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Dear new teacher,

August 14, 2012

Last week on Global Physics Department, the discussion was about what a new physics teacher should know.  I was surprised that the discussion was mostly about teaching physics specifically – having the problems solved ahead of time, choosing appropriate examples, doing the labs and demos oneself before trying them with students. My recollections about being a starting teacher don’t focus at all on the physics teaching part. So here is what I wish I had known when I first started teaching, and some advice for total n00bz.


You will have a lot of “paperwork.” Some of it is electronic, but it still fits into this category. IEPs to read and sign. Forms to collect and get to the right place. Forms to fill out and hand in by a certain date. Attendance to record and report. Keeping track of who has gone to the lav and when they went. Grades to record. Papers from admins or guidance to hand to certain kids or all kids. Reimbursement forms, field trip forms, building use forms. Some of this paperwork has to happen during class time when you are teaching – like attendance and lav pass use.  You have to stay on top of it and do it right. Don’t be afraid to change your system partway through the year. Your organization system is one thing you CAN change mid-year.

ATTITUDE (or, as I learned in Philadelphia, addy-tood).

Being a teacher requires you to create an appropriate mental state for your job. This is probably true for most jobs. Some people find their teacher-state to be more natural for them than others do. Personally, I am an introvert, and when I put on my teacher state I am acting, and it takes a lot of energy, and I had to learn how to play the part right. So this bit is advice I needed, but not everyone needs it.

Without a sense of humor, you are lost. You must be able to laugh at yourself, in particular. That old saw you may hear about not smiling until after Christmas is bogus, you don’t need to be constantly stern in order to maintain order and the students need to know you are human. And you must be able to laugh at the end of a hard day and shake off whatever has happened, so you can go back and teach the next day.

You must cultivate relationships. This was very hard for me and I could have used lessons in being social. On the autism/Aspergers spectrum, I am close to the border between “normal” and “Aspergers” and I have had to learn to smile and say hello when I was walking through the halls of my school. I had to learn to greet people and make small talk. This has even shown up on formal evaluations of me, so don’t discount sociability as important to your teaching career!

Relationships with students may come easier, especially to younger teachers. Be careful. I have been asked out by students (and one student who waited until he graduated to ask me out) and this is bad. That happened before facebook and twitter came on the scene, and now you have even more venues to be careful in. Keep it professional, err on the side of caution.

Administrators. I am still working on having good relationships with administrators. I confess to a lack of tact, which I am still learning, but my best advice to new teachers is think before you speak and run any e-mails you are thinking of sending past a colleague or two before actually hitting send. If you are untenured, pretty much keep your mouth shut and wait for a colleague to speak up. A good administrator will hear you and still do what they gotta do, but some admins will decide to make your life hell for no good reason.


Communication is generally terrible in schools. The best sources of information are the kids and the secretaries. If you don’t know what is going on, it’s because nobody told you, or you didn’t read the e-mail. Read the e-mail! And figure out how to remember what you were told (see ORGANIZATION).

Do communicate with students and parents. This may seem obvious, but there is a lot of bad that can come out of “the teacher never said…” For example, in my district a student in high school cannot fail a subject if the teacher has not informed the parent(s) that the child is failing the subject. Respond to all parent e-mails within 24 hours and copy the guidance counselor and if necessary an administrator. Keep a record of all of your parent communication. Communicate with students about how they are doing, and what they can be doing better. I am still learning how to do that one, too. The fewer students you have, the easier feedback is.

Do not ever send mass e-mails to the entire school community. If you have something newsletter-worthy, or a request for used bowling balls or slide projectors, there is probably already a way for you to get your information or request out to the school community without a mass e-mail from you. And if it isn’t one of those two types of things, DO NOT send a mass e-mail. People will be annoyed, and you will be “THAT teacher.” I haven’t sent a mass e-mail in at least five years, yay me!

Do not ever text to a student, unless you are using a forum like ClassParrot to send information to all your students at once without knowing their phone numbers and without them knowing yours. I should not have to say that, but maybe someone reading this really is a complete n00b.


