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March 10, 2013

[I seriously need to start posting here more often!]

I have a student who is a semifinalist. He scored high enough on the AAPT’s “F=ma” exam to be invited to take the next test, the exam that will choose the potential members of the US Physics team. The exam needs to be taken by March 22. It is six questions, and 3 hours long.

My student and I have been working every day after school on the questions from previous versions of this exam. The solutions are freely available on the AAPT’s website. The questions are extremely challenging. The topics for the questions include nuclear physics, relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and fluids. The relativity problems include knowledge of 4-vectors and I am very glad I had a copy of Taylor and Wheeler’s Spacetime Physics to lend because that stuff isn’t in Halliday, Resnick, and Walker. Not even in the extended edition.

However, I cannot solve these problems. Even with the solutions in front of me, I find myself confused and humbled. I don’t know why γ for a monatomic gas is 5/3 or how to determine the magnetic flux through a wire loop for a hypothetical magnetic monopole. The answer I got is completely different from the solution, which includes an indefinite integral. My student is gifted in mathematics and aces every AP Physics test I give, and as he works through the problems he understands some things that I don’t.

I know that confusion is ignorance leaving the brain. I try to have a growth mindset and not a fixed one. But a part of me says that I will never understand enough to be able to take this test. Part of why I will never understand enough is because I will never take the time and put in the effort to learn this difficult material. I do put in the time to learn other things, like how to be a really good teacher! That learning is an ongoing process that I go through all the time, 180 days a year!

The decision I have made for myself when I decide to learn new things, is to learn new things that I think will be fun to learn. I think it is fun to learn a smattering of Japanese or how to use my Arduino. It is fun for me to learn to be a better teacher! But for some reason it is not “fun” to learn the physics to solve these complex problems. I wonder why that is? Expecially since I am a physics teacher because I love physics? I need to be at peace with myself over this decision, of not to learn this material. And I need to remember to ask for help. I did that today, over e-mail and twitter, asking physics PhDs to come to my aid and help me tutor my student. I hope to have at least two or three (if not five) G+ hangouts during which I and my student can discuss particular problems with someone who is better versed than I in these topics.

Good luck to my student, and to all students taking the semifinal exam this month. Only 20 will be selected for the training camp, only 5 will be the traveling team for the International Physics Olympiad in Copenhagen!



Video Analysis

February 20, 2013

This year I have been doing a lot of video analysis with my conceptual classes, compared to previous years. In previous years the conceptual classes had their first experience with video analysis when we introduced projectile motion. This year they have already analyzed two accelerating systems using video analysis on Vernier’s LoggerPro. They’ve had to learn to put in a scale, set their axes at an appropriate angle, and place their dots carefully in order to get decent data. They have practiced finding the slope of velocity vs. time graphs, over and over. So doing video analysis on a video projectile is no sweat. I took a class into a computer lab this morning and in half a period they had all their data and had exported it into Excel. I’m very pleased. They spent the rest of the period exploring projectile motion using PhET. They took some data from the simulation as well, so we will have a lot of information to play with over the next two days!

In a week or so the conceptual students will have to do video analysis of a projectile in a video game, to test the game’s realism. I’m really looking forward to it!

Graphing Activity

September 17, 2012

I posted a photo on my 180 blog last week showing some graphs my conceptual students had to graph by hand, based on data I gave them.  @WillyB asked about the activity, so I decided to write about it.

I made four sets of linear data long ago, so long ago that I don’t remember if I made them or if I “borrowed” them from someone else. I always ask my conceptual students to graph them by hand, and then we use the graphs and the equations the students get for the best-fit lines that they practice drawing to learn about the meaning of a slope and y-intercept. @WillyB asked me if the students collected the data themselves. Alas, no. Here is my data:

1)  A cheerleader is measuring the time it takes for a white carnation flower to turn red when the stem is placed in red dye.  She tries 6 different stem lengths.

stem length (cm)           time (minutes)
4.0                               7.0
8.0                              13.0
12.0                             19.0
16.0                             25.0
20.0                             31.0
24.0                             37.0

2)  A scientist is measuring the number of bacterial cells per square millimeter when cultured in various concentrations of nutrient.  He tries 6 different concentrations.  If you were wondering, “ppm” stands for “parts per million.”

concentration (ppm)           number of cells (cells)
2.0                                        16
4.0                                        28
6.0                                        40
8.0                                        52
10.0                                       64
12.0                                       76

3)  A gardener keeps track of rainfall over a month, and records the total amount of rainfall so far each time he measures it.  Think about what the slope of this graph might mean.

