Category Archives: teaching

Pedagogue Padawan 180

I’m going to attempt to keep at 180 blog this year. I infrequently make time during the school year to write long blog posts; so, I hope I can share more of what we do via [Pedagogue Padawan 180]( I don’t have 180 days with students; so, I’ll include some extra days along the way. I’m starting today because it is the first day back for teachers (students won’t arrive until Wednesday). I’m starting with Day 0 since I teach computer science as well as physics!

A couple of days ago, Fran Poodry announced on the AMTA list a Modeling Instruction-focused 180 blog aggregator. If you are interested, (

Honors Physics Changes

Several factors combined into a perfect storm that set the stage to make major changes to our Honors Physics course. One, last year was rough and several aspects of class were disappointing. I’m not going to dwell on those here. Two, we have an extra section of Honors Physics this upcoming year and another physics teacher will join my colleague and I in teaching Honors Physics. She is a really good influence on us! Three, we want to pilot the AP Physics 1 course to prepare for the first official year of AP Physics 1/2 in 2014-2015 and prime a pipeline of students ready for AP Physics 2. As a result, we are changing almost every aspect of this course.

First is the curriculum. We are aligning our curriculum to that of AP Physics 1. This changes the emphasis from content to understanding and skills. As a result, we will finally be able to implement [Modeling Instruction]( in Honors Physics! The shift to Modeling Instruction, which we have been using in General Physics for a few years, will have a tremendous impact on these students. We are also taking some of the most successful aspects of my AP Physics B course and incorporating them into Honors Physics. We will have formative quizzes for each unit and we will have peer instruction to focus on conceptual understanding.

This change in curriculum and pedagogy required us to redefine all of our units and materials. All new standards, in-class packets, quizzes, lab activities, lab practicums, and exams. Fortunately, we didn’t have to create too many materials from scratch. We started with Kelly O’Shea’s [Honors Physics Standards]( We used worksheets from the Modeling Workshop along with portions of Kelly’s packets. We used peer instruction questions I compiled for AP Physics B. We combined quiz and exam questions from a variety of sources. We kept our favorite labs and found or created new ones.

We are also trying to incorporate and emphasize certain themes throughout the course. One is growth mindset. Reading Dr. Carol Dweck’s book [Mindset]( and Daniel Coyle’s [The Talent Code]( this summer, helped me to find the commonality of behaviors and attitudes that some physics students, especially honors physics students, have that make them really struggle in the course. I prepared a mini-lesson (upcoming post) to introduce the concepts of fixed vs. growth mindset and deep practice. Another area of focus will be measurement uncertainty in labs. While we have a good set of [measurement uncertainty activities](, we don’t sufficiently reinforce these concepts throughout the year. At the most recent QuarkNet Workshop at Fermilab, we heard and discussed how critical it was for students to understand and appreciate the concept of measurement uncertainty.

A good sign that we are on the right track for this revamped Honors Physics course is that I’m excited and looking forward to this class this year. Without these changes, I don’t think I would be saying that….

AP Physics B Reflections and Plans for Next Year

*I’ve been collecting my thoughts on this past year throughout the summer. Since I’m about to start a new school year, now is a good time to review these reflections and share my thoughts and plans for the upcoming year.*

This past year was the first year that we officially offered AP Physics B. In previous years, I’ve taught a one-semester Advanced Physics course which covered those topics that are part of the AP Physics B curriculum that were not covered in Honors Physics. So, while a full-year class was new, the content was familiar. Another significant difference between the old Advanced Physics course and the AP Physics B course was the pace and the prior background of the students. Advanced Physics moved at a lightening pace with no review of topics previously covered in Honors Physics. The AP Physics B course, covers all topics that are part of the curriculum, even those covered in previous physics classes. This allows students that have previously taken either General Physics or Honors Physics to be successful in the class. I was pleased that about a third of the students enrolled in AP Physics B had taken General Physics the previous year.

