Friday, July 10, 2015

Our Little Free Library

I have wanted to have a Little Free Library ever since I heard about them. Our home is situated perfectly for one, on a corner lot at the entrance to a small new subdivision with residents of all ages. When we had our front yard redone to make it even more drought-resistant, I asked the landscaper to put in a post for the library and ordered a "Purple Pickle" library from the website. Not only do the colors match some of the flowers in our yard, it was also a special, arriving with a package of 10 children's books.

We finally got it put up this week, and there has been movement in the book collection ever since. I put in a variety of children's books, including some wonderful kids' science books from the National Science Teacher Association, some books on how to make math easier for our teenagers and a few books for the parents and grandparents. We have loads of books, so I'm hoping we can send a lot of them through our community library!

The neat thing about the Little Free Library is that users can take a book and maybe replace it with something else. There is a constantly changing variety of books in our little library, which is fun to see. People took to it immediately.

As you can see in the picture, part of the new landscaping is a new path with a couple of steps and a little bridge over our "Arroyo Seco", which the kids have put to use as short cut and place to sit while looking at the books. It's as if our corner front yard has become public, at least for the children, which is fun to watch.  I noticed that the library is a little high for the smallest children to see in, so I've asked the landscaper to make a step in front of it, which can also serve as a seat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Remaining Awake During Revolutions


My class of 1965 reunion at Oberlin College was so inspiring, I've had a difficult time trying to figure how to write about it. Sort of like authors trying to write about their war experiences (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5) or the death of a close family member (Joan Dideon's Year of Magical Thinking). Emotions need time to settle.

The early 60s were an exciting time, and the students of Oberlin College were right in the middle of it (although I stood mostly admiringly on the sidelines.) Therefore we were all issued caps at reunion with the motto, Semper Provocantes, which speaks well for many things in our generation. Oberlin students helped coal miners unionize to fight Big Coal - which I do now in connection with fighting Mountaintop Removal in the Appalachia I came to love while a student at the University of North Carolina. Others went all the way South to work with voter registration, and to rebuild a burnt church. You can read about some of that in this article: Memories of a Movement: Oberlin Alumni reflect on their time in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

I at least became a folk singer, and folk singers, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who visited campus, sang protest songs. My repertoire was Pete Seeger and folk songs in languages  I was studying, like German, French and Russian.

Because students from our campus were so active in voter registration, Dr. Martin Luther King presented the Graduation Address at our Commencement, calling it: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. He told about how Rip Van Winkel slept through the American Revolution and was astonished at what he experienced when he awoke.

Dr. King's words are as important to us now as then, because there are many revolutions we are still fighting, some of which we didn't even think about back then. Women's Lib was not being discussed yet, nor were gay rights. We had some idea that we were messing up the environment because of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, from the spring of 1962. But our concern was also awakening about the conflicts in the far East, which became the Vietnam War, maybe because some of us would be drafted to fight that war.
"We must live together as brothers, or die together as fools", Dr. King said.
But I think we have not yet learned to live as brothers (and is brothers really a good image? Maybe friends would be better.) There are still many revolutions, pitting brothers (and sisters) against each other, and our students must be prepared to understand what the revolutions are about, and to also understand that we must live together in peace if our world is to endure.

The  Class of 2015 was almost as privileged as we were, because Michelle Obama spoke to them, quoting liberally from the words of Dr. King. You can read the transcript

And the truth is, graduates, after four years of thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate ..., you might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls—the name-calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.

And in the face of all of that clamor, you might have an overwhelming instinct to just run the other way as fast as you can. You might be tempted to just ... find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all of the noise. And that’s completely understandable. In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself—run! ...

But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that... you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. ... Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.
One alumnus (a lowly sophomore when I graduated) said.
"I think it's important for young people today to understand how much power there is in not knowing what you can't do."  Charlie Butts, Oberlin College '67
That is the glory of being young. You don't really accept "no" but try anyway. I'm afraid many high school students have forgotten that, though. Too many times have teachers and parents told them what to think, what's right, what is expected of them, and they have lost their curiosity, and believe the adults who say "it can't be done," or "it can only be done this way."

I think it is a very necessary role of teachers to awaken students' curiosity, not squelch it. Encourage students to join whatever revolutions they see, while preparing them to think clearly about the options available to them.

As a teacher, I want my students to be literate in science, since it is an important part of today's revolutions. I want them to be able to read and discuss and think and discuss some more. But I don't want them lost to demagogues who mislead them with pseudoscience, or incomplete interpretations of history. When we set students free at graduation, let them be prepared for the big and complicated and confusing world we have provided for them.