day of the month (days)          amount of rain (cm)
5                                          4.0
9                                          5.6
15                                         8.0
18                                         9.2
22                                        10.8
30                                        14.0

4)  An FBI agent keeps track of how tall her amazing miracle banana tree plant grows as the months pass.  You would think she had better things to do with her time.

time (mo)                    height (m)
1                                0.75
2                                1.00
3                                1.25
4                                1.50
5                                1.75
6                                2.00

I would love to have students collect the data themselves. Last year I did that, having students mine the internet for data of their own choosing and trying to fit the data to a line. Those were honors students. My conceptual students tend to need a less open-ended assignment, especially at the beginning of the school year. I didn’t trust these kids to be able to get good and appropriate data. I think that this may have been a mistake. I should trust my students at any level to be able to do what I ask.

I don’t know if I will be teaching conceptual students next year, but if I do, I think I will try having them collect the data. But I will give them guidelines. I will have them do some sort of product and price comparison. Last year a number of my honors students graphed price vs. the number of crayons in a box, which is fairly linear and has a y-intercept. I might also have them do some sort of average weight and age data for infants. I think I will have to do research in advance to be able to give good guidelines for “what to google.” I’d like to give them three or four quasi-specific types of data to gather, and maybe one open-ended type. I suppose I could incorporate Dan Meyer’s flight data activity into this one, too, rather than doing it as a separate assignment.

I’m open to comments and suggestions!

We would create systems to ensure…

September 1, 2012

This past week at school, my principal gave us a handout that relates to our development of Professional Learning Communities. PLCs, as they are called, will be groups of teachers teaching the same course (i.e. Algebra 2 Academic or English 9 Honors, see note below) who are using common formative assessments to check their students’ learning and customizing instruction based on the results. At least, that is my impression of what they are. I am not on the “Committee of 100” who have been meeting and discussing PLCs all last year.

So, the handout:

If we really mean it when we say we want all students to learn, certainly we would create systems to ensure…

  1. Every teacher is engaged in a process to clarify exactly what each student is to learn in each grade level, each course, and each unit of instruction.
  2. Every teacher is engaged in a process to clarify consistent criteria by which to assess the quality of student work.
  3. Every teacher is engaged in a process to assess student learning on a timely and frequent basis through the use of teacher developed common formative assessments.
  4. Every school has a specific plan to ensure that students who experience initial difficulty in learning are provided with additional time and support for learning during the school day in a timely and directive way that does not cause the student to miss any new direct instruction.
  5. Every school has  a specific plan to enrich and extend the learning of students who are not challenged by the required curriculum.
  6. All professionals are organized into collaborative teams and are given the time and structure during their regular workday to collaborate with colleagues on specific issues that directly impact student learning.
  7. Every collaborative team of teachers is called upon to work interdependently to achieve a common SMART goal for which members of the team are mutually accountable.
  8. Every teacher receives frequent and timely information regarding the success of his or her students in learning the essential curriculum and then uses that information to identify strengths and weaknesses as part of a process of continuous improvement.
  9. Building shared knowledge of best practice is part of the process of shared decision-making at both the school and team level.
  10. Every practice and procedure in place in the school has been examined to assess its impact on learning.
  11. School leaders are held accountable for ensuring all of the above happen.


I feel that I am addressing numbers 1 and 2 already through the use of Standards-Based Grading. I address number 9 through talking up Modeling Instruction whenever it makes sense to do so. I am pleased that my district’s Science Supervisor is interested in Chemistry Modeling after spending a short time at a local workshop.

The idea of common formative assessments is still taking some time to sink into my brain. I have struggled with common summative assessments for years, and in most cases I have tried to avoid them. In particular this is because teaching using Modeling Instruction means I do not always “cover” the entire curriculum map for my course. But formative assessments are things like checking student understanding through a multiple choice question where every student answers with an index card held up with a letter on it, or they answer with a “clicker.” A formative assessment can be a problem on the board that everyone has to solve at the beginning of class, and I go around and check each person’s work. The thing is that I don’t generally keep a record of the results of that sort of thing, and I think that record-keeping is going to become more important.

I wonder how number 4 will work out for students who are in sports and electives and have no study halls during the school day. The principal talked about having “X-schedules” in which all the classes are shortened to make time for an extra period during the day, and that time could be used for student support or teacher collaboration. But that makes me wonder about the teachers who aren’t collaborating or helping students: what are they doing with the rest of the student body? This has not been made clear.

I wonder what a “common SMART goal” is, mentioned in number 7. I mean, I looked it up and got “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely” but what will that look like for my school and our students? And what about goals that are not measurable?