I tried several new ideas in AP Physics B. Based on student feedback, the most successful activity was peer instruction. I specifically followed the techniques in the article [Combining Peer Discussion with Instructor Explanation Increases Student Learning from In-Class Concept Questions]( to maximize the effectiveness. All questions selected were conceptual. I found that conceptual questions lead to more lively discussions among students and, historically, my students have struggled more with conceptual questions than quantitative problem solving questions. The questions were a combination of Paul Hewitt’s [Next-Time Questions]( and clicker question banks from [University of Colorado Boulder]( and [Ohio State University]( I started using clickers from Turning Technologies, but transitioned to the [Nearpod app]( on iPads. Students preferred the Nearpod app since they could read the questions off their screen rather than off the projected screen. I was very pleased with the level of student engagement, discussion, and debate during these peer instruction activities. I will continue peer instruction next year and we are expanding its use to our revamped Honors Physics class this upcoming year as well.

While students shared that peer instruction was the most effective class activity, their favorite activity was the capstone. I previously [shared the capstone projects]( We will do capstones at the end of the fall semester again this coming year. In addition, we will be doing capstones at the end of the spring semester in the revamped Honors Physics class.

Another significant change was providing one or two quizzes for each unit. Feedback from students in Honors Physics and [insights by other physics teachers]( to a previous post, helped me to realize students needed additional formative assessments in order to accurate measure their understanding of the current unit. These quizzes were scored by the students in class (not for a grade), which provided insight into how AP problems were scored, and copies of solutions were immediately distributed. Often, I would collect the scored exams to flip through them and note which students were struggling and which concepts needed additional class time. I believe these quizzes worked well since they provided students with a clear and immediate feedback as to whether their level of understanding was where it should be well before the unit exam. As a result, fewer students needed to take advantage of reassessment opportunities after unit exams in AP Physics B than in Honors Physics. These formative quizzes are another activity that we will be incorporating in the revamped Honors Physics class this upcoming year.

The fourth new activity I introduced in AP Physics B was [computational modeling]( For most of units that focused on mechanics, we explored and extended computational models. We had mixed success with computational modeling. Several students struggled to come up the learning curve with the limited amount of class time that we dedicated. The most successful activity was using [VPython to model projectile motion]( for an early lab. This activity was successful because of the additional time provided and the clear utility of using the computational model to solve a problem not easily solved in other ways. Despite the mixed success, I’m going to continue exposing my AP Physics B students to computational modeling. I may be a bit more selected in which units we explore the models and perhaps spend more time on those specific models.

Looking ahead to the upcoming year, I’m going to change very little. Overall, I’m very pleased with how last year went. In addition, we are making major changes to Honors Physics (upcoming post) and I’ve made [a lot of changes]( to AP Computer Science. Next summer, I’ll restructure AP Physics B into the new AP Physics 2 class; so, I’ll wait until then to make any major changes.

AP Computer Science Reflections and Plans for Next Year

I’ve been collecting my thoughts on this past year throughout the summer. Since I’m about to start a new school year, now is a good time to review these reflections and share my thoughts and plans for the upcoming year.

Last year was the first time that I taught AP Computer Science. Based on my experience teaching Physics, I appreciated the significant difference between content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. I spent the year building my pedagogical content knowledge and trying various types of activities to determine which would be most effective. I expanded my network of computer science teachers throughout the year and attended a couple of great workshops this summer: the [AP Annual Conference]( and the [Tapestry Workshop](

One aspect of the class that did not work well was the textbook. The textbook was old (it didn’t cover Java 5 features) and didn’t align with my personal teaching preferences (I’m a strong object-oriented proponent and start objects first). We stopped using the textbook after the first couple chapters. My department chair was super supportive and I was able to purchase [Cay Horstmann’s Java Concepts]( book for the upcoming year. I spent a lot of time this summer creating units, choosing questions, and selecting programming activities based on the new text, but it will be well worth it.

Students spent most of class time working on programming activities. These activities were small in scope, focused on a specific concept, and not graded. They were formative assessments. I spent most of class time visiting students, asking questions, and providing direction without being too helpful. Perhaps my favorite part of this class was that I had the opportunity almost every day to talk individually with every student and directly observe their work. This upcoming year, I hope to spend even more time on these programming assignments. I hope that with the better textbook, I can minimize lecture and notes and just focus on highlighting key aspects the assigned reading and discussing questions that the students have after having read the chapter.

