Friday, August 31, 2012

Ninth graders say the darndest things

A few gems from my get-to-know-you questionnaires.

What is your favorite food?
"Lazania (I think that's how it's spelled.)" -- K.

What is one goal that you have for yourself this school year?
"Try to be more considerate instead of saying the brutal truth." -- F.

Tell me about your family.
"I have 2 brothers who are funny.  I have 3 sisters who are hard to explain." -- M.

What would you like to do when you graduate from high school?
"I really don't know but maybe a detective.  I'm really good at finding things out before it's revealed." -- B.

Confidence and inverse relationships

"A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator the smaller the fraction."
-- Leo Tolstoy

I came across this quote and saved it to use this year when my ninth graders and I get to inverse relationships.  I am not sure any of my kids have ever heard of Tolstoy (though maybe they will surprise me...) but I do think some of them will appreciate the comparison to non-math and non-physics concepts.  The idea of having a big ego is certainly something they can relate to, and it's fun that the quote brings in some math vocab.

The quote also makes me think of my current class of AP calculus students.  I've only spent two days with them so I don't know them very well yet, but I got the rundown from their precalc teacher before school started.  Of the eight students, he identified two as the top mathematicians of the group, but noted that they have very different confidence levels.  He says that H is confident almost to the point of cockiness, and he showed this side to me a little already, writing, "I am really good at math" on my first day survey under the question about what does Ms. Pippi need to know about you.  On the other hand is J, who he says is just as bright as H but is constantly doubting herself.  She has already come for help after school with the trig value review we were doing, and she phrases any description of what she did in terms of a question.  She is underconfident to the extreme, and one of my goals this year is to try to change that a bit.

By Tolstoy's definition, J is a "larger fraction" than H, and theoretically a better person, if that's how you interpret the quote.  But I can't help thinking that it's not as simple as an inverse relationship.  Surely a huge ego is a detriment, but there's also a basic floor level of reasonable self esteem.  Constantly bashing yourself isn't helpful.  So, maybe more of a Gaussian shaped curve than an inverse function, Mr. Tolstoy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


When you teach a subject like physics, it's inevitable for people, students and adults alike, to imply or flat-out state that the subject matter isn't really important for most people.  If I had a dime for every teacher colleague of mine who has told me, "Well, I never even took physics!" I'd have... well, maybe a dollar and a half.

I have told my students before that whether they learn to enjoy physics or not, what I really want them to learn from my class is the feeling of trying something hard and succeeding at it.  I want them to remember that their effort paid off.  I want them to remember building something that they never thought would work (like a LED circuit with homemade paper-clip switches), or creating something that failed miserably a half dozen times before it finally did work (like a Rube Goldberg Machine).

Last year I had a student who told me she never understood how to use a formula to solve problems before she took my class.  She will probably never need to calculate kinetic energy again, or maybe not even use the Find-Given-Solution template to solve anything else.  But I hope she remembers the process of figuring out what she has and what she needs and planning the steps to get there.  I hope she remembers what it feels like to look at a page that looks like gibberish one week, and the feeling of each word and variable and symbol slowly coming into focus and making sense.  I hope she remembers that she can learn to know and do things she may never have expected to.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


The science teachers at my school are taking on a literacy initiative this year, inspired in part or in whole by the Common Core literacy requirements.  Each teacher is choosing something literacy-related to add to their class for the year, like having kids read a book with science content and discussing it in class, or doing a Science in the News feature each week.  As a new teacher trying to absorb the structure and systems of the school, my department head is not requiring me to join this initiative this year.  I do think it would be really cool to do something with a popular nonfiction book, or even a fiction book that includes real science and fake science, but I'm not ready for that just yet.  But I do think my kids need some reading-related instruction.

My new school has slightly different demographics from my old school, but the kids probably won't be that different from my old students, who struggled a lot on our big bad state physics test because of reading issues.  In my first year, I gave kids a practice open-response question that I thought would be a piece of cake.  The kids were great at drawing free body diagrams and pretty good at finding net force, and we had even done a Barbie bungee jumping activity the week before.  So I handed out the question in class and asked them to read it and try it on their own.  And the majority of my kids put down their pencils and told me they had no idea how to do it.  I was baffled.  I went around the room rephrasing the situation for them, and kids said, "Oh, is that all?" and drew me beautiful diagrams.  This was my first clue that while my kids could decode each word in the problem, there were barriers to understanding the question that had nothing to do with their physics knowledge.