I am still learning this. I have to remember that I don’t need to get stressed out or wound up. If I don’t get all the tests graded tonight, the world won’t end. If I really need to, there are videos I can show in class. If suddenly there is a class meeting scheduled during a period when I was planning to give a test, I can work around that. State testing means I’ll only see two of my classes all this week? I can deal with that, the world won’t end. I didn’t actually teach every little thing in the curriculum? It won’t stop the students from getting into college, my supervisor won’t notice, and I won’t be fired.

I have to keep working on flexibility. Sometimes I feel like I need to stand straight without bending (usually after bending a lot in a short period of time) but really, being flexible is almost always best. And it is easiest to be flexible when you are relaxed.


I’ve learned a lot in the past 19+ years teaching. I know I am still learning. So, new/inexperienced teacher, prepare to learn a lot and keep on doing it. I hope you love it. I do.




August 13, 2012

OK, so it has been a year since I have blogged here.  I totally dropped the ball on the hours thing (I worked way too many, believe me) and I struggled with standards-based grading.  I plan to get back into this habit, however, so please encourage me.  I have several ideas for what to blog about in the next two weeks before inservices start.  It has been a lovely long summer.  I am feeling nearly ready to go for a new school year.

Blog away!

Teacher Bio

August 8, 2011


(3:15 plus 18:10)

I’ll discuss my “summer work hours” at another time.  I have been assigned to write a biographical sketch introducing myself to the members of the American Modeling Teachers Association, many of whom probably don’t know me.  All of the current board members have been asked to do this, and this essay will be sent out to the AMTA online mailing list, which you receive if you are a member. So here it is:


I was a physics major in college and I knew all along that I wanted to become a teacher.  I graduated in 1992, and I have been teaching physics since January, 1993.  I taught for five and a half years in Philadelphia public schools. Jane Jackson recruited me for a modeling workshop when I attended a summer AAPT meeting at University of Maryland, and  I took modeling workshops in 1997 and 1998. These workshops were at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and were led by Rex Rice and Dave Braunschweig.

As with many, my life was changed by Modeling Instruction.  I felt like I had discovered the way I wanted to teach, I just hadn’t figured it out before.  Also, I was amazed by how much physics I learned at the workshops! Though I loved using Modeling Instruction, the situation in my school was taking its toll.  I decided I had to leave Philadelphia or leave teaching.

After leaving Philadelphia schools, I have been teaching in various suburban districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I love my current school, and I have great colleagues, but only one of my colleagues is also a Modeler (though we have four full-time physics teachers in my building).  I have used Modeling Instruction with kids in conceptual classes, honors classes, and in-between, and from a variety of socio-economic levels.

I joined the AMTA board last year as Vice President, and am currently the President-Elect.  I feel very strongly that the work of AMTA is important for keeping Modeling Instruction alive and growing and funded, unlike previous worthy programs that were not self-sustaining (IPS, PSSC, Project Physics, etc). One way that to help this happen is through greater publicity.  Most science teachers in my district have no idea what Modeling is, and when offered a 2-hour introduction on an inservice day, only two teachers (out of over 40 high school science teachers) came to the session – the rest chose other sessions.  Not only teachers need to know about Modeling Instruction, the word also needs to get out to the politicians, the parents, and the voting public.



Skill Objectives

June 27, 2011


(1:55 plus 1:20)

I’ve been spending some time thinking about skills that I want my students to acquire.  This was partially inspired by the hour of professional development I spent last week attending the Global Physics Department meeting.  The topic was LaTeX, which I have never used but which I have seen demonstrated.  Once a CS professor friend of mine showed me equation-typesetting using LaTeX, but when I went home and tried to figure it out for myself I got frustrated and stopped trying.  So spending an hour at the GPD leaning more was very helpful.

