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Turning PDFs into student portfolios

June 16, 2016

Our school has one of those amazing multifunction copiers that will scan to email. For the past few years, I’ve gotten in the habit of pulling the staples out of my assessments, and feeding the giant stack to the copier to create a big PDF. This has been great for keeping an archive of student work, but it’s also fairly cumbersome—to find an individual student’s work, I need to search the entire PDF.

I’ve often wished I could automatically split that one large PDF into a set of smaller PDFs, one for each student. And while I’m at it, it would be great if I could share that PDF with the student so that she could also see have an electronic archive of all her assessments.

With Google drive, this should be easy. I can use gClassFolder to build a folder system for my classes that includes one folder for each student that is shared between me and that student.

After some experimenting with Python and the pyPdf library, I’ve gotten pretty close to a solution, so I’m sharing it here with the hopes that you’ll be able to improve it further. I still need to add some code to have this program move the files into individual folders. I’ve also got a bit of code in this program that will email the PDF to each student.

So I’m posting this code on github with the hopes that you might find it useful, and think of ways in which I can further improve it. This code is very rough, and not well commented. It also requires that you install pyPdf, by typing this on the command line:
pip install pyPdf
PDFspliter python project

To run, this program requires a csv file titled “students.csv” that lists the students in the PDF in order, and the page number where the students’ individual PDF begins. The link will take you to a Google doc template that you can download.

Guided reflection in physics class

March 18, 2015

Earlier this month, I saw this tweet from Andy Rundquist:

The paper Andy links, “Attending to lifelong Learning skills through guided reflection in a physics class“, by Dimitri Dounas-Frazer and Danile Reinholtz is well worth reading. In it, Dounas-Frazer and Reinholtz describe how they have developed a weekly survey that students in their intro physics classes UC Boulder complete that helps students to developing an ability to regulate their own learning, by asking them to specifically identify a experience from the previous week they wish to improve on, a goal for improvement, and a plan for reaching that goal.

In the paper, they talk about how the Guided Reflection From they developed was inspired by the work of the Compass Project at UC Berkeley, “an organization whose mission is to improve equity in the UC Berkeley Physics department through sociocultural support and other strategies.” In my reading, I got very intrigued by this organization and found myself spending a lot of digging through their website to learn more about it. One of the most interesting things I came across was this Self Evaluation Rubric, which helped to inform the Guided Reflection form developed at UC Boulder.

Screen Shot 2015 03 18 at 10 52 54 PM

Screen Shot 2015 03 18 at 10 53 03 PM

All of this got me very excited to learn more about the actual Guided Reflection Form that Donuas-Frazer and Reinholtz use in their classes, so I reached out directly to them and they were kind enough to share both a PDF of the form, and the actual form as a Google document.

View this document on Scribd

I love how detailed both the rubric and guided reflection form are; they make explicit so many of the skills and habits that are essential to success in both physics class and life in general, and they clearly explains the importance of each of these skills. I would love to have my students do this every week as part of the routine of our class, and I think not only would this lead to tremendous improvement in my students ability to self reflect, and hopefully, their success in their course, but I also think I would find great benefit in reading these reflections and being able to see my students’ growth. Finally, these reflections would be a tremendous boon when it comes time to write comments and recommendations for these students.

All of this gets me thinking about how I might use this form in my own class, and thinking about one possible tweak related to an observation that the authors made that “rarely incorporated instructor feedback into their action plans, at least explicitly.”

I wonder if it might help to recast this form as a letter. Could I set up scripts in the Google form (or some other platform) so that when a student completes the form, and presses submit, it generates an email that gets sent to both me and the student. The email is styled so that it includes all of the input the student entered into the form, but it is in the form of an actual letter to me, their teacher. Then when I respond, I would be responding to a letter, and students would have a copy of the information they shared and the plans they described in the guided reflection form. Might this generate a more conversational approach that would enhance their ability to self reflect and follow through on their plans?

Both of the authors are very interested in hearing from anyone who is interested in using guided reflection and these tools in their classes, and they will be speaking more about their work at an upcoming meeting of the Global Physics Department on April 15.

Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 4

February 17, 2015

This is the fourth and final part in a series of guest posts written by Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle, describing a unit he teaches to his senior physics students about social justice, privilege and institutional racism in physics. Moses will be speaking about this curriculum to the Global Physics Department on February 18

Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation


Day 6:Closure

Poster show-and-tell

Further Brainstorm and Discussion: potential action steps for us to take

Discussion of role models: individuals, past and present, and organizations already doing this work

Ending on a high note: even these days in class have been an important step

Reflections by students after this unit

Reflections by students after this unit


Questions Discussed:

  • What can we do to address imbalance in society?
  • This was hard/uncomfortable/depressing. Did we do any good?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • The playing field will only become level with our effort
  • The work is hard, but we can do it


Census projections indicate that, by 2043, the majority of Americans will be non-white.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty and Law Center, has some great resources in their Speak Up! curriculum. Speak Up! is geared towards recognizing moments that merit intervention, and learning how to do so as well as possible. (And Teaching Tolerance in general is great for primary and secondary school teachers.)

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.


As I mentioned earlier, I heard loudly from the students that the curriculum felt incomplete without talking about solutions. That’s challenging for me as a facilitator but, again, I’ve found that answering these questions together is way more effective than trying to have all of the answers myself.

Part of what I’ve realized I can do is to make sure they know that they’re not alone. I try to emphasize the importance of having role models, people who have done the sort of work we hope to do, and the fact that there are organizations who can act as resources and supports for them if they choose. For the students who sign the Speak Up! pledge (below), which is most of them, I post their pledges on the wall outside my classroom so that they can see that they’re not alone.

As a facilitator of the in-class discussion, I try to keep the emphasis on things that we can do. The conversation generally steers elsewhere – it’s much easier to talk about what the government could do, or what physics textbook publishers could do, and so on – and I think that’s valuable but can’t be the end. So I keep steering them back to what steps they can take.

The answers vary every year, but the students get most excited about increasing the visibility of black (or female or Latino/a etc.) physicists role models. Each year we have a few students who volunteer to go talk to the sixth graders (my school includes grades 6-12) about some of the scientists they hadn’t known about at that age, which I think is really cool. The poster homework is a means of broadening our community’s sense of what a physicist looks like. The posters are the public face of this project and, though they hardly capture the entirety of what we do, it’s really awesome to me when my ninth graders tell me that they remember seeing them in middle school. We cover them with a “Picture A Physicist, Then Lift This Page” cover sheet (a student’s idea) to heighten the cognitive dissonance and (not-so-)subtlely make the point.

Beyond the very concrete step of showing that not all physicists are, to use my students’ phrase, “dead white dudes”, I have a lot of less visible goals. I hope that my students can see that the lack of black physicists is a problem regardless of their own race, and that it likely reflects some broader themes in our society. I hope that my white students understand that what doesn’t seem related to race to them may still be, and that not taking action as an ally is to perpetuate the problem. I hope all of my students continue to see how the story they hear – in class, in the media, in society – may not be the whole story, and that it’s important to re-examine history and the present with that in mind. And I hope that they recognize that these are processes that take a lifetime and that they’re motivated to continue long after the project ends.

Day 6 Homework: Fill out the post-project evaluation forms and, if you would like, sign and return the Speak Up! pledge.

Speak Up Pledge

The Speak Up Pledge

The Speak Up Pledge


Poster Project Examples

Image95Image94 Image93 Image92

Evaluation of the Project

Anonymous Survey Text

Anonymous Survey Text


I also ask students to fill out an anonymous survey to get a sense of their beliefs after this unit. This is the same survey that I asked them to complete before beginning it and, by asking them to use the same nickname as they did before, I can track just how their beliefs are changed by what we do in the curriculum. The news is generally good, which feels amazing, but this data also helps me to identify which messages are coming through less clearly and to think about how to improve in years to come.












[“Gain” is the proportion of potential improvement I achieved. For example: a pre-assessment value of 70% could improve by 30%, so if the post-assessment value is 90% then the gain would be 20%/30% = 0.67]

Conclusion and Future Steps

I started this article by talking about its beginning, that I wanted to use my science classroom as an agent of positive social change. This curriculum is probably my most successful attempt at that, a tidy and hopefully-powerful package, but I also want to note that I’m hoping that’s not all. I try to talk throughout the year with my students about bias, and more broadly about science as a human process done not only by dead white dudes. That year-round process is much less clearly defined than this unit, and I feel I’ve got a long way to go, but I think it’s important that my whole curriculum be anti-bias than just two weeks in March.

