Online Homework

I have been giving online homework since 1999. There are a lot of reasons why I like it, more now than ever. Here is a laundry list of reasons.
  1. Collaboration. I know students can still cheat by telling others what order to to put the numbers into, in fact I model it for them in a little one man drama. However, I have also model what a good discussion about a problem looks like. More often than not I see the good kind, even in places like study hall and randomly in coffee shops around town.
  2. Fewer problems. I assign one set a unit, about 10 or 20 problems total.
  3. Harder Problems. I assign the hard ones, as WolframAlpha can do all the easy ones. No, really, just cut and paste works on many one step physics problems.
  4. One due date usually a week or two out. This gives busy students a lot of flexibility about when to get things done.
  5. Help sessions. I always have the problems due on a Monday night. When I started the online homework not everyone had Internet. My principal would only let me do online homework if I held open computer lab nights. Monday from 8-10, with the problems due at 11:30 became the time. It is a wonderful time of physics learning.
  6. The computer tells you right away that you are wrong. One problem with regular homework sis the feedback comes too late. Students can lock in a wrong idea in the 24 or 48 hours it takes to grade regular homework, then even when confronted with correct answers they do not change the old brain pathways.

I sympathize with people who argue that we should not give homework. This is an elective class, so I feel some latitude. I also sympathize with people who do not like contrived problems and have been working hard to rid myself of them. I am assigning problems that relate to one of the goals of every unit: to match our real world experiments to what the physics books say we should have gotten. I am open to change, but this has over the years proven to be a really good part of what happens in my classroom.

Marla Coleman: The value of summer camp |

Thousands of my colleagues across the nation will attest to the power of camp. No grades. No permanent records. Just authentic connections to the real world. Play is the work of childhood; it's how children invent and re-invent themselves, find their place in the universe, and learn what they are good at and where they need to practice. Life is the quintessential test tomorrow's leaders need to pass.

I love this and the rest of this post on what camps can teach schools. Every kid deserves to learn the lessons of camp. School can be that place. In my case I keep my physics room filled with physics stuff to play with. I ask students to explore their world and try to teach them how to do that well, because they will be doing that the rest of their lives.

In short I have spent a educational career trying to bring camp to the classroom, because it is the most effective way to teach for real learning.

Standards Based Grading

One of the questions that I had going into a project like this is how do I keep stay true to physics in the context of a real world problem. There is no doubt on my part that a real world problem like lighting schools that are off the grid requires some knowledge of physics, and of the underlying principles of physics like inquiry, openness, experimenting, and mathematical modeling.

So this year I am using standards based grading. Much has been written about it lately. Essentially I have looked at what I really want my students to know and written those things down. Now everything we do in class works us towards achieving those goals. With the students when we choose a topic that we need to study to get the lights on we will sprinkle in the standards from my list of physics students should know. That explains why I cannot link to a list yet, I do not want to direct the study, just put constraints o it as it develops.

I am not sure how different this is, except that I think it makes my grade book infinitely more clear to people not me (like students, parents and administrators). I am looking forward to discussion about improving grades being about what the student knows and not how many points they have. I am looking forward to discussing with students what is important and how they feel they have added to their knowledge rather than imposing both these things on kids.

I am a little worried that the first grades will not be in the book right away, in fact they were not. I am worried that grading with be compacted into the end of a unit of study. I am worried that the students who know how to play the grade game well will be ridiculously uncomfortable. Being good that a specific game often makes you unwilling to play a new one.

Physics is Matthew 25

We wrapped up introduction to physics this year by asking students to read Matthew 25. I asked them to comment on the three parables. Not on each individually, but as a group; three stories that say more together than each does on its own.

[These stories] mean that we are all very capable of pleasing our Lord, by doing simple things like keeping watch, and using our talents, and feeding the hungry. Okay, maybe that isn't exactly easy, but with God's help, it is definitely possible. All things are, aren't they?

What I love about this passage is that we know that we still can be okay (with God's grace and help). I mean, he SAID these words. He meant for us to hear them; his words are good and true. And if I had to take a guess, I think that God/Jesus/the whole gang wants this passage to be a constant reminder of reassurance, even if it isn't necessarily in the foreground of the message.