I decided not to require students to use LaTeX.  But I decided I would definitely require all my students to learn to typeset equations, both my first-year students and my AP students.  I will gladly give them a choice as to whether they want to stick with MS Word or if they want to try LaTeX, or Open Office, or GoogleDocs, or whatever.  But I never ever want to read a lab report that tells me that “the equation of the graph is velocity squared equals 19.27 meters per second squared times height plus 0.054 meters squared per second squared.”  At least, never again.  It makes me throw my grading pen, gnash my teeth, pull my hair, and curse out loud.  And while that might momentarily feel good, I mostly don’t enjoy doing that, especially when I am only three lab reports into my grading stack.

While I did berate my students for the sin of writing equations as a set of words to read, and I did demonstrate how to do proper equations in Word using the projector, this was not enough.  So I need to teach it differently, and I think I also need to grade it specifically, as in Standards-Based Grading (SBG).

Thinking about an assignment to hand in a series of equations type-set into a document got me thinking about other skills I definitely want kids to learn.  For example, graphing.  Students should be able to create appropriate graphs by hand and using software, with appropriately labeled axes, appropriately NUMBERED axes (I’m picky about this), enough data points, a best-fit line when appropriate, and a complete, correct equation for the best-fit line if there is one.  So, for example, turning in a graph made in Excel with a trendline and an equation like “y=9.88x+0.3” is not good enough.  The equation needs to include both appropriate units and appropriate variables.   would be correct. Or at least mostly correct.  I did that in LaTeXiT and I haven’t figured out yet how to make the units non-italic.  Only the variables should be italic.

What else? My AP students should know how to add error bars to their graphs and determine the uncertainties in the slopes and y-intercepts and state the values uncertainties with the correct number of digits.  Few of my ten AP students this past year ever managed to do that properly, despite the lab we did at the beginning of the year.  That’s something I need to change.  My AP students should also be able to write programs in Vpython.  I have no idea how to break “write a program in Vpython” into a set of discrete skills I can chart, but I’m going to work on that.

Oh yeah. Also, all my students should be able to figure out how to put Greek letters into their documents!  It astonishes me when a high school senior hands in a lab in which he has spelled out “pi” or “omega” rather than using “insert character” or symbol font.  It’s not as if they need to memorize this stuff, because they have Google!  Google can tell them how to do it!

Have I ranted enough?  Probably enough for today, anyway.  The additional one hour and 20 minutes of work time comes from the GPD meeting and the time I spent thinking about skills and scribbling them down on a scrap of paper from a coupon book, being in my friend’s car at the time and having neglected to bring paper and pen with me.

Summer Work

June 20, 2011


Hellooo!  I’m here!  I know I completely dropped the ball on this blog, but I am now picking it back up.  There are three main reasons.

1)  I am going to keep a log of the hours I spend doing school work for a year.  I am inspired by Charles Ripley, the 2,000 hours guy.  He is logging all the hours he spends doing school-related stuff, and he figures it will be well over the 2,000 hours of a 40-hour-per-week worker.  So what the heck.  Today is the first Monday of summer vacation.  NOT including writing this blog post, I did 1 hour and 55 minutes worth of work today.  That’s the number at the top of the post – not what time I wrote or posted this entry.

I worked on my objectives for my instructional units, I started planning out the calendar for the 2011-2012 school year, and I participated in an online planning session with a group of physics teacher bloggers for a summer workshop we are putting together for ourselves.  It feels really good to have worked on this stuff already.  I really hope to keep up the momentum and start the year with a well-thought-out plan, rather than starting with a hastily thrown-together plan as sometimes happens.

2) I truly do plan to spend the summer planning, at least in between trips and events and stuff.  I hope this blog will be a place where I can work out some ideas and get some feedback from other teachers.  I plan to ask questions.  I hope some of you can answer.

3) In 2011-2012 there will be some big differences in my daily job.  I’m going to be teaching double my usual number of AP students, for example.  I’m going to have to work out some labs where we just don’t have enough equipment, so that half the class does one lab and half does a different lab, and then they switch.  That will be challenging.  I’ll be able to report on how well that works out.  Interestingly, in my class of over 20 AP students for next year, there are only 2 girls signed up.  This past year I had ZERO girls, and the year before that I had six girls and six boys.  I do not know why the numbers are so screwy.

