Days 15-19: Interaction Stations & Constant Velocity Problems

AP Physics 1: AP Workbook

To wrap up constant acceleration calculations, we worked on some problems out of the College Board’s workbook. There was a lot of great discussion as students worked through the relatively complex problems. Students have been nervous about the early registration date for the exam this year, and working the problems seemed to help alleviate some of their fears.

Students also worked through an activity based on Brian Frank’s interaction stations to start building their model of a force. I had a sub that day, so afterward had students use a reading to define the major types of forces we’ll be using in class and connect them to the stations. We’ll be discussing the stations early next week and I’m thinking about how I want to approach the discussion. This week, I happened to read a chapter from Bryan Brown’s Science in the City where he talks about how teachers often miss how accurate students’ preconceptions are because students aren’t ready to express those ideas in scientific terms. I’m wondering how I might change the way I usually approach this discussion (and many others) to do a better job of recognizing and building on what students knowledge, regardless of the language they use to express it.

Physics: Constant Velocity Problems

Students worked problems, including the dueling buggies practical, using the constant velocity of a particle model. On their weekly reflection, a lot of students wrote about navigating different ideas within their groups about how to complete the lab practical. I was really excited to see that multiple approaches were suggested in most groups and that students were thoughtful about how to balance making everyone heard with moving forward as a group.

We also did some mistakes whiteboarding. In both my courses, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly students are buying in to this activity. My Physics students have been pretty quiet during the whole-class discussions, but they are consistently referencing it in reflections as something they find helpful for learning and where they feel proud of their work in class.

Days 10-14: Constant Acceleration Representations & Constant Velocity Calculations

AP Physics 1: Constant Acceleration Representations

We spent this week working on getting representations for constant acceleration down. I made quite a bit of use of Brian Frank’s magnetic vector manipulatives during class discussions of motion maps. I think it would be worthwhile to make a set for each lab group; I don’t have magnetic surfaces at my lab stations, but I think the laminated arrows would still be useful to students while they’re working.

I’ve been doing more work on collaboration so far this year, and I’m seeing it pay off with students seeking out input from a greater variety of people when they’re stuck and with ideas jumping between groups much more than in the past. I especially love when students start working problems with one group, then whiteboard with different people and begin by comparing approaches.

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Physics: Constant Velocity Calculations

Students worked on applying the constant velocity of a particle model to calculations, including predicting where two buggies will collide. One challenge, which has come up the past few years, is a lot of students are having trouble connecting the calculations to the representations we’ve been using. I think there’s a couple of things going on. In a lot of classes, once students have taken an assessment, they no longer need to use those skills, so I think some students feel like they are done with constant velocity representations after last week’s quiz. I think the other hurdle is some students, especially those less confident in math, are looking for things they can memorize to bypass the sense-making involved in sketching the diagrams. I haven’t figured out good strategies to help students work through these hurdles aside from coaching individuals and small groups on doing the sense-making and sketching the diagrams when they are stuck. I also need to keep reminding myself that as the year goes on, more will get on board with continuing to use skills we’ve assessed and working through the sense-making steps.

Days 5-9: Board Meetings & Problems

This week’s big theme was using precise, specific language in physics.

Physics: Buggy Lab & Problems

Students did the buggy lab, then worked on some problems with constant velocity representations. We went over the problems using Kelly O’Shea’s mistakes whiteboarding. Both during the buggy board meeting and during the mistakes whiteboarding, students used a lot of phrasing like “the slope is increasing” to indicate a positive slope or even just saying “the buggy was decreasing”, rather than specifying what about the buggy is decreasing, which made for some good opportunities to pick apart that wording and try to find ways to make it clearer what they meant. A few students seemed like they were frustrated by these conversations, especially during mistakes whiteboarding when a group didn’t consider that one of their mistakes, which tells me I need to keep working on emphasizing growth.