We can, by the grace of God, use our talents to light up Nicaragua.

We study physics.

God make it our talent.

Texting In Class

I have been playing with a couple of things lately to help me facilitate the inquiry learning that my physics students need to develop on their way to helping power rural Nicaragua. By the way, watch this powerful chapel mentioning this very problem, by one of my students. In our current investigative phase the students are designing experiments to test gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy. This involves dropping things from high places. Not all the high places are near each other or in my room. So they must go out.

One of the frustrations I have had with inquiry based lessons is students waiting around for help, especially silly stuff like may we go somewhere and get something. To that end I set up a Google Voice account. I gave the number to the students and told them that if they needed to go somewhere text me with the name of the student texting, their group members and their location. If they move, text again. If they have questions text again. If they do not have texting set up their own Google voice account and text from that.

I then used the new iPod that I have been playing with to set up TextNow (free for a little while) and integrated it with the Google Voice account using their handy instructions. If I had not been interested in using Google voice I think I would have used TextFree instead, but I could not find Google voice integration. This way where ever I am on campus I get text message updating my students locations, right in my iPod without racking up texting bills. I move from location to location answering questions and taking pictures.

I feel like this is working well. I can move quickly around campus and know where students are and what they are up to. I also feel like I am available to them if they need me. How would you do something like this? Are there other programs or services you might use?

Blogging, Reseaching or Reflecting?

Dan Meyer is fond of proclaiming that his blog has been one of the best sources of professional development for him. I have to agree that Google Reader is awesome and has contributed greatly to my willingness to go down the path to lighting rural Nicaraguan schools.

Here is the question that I have going into this. I have read a lot about teachers being reflective as a starting point for changing their teaching. I know that my friends who are the beat teachers are always asking questions about what they can do to get better. So here is the point. Is it blogging that make you a better teacher or is it just the reflection?

I have not been sleeping because I have been worried about physics. What path will the kids take? Will they even want to call Nicaragua and do an experiment with the students there? Will they engage the project like I envisioned or will it be something even greater? As I have finally been writing about some of my feelings I have been feeling better about it all. It is not that it is coming together better, I just feel better about it.

But I do not just feel better about it. New ideas are coming at a better pace. New things to tackle in class are coming to me quicker. It is all still messy, but it is messy in a clearer, sort of researched way.

So am I joining the teachers for whom blogging has helped them? More likely I am joining the teachers who are reflective researchers of what works in classrooms, and that is making order out of the chaos.

Physics Is Streetlights

So we bounced balls and we modeled the real world with some math. I even had students with graphing calculators out with no prompting. We figured out that we can do the basics of this physics thing. But why would we do this physics thing?

I had the students look at this picture for a few minutes. Actually 3.5 minutes exactly. I do this thing where when I give them time to complete a task I open up my iTunes and play a song the length that I give them to work. I even have music sets for longer periods of time. And just in case that is not enough the last song in a set is always orchestral in nature so they know that work time is coming to an end.

I asked them to write about the picture. Start with just noticing details and then ask questions about the picture. What do you want to know about what is going on?

"In this picture, the first thing that i saw right away was the race of all 7 men. They are of course sitting in the streets and they have notebooks and books with them. As people would get stereotyped into the group as "People who live in the projects, have no future". But looking at this picture made me feel like they wanted to better themselves and better their lives and get an education. That was my first assumption. Also, it looks dark outside, and they are outside reading. I'm not sure if it was night or early morning. If it's the morning, it made me feel like they were maybe waiting for a bus or about to go to school. If it's at night, maybe some of them don't have homes with electricity. So they need light to see what they are reading. Their cloths look rugged and worn. They aren't the newest, yet they aren't the oldest. But as I looked into every each and one of their faces, you can just see the determination and dedication they have to better their lives, and actually have and hold a future, instead of risk themselves surviving without an education for the rest of their life."

What teacher needs to say anything when the students bring that kind of heat? What if we brought that to our studies? What if we had a reason to bring that kind of dedication to our studies? The students do not know the question ahead of them yet. The big question will hopefully make their studies this important. And physics is what brings us light today.