Now, this is only my third year of teaching and I haven't figured out any magical method to increasing kids' reading comprehension yet.  But I would like to incorporate more reading practice, and my department's literacy initiative is as good a reason as any to commit to doing more small-scale reading practice.

I am thinking of putting it into the Do Now one day per week.  The kids will have to read a short paragraph, ideally taken from a book or newspaper article or whatever I can find.  First they'll have to draw a picture of the situation, and then draw a free body diagram of the forces involved (when we're in the force unit).  Later they could draw me KE and PE bar graphs, or identify what type of heat transfer is going on, or identify as much wave vocabulary as they can that's related.  I'd like for the answer to be something they can draw as often as possible, since that forces them to really think and synthesize information, rather than just picking words semi-randomly out of the paragraph and writing them for their answer.

I think it will be easy enough to incorporate this into my class routine; the only hangup I foresee is the difficulty of finding a supply of appropriate paragraphs.  I can write my own, but I already know that I tend to use words and phrasings that are familiar to the kids, so it's better practice for the state test if the paragraphs come from a variety of sources.  I wish I had started a collection earlier in the summer.

I also need to come up with a catchier name for interpreting a paragraph through a physics perspective.  "Reading Practice" probably isn't going to inspire enthusiasm.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Branching out

I've been dabbling in this blog for over two years now, with periodic thoughts to do more with it.  Write more often.  Write with more depth.  Write about actual pedagogy.  I read other teacher blogs regularly but never comment; I have never publicized this blog address in any way and no one would have reason to comment on my little anecdotes anyway.  Sometimes I think I should write better stuff and then try to connect with those other teacher bloggers.  It seems like a worthwhile thing to do, and it seems like I could get a lot out of it.

So, I saw this challenge a couple days ago and have been mulling it over since.  There are reasons to avoid it.  I'm mostly not a math teacher, I'm not a new blogger, and I'm not sure I'm cool enough (or brave enough - all those other teacher bloggers use their real names??) to be part of this crowd.  But on the other hand, what the heck.  I'm in.

What I guess I am trying to say is this: if you are reading this because you are associated with this blog initiation thing, please go easy on me.  I'm a little insecure.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Warning signs

At my annual physical yesterday, I was given a checklist of signs of depression to fill out.  There were 9 statements, and I was asked to tell how often each statement applied in the past 2 weeks.  With that time frame, I had eight "nevers" and one "occasionally" during the past two weeks.  But it struck me that if I had filled out the same questions during the past school year, I would have been diagnosed with depression.

Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?  Check.

Feeling tired or without energy?  Check.

Lack of interest in activities I once found pleasurable?  Check.

Overeating?  Check.

Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or that what I do doesn't matter?  Check.

I need to remember that when I feel guilty for departing my school.  I'm not saying that working in that environment is the only thing to blame; I just wasn't well-equipped to deal with what was in front of me and I personally couldn't find a healthy balance.  I'd like to think that after a few more years of teaching and building my skills, I could step back into the same type of school I left and do a better job.  Check with me in a few years and we'll see how that goes.

Friday, August 3, 2012


I just wrapped up a fairly intensive week of calculus training.  AP calculus training, to be more specific.  (I'm teaching one section of AP calc at my new school this year, in addition to my usual 9th grade physics.)  And it was really, really fun.  I think I need to find more content-based PD or courses to take, because it is crazy fun to do actual problems among other people who also like math.

The best part of calculus for me, of course, is the part that connects with physics.  There are a fair number of problems about position, velocity, and acceleration, or sometimes Newton's law of cooling, or other physics-related ideas like average rate of change.  I am feeling a lot more confident about teaching calc this year for a lot of reasons - partly because my memory has been refreshed on a lot of the basics, but also because I am totally digging the connections between calc and physics.  And I can't wait to tell my freshmen that they are doing AP calculus problems, when we do graph matching with position and velocity.

Also, I would like to officially state that I love related rate problems.