One part of class that worked out very well, was providing [choice in the programming activities]( My students were fairly diverse in both interest and background knowledge. Providing them with a variety of programming assignments, all focused on the same concept, but of varying degrees of difficulty and application, allowed each student to challenge themselves and yet be successful. I stumbled upon this by accident when I was unable to decide which of three programming activities would be the best. I decided to offer all three and was surprised at increased level of interest as students chose their favorite. While I’m changing most of the programming assignments this upcoming year, I consciously defined sets of programming assignments to provide students with choice.

Related to these topics of choice and diversity, I quickly realized last year that some students would complete a programming assignment in 10 minutes while others would need an entire class period. Again, by accident or intuition, when I first encountered this diversity, I spontaneously created an extension of the programming activity to challenge student who finished quickly. After that, I made an effort to define extensions to most of the programming activities. I also encouraged students to explore their own extensions. I will offer some of these to this year’s class. Throughout the year, these extensions were generalized into the idea of “add more awesome.” As students finished the base assignment, they would start to “add more awesome” without direction.

While I’m changing most of the programming assignments, many of the summative programming labs will remain the same. The programming labs are submitted for scoring and involve significant effort compared to the programming assignments. We will continue to do the [Game of Life]( lab, [Media Computation](, [Fractal Trees](, and [Capstone projects]( A few labs will be new. For example, we will try a [Word Search]( lab from Stuyvesant High School.

There are a couple of new ideas that I found lacking last year that we will try this year. I want students to have more experience with [Test Driven Development]( and unit testing with [JUnit]( I also want students to present their work to their peers; specifically, their capstone projects. While there was plenty of interaction among pairs of students last year, I didn’t provide an opportunity for students to present to all their peers.

My final focus for the upcoming year is applying some of what I learned at the Tapestry Workshop to increase the number of female students and under-represented minorities in computer science. Some of these efforts will be outside of class focused on administrators and counselors, but others will be in the classroom. Everything from my choice of programming activities to the decor of the lab can reduce stereotype threats. I hope to see a change in enrollment of the coming years!

Comfortable Classroom

When I first started teaching, I was greeted with a room without windows and bare walls. I wanted to do something to make it more personal, but I wasn’t sure how. I’m not a bulletin board designer type. I did have several posters from [The Physics Teacher]( and found others stored in the room. I had them laminated and plastered the walls with posters.

The room was okay. Some students found the posters interesting, but the room was nothing special.

Over the past few years, my colleague and I have transformed our current room to a comfortable, student-personalized space. There are very few posters but lots of student-generated projects and art work.

Some of my favorite pieces are a former student’s AP Studio Art portfolio which was focused on physics.

AP Studio Art Project

The two pieces on the left are also part of her portfolio. We also highlight some bridges and towers that students have built. Sometimes inspiration strikes and a water bottle gets glued to the wall.

studnet projects

We also frame and hang photos from students who have entered the [AAPT High School Photo Contest](


We display photos from the clubs that we mentor, like Physics Club and FIRST Robotics, to inspire students to participate.

high-altitutde ballooning

The whole ceiling is covered with mobile projects (forces and torques in equilibrium). Almost every student leaves their project until next year’s class makes their own.

100 0935

My least favorite part of the room is now the individual desks. The plan is to get hand-me-down tables and chairs from an adjoining physics room and be able to arrange students in groups of four next year!

Peer Instruction with NearPod and iPads

This year with my AP Physics B class, I’m trying a number of new ideas. One is peer instruction. This appealed to me because historically my AP Physics students have struggled on the more conceptual questions and peer instruction addresses these types of questions. While peer instruction is often associated with some sort of a “flipped” classroom, I want to be clear that I’m not flipping anything. I’m using peer instruction as a formative assessment tool and an opportunity for students to refine their conceptual understanding through thought and debate.

The particular methodology that I’m trying is best described by [Stephanie Chasteen]( in her post “[FTEP Effective facilitation of clickers workshop]( She referenced [a paper]( either on her blog or her podcast which described how a specific peer instruction technique was the most effective. The key elements are:

* students register their answer individually
* instructor shows distribution of answers but not which answer is correct
* students discuss, debate, and defend their answer; preferably with students who choose a different answer
* students register their answer again
* instruction show the distribution of answers and explains why that answer is correct

The research showed that this final step was critical.