I am interested in number 10, and wonder if we will be able to abolish some rules that seem silly and put in place rules that are absent but needed.

Number 6 is a problem. When different teachers teach the same course, they usually teach it during different periods. For example, one teacher might teach Physics 1 during 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th periods with an extra period during the in-between periods arranged so that each class gets 6 class periods per week. Another teacher teaching Physics 1 might teach 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th periods, in the same classroom. Each teacher will be “kicked out” of the room into an auxiliary room down the hall several times during the week to accommodate the other’s lab periods, and they will see each other only long enough to say hello and goodbye as they change classes. So how will these two teachers ever find time during the school day to collaborate, and how will schedules be rearranged to work it out? And what happens to the student whose only time during the day to take physics is the period when the teachers are collaborating? This item also presents contractual issues, since teachers are also entitled to one planning period and one lunch period per day, and if a planning period is being used as a collaboration period, that could be construed as a violation of contract.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about in this document. I am interested to see how the principles therein will be applied to improve our practice and improve our students’ achievement. I think it is only going to work if over 90% of the faculty buys into this. I’m willing to give it a shot. I sure hope everyone else is.

Note: The courses listed in the first paragraph, Algebra 2 Academic and English 9 Honors are real courses at my school. We have four levels a given course might be taught at: Academic, Honors, Seminar, and Advanced Placement. So we have a level ABOVE honors level that isn’t AP.

The 180 project

August 23, 2012

I am jumping on the “180” bandwagon. Today I started a new blog called “Ms Poodry’s 180 days of teaching” and I will try to post one thing per day, usually a photo or video, that relates somehow to my job as a high school physics teacher. Today I posted a photo of some papers on my desk at home, because I did not go to school today. My first day of inservices (dull meetings and frantically getting my classroom ready) will be Tuesday August 28th and students will not start until the following Tuesday.

Frank Noschese did a 180 blog last year, and this year a bunch of teachers I follow on Twitter are doing it and I want to be one of the cool kids. So I will give it a try. Like many of the things I am doing this year, it will be interesting to see if I am able to keep it going all year or if it will fizzle out and lie dormant for the last 8 months of school. If you are interested in seeing other people’s 180 blogs, I have some links at the bottom of mine. I will probably add some more links eventually.

I also worked on my website today, which is at and still needs a lot of links added, like one for students to check their progress on ActiveGrade, and some documents, like the field trip permission form for the Maker Faire field trip I am doing on September 29th.

The last thing I worked on today was checking over and revising my grading policy for my conceptual class, as seen in the previous post. I need to finalize my standards so I can post that here and on my website, and on my class Moodle page. So many digital places! I predict that one thing that will happen this year is I will start using fewer digital spaces for my stuff.


Grading Policy

August 23, 2012

I have been thinking about my grading policy. I love standards-based grading, but I can’t bring myself to go totally that way yet, because of the way things work in my school. For example, if a student is “failing” two or more classes in a given week, that student may not participate in extracurricular activities or sports until she or he is “failing” zero or one class. I am expected to update grades in the school’s system (PowerSchool, owned by Pearson) “regularly” by which the administration expects weekly, at least. So at the beginning of a marking period, the standards grade might look appallingly low, when few standards have been mastered.

I spent many hours last summer working on a compromise I can live with, and I tried it for a year. Results were mixed. My assessments were not frequent enough, the feedback I gave was not immediate enough. I gave students marks for proficiency on standards when I was uncertain that they had truly mastered them, but I felt I did not have the time to asses them better. But I also felt like grades finally reflected actual learning, and that the higher grades earned by kids were truly earned by understanding, not by being organized, neat, and attempting everything.

Last year I entered a standards grade on the students’ PowerSchool records in the last couple of weeks of the marking period, to avoid the extracurriculars problem (the grade requirement for extracurriculars is frozen around marking period transitions, I don’t know why). This year I am going to enter a score weekly, which I am going to calculate somehow from ActiveGrade. I have not figured out exactly HOW I will do that calculation yet, but I am thinking about it.

The following is what I am handing out for students and parents to read:

Each student’s grade is based on the following:

 1) 50% of the marking period grade is based on mastery of the standards.  The standards for each unit will be available online.  Feedback for students and parents will also be available online.  The standards grade will be based on demonstrating mastery of core standards (core topics and skills) and secondary standards (additional topics and skills).  Mastery of all the core standards will earn a grade of 70% for this portion of the grade.  Mastery of all the secondary standards will raise the standards grade to 95%.  Grades above 95% will be awarded to students demonstrating exceptional individual achievement on goal-less problems, projects, or work in additional topics not covered in this course.