Monday, April 27, 2015


This is a great video that tells about the strategy I'm trying to use in physics:

Notice how the modeling concept works through these phases:
  • Model Development 
  • Model Deployment 
  • Model Failure 
He talks about how modeling goes from the concrete to abstraction. I once tutored a student in Physics who had been a straight A student until Physics Senior Year. It turned out his teacher showed them how to derive equation after equation to define physics concepts, but the only labs they did were after the test, as a reward. The student and I figured out together how the concepts worked, and he started getting A's again!

For more information, look at the American Modeling Teachers' Association (AMTA), where members can find a full curriculum for Physics, Chemistry, Physical Science, and now also Biology. The speaker also mentions the Modeling website at Arizona State University, where the strategy originated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Solving Difficult Problems

Don't Panic!

My students have been brought up in the math tradition of fast is best, and there's only one way to solve problems, using tried and "true" procedures. Their previous physics teacher had selected a college textbook for them (thinking they were all AP-Physics students, which they were not, even though they were all very intelligent in their own ways.) The textbook took great pride in generating formulas for every conceivable situation, so my students had great difficulty accepting my collection of 4 formulas on the board, which I said would cover any situation they could think of that applied to Newton's 3 Laws. Time and again one of the students (usually the ones who had gotten high grades from the previous teacher) would bring that textbook to me and ask if some version of a formula was the right one to use for a particular problem. I always said, "No, use one of the four on the board." This was very difficult for them to accept until I discovered a wonderful video clip, which I show below.
I have been auditing a MOOC with Stanford Professor Keith Devlin, based on his book Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. ("Auditing" means, I'm not taking it in the allotted time, nor submitting assignments, but I'm at least watching all the video lectures.) In the very first week, he offered a video, which I called How to Solve Difficult Problems.

Techniques the Pros Use to Solve Hard Math Problems from Keith Devlin on Vimeo.

I think showing a clip from this (about half) was the turning point in getting students to understand what I was talking about.The course is intended to introduce HS students to what college math (beyond calculus) will be like, and I am auditing it, so I can mentor my students in what they need to know to succeed in college. One important thing is problem solving - not just math and physics, but everyday life away from home. So we talked about his recommendations
  • Don't panic
  • take your time
  • take a break
  • draw a picture or diagram
  • write down everything you know
  • learn from your mistakes, etc
in connection with problem solving in everyday life - deciding which college to apply for or accept, whether to buy a car, and which one, whether to date someone, etc. 
And then we applied these concepts when solving physics problems. After the video they had a much better understanding of how to solve problems. Interestingly enough, on the last test I gave them, they were very good at solving problems where they were expected to model the problem in 6 different ways, but they did poorly on multiple-choice, where I figure many rushed through in their usual manner, bringing in all their physics misconceptions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It's been nearly a year since I wrote here

I've thought of many posts I wanted to write, but I've been busy learning things, traveling and working. Can't do everything I guess.


Last summer I participated in a workshop about Modeling Physics Mechanics. All of the physics teachers in Whittier USD participated, while about half of the students came from other districts. I had heard a lot about how modeling is a tried-and-true way to teach science to pretty much everyone, but I wanted to try it out for myself.
Learning how to use Vernier data
We acted as if we were students, with time out every once in a while to put on our teacher hats. A modeling lesson usually starts with a short demonstration, video, or possibly a min-lecture introduction, but mostly there were demonstrations to wake our curiosity. For example, the first demo was a few washers swinging at the end of a long string hanging from the ceiling. The class discussed what we saw and suggested which variables could be changed to find out more about what we were seeing. Then we split up into groups, which changed for every new topic. Each group picked one of the variables to change, as the independent variable, (number of washers, length of string, distance pulled to the side), and which dependent variable and then did 10 trials. We had to figure out how to do what we planned and measure the dependent variable. In some labs we measured things using Vernier equipment, which was my first introduction to that. In our notebooks, we drew the set-up, wrote about what we were doing, made tables and graphs, and attempted to make some sort of mathematical equation. All of these things are part of the model of the pendulum.
Preparing a white board
Then each group presented a white-board of their experiments in a "Board Meeting". Sometimes we got similar answers, sometimes something went wrong. Often there were various ways to get to the same conclusion. We learned that getting something wrong can be a better way to learn that getting it right. The other students were expected to comment respectfully on the others' white-boards, preferably by asking questions. In that way we all learned from the various approaches.
I am planning on taking either the follow-up course this summer. - on waves - or a first modeling course in chemistry.


We had long wanted to take my grandchildren to the wonderful Danish island of Bornholm, where I taught English and German at the island's high school for 7 years in the 1980's. 
My daughter's plans, though, were to visit us in California first, so we met at Yosemite and then had several days at home in Fontana where my youngest grandchild particularly enjoyed our pool. My son even managed to come by with his new fiancee, so we did have a short reunion here.