In [another post](, Stephanie shared several resources for these types of questions for physics. I have found that Paul Hewitt’s [Next-Time Questions]( also make excellent peer instruction questions as long as I post them in advance for students to consider outside of class with sufficient time for consideration.

I started the semester using [Turning Technologies clickers](, which I already use in some of my classes when administering exams. These worked fine. A colleague of mine showed me the [NearPod app]( on the iPads, and I decided to try that for a change. While creating a presentation on the NearPod web site takes more effort on my part, I and my students have found using NearPod for peer instruction is better than the clickers. Because each student views the question on their own device, I can show more content-dense questions than I can when projecting on a screen in the classroom. In addition, NearPod allows me to create questions where students respond by drawing or annotating. This is perfect for graphical and diagrammatic answers. The only feature I miss when using NearPod is the lack of a countdown timer to remind students they need to submit their answers.

I have continuously been impressed with the level of engagement and the quality discussions that I observe during peer instruction. I’ve heard students devise novel and clear explanations when justifying their answer to other students. I’ve seen students leap into the air when they were in the minority but their answer is the correct one. I consistently receive very positive feedback about this element of class.

I hope to find a way to incorporate peer instruction into my Honors Physics class next year.

Confusion Is Ignorance Leaving the Brain

Someone on Twitter passed along this great quote about students experiencing confusion in physics class:

Confusion is Ignorance Leaving the Brain.

(If you know who, please let me know so I can properly attribute it. **Update**: [@jybuell]( first heard it from Kate Nowak ([@k8nowak](

This quote really resonated with me. I’ve shared it with students who have expressed frustration with feeling confused as they are developing their understanding and refining their preconceptions. I made a note to make some posters featuring this quote, but my lack of design ability kept this task on the back burner. However, while browsing [xkcd]( recently for Computer Science related comics, I found a [couple]( of [comics]( that fit this quote really well. I created a couple of posters that I will put up in class:

Download (PDF, 80KB)

Summer Reading

One of my goals this summer was to do more reading. I return to school is 21 days; so, I decided to capture what I’ve read so far since I probably won’t read too much more in the next few weeks.

I always fall behind on my magazines during the school year. So, every summer I skim the backlog and make notes for articles to reference later if they are relevant to a topic in class or a project to build. Over the years, I’ve reduced the number of magazines I faithfully read (or at least skim) to the three from which I learn the most: [Scientific American](, [MAKE](, and [The Physics Teacher](

*The Grand Design* by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

I’ll read anything Hawking writes. After all, *A Brief History of Time* is what sparked my interested in physics and cosmology back in high school. I found *The Grand Design* interesting, enjoyable, and useful in unexpected ways. While the idea of M-Theory is interesting, I found the description of models and model-dependent realism excellent. In fact, I’m going to start AP Physics B with several quotes from the book on this topic as students really struggle to reconcile reality and models (“What is an electron, really?” “Are virtual particles actually present?” “How can light be both a wave and a particle?”). I also found their description of Feynman’s “sum over histories” particularly clear, and I hope that helps me teach quantum effects better next year.

*Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays* by Stephen Hawking

Not having my fill of Hawking, I remembered this much older book that my brother had given to me. It was enjoyable to read Hawking’s essays that were written over a period of decades and reminded me of what an amazing period of time it has been, and continues to be, for the field of cosmology.

*Physics for Future Presidents* by Richard A. Muller

While I had read selected chapters from *Physics for Future Presidents*, I hadn’t read the entire book. This book is incredible in that it makes such an authentic connection between physics and the greatest technological, society, and political challenges that we have in a manner that is digestible by high school students. We are fortunate to have a classroom set and I hope we find more ways to utilize this book next year.

*Publishing with iBooks Author* by Nellie McKesson and Adam Witwer

I downloaded this [book for free]( from O’Reilly. I wanted a quick read to familiarize myself with iBooks Author as I was writing [my AP Physics B review iBook]( If you are familiar with the iWork apps, you can figure out iBooks Author, but this ebook sped me through a few of the the app’s rough edges.

*Learning Java* by Patrick Niemeyer and Jonathan Knudsen

I will be teaching AP Computer Science for the first time this fall. I haven’t written anything in Java in a very long time. Whenever I need to learn a technology quickly, I turn to [O’Reilly]( I admit that I only read the first twelve chapters. However, this book was perfect for refreshing my memory, filling in the missing pieces, and updating me on what has transpired over the past fifteen years.