The process of writing this article has been exhausting and exhilarating, and I’m so grateful to John Burk for encouraging me and for giving me a platform on which to do it. As I’ve told him, I’m writing this because I’ve been doing this work in isolation: I haven’t ever found a forum where I could share this, get feedback, and talk about like-minded things that other science teachers are doing. So please please please don’t hesitate to contact me to talk about this, either through e-mail ( or Twitter (@RiPhysKin). I’ll be talking about the curriculum live on Wednesday, February 18th at 6:30 PST as part of the Global Physics Department group, and getting a lively conversation going there is one of my goals. (I believe the talk will also be posted online after the fact if you can’t make it.)

Speaking of feedback, I’m also sharing the bulk of my electronic files for this curriculum below. Feel free to use these as you see fit, but please understand that I use my documents as a place to jot plans and random ideas. I haven’t, in other words, prepared these for anyone else to use, but figure that unpolished oversharing is better than no sharing at all. I’m doing this in the hopes of getting a conversation going about the curriculum, so if you do use these files, please let me know what you think.

Lesson Plans, Homeworks, Images and Articles, and Planning Documents

Finally, I wanted to close by saying that all of this may seem overwhelming. Ironically, if I’d read this article when I was feeling stuck ten years ago, I don’t think I would have known what to do with it. If you’re still reading, and aren’t feeling like this is helpful, I’d say this: go with what works for you. This project reflects who I am in many ways and so, if you’re not me, the curriculum that works for you will necessarily be different. I should note this started in a much smaller form and has evolved each year. If you wanted to start smaller (one student suggestion that I love: every time a scientist is mentioned in class, print and post a picture of them, and then later discuss what you see), that’s fine; if you want to go bigger, go for it and let me know how it goes.

I’m excited and nervous to be putting all of this out there. Please let me know what you think. Thank you for reading.


Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 3

February 16, 2015

This is the third part in a series of guest posts written by Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle, describing a unit he teaches to his senior physics students about social justice, privilege and institutional racism in physics. Moses will be speaking about this curriculum to the Global Physics Department on February 18

Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation


Day 4: Privilege

Small group discussion by optional reading choice

Students choose from selected quotes (A-E below) from McIntosh article, write/share/discuss

Quotes from Peggy Macintosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"

Quotes from Peggy Macintosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

Class discussion: Does this article feel mostly true? What might stop us from seeing privilege?

Writing/Pair Discussion: in what ways does the idea of racial privilege apply to our lives? Is racial privilege present in our school community?

Questions Discussed:

  • If we agree that unearned racial disadvantage exists, mustn’t unearned racial advantage?
  • Do organizations have a responsibility to balance their racial makeup? Why/why not?
  • In what ways have we been the recipients of unearned advantage? How does that feel?
  • Is color blindness the goal? If not, then what is?
  • What can be done to dismantle unearned advantage?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • As members of a private school, we each have some privilege; many of us have much more
  • Recognizing our privilege is uncomfortable but also motivating
  • Those who have privilege are in the best position to make change


Peggy Macintosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Myths about affirmative action

Public views about affirmative action

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations


Day 4 marks a pretty dramatic shift from talking broadly to talking specifically and personally about our own experiences. It’s pretty easy for students to recognize bias in society as a whole, I’ve found, but they quickly get uncomfortable when I start asking them to look at their own beliefs and roles. As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I feel it’s crucially important to make this conversation personal, to roll up our own sleeves instead of pointing fingers elsewhere. Even if it’s painful, I really think it’s what motivates us to keep acting. I don’t know this as a fact, it’s my gut feeling, but nothing I’ve seen in ten years of doing this has convinced me otherwise.

Inevitably, then, that means I am dealing with feelings. If I’m asking my students to recognize that many of them may have been given advantages that they didn’t earn themselves, I have to be ready to navigate the strong emotions that come up as a result. I spent my first few years with this curriculum cataloguing down possible student responses and how I might like to respond, but found that that became an impossible task. So now I just try to listen to the students, to really hear what they’re saying, and to trust my instinct and respond honestly. I can’t tell them what to think or feel, but I have to try to encourage them not to bail on the conversation, even if it gets messy; trying to be fully present with them is the best way I know to do that.

All of this is, you’ve probably guessed, a pretty big shift from the way physics class normally works. Throughout the year, things are relative informal but this project represents a further step forward: all desks facing inwards in a circle, all of us sharing personal experiences and talking about the sorts of things that rarely come up between friends, let alone physics students and their teacher. My use of “I” and “we” in this writing isn’t an accident; I find that I have to drop the pretense of having the answers and admit that I’m just another person trying to make my way through it. It’s scary – I generally finish these classes with my shirt damp with nervous sweat – but it feels honest and I’ve found that, by being honest with my students, it’s easier for them to be honest with me and with one another.

