products

March 19, 2014

I love twitter specifically because it presents me with so many ideas, even new ways about thinking about old things or ideas I thought I already understood. Here’s today’s example, courtesy of Superfly Andy Rundquist:

and Joe Heafner promptly responded with

I don’t know about you, but my first introduction to dot and cross products was filled with trying to understand i,j,k notation and follow weird procedures for manipulating vectors in a matrix form, and I had no clue what I was doing, nor did I understand the significance of what I was calculating.

How great would it be to simply introduce the cross product to a class with Andy’s question? Stand next to a kid, ask “how much of you is perpendicular to me?” Then lean over to the side at a 10 degree angle and ask the question again. Students could probably measure this with a meter stick. Later try all sorts of other situations, like clock hands, and later, more abstract ideas like position and momentum vectors.

This would have helped 19 year old me out tremendously.

On cold calling

February 12, 2014

I can still remember the third quarter calculus course I took my senior year of high school. The professor had developed this teaching style of continuously cold calling on students to work through problems he wrote on the board. He’s start off a lecture by writing an integral on the board, and then methodically start calling on students:

“What is the next step in this problem, Mr. Smith?” he’d ask, and if that student didn’t know, he’d casually switch over to someone else, “Well, perhaps Ms. Johnson can help you out.”

He did this so frequently that even in a class of 25, you were basically guaranteed to get called on at least twice. I can remember dreading this class every day, especially the moment I would be called on and wouldn’t know the answer, and suddenly everyone would realize I was the calculus impostor from high school sitting in on a college level class. From that moment on, I’ve always stayed far away from cold calling students when I’m teaching.

Last night, Bowman Dickson gave an awesome presentation on developing conceptual understanding before introducing mathematical formalism to the Global Math Department *. In his presentation, Bowman mentioned the great value he finds in cold calling on students, especially to bring out a range of different responses when trying to introduce an idea conceptually. He also stressed the need to explain to students from the beginning why he’s cold calling, and never to use cold calling as a form of punishment to call out students who aren’t paying attention.

This totally got to reconsider about a practice I’d previously written off. What if I when I started the year, and we were discussing the value of making mistakes and having everyone contribute to the conversation, I talked about cold calling as a way of working to intentionally help build our class culture to encourage mistake making and to help me quickly gauge our understanding as a class. I think this would dramatically change the tone of a practice that I’ve found distasteful in the past, and I’m sure most students find stress inducing.

It also made me think of how many of the friction-inducing practices we do as teachers, like not directly answering student questions, and instead answering with questions, would probably far more palatable and effective if we simply took the time to explain their rational and build a bit of buy-in.

* Incidentally, the GMD has been on a tear with some incredible presentations lately. Check out @sophgermain‘s great discussion of race and privilege, @suevanhattum’s excellent presentation on math circles and becoming invisible in discussion, and Ben Orlin‘s teaching as a form of writing.

A checklist for problem solving like a boss

January 19, 2014

It’s final exam time around here, and I’ve spent a bit of time trying to think of ways in which I can help students avoid some of those careless mistakes that often prevent them from showing the level of understudying they’re capable of reaching. Taking a page from Atul Guwande’s The Checklist Maifesto, I put together the following “How to solve physics problems like a boss” checklist.

Screen Shot 2014 01 19 at 11 44 28 PM

link to pdf.

I’ve emailed this out to my honors physics students, and plan to give them a paper copy on exam day as well. I’d love any suggestions you might have for ways to improve it. Are there check-steps I missed? I have a tiny concern that something like this might make some really slow some of my students down and push them toward bossing over details. What do you think?

The Return of Virtual Coaching

December 2, 2013

In a semi-recent post, I discussed the incredible benefits I got from having Eugenia Etkina visit my classroom and coach me. I’ve also tried before to get some sort of virtual coaching going, but it’s always seemed a bit cumbersome. Here’s my latest effort to simplify this.

Here’s what I’m offering: I’d like you to visit my classroom virtually and give me some coaching.
What will you get in return: I’ll do the same for you.

Here’s my schedule of teaching for now until the end of the year. You’ll notice that since I work at a boarding school, I even have ultra convenient Saturday classes that you can observe from the comfort of your breakfast table in pajamas.

All I ask is that you email or tweet me a few days ahead of time to tell me what class you’d like to visit, and let me know what class of yours you’d like me to return the favor for (I’m generally free when I’m not teaching). I’ll reply and we can work out the details of exactly what I’d like you to look for, etc.

Then on the day of the coaching, I’ll bring you into class via Skype or Google hangout on an iPad.

After we visit each other’s classes, we will set up another Skype/G+ session to debrief.

I hope I’ll be able to do one of these a week. I also don’t want to limit this to just coaching in physics. One of the things I’m really working on is trying to improve discussion in my classes, so if you teach a discussion based English or History class, I’d welcome your feedback and want to see what you’re doing as well. I’m also itching to have a chance to see some math teaching again as well.

If this turns out to be a hit, maybe we can figure out some way of creating some sort of service to match folks up who are interested in doing this.