*Five Easy Lessons* by Randall D. Knight

Dr. Knight was kind enough to send me a free copy of his book after a [Global Physics Department]( meeting where he spoke. I started reading it shortly after receiving it, but it remained on the bedside table unopened as the semester became more hectic. There is so much wisdom and practical advice within its pages. I’ve made a note to remind myself when planning each unit next year to reference the appropriate chapter in *Five Easy Lessons* to see how I can improve my pedagogy. I still have a few more chapters to read before school starts.

*Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk* by David Sedaris

While all of the above books were enjoyable to read, occasionally it is good to read something not directly related to science or technology. I had received Sedaris’ latest book as a gift. It is uniquely Sedaris and a wonderful read.

*Marvel Comics: The Untold Story* by Sean Howe

This book isn’t released until October 9th, but I’ve read some great reviews already. I hope to make time to read it during the fall semester. Sean and I grew up reading comic books together and I can’t wait to see what he has written!

What have you read worth sharing this summer? Let me know!

Preparing for New AP Physics B Course

I will spend a lot of time this summer preparing for a new AP Physics B course. For most of the past five years, I’ve taught an Advanced Physics course which was a third semester of physics after Honors Physics that covered fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and modern physics topics. This class wasn’t officially an AP Physics B class, but many students took the AP exam and were well prepared.

However, this new course replaces Advanced Physics, will be a two-semester course, and is open to students who have completed either Physics or Honors Physics. So, the students will have covered different topics and approached physics from different perspectives. For example, the Honors Physics class covers a superset of topics but the Physics class emphasizes the development and understanding of Models. Due to this diversity, and now being an official AP course, I’m taking the opportunity to develop new class materials and try a few new approaches.

Topic Sequence
We will briefly review or cover all AP Physics B topics in this course. Topics that are review will be used as opportunities to perform more sophisticated labs and explore new representations such as computational models. In addition, there are certain topics that I believe should be part of a college physics class and that are of great interest to students but are not part of the AP Physics B curriculum. We will cover those as well.

Fall Semester

* Special Relativity
* Kinematics
* Statics and Dynamics
* Fluid Mechanics
* Work, Energy, Power
* Thermodynamics
* Linear Momentum
* Oscillations and Gravity
* Waves
* Capstone Project

Spring Semester

* Electrostatics
* Electric Circuits
* Magnetic Fields
* Electromagnetism
* Geometric Optics
* Physical Optics
* Particle Physics
* Atomic Physics and Quantum Effects
* Nuclear Physics
* Cosmology

Components of Each Unit
I’m going to try a few new ideas in most units. Some of these are driven by methodologies that I have wanted to try for a while (e.g., computational modeling and peer instruction). Others are driven by new technologies available to my students (e.g., [Canvas]( and iPads).

Topic Summary

I’m currently writing an AP Physics B review guide as an iBook. I wanted a review guide tailored to my students’ experiences and the structure of the class. The review guide is organized by topic but focuses on the models applicable to each topic. In addition to a description of the relevant models, the graphical, mathematical, and diagrammatic representation of those models are included as appropriate. I want students to explore an additional representation of the models to reinforce their understanding and have been very impressed with John Burk’s [use of computational modeling]( So, computation models developed using [physutil]( and [VPython]( are also included. I hope to include the iBook (also as a PDF) as well as related videos and code snippets in an iTunesU course. I’ve been impressed with iBook Author so far and have exported the first chapter as a PDF.

Download (PDF, 5.87MB)

Labs and Lab Notebooks

Since all students have already had a year of physics, I’m looking forward to doing some more sophisticated labs. Students will be creating electronic lab notebooks as portfolios in our new learning management system, [Canvas]( In addition, since we will have a class set of iPads available, we will be evaluating [Vernier’s]( new [LabQuest 2]( and the [Connected Science System](

Quizzes and Peer Instruction

I have been wanting to explore [peer instruction]( using clickers and I think the more conceptual questions would be a great fit and prepare students for the multiple choice portion of the AP exam. I found some wonderful existing clicker question at [OSU]( and [CU Boulder]( I’m compiling quizzes from existing AP free-response questions and will use the scoring rubrics to provide formative feedback to prepare students for the free response portion of the AP exam.