Speaking of having all the answers, it’s hard to communicate through these notes I’ve made that I’m guiding conversation but trying really hard not to dominate. It’s hard, because I know where I want the arc of the curriculum to lead and I do have some experience after ten years that the students don’t have. But everything I’ve ever read about facilitating challenging conversations stresses the need to listen and learn from your audience, and I try hard to do that. One thing that I’ve noticed more and more is that I should cede the floor to other students instead of trying to respond to everything myself. The dynamic is totally different when a student’s comment gets challenged by a peer instead of me, and I’m continually surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how much wisdom there is in the room when I stop talking.

One heads up: in my experience, talking to high school seniors in the early spring about racial privilege leads to conversations about affirmative action in college admissions. I try to come to this class prepared with some facts that may surprise them (some of which I’ve listed in the Resources), because there’s definitely a gap between perception and reality when it comes to affirmative action, and I want to have a clear means of articulating the arguments for why taking race into account in admissions is more fair than unfair.

Day 4 Homework:  Go to and take the “Race IAT” and “Gender-Science IAT” tests. Print out the results page but don’t put your name on it. Write in your journal and, if you want, there are optional readings if you’d like to learn more.

Fourth Night Physics Homework

Fourth Night Physics Homework


Day 5: IAT Debrief

Small group discussion by optional reading choice

Collect anonymous IAT results, add to student results dataset

Discussion of imperfections of the test – not a perfect tool but a useful/informative one

Sharing of student results dataset/national dataset, discussion

Sharing of research into IAT interventions: how to change subconscious biases that you don’t like

Having described the problem (black physicist underrepresentation), what can we do to address it?


IAT Race Results

IAT Results for Rifkin’s Class

IAT Race responses

IAT Race Results


IAT Gender Responses

IAT Gender-Science Results


Questions Discussed:

  • If the class data is to be believed, what does it mean for our school community?
  • If the national data is to be believed, what does it mean for our society?
  • Do our subconscious beliefs matter?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • We all have biases. They are dangerous and painful if not properly handled
  • Having unconscious bias does not mean you act in a biased way; biases can be shifted
  • We can use our privilege to improve the world


The Implicit Association Test website

A Washington Post article about the researchers behind the test

The Good News – Effects of racial bias (as measured by the IAT):

The Bad News – How bias can be shifted through conscious intervention:


Other places where implicit bias shows up:



When I first heard about the Implicit Association Test, I was intrigued. When I first took it, I was skeptical and frustrated. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as a powerful tool (and have shared it with as many people as I can). Taking this test is the most personal thing I require of my students, and I’ve set up the homework assignment and next-day debrief so that nobody is forced to share their results. But I collect and share the class trends to drive home an important point: year after year, my students and I are shown to have subconscious associations based on race and gender.

The test is personal and often upsetting, but the students also understand that they are not defined by their results. They recognize, in fact, that it’s better to know about your inner workings than to not know if the goal is to do something about them. I’m Not A Racist…Am I? had a beautiful way of normalizing these results without letting us off the hook: bias isn’t like tonsils (you have it but then you get them removed), it’s like plaque (you are swimming in a sea of factors that cause it to accumulate, and only by conscious and steady action can you work towards removing it).

This used to be where the curriculum ended: the world is scary, you’re a part of it, good luck figuring it out. But the feedback that I received from students made it clear that this wasn’t what they wanted, so I tacked on an additional day and we talk at the end of this fifth day about possible solutions that we can take. That’s no small task, but in the years where our conversation has gone best, the students now have a clear sense of the problem and some great ideas about what they can do. Tonight’s homework assignment came out of their ideas.

Day 5 Homework: Revisit your first night homework, in which you researched a black physicist working today. [If you’d prefer to focus on another under-represented minority, please do so.] Make an engaging and eye-catching poster emphasizing their achievements in physics and including their picture. If you’d like, there are optional readings that describe some of the research into and using the IAT.

Day Five Homework

Day Five Homework

The next post will cover the last day of this unit, the final project students complete, and follow-up. 

Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 2

February 14, 2015

This is the second part in a series of guest posts written by Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle, describing a unit he teaches to his senior physics students about social justice, privilege and institutional racism in physics. Moses will be speaking about this curriculum to the Global Physics Department on February 18.

Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation


Day 2: Stat Debrief

Students write something they learned on the board, grouped by hypothesis they investigated

Can we say anything conclusive as the result of this research?

Mini-lecture: stereotype threat

Writing and discussion: beliefs about minority groups, American meritocracy, etc.

Questions Discussed:

  • Which hypotheses reflect a cause internal to the black community (different values, for example) and which are external (racial bias in hiring, etc.)?
  • How do external and internal causes influence one another?
  • What would it mean if our beliefs about groups weren’t as accurate as we thought?
  • Do you think the number of black physicists will be proportional in ten years? Why?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • Statistics can be ambiguous in their meaning, and we can often read them to say what we want
  • It’s a false boundary between “external” and “internal”; what we describe as internal cannot be extricated from external factors
  • Is America a meritocracy? Not as much as we are generally told
  • Beliefs about groups can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and we should question them



Information about stereotype threat

Research by the Center for American Progress into the lack of inter-class mobility in America today (and the full report)

African-American-sounding names on resumes get fewer interview callbacks than white-sounding names

Incoming black freshmen are nearly as interested in physics as students of other races

Black and white populations use drugs at similar rates

Lower-income students tend to have less experienced science teachers


We are, I admit to the students, leaving the realm of hard science, of research and hypothesis. We talk about how we are generally taught to view things in terms of internal factors, that people in America end up where they deserve to end up. The notion of America as a meritocracy is one that they recognize in the culture around them, but I challenge them to think about what that means for groups that have been traditionally less successful. My goal is to help them see that the myth of meritocracy leads us to attribute characteristics to groups (“maybe black students are less motivated to do well”) as a way to explaining why they end up where they end up. We end up ascribing qualities to groups for reasons that are beyond their control, and if you believe that the playing field is level and fair, those beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I ask my students to consider these ideas, supported by data, and to consider that these external factors may be at least part of the explanation for why there are so few black physicists.

My students have been taught to view racism in the sense of cross burning and lynching and, since those acts are thankfully less frequent today than in the past, many believe that racism is a thing of the past as well. The modern reality is much less clear, much more ambiguous than those acts of overt racism, and Day 2 is an attempt to lay some foundation for that discussion.

This night marks the first night of optional reading, in which I ask the students to read one article from a wide range of resources I’ve assembled. As the in-class conversation pushes into areas that are less familiar or comfortable for them, I try to give them plenty of choice as to what related questions they explore. This arises in part from the fact that I have more resources to share than I can require them to read, and in part because I’ve found that having autonomy promotes students to buy-in even as the discussions are getting challenging.

Day 2 Homework: read a short article about James Sherley (an African-American stem cell researcher denied tenure by M.I.T. who claimed racism played a part), read your choice of optional reading, and write in your journal.


MIT Hunger Strike: Sour Grapes, or the Bitter Taste or Racism, Science News, Feb 2007.

MIT Hunger Strike: Sour Grapes, or the Bitter Taste or Racism, Science News, Feb 2007.

Day 3: Thinking Systemically

Small group discussion by optional reading choice

Class discussion: Do you think that the examples presented in the Sherley reading are racism?

Definitions of racism: writing, mini-lecture, discussion

Can the cycle be broken? What has to happen to do so?

Questions Discussed:

  • Should we define racism by intent, or by outcome?
  • What does racism look like today? Is America racist? Is our school community?
  • In what ways will inequalities perpetuate themselves? In what ways will they change?
  • “How can it be white people’s fault that black people don’t want to do physics?”

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • Redefining racism to include systems of power and privilege, not just individual acts
  • The playing field is not level, and inequality can lead to more inequality
  • One benefit of being white is not having to think about the privilege of being white
  • Changes don’t just happen



Can you have racism when everyone is well-intentioned and politically correct?

Just how racially integrated is America today?

Black and white communities view American race relations very differently


The Sherley story is, I’ve found, a really useful jumping-off point for discussion. Student opinions vary, generally, but they agree that they don’t have enough information to know. Was Sherley a bad researcher and just “playing the race card”? Or does the fact that just 4% of M.I.T.’s tenured faculty come from under-represented racial minorities lend credence to his claims? I make sure to point out to them that this is the world in which they now live: that they’ll never have ‘enough information’, and that they’ll frequently have to decide what to think about claims of racism without knowing the full story.