But we also managed to bring my older grandchildren to Bornholm, which they loved as much as we do. We hiked on the cliffs, rode bicycles and went swimming off the rocky shore. We found some old friends living near our summer cottage, and wandered through the halls of the school where I taught, and even found a group picture of the faculty, including me!

And since the grandchildren live in England, John and I also took a few days both in the countryside and in London before picking them up (since their school ends in late July) and taking them home again.


I took a very interesting distance course called Matter & Interactions last fall, which used a Momentum first approach, which seemed like an excellent way to structure physics curriculum. We also learned to use the VPython programming language to make small simulations of what we were learning. I wish the modeling curriculum were based on this structure, because it is a very intuitive way to present Newton's 3 Laws. I am continuing with the material of the second semester on my own, since there are videos of all the lectures online.
I'm now taking a MOOC through Stanford on Reading to Learn in Science, since so many of my students seem to have trouble comprehending content in what they read for science classes.


Of course all this learning was to give me a good basis for teaching science. I was offered a job as science teacher at a school for Independent Study, which unfortunately, turned out to be mostly desk-work, where students came in to take multiple-choice tests and then moved on to the next. The charter had developed an innovative NGSS-inspired Integrated Science curriculum, which would have involved teaching classes, but there were no available classrooms, and the teachers were very skeptical about it, so very few students were starting it.
Luckily, before Christmas I was offered a classroom job teaching General Physics, which I entered very enthusiastically. Starting to teach in the middle of the school year turned out to be an impossible situation, because the students already have expectations about the course that can be hard to change. The students had been taught science up to that point very traditionally, so it was a struggle to convince them that
  1. science can be fun and you can learn something at the same time. 
  2. making mistakes is a good way to learn, if you try to learn from the mistakes. 
  3. you can help your fellow students by giving them constructive criticism (which is why Modeling teaches to ask respectful questions) 
  4. you don't have to learn many different formulas if you understand where the formulas come from. 
I used the Modeling curriculum, starting with Momentum to teach Newton's Laws, and supplementing with the VPython programs I'd done for my online course. We had a nice collection of Vernier equipment to use, so they got to play with some very advanced toys as well. Unfortunately, the District needed a definitive observation about a month after Christmas, when I was still in the process of convincing students all of the above, and the results (in district minds) were not up to par. So I left my students with the curriculum I'd planned for them in the hands of the best subs I could hope for, and now have time for my blog and courses again.
Some day I will find the school that is convinced that the NGSS is the future and that we need to prepare for it, and that hopefully will allow experimentation in methodology to find the best ways to encourage students to love science.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

I am getting more and more excited about the NGSS, the science class addendum to Common Core, which addresses the language and math part of our teaching.The NGSS are not just a list of science standards of concepts students should know. A typical "old" California standard looks like this one:

Motion and Forces

1. Newton's laws predict the motion of most objects. As a basis for understanding this concept:
  • Students know how to solve problems that involve constant speed and average speed.
Notice the students are expect to "know" things - which then can easily be tested on a multiple choice test (except that my students this year couldn't show their knowledge that way anyway!)
This is what a similar part of the NGSS looks like:

HS-PS2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

Students who demonstrate understanding can: HS-PS2-1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
[Clarification Statement: Examples of data could include tables or graphs of position or velocity as a function of time for objects subject to a net unbalanced force, such as a falling object, an object rolling down a ramp, or a moving object being pulled by a constant force.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one-dimensional motion and to macroscopic objects moving at non-relativistic speeds.]
Students here demonstrate their understanding (not what they know) by doing things, like analyzing data, which involves asking questions, making models, planning and carrying out experiments, collecting data to analyze, etc. In other words, students will be doing what scientists and engineers do to figure things out.
You can read the entire standard here : standard can be confusing at first, because it includes the Practices, like Asking questions and Making Models, Cross-cutting Concepts, like Patterns and Cause and Effect, and Disciplinary Core Ideas, like the one shown above on Forces and Interactions.

Paul Anderson has made a fantastic series of videos produced by Bozeman starting with this one, which includes the playlist of all 59 videos:
I recommend doing a couple a day (as I'm doing), starting with the Practices and Cross-cutting Concepts, then skipping to the Disciplinary Core Ideas that interest you (Physical Science and Chemistry, mostly, for me.)
I hope you enjoy this new world of teaching! I think this would also be useful to teachers who are not in a state that is implementing them (like California) because the ideas are so powerful.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


My average student in Conceptual Physics does not like mathematics. Many of them shudder at the sight of a number. But I have been working hard to get them accustomed to numbers and formulas, so by now most students - with a little thought - know that they should divide if they think the result should be smaller and multiply if it should be larger (we're not into things like decimals and fractions very much.) Most of them can take a formula like F=m x a and find acceleration - if they think about it. The thinking part doesn't come easily, though.

