In August of last year, right before the start of school, I was doing what has became my annual tradition in the weeks leading up to school, scouring the internet for fresh ideas and innovative approaches to consider using in my Physics I and II classes. During this ritual, I stumbled upon the world of teacher blogs for the first time. But these weren’t just any teacher blogs, these were blogs by other physics teachers, and some math teachers too, who posted about their own experiences in the classroom. And, to my surprise, other teachers responded with words of encouragement, suggestion, inquiry, advice, and experience. There was an entire community of teachers working together to improve not only their own instructional practices, but those of others in the community.
In my school district, I am the only physics teacher (it’s a very small public school in the suburbs). And while I value the relationships I have with the other teachers in the district, especially my fellow modeler in crime, the chemistry teacher, I still possess a certain feeling of professional isolation. There is no sounding board for discussions regarding the benefits/pitfalls of teaching specific physics topics in a certain way. After all, just what is the best way to conduct a paradigm lab for the unbalanced force model? How can I teach modern topics such as particle and nuclear physics, or Special and General relativity using models? How can I get students to truly understand the implications and subtleties of Newton’s Laws without them thinking that they “understand” them because they’ve managed to memorize them? These and other questions are ones that I’ve struggled with throughout my 14 years of teaching, and still do. However, aside from the modeling workshops I’ve attended, opportunities to discuss these ideas with fellow physics teachers have been few and far between. When I stumbled upon the blogging community, I saw the opportunity to engage in these discussions with other like-minded individuals who were not satisfied with traditional instruction methods.
I started subscribing to and devouring blog posts in order to incorporate new ideas into my classes. I started the year with a marshmallow challenge activity after reading posts by John Burke at Quantum Progress and Frank Noschese at Action-Reaction. I had discussions regarding growth and fixed mindsets with my classes after reading another of John’s posts. I began to follow Kelly O’Shea’s example and challenge my students with goal-less problems that allowed them the opportunity to really stretch their understanding of the applicability of models and to show them that they are capable of more than they give themselves credit for. I improved my introduction to force interactions by providing students with rubber mallets and bowling balls (mallets were MUCH better than the broomsticks I had been using). And just recently I incorporated a WCYDWT scenario of Dan Meyer’s regarding relative motion on an escalator as an introduction to relativity in my Physics II class (more on this in a future post). In the long term, I’m even contemplating using standards based grading next year due to the continual opportunities for feedback and mastery such a system provides and the focus on learning rather than the accumulation of points. Although I relished the changes I was making in my classroom and the responses from the students have been positive, I still felt a bit guilty. I had been a consumer who observed from the sidelines. Like someone attending their first junior high dance, I stood near the punch bowl, drank a lot of punch, and watched.
So, the day has arrived.
I’ve started this blog to organize my own thoughts and reflections regarding the teaching and learning of physics, and I hope along the way to at least be able to contribute in some small way to help others via my posts and the feedback I can provide. I’ve also created a Twitter account (@BEphysics), something I thought I would never do, but I’ve seen the value of these online interactions and I’ve decided to try to become a part of the community from which I have learned so much these past few months. I’m not sure exactly what my role can be, nor where this journey will take me, but simply standing by the punch bowl isn’t quite enough anymore.