How they view Sherley has a lot to do with how they define racism. In some ways, I think this day is the crux of the project, an attempt to move students from viewing racism as about individual acts of meanness towards viewing it more systematically. I’m definitely still working on how to do that gracefully, as I often just end up telling students that their definitions are incomplete and that they need to broaden them out; I’m still trying to find a way to help them see that for themselves. I recently saw the great documentary I’m Not A Racist…Am I?, which includes a powerful moment in which a teacher asks students whether eliminating all “racists” would fix things for racial minorities; the students all see for themselves that it wouldn’t, and their redefinition comes from that lightbulb moment. I’ll try that this year.

Around Day 3, the students often start to feel pretty grim. I can’t blame them: they’re earnest and don’t want the world to be unjust, and I’ve spent the last day or two trying to lead them to see that in many ways it is. I tell them that this is about as grim as it gets, that there is better news ahead, and this isn’t just lip service: I’m always treading a thin line between being painfully honest but also not extinguishing hope. Every group has its own balance, and one other thing I’m trying to work on is listening carefully to find it and tweaking accordingly.

The anti-racist author Tim Wise has been a great inspiration and resource for me as I learn to support this way of viewing race in America. He was the one who taught me to look for racism in whether the outcome was imbalanced; his statement that “to a white person, racism is viewed as an individual problem and colorblindness is the solution. To a black person, racism is systemic, present, and requires excavation” guides me and is one that I try to share with students. I mention him here both to share him as a resource and because I think it’s important for us educators to keep learning, and to find our own teachers who work for us. As a white person, it’s a little too easy for me to forget that I have more to learn, and so I’m glad to have Tim Wise and his writings to keep me honest.

Day 3 Homework: read Peggy McIintosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, read one of the optional choice readings, and write in your journal.

Also: Seattle’s second-most famous rapper, Macklemore, addressed some of these same questions as McIntosh on his first album. For some students, this is a better way in. Here’s the song, ‘White Privilege’, and the lyrics.

The next post will cover days 4 and 5 of this unit, when students explore privilege and the Implicit Association Test.

Guest post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 1

February 12, 2015

At the incredible People of Color Conference, I met Moses Rifkin, an outstanding physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle. I learned about the incredible unit he teaches his senior physics students that brilliantly brings lessons about social justice, privilege, and institutional racism into the physics classroom and leads to a measurable change in student understanding and attitudes about these subjects. Moses graciously agreed to write a series of guest posts for this blog about his curriculum and will be speaking to the Global Physics Department on February 18.  

Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation


For the first four years of my high school teaching career, I felt stuck. I care deeply about making the world a better place – duh – but felt that as a science teacher, my opportunities to do so were limited. I was jealous of my colleagues in English and History who got to talk every day in class about society and how it worked and how to be moral and caring and kind, whereas those conversations with students only happened for me outside the classroom. That I was teaching at a private school only made matters worse: my students weren’t learning about their own privilege (academic and, in most cases, economic and racial). I wanted to make my classroom a part of the solution, but wasn’t sure how. What’s a science teacher to do?

Ten years later, I have come somewhat closer to finding an answer. I feel like it’s an answer because I’ve found a way to introduce my students to the ideas of racial and gender privilege, to the idea that our society is far from a meritocracy, and to broaden their conception of who (racially, gender-wise, etc.) does science to include a much broader slice of society; I say somewhat because it’s still very much a work in progress as I fumble my way upwards.

This article is meant as an overview of a six-day curriculum that I’ve developed and use with my senior physics students each year. For each of the days, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what happens in class and note the bigger-picture questions and goals that I hope to address that day. I’ve also included some resources that I use, though there are many more, and some narrative reflection on each day to help add some context. I’ve never had an opportunity like this to share what I do and if anything you read over the next few days is appealing or challenging or interesting or generative, I’d love to talk about it via e-mail ( or Twitter (@RiPhysKin).

TL;DR: As science teachers, we have to take an active role in undoing the bias in our society. Don’t be afraid to try, and don’t wait until you know exactly what to do. Start a conversation, incorporate feedback to improve it the next time, and let me know how it goes.

The project revolves, at least initially, around a question: why are there so few black[1] physicists? 4.2% of physicists self-identified as black as of 2012, according to the National Science Foundation’s Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report; according to the 2010 Census, 12.0% of the population aged 25-64 identified as black. Physicists therefore make up a small percentage of the U.S. population (0.06%), but that percentage is 3.2 times higher among white Americans than black.