AP Physics 1: Problems & Acceleration Model-Building

AP also had their first round of mistakes whiteboarding this week. While we had some similar conversations about language, I noticed fewer students who seemed frustrated by those conversations. I don’t think I approached getting nitpicky about wording differently than I did in Physics, so I’m not sure if the AP students were doing more hiding their frustration or if they are bringing something to the class that leaves them less bothered by me getting picky about language.

After the problems, we started a model-building lab for constant acceleration where we used photogates to produce a position vs. time graph for a cart on a ramp. This lab is fairly teacher-directed since its the first time students are using any LabQuest probes, and it takes a while to get through. I’ve thought about switching to motion detectors or video analysis, but with the limited computer access I usually have, I like that photogates produce data that students can linearize. My building added a lot more laptop carts this year, so I might try one of the other options when Physics gets to acceleration.

Days 1-4: Dowels & Buggies

School started on Tuesday! This week was all about setting the culture for my classes.

AP Physics 1: Buggy Lab

We dove right in and started the buggy lab on day 1 to start building the constant velocity model. Once again, I used Frank Noschese’s take that “Any lab worth doing is worth doing twice.” On day 1, I just told students to make a graph on a whiteboard that represented their buggy’s motion. There was a lot of variation and other messiness in the whitebaords, which lead the post-lab discussion naturally into how we could prepare whiteboards in a way that set us up for a better discussion. On Day 2 and 3, we repeated the lab, but with some agreements in place to make the whiteboards easier to discuss.

Last year, this approach felt like I was doing some “expose and shame”, but I really liked that it gave an authentic reason to agree on certain details as a class before data collection. This year, I tried to address that by starting the discussion on day 1 by explicitly addressing the fact that every group met the standard set in the directions I gave and talking about the benefits of the different representations we saw. When we switched to talking about changes to the lab, I emphasized that we would be approaching the second round with a focus on being able to communicate and compare results. I also kept the focus on what students needed from me, rather than what students needed to do differently, if we were going to focus on communicating and comparing. This framing of the discussion felt much better to me.


Physics: Dowels

Partly to avoid sharing equipment and partly to limit how much students have to retain from the first lab, we started by asking students to predict the mass of a large dowel by finding a relationship between the mass and volume of smaller dowels. Similar to AP, we did the lab twice. On the first day, I just asked students to predict the mass of the large dowel, and many ended up using measurements from a single smaller dowel. That lead to some nice discussion on how measuring more small dowels would reduce uncertainty. It also lead nicely into graphs as an easy way to look at the ratio between mass and volume of several dowels simultaneously. For the second round of the lab, students used the lab template I put together for the course.



Week 0: New Year

Tuesday will be my district’s first day of school! Its been a good week of in-service, but I’m looking forward to being back with students, putting my conversations and learning from this week and beyond into practice.

This year, I’m planning to switch this blog from daily to weekly posts. Along with teaching high school, I’m going to grad school, working on research, and teaching a college course, so I need to take something off my plate. Plus, I think I’m into the double digits on posts that talk about the buggy lab, and I only have so much to say about it! I might try a daily tweet (á la Frank Noschese), but I don’t want to give up blogging because I get a lot out of the reflection it takes to write a post.

I’m also excited to be down to two preps for most of the year. During trimesters 1 and 2, I’m just teaching AP Physics 1 and Physics. Trimester 3, I’ll add in a section of the second half of Chemistry Essentials. I’m not thinking too much about Chemistry Essentials yet, but I do have some things I’m planning to focus on in my other courses.


The other Physics teacher and I have agree to build on the progress we made last year in developing a whole-class culture. There’s a lot of room for us to be more consistent and more intentional in how we apply the strategies we started using last year. We especially want to look at the ways we’re having students reflect on group work and individual engagement; we’re thinking that if we can get students talking to each other about their reflections, the reflections will be more meaningful, so we’re modifying some of the reflections to try to encourage discussion.