Students and parents must rely on communication with the teacher and on the online progress-tracking site ActiveGrade to determine how well the student is progressing on the standards. Each student’s standards achievement grade will be entered into PowerSchool (the school grade system) once per week starting no later than September 14th, 2012. Expect this grade to change as students master standards and as standards are added. This single number is not particularly helpful, however, and parents and students should make a habit of checking ActiveGrade (link to be provided). If either the student or parent feels that they are not getting enough feedback, they are encouraged to contact me ( and arrange for a phone conversation, Skype conversation in the evening, or a face-to-face conference.

 2) 15% of the marking period grade will be based on points earned through homework, classwork, class participation, and other activities.  The score will be determined by how many points were earned by the student divided by the number of points available.  There will be extra credit points available to be earned as well.

 3) 15% of the marking period grade is based on laboratory work.  Students are required to participate in all laboratory activities, record and keep data, present results to their classmates, and write lab reports.  Sometimes laboratory analyses will be assigned as homework.  Again, the score will be determined by the number of points earned by the student divided by the number of points available.

 4) 20% of the marking period grade is based on the Quarterly Assessment.  The Quarterly Assessment will provide opportunities to demonstrate mastery of standards (both core and secondary, and thus also contribute to the standards grade) and may involve in-class testing, out-of school projects, laboratory work, or some combination of these.

I am going to hand each student a card with a link to ActiveGrade, and I am thinking of making a little screencast to explain the system, with a sample class and sample assessments. I can link to that on my website, which I worked on earlier this summer but which I haven’t done anything to lately…I made it on Google Sites and that platform is a little annoying to work with. I can also put a link on Moodle. I feel like I have a lot of online spaces that I need to get better organized… Sigh. There is always more I could be doing!

Learning new things

August 18, 2012

I started teaching professionally* in January, 1993. I was 22 years old. I had a BA in Physics and a PA teaching certificate, and a lot of good ideas from my undergraduate education courses. I also knew all about using probeware and workshop-style classes from working for Priscilla Laws for two summers. I was full of ideas and willingness to share, but I didn’t know who to talk to. I was known online on the Phys-L mailing list, but my local physics teaching contacts were non-existent.

Slowly, as I continued teaching in Philadelphia public schools, I became known in the district. I field-tested Active Physics and gave a presentation on it that was attended by Ambra Hook. I became known in my school’s “cluster” as a science teacher leader and was sometimes called on to lead meetings. I learned Modeling Instruction and started talking that up. And when I left Philadelphia, I was 27 years old.

I’ve been teaching nearly 20 years, now. I’ve led and co-led plenty of workshops, I’m involved in my local AAPT section, I know lots of people who teach physics locally and around the country. I feel like I am really good at my job, but I also feel like there is a lot more I should be learning! Every time I turn the corner (or turn on Twitter) I find out about something new I should be aware of. That is one of the reasons I am so pleased to have been invited to Physics Teacher Camp for the past two summers.

At physics teacher camp, I spent an hour one beautiful (and hot) morning sitting on a dock, discussing mindset. I learned that I have been doing some of the right things in my classes, in terms of encouraging kids to develop a “growth” mindset as opposed to a “fixed” mindset. I already talk to confused students about the developing neural pathways in their brains, and how they will continue to be confused sometimes until those pathways are fully developed. I also celebrate student success with reminders that they struggled with the same material in the past, look how their brain has changed! I can do more, however, and thanks to Kelly O’Shea, I will do more this year!

I spent a bunch of hours in a windowless lab room taking and editing video. I learned some tricks with iMovie that I did not previously know, through playing with it in an environment that allowed me to focus on that, and through e-mail communication with a video-making expert, Peter Bohacek. I was also reminded how much easier it is to make videos when more than one person is involved. If I make any videos at school this year, I will be recruiting helpers, preferably students. I may have to teach them a little, but that is all for the better.

Last year at Physics Teacher Camp I learned a lot about Standards Based Grading, and then I implemented it in my classroom. It was a bit rocky, and hard to keep up with, and I learned a lot again. I will be changing how I do things this coming year, and hoping to do a much better job. I still need to figure out how to keep the kids’ grades updated in real time for the parents to see, but my brain is already coming up with options for me to think about.

I want to be the best teacher I can be, and that means using my summers as an opportunity to improve my practice, as well as taking time to relax. I know plenty of teachers who draw the line at summer, who won’t think of attending summer workshops or conferences. I dont understand that, and I am glad I know plenty of teachers who are more like me! So thanks you again, John, for inviting me to Physics Teacher Camp. I’m looking forward to next summer!


*as opposed to practice teaching, tutoring, etc. that I had done in college