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Six Days In

September 9, 2010

We started school on August 30, had a four-day weekend in honor of Labor Day, and today we had off for Rosh Hashana.  So I’ve been in my classroom for six days.  How’s it going?

Frustrations: district-wide computer meltdown for those people whose computers were plugged into an ethernet cable at a particular time last week (which my computer is still not fully recovered from), Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the fact that my students are already behind where I had planned for them to be in my lesson plans.  Oh yeah, and yesterday I started getting additional 504 plans stating students were supposed to have preferential seating…after my students had 5 days of assigned seats that I planned to keep in place for the entire first quarter.

Joys: my students are pretty much fun and not rude, obnoxious, or sneaky (so far), my AP class is good at collaborating, one student actually turned in a twitter-extra-credit, and I just adopted a new kitty cat!  (OK, that last one has nothing to do with school, but it is certainly a joy!)

My major focus in the first unit of my physics 1 class is graphing.  I teach the lowest-level physics 1 class in my school, and they find graphing to be a challenge.  Some issues they have:

  • Numbering axes properly.  Many students will start out OK, with 0.  Then they write a 1 on the next line.  Then they SKIP a line and write a 2.  That is a problem.  Another common error is to simply write the numbers from their data set at even intervals along the axis, no matter what the numbers are.  So an ais might start with 0, skip 4 lines and label the next line “7,” skip 4 lines and label the next line “13,” and continuing with whatever numbers are in that column of the data table.  This usually requires one-on-one attention to fix.
  • Drawing a best fit line for their data.  There are several common errors.  First, the “connect the dots” error.  There’s the “connect the first dot and the last dot” mistake.  Some kids connect the last dot to the origin.  Others ignore my instruction to “draw a line that best represents the trend of the data” and pick up on my instruction that “if not all the dots fall on the line, try to draw the line so that an equal number of dots are above it as are below it,” making a skewed line that simply passes through the center data point and has half the data above  the line and half below, with no regard for the trend of the data.  All of these errors also require one-on-one attention to fix.
  • Labeling the axes and making a title.  I provide a general template for graphs, with “independent variable (unit)” as the horizontal axis label and “dependent variable (unit)” as the vertical axis label.  I specify that students are to put the names of the variables from THEIR data into those spaces.  Yet I still get kids making graphs of “dependent variable vs. independent variable” with axes labeled word-for-word as on the template.  This one I can usually fix with a whole-class announcement, except for the kids who weren’t listening at that moment.

Student Collaboration
In all of my classes, I want my students to become collaborators.  For my AP students, this seems to come naturally.  We tried some problem solving two ways: first, students worked independently on a multi-step problem, which we then went over as a class and I called on individual students (randomly drawing names) to explain different steps.  Then I broke the class into three groups and assigned a few problems, with all groups working on the same problems.  I encouraged discussion, and the goal was to solve all the problems correctly.  Afterward, we discussed the differences in the two experiences.  Students pointed out that they felt more likely to ask questions about things they didn’t understand in a group of their peers than “interrupting the class” for “a stupid question.”  I was intrigued.

Yesterday, I had one of my physics 1 classes do collaborative work on graphing.  They were to graph some data I handed them, which involved multiple steps: deciding which variable was independent and which was dependent, deciding how to number and label the axes, plotting the data, drawing a best fit line for the data, writing a linear equation for the data and finally, deciding what the slope and y-intercept of the linear equation were telling us about the data.  The idea was that they would be able to discuss with each other how to do the steps, would all decide together which variable was which, and would all discuss the meanings of the slope and y-intercept.  This did not go well.

Students with questions did not ask their group members, they asked me.  One group refused to talk to one another entirely, and wouldn’t even work facing each other at a lab table, but sat in four adjacent individual desks.  So when each individual student asked me a question, I immediately asked the question of the rest of their group.  Sometimes this did actually get answers.  But I think this is an unfamiliar teaching style for these kids.  They are used to being told something by the teacher and having that be the one right thing.  I will persist in encouraging collaboration!  I hope that by the middle of the year, they are good enough at collaboration so that any question they ask ME is one that the group as a whole truly could not agree on.

Oh, you might be wondering why “Tuesdays and Wednesdays” are in my list of frustrations.  On Tuesdays I have two double-length periods, and on Wednesdays I have class, hall duty, double period class, class.  This makes me feel like I am running a marathon from homeroom on Tuesday until 6th period on Wednesday, when I finally get a chance to sit down.  Better yet, I am starting a graduate class next week on….TUESDAY evenings!  Woo!

So, those are my reflections so far.  Overall, I think things are going well.  Now I just have to grade all these lab reports…

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