First Day: Physics Is Hula-Hoops

The first day of school is important. Teachers know this. Dress sharp. Do not show your fear. Smile. Shake hands. move around the room. For years I have lead a physics tour. Student file into the room and the second the bell rings I say follow me, and we go on a tour. I loved this because they do so little on a typical first day in any other class. It screamed we are going to do things in this class. It did not require laptops (which get handed out in English class the first day), pens, papers or anything else.

So this year I did not know what to show them. The goal is simply stated, bringing light to rural schools in Nicaragua, but the path is unknown in many ways. What I wanted is to set them up with the reason that this goal is physics. So what is physics? I am not sure. But I do know a few things about it.

The week before school I got an email from the NSTA physics list serve. One of the heroes of the list serve is Frank Noschese. He sent this gem to the list as an opening day lab.

I've also done a ball bounce challenge.
Each group get a different bouncy ball (tennis, lacrosse, golf,
handball, pinky, superball, etc.)
The challenge: Drop the ball though a horizontal hula-hoop elevated
off the ground so that the ball rises back up to the level of the
hula-hoop. The catch -- they only get one chance. (Similar to your
hit the target).

Kids do not know the height of the hoop in advance. However, they can
"play" with their ball and take whatever data they need first. Then
all the balls are collected and the hula-hoop is placed. Students can
measure the height of the hoop and make a prediction for their drop
height. When they are ready to drop, they get their ball back to drop

If you cannot get a set of different balls, but can get identical
balls, then each group gets a different hula-hoop height to prevent
sharing of answers between groups.

I hope this makes sense. The data is very linear and is easily collected.

I ran with it. Physics is intuitive. Physics uses math without ever really knowing you need to. Physics is real. Physics is experimental. Physics is active on the first day.

Who knew that hula-hoops are a seasonal item not available in August? I did not. On my way home the first day (I split the lab across two days) I stopped at 3 stores and called two more. A red piece of tape on the wall had to suffice.

A good couple of days.

How can we bring energy to rural Nicaragua?

I am three weeks into an experiment. It is big. I am not sure how public to be about it. Since it is here, I guess I want it to be public and I want help.

A little background. I have been teaching physics for 15 of my 17 years. I was at first working closely with another physics teacher, who is in most ways my teaching mentor. He left close to the start of a school year two years later and I was called up to the big leagues, all the sections of physics. I love it. I love teaching physics because it is the most like being a camp counselor that you can be and still be teaching an academic subject. There is not one experiment (hardly) that kids cannot do.

I have also been blessed to teach physics in an environment rich in technology. I assigned online individualized homework for the first time in 1999. I have always had a large stock of probes and other data gathering devices. It has been wonderful. I started student blogs in 2005, which I think is before it was cool, although not right on the cutting edge.

Two years ago I got an idea from my mentor to organize my second semester course work around the idea of energy. This was not really anything new. I had always studied heat, electricity, and nuclear during the second semester. These are all energy topics but he thought I could tie them into the bigger energy topics of our day, especially the proposed new coal plant for our town. I took the challenge and added in ties to the bigger picture of energy and a required public presentation on an energy topic.

This summer I took a class in curriculum development. In that class was a teacher from Nicaragua. Her job: find power for rural schools that are off the grid. The professor assigned us to work on a project together and the wheels in my brain started turning. What if my physics course was an learning conversation about how we the physics students in Michigan could learn the physics needed to bring energy to schools that do not have it? She thought it was a great idea. A partnership was formed, I am living the answer to that question every day right now. Keep reading and you can come along for the ride too. Better yet chime in and help us out. We have never done this before. The people there need your help too.

There are a lot of posts about the last three weeks built up inside my head. Hopefully they will start coming out at more regular intervals.

What Is Curriculum?

I am a big fan of not using paper. I have to admit I am not sure how to duplicate in a technical way these 4 most essential posters created during the curriculum class that I just took. At any time anyone could go over to the poster and write on the wall what curriculum is. It created a space where we as a class opened up our ideas of curriculum. It kept that fundamental questions in front of us all the time.