The Best Test Ever

I gave up on giving tests a long time ago. I am not saying that I hate them, just that I have not found a need in a long time to give one. On Wednesday I was wrapping up a unit and I thought I would try to make some authentic assessments. This was news to my students, and I never even really told them that the goal was assessing.

All this was because of standards based grading. I took into the class examples of work that students should be able to do having almost completed the work of our inquiry into mechanical energy. I put up the problem or the question and allowed them to try it on their own. After that they had a chance to claim their work. If they wanted to put their name on the paper and turn it in they could. If not I asked why and helped them figure out what was wrong. They can always meet the standard later.

On the next standard I asked a more conceptual problem called a ranking task, and used a strategy called pyramid testing. I asked them each to commit to an answer on their own. Then all submitted their answer and they had 10 minutes to come to a group conclusion and commit to it. Finally, I left the room and told them to put a class answer on the board. I told them that I was going to pick a random number and that person on the class list would have to explain the class decision. I

As I listed to groups talk I gained a ton of understanding about how my students were meeting the standards. Even the classes ability to convince each other of a final answer on the conceptual question gave me a lot more insight into their knowledge than I expected. The hour was lively, filled with discussion and learning and assessment. The best test ever.

The Frustrations

I write this to a physics teaching friend today. He helped me brainstorm the standards that I am working from for the year. I am unsure of the direction to head in next though. Now I put it out there for the crowd. I would like your help and I need it soon.

I started the year with a study of essentially the work energy theorem, because they had no idea what energy was. I am sure they are all in a better place on that front, but they only have a GPE/KE/Work understanding at this point. I would like to move them into the next topic, but I am really unsure about where to head next. Here are my ideas and the concerns I have about each. Mainly you could think about these and comment back or just tell me to calm down.

My comfort tells me to move on with energy into thermodynamics. This would get at your key concept, "Heat is microscopic energy, or energy stored microscopically." I have an idea of what labs to do to introduce it and how they will go. I worry that this is me controlling the direction too much.

I think the kids would like to start work on circuits. We have identified what we will need to put in the buildings, fans, lights, CD players. To do this we are going to need to know about power and circuits and generation of poser and storage of power. This gets at key concept, "Capacitors and batteries store energy." and "Work stores energy" (generating electrical energy).  I have added to that key concept two more key concepts: batteries do work (e.g. run fans, turn cds, make speakers move, light LEDs). My main concern here is that this is entirely uncharted territory for me. I did a little with DC circuits in the past, but nothing to this level. I do not really know where to start without getting really bogged down in a lot of details. I would rather have the students find out what they need to know. This will put each group in a radically different place with radically different details. I guess that is what I signed up for.

Finally, I have a silly idea about teaching velocity but doing it in the context of wiring LED throwies. This would skip any mathematical understanding of circuits (for now) and replace the math with projectile motion and velocity. I would then somehow use the throwies to make videos to analyze. This would hopefully help us get at the concept of velocity being free.

Thanks for listening.

Lab as Story

A quick post as my students are working on making presentations on their labs. I am absolutely convinced that giving them time to really dig into their data, and then making the present their results and compare their results to "book answers" is producing great learning. Here is how I know. In most cases there is a story line that has developed. The students have uncovered something about the world or themselves that they never would have known about, and they are working on how to incorporate that into future inquiry and other student's inquiry.

qBits | MSNBC selects Air Sketch for use on Air

I have been using this program in a similar way to use the iPad school is letting me play with to control my screen. Today I had several breakthroughs that are moving me closer and closer to thinking that this is the way to go. In the past my classroom has used the awesome combination of Skitch and a Wacom Graphire Wireless, and I still love and recommend that combination to anyone looking at a traditional interactive white board. Much cheaper, much more student, subject and learning focused and significantly cheaper. Above all this, it just works. Teachers do not use stuff that does not work every time.

That being said I am trying AirSketch on the iPad. Why? because it is cheap as well. The combo that I use is about $300, but if you buy the pads from Promethean or Mimio they will set you back north of $400. Lately I have see iPad popping up on the refurbished list for $450. So if you can make it work as well as these other options, for only $50 more you also have a iPad instead of a hunk of plastic. And, since the connection is through your wireless network there is little chance of interference like there is with my Wacom.

Some things happened today to make it click that AirSketch might just be the right thing. First, I accidently two finger zoomed, and sure enough I could fill in details in a section of my drawing. Details are much easier to draw with a pen than a finger. The AirSketch app makes detail possible by allowing you to zoom in and work in a small area. Before I knew this I was not able to fit an entire problem on a page.

Second, I figured out how to take a screen shot using my iPad. Any screen shot is only a fw clicks away from being a background to draw on in AirSketch. For me this is essential, since most of my homework is online. I used to surf to a problem that a students asks about and screen shot it with Skitch and go. Now I surf on the iPad to the problem, screen shot it by pressing the Power button and the iPad button at the same time, then switch to AirSketch and pull it out of the photo gallery and draw on it to help the students.

Third I found that if I toggle on full screen mode in Chrome while using AirSketch it makes my screen a ton less busy so we can all focus on the learning. Enable full screen mode in Chrome by pressing Command-Shift-F.

What is super cool is now I can also give it to the students, since they can see where they are writing. If only the iPad had four finger swipe application switching we would be all set.

Fermi Problems

After the introductory days of the course I felt like I had been blabbing at them too much and I had a block day to plan for. At out school we have a pretty normal 7 period day, but on Tuesdays and Wednesdays we run a block schedule with 90 minute periods. I thought that may be another day of trying to discuss would kill the students so instead I thought I would take the liberty of introducing them to a very basic topics of physics, a Fermi Problem.

From my assignment for the day (in a Forum post)

A Fermi Problem is a great exercise in making estimates of answers to burning questions on people's minds today. Really. They are a powerful tool that physicists use to make sure their answers and experiments make sense before they commit to them or make decisions based on them. Enrico Fermi would use them to warm up the crowd at physics conventions in the 1920's.There are several forums below and each is a Fermi problem. Randomly choose five and solve the problems with a partner. Problems usually solve this way:

  1. Decide what pieces of information you need to know.
  2. Make powers of ten estimates of those values (which might require some research).
  3. Combine the information into a final power of ten answer.

As you write your responses please include your thoughts on each of the points above, and if you did research include links to where you found the information that you needed to complete the problems.

After they play around with these for a while I asked them in another forum to make their own Fermi problems and try each others out. It is a fun day and it gets at the basics of breaking problems down into their parts, qualitative guesses, and a little of the history of physics.

What I did not know is how well it would dovetail into my next necessity. I needed them to ask questions about power needs in Nicaragua. Well, after we were done with regular Fermi problems we did just that, and some great questions came out of that. Most especially, how much energy will a rural Nicaraguan school need? I asked them:
  1. How many Joules will we need per school?
  2. How many people know what a Joule is?
  3. Have we arrived at our first thing we need to know?

What is energy and what is a joule? We had discovered our first unit of study.

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?