I thought, however, that most could read. They read aloud somewhat fluently, so I thought they also knew what they were reading.

I should have caught on to the problem when I was asked to period sub for a special ed English class with a couple of my students. I was told that the aide was good and could run the class; they just needed a certified teacher present. The students were to take turns reading a text out loud and then use vocabulary words from the text in various ways. But I could hear immediately that they didn't have a clue what they were reading about. So I stopped the aide and asked if I could step in and give the students some background information about the text, which the students were quite interested in hearing about. There were NO questions about whether they understood the text in their packet - only vocabulary activities.

Last fall I made the mistake of getting excited about Mastery Learning. I enthusiastically created a lot of scaffolded reading organizers for every 3-4 pages of Conceptual Physics (earlier edition), as well as other guidelines, and a bunch of 5-question quizzes - 3-4 versions for each reading section. Some kids were delighted and quickly worked their way through all the quizzes and got great scores - some of these had been trouble-makers or had poor grades before. I - and my supervisor - were delighted. But then I got the flu, followed by Thanksgiving and some planned elective surgery, where the sub could manage the quizzes, but not grade them, or go over them personally with each student. When I got back, I discovered to my chagrin that some students hadn't gotten beyond the first quiz, while others had completed 5 or 6. Some were just goofing off, texting or checking Facebook. I had lost more than half the class while I was out.
which seemed to be a great way to get the kids to actually read and comprehend the textbook,

By then it was close to the end of the semester, so I arranged for an Authentic (no reading) assessment, where they created an activity that showed that they understood a particular randomly drawn concept and could explain it to others orally. This was a great success. Everyone felt proud that they'd learned something and pretty much everyone passed the semester - and Admin was impressed.

This semester I started getting more and more new students who came back to us from the continuation high school or elsewhere, often with a semester of Earth Science, not Conceptual Physics. And a group of SPED students were also moved into 2 of my classes, with some sporadic aide help. I had to start from scratch, with different materials, so they weren't aware of the repeated content. Everything was Inquiry based, with interspersed activities and computer simulations. I rewrote materials I found online to fit what I thought was their reading level, and we started with a new method. However, they did not follow the inquiry sequentially, instead picked the questions they figured were "easy", because - they said - their English teacher had told them to approach things that way. I kept writing "Read the questions, do them in order..." when I graded packets, but they didn't.

Finally a book, I Read It, but I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers by Cris Tovani, finally gave me the answer to their problems: they think they can read, but they are only "fake reading." They can read the words, they know the vocabulary, but it just doesn't make sense. Tovani suggested a variety of organizers to help them "get it." 

When I discovered the perfect article to have them try it out, a short article about how wind energy is generated (using technology like gears and generating that we've been studying) and a simple vocabulary, I gave them the article and one of Tovani's organizers, with which they were to read the article paragraph by paragraph, writing any new vocabulary words in the first space, and what they'd learned in the middle. I even included a space to draw a picture if they could figure things out by drawing them first. 

But many of the students did as they've evidently been doing in ELA: they skimmed the whole article (highlighting about 90% of it); then they wrote bolded words and headings from the text as "New Vocabulary" and provided sentences using those words, either directly quoting part of the context, or not having much connection with the context in the article - in the next column. The picture column many used for artwork that was rarely connected to the article, like pictures of tables and chairs to define "capacity" - as in "the capacity of this restaurant ..." not "the capacity of wind-generated electricity". At most a third wrote about what they had learned from the text. Some repeated "I learned about [heading of paragraph.]" 

At least I now know that this is where I start next year. Students will learn to use the organizer correctly in the first week, reading a short article of interest to them and relevance to what we are about to study. I will consider it a major goal of my teaching that the students can read for content, not just learn isolated vocabulary words. Front-loading vocabulary is of no use; they have to get the words from the context. 

As my first full year of teaching science comes to a close I am reflecting on what worked and what didn't. 
  • I still like the idea of mastery learning, but they have to know how to read for content before that will work.
  • Inquiry learning is imperative, but they have to know how to work together in their groups, with shifting roles of manager, scribe, spokesperson and quality control, among others (which I learned from POGIL training.)
  • Students have to learn how to work their way through inquiry based packets in the order given, and to read whatever background and summative material is provided before continuing.
  • Activities must come first, and theory refers to activities. But the students must be aware of how the activity fits into the theory.