We’ve also decided our PLC goal is going to be related to social safety and growth mindset. A lot of students drop the course each year, with white girls and students of color dropping at a higher rate than white boys. When we talk to the students who drop, we hear Physics is “too hard”, even from students who are getting A’s and B’s. That tells us we need to take a critical look at what messages we’re sending students about how they should interpret the struggles, frustrations, and mistakes they encounter in Physics. We didn’t have time to figure out what concrete steps we’re going to take, but one of the things I’ve found in my research so far is early experiences have a lasting impact on what students believe about their physics ability, so I’m planning to get us talking about it now even though official goals aren’t due until October.

AP Physics 1

My AP students tend to come in pretty comfortable and skilled at working in groups and, unlike Physics, the students stay with me all year with minimal shuffling between hours, so I tend to take the classroom culture for granted and skipped over some of the strategies I was using in Physics last year. However, by the end of last year, Physics had much higher functioning groups and more cohesion as a whole class. This year, I’m going to make the time to work on teaching group work and developing that whole class culture.

The other big thing I’m planning to work on is pacing. I tend to let students drive the pace more than I should and last year that resulted in the class moving a fair bit slower than in previous years. Around January, I started making some shifts to make up time, but we lost a few weeks due to the Polar Vortex and some nasty blizzards. Along with less time, the disruptions and constant shifting made it tough to change classroom routines and habits.

One of the places I can take much more control of the pace is on preparing whiteboards. On problems, I typically give a full class period for students to work problems on paper, then, the next day, groups prepare whiteboards and we have some discussion. Last year, the whiteboard prep often took half the class period for some groups. This year, I’m going to have students prepare whiteboards the same day they are working problems on paper and emphasize the end of class as the deadline. For labs, I’m planning to give students a specific time when their whiteboards need to be ready, then stick to it, even if it means some groups don’t have a board.

Final Thoughts

I’m really excited to see how the things I’m interested in fit with this year’s schoolwide professional development. Our focus is on The Opportunity Myth, in particular looking at how do we provide meaningful rigor in our classrooms and how do we make our classrooms where all students have full access to the opportunities and challenges. The problems I want to address in my Physics and AP Physics 1 classrooms fit right in with these ideas, so I’m expecting the conversations and learning that will be a part of our schoolwide work to support the changes I’m trying to make.

Day 161: Final Project Presentations, Lab Final, & Nuke Whiteboarding

This will probably be my last post of the year. Today was the last day for seniors, so my Physics and AP Physics 1 classes wrapped up today. My Chemistry Essentials class is mostly juniors, which means they will continue through the end of next week, but I’ll miss out since I’m going to the AP Physics reading.

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of work to try and build a strong whole-class culture and, compared to previous years, I had a lot more students talk about how they’ll missing being in their specific hour of physics, suggesting there was a strong sense of community. That was a really exciting element of my last day for the year.

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We finished up final project presentations. There was one group that designed and built a rig to reliably launch a hockey puck to measure the stopping distance along various surfaces in order to determine toe coefficient of friction. For the final, students were given a spring with a known spring constant and tasked with finding the mass of a mystery object.

phys lab final

Physics: Lab Final

Students did a lab practical for the second half of their final exam. There was lots of great conversation as students worked through the problem and it was a lot of fun for me to see students using so many of the skills we’ve been working on this year.

Chemistry Essentials: Nuke Whiteboarding

We did a quick refresher on nuclear decay using the whiteboards before taking the quiz on nuclear chemistry.

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Day 160: Final Project Presentations, Final Exam Part 1, & Mistakes Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We started presenting final projects. I have each group prepare a presentation, but am pretty lenient on length. I have a couple of students on the trap shooting team that presented today on their examination of the recoil on a shotgun. I hadn’t realized the shotgun barrel is above the center of mass, so there is an upward recoil in addition to the backward recoil.

Physics: Final Exam Part 1

Seniors are done tomorrow, but we’re on a standard schedule both today and tomorrow. To accommodate that, we split the physics final exam into two parts. Today, students took a pretty standard written final.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

I showed students a table to organize their work on half life calculations, then we did some mistakes whiteboarding on yesterday’s problems. The table made the problems much easier for a lot of students, which was great.

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