Pre-project Homework: Do some research into one black physicist who worked before 1950, and one working today. Also, please fill out an anonymous pre-evaluation so that I can get a sense of the class’ beliefs (more on that at the end of this article), and start your reflection journal.


Handout for the research/discussion project given to students.

Day 1: Research Debrief

Overview of project: what are we doing? Why are we doing it in a physics class?

Ground rules for discussion

Looking at basic statistics

Students share the results of their research, and how they found it

What are possible reasons that might explain the lack of black physicists? Let’s make a list.

Questions Discussed:

  • What might it mean that googling “physicist” isn’t a good way to find a black physicist?
  • Who are your inspirations? How do people end up doing what they do?
  • What would we need to be able to address the validity of these hypotheses?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • Not everyone might feel like physics is open to them; it might not only be about ability
  • Not everyone is as able to pursue their interests as we/you (independent school students, majority white, majority upper socio-economic class) are
  • Let’s get all the hypotheses out there, even the really uncomfortable ones (i.e. there’s a difference in IQ from race to race). Better to discuss it than to not.


National Science Foundation’s Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Report

U.S. Census Data

American Institute of Physics’ statistical research links and reports.


I want to acknowledge that this unit, especially the start, is awkward. We’ve just finished a unit about energy, and suddenly class looks very different: desks are in a circle, ground rules are on the board, and we’re talking about society and race. I’ve chosen to do this March in part because I rely on the relationships and trust that have formed in class by this point, between the students and me among the students. I’ve found that it’s useful to tie this into the overarching class goal I stated on the first day of physics class – to give them “a better sense of why things happen as they do” – and to acknowledge that I’m asking them to take a risk. I’ve learned that they’re pretty game for that, with a few exceptions, and it’s my own discomfort that presents the biggest stumbling block. Into the fray!

I do tell them, too, that we’re going to be focusing on race – specifically on the lack of black physicists– because it’s particularly illustrative of the bigger issues I’m trying to introduce. I believe that other focuses could be just as generative, or even more so, but we just haven’t gone that way yet. There are, in other words, plenty of other -isms that we could talk about, and I want to acknowledge that to them. I’ve done a better and better job of encouraging students interested in other scientific minorities (women, other races and ethnicities, the economically disadvantaged, the physically disabled, the LGBTQ community, etc.) to explore on their own over the years.


Initial hypotheses students came up with to explain why so there are so few black physicists.

Day 1 Homework: take one hypothesis and try to investigate its validity. Also, write in your journal.


Handout explaining second night homework.

 The next post will cover Days 2 and 3 of this unit, when students discuss research and statistics about race and privilege, and then work to understand systematic and institutional racism. 


[1] I use “black” instead of “African-American” because this is the language used by the National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities and People with Disabilities report. I recognize that this isn’t a simple matter, and that recent research shows that it may actually make a significant difference.

Best Best Class Ever—when I leave the room

October 9, 2014

My Honors Physics class continues to blow my mind. Today I had to leave class early to go to a meeting, so I told them I wanted them to work on this very challenging problem, and record themselves discussing the problem.

Screen Shot 2014 10 09 at 12 59 49 AM

Here’s the video—remember, this is the last 15 minutes of class at the end of the day):

It turned out my meeting ended early, so I was able to sneak back into the lab and overhear them for about 5 minutes of this conversation while the class couldn’t see me. All a colleague and I could do is just stare awe of how the students were working so thoughtfully through this problem. Really, this video is one of those situations where I think if I had been there in discussion, I could have only made things worse.

This video makes me think about so many things I don’t understand why this class is like this? Why I can’t get my other classes, both past and present to work together like this?

It also makes me worry—will this class still be like this in February, when we are all exhausted and ready for spring break?

There are voices in this video that you don’t hear much, or at all. How can I help those students to be able to express their questions and ideas? How can I help the more dominant voices, to learn to draw out and build on the ideas of their less vocal peers?

Finally, it seems like we should be doing more than our standard curriculum of doing labs an solving problems. These students are capable of learning completely on their own. They should be able to devise and conduct experiments to test their own questions. They should be able to read and explore physics topics of interest to them. How do I facilitate this? How do we find time? How do I get them to reach the same depth with that kind of work that they are in this video?