[Secure Pretty Good Physics (Secure PGP)]( is a great resource for AP Physics teachers. Other teachers have indexed questions by topic which makes creating new exams much easier. I’m compiling an exam and a reassessment exam for each unit based on existing AP multiple choice and free response questions. I plan to post these, along with the quizzes, to Secure PGP when I’m done.

Standards-Based Assessment and Reporting

I’m using a slightly modified version of the SBAR structure that we’ve been using in Honors Physics. The biggest change is that assessments will be scored on a five-point scale, like the AP exam itself. This is a small change for those students familiar with Physics’ four-point scale, but a more significant change for those students familiar with Honors Physics’ mastery system. Another significant change is the granularity of standards. Due to the integrated nature of the AP exam, standards will be very broad, usually one standard for each unit. All of the details of the SBAR structure are enumerated in the class syllabus.

Download (PDF, 62KB)

I hope some of you who are also teaching AP Physics B find something here of use. I know that the work that other teachers have done is incredibly helpful as I prepare for this new course. I plan to share pretty much everything I compile either here or on Secure PGP; so, please stay tuned or ask if I forget to post something.

Honors Physics Reflection

I previously shared my [end-of-semester reflection]( for my regular physics class. I wanted to do the same for my honors physics class which is significantly different from my regular physics class. We do not use Modeling Instruction, and it is a fast-paced, problem-solving focused, class. It is basically an AP Physics B class that covers all topics except for fluid mechanics, thermal physics, atomic physics and quantum effects, and nuclear physics. We actually cover some topics beyond the scope of the AP Physics B curriculum. That said, it does have many progressive elements. We are now in our third year of standards-based assessment and reporting. There are no points as it is a mastery-based system. Many labs are not scored but serve as discovery labs through guided inquiry. We leverage some aspects of Modeling Instruction such as whiteboarding and socratic dialog.

We move through units at a very fast pace. In the fall semester, we covered Giancoli Chapters 1-7 and 9. While the curriculum is “a mile wide,” it isn’t “an inch deep.” The mastery system requires our students to develop a significant understanding of these topics. That said, multiple representations are noticeably lacking. I’m always surprised when I see that graphical representations for kinematics is an optional section in Giancoli (but not in the class).

Since implementing SBAR, I’ve been pleased with the learning that occurs in honors physics despite its more traditional elements. To check if I’m completely misleading myself, I administer the FCI at the beginning and end of the fall semester. This year’s gain was 0.58 which was just a tad lower than the gain of 0.60 the previous two years.

My reflection regarding honors physics this fall has been focused on why the structure of the class seems to be working. Should I be satisfied with the degree to which students are replacing and refining their preconceptions about mechanics? Would I see a deeper level of understanding if I moved to Modeling Instruction? At what cost?

While musing on these questions, I thought back to my own experience in high school and college. As best I can recall, I learned physics in mostly traditional classrooms. How was it that I developed a decent understanding without many misconceptions in these environments?

The conclusion that I have arrived at is that I perform a mini-modeling discourse and modeling building with myself as I listen to a lecture or practice solving problems. I have an ongoing commentary in my head where I’m asking myself questions that connect one idea to the next, finding patterns, building models, testing models, refining models. I never was, and still am not, good at memorizing stuff; so, I had to construct and derive solutions on the fly.

I appreciate that not all of my students in honors physics do this, but I believe that many do. Whenever I hear that students cannot learn from lecture, I wince a bit since I believe that some students can. I think that those that can intrinsically do what many progressive pedagogies do explicitly with the entire class.

I don’t think that the current structure of honors physics is perfect by any means. While we are going to make some minor SBAR-related changes this semester (post coming soon), I don’t anticipate any major changes next year. Instead, I’m going to focus my efforts on preparing for a new AP Physics B class that I will be teaching. Furthermore, before I make any significant changes to honors physics, I want to see the new AP Physics B curriculum. I have a feeling that it will require significant changes to honors physics if not replace the course entirely. That will provide an opportunity to reassess all of these ideas.

If you think I’ve missed something major in my analysis, please don’t hesitate to call it out. Likewise, if you’ve come to a similar conclusion, I’d appreciate the reinforcement.