Also, I am going from teaching three sections of our “conceptual” level physics 1 class to three sections of our “honors” level physics 1 class.  Those aren’t the names we use, but we have three levels of first-year physics and I will be teaching our highest level for the first time in nine years.  That will be interesting.  Especially since I plan to implement standards-based grading (SBG) with them.

So, I hope you will read what I have to say and give advice.  I know I’ve been at this for 18.5 years now, but I figure I can always learn something new!


October 10, 2010

For over a year now, I’ve had a YouTube channel. I use it for school-related stuff, and it has wound up being a little eclectic. It has some footage of amusement park rides, with and without accelerometers. It has footage from the “Physics of Vaudeville” show at last summer’s AAPT meeting in Portland, OR. It also has the “Pitagora Suicchi” (ピタゴラ スイッチ) machines my conceptual classes made last year. The students had to include three of the six simple machines and end with the “Pitagora Suicchi” flag being raised.

This fall I have already added “The Mystery Box” and “Data Analysis in Excel” (175 views already! I hope it is useful!) and some footage from my trip to Maker Faire a couple of weeks ago. I hope to add more soon – in particular I would like to include footage of the constant-acceleration lab my kids do so that it can be used for video analysis.

I do constant acceleration with equipment Rex Rice taught me to use when I took my first Modeling workshop about 15 years ago. Instead of a cart rolling down a ramp, the “ramp” is made with two pieces of conduit held apart by a couple of wooden blocks with holes drilled in them the same distance apart on each. Instead of a cart, a disk with an “axle” made from golf tees is set between the conduits. Then students let go the disk and start timing at the same time. Every two seconds, they can make a mark on the conduit with a dry-erase marker where the front of the disk is. Then they measure the total distance traveled from the start location for every time-mark. This procedure lets “time” be the independent variable and “distance” (or “position,” if you prefer—with my conceptual-level kids we use the terms interchangeably though I wouldn’t with honors-level kids) as the dependent variable, and it makes sense to make a distance-vs.-time graph based on the rules we established in unit 1 about dealing with data.

I had one group get especially good data this year…A really beautiful graph.  Some kids just naturally take precise data and some kids just don’t see the point.  Anyway, this lab is next on my video agenda.

I know Frank Noschese collects interesting videos for kids to examine for “good” physics or “bad” physics.  Is there an archive or list somewhere of good videos for video analysis?  I have a bunch of circular motion videos I plan to upload at some time, also, and I’d like people to be able to use them if they find it useful to do so.  Let me know in the comments!

Document Camera!

September 19, 2010

My school has several document cameras, in the care of the librarian.  To use one, a teacher has to go ask to sign one out.  They don’t seem to be very popular, so I went and signed one out on the 10th.

For those of you who don’t know, a document camera is like a web cam on a flexible support, that you aim downward at the desk where your document is.  If you are hooked to a projector, you can then project the image of the document onto a screen.  So basically, it is an overhead projector, but it is much smaller and lighter and you can lock it in a drawer when you aren’t using it.  Here is one:

I wish I had figured this out the FIRST week of school, when I was teaching Physics 1 students how to draw a best-fit line on their graphs of their data.  It would have been much easier than what I resorted to, which was drawing a grid, line-by-line, on my whiteboard.  My first choice would have been to use the “smart” board but that was about the same time as the computer meltdown and I didn’t have all the software back on my machine yet.

What I did with the document camera was put a lab report by one of my AP students under the camera, and projected THAT on the “smart” board, where I could write all over it without actually writing on the paper!  And we were able to discuss things like error bars on graphs while I added them to the graph in question, and I could go up to the “smart” board and scribble out the phrase I abhor: “human error.”

I am hoping to get a fair amount of use out of this thing, especially when I have an uncooperative paper document that I don’t have time to scan or which for one reason or another I can’t project any other way.  Plus, I may be able to use it to show small things happening on the desktop that would otherwise be difficult to show to an entire class all at once.  I am looking forward to seeing what else this is good for!

Do you use a document camera?  How?