In my twelve years of teaching it has probably never been more important to get off to a good start. I teach physics at a small rural Texas high school. Physics has normally been considered a GT/Honors class and only taken by our “top” students. This past year, in response to some changes in graduation requirements, administrators in my school decided every incoming junior needed to take physics. The result is that this year – I have everybody…
That means that this year 75% of my students don’t want to be in my class. 75% of my students doubt their ability to do the work. 75% of my students are self conscious, afraid, and nervous. 75% of my students are looking to me wondering what kind of year we’re going to have.
On the first day as usual I meet everyone at the door with a smile. It helps that I already know the majority of my students; I taught them in junior high. I use an activity I borrowed from Frank Noschese and immediately have them form groups. I like the activity because there is more than one solution to the problem they must solve.
As we go over the syllabus and my grading policy, they learn that I believe in do-overs and second chances. I work hard to sell that philosophy. I’m honest and tell them I didn’t always feel that way – I have changed. I use examples of situations that allow do-overs – driving tests, ACT, SAT, teacher certification, and others. I tell them I think they deserve the same consideration. I see them start to hope that things will be ok – I see them dare to believe this class might be different.
I offer them a “test day t-shirt.” I show them my t-shirt with all the physics formulas printed upside down – right side up if you are looking down at your own shirt :). I tell them if they want we can get those and wear it on test days. The kids think it’s a brilliant idea. Later in the day I hear a student telling her mother with enthusiasm how COOL the physics t-shirts will be. Did you hear that? Cool and physics in the same sentence? #Winning
I give the students my mindset survey. As they score their surveys I see how much pressure we put students under – they compare their “grade” and wonder if it’s good or bad. “Mr. Strickland, I made a 48 and all the people around me made in the 30’s. Is that bad?” I think, my God, what have we done to these kids?
I talk to them about a growth mindset and what that means for this class. I tell them I’m going to teach them the same material as the GT/Honors class (fear returns). I tell them I actually have a choice: I can teach “cowboy physics,” a watered-down version of the curriculum – or I can teach them on-level, real physics. I have that choice because they no longer face an End-of-Course exam (some look at me pleading for the easy way out). I tell them they deserve a great education as much as the honors class does. I tell them straight up that it will be challenging and require a strong effort. I tell them I believe that they can do it. I tell them I will be there for them at every step along the way. The same kids hoping for the easy way out look at me now and I can see them wondering, “Who is this guy and is it possible he really believes I’m smart enough to do this?”
I lead into a number talk. I give them a math problem to work out in their head. I tell them it may be challenging but ask them to trust me and give it their best effort. I immediately get the “I’m not good at math” rhetoric from half of the students. I ask them to trust me – I know what I’m doing (can you imagine my fear – I have no idea if this will work like I plan. I've never done this before. I just have faith).
The students show they have decided on an answer and we begin to discuss the various ways they found their answers. To my great relief and their joy we were rewarded with many different approaches to the problem and some clever solutions. The students were fascinated at how everyone thought differently. They were surprised at how talking about the problem and listening to each other helped them learn new ways to “see” the math. I saw some pride in their eyes for what they had done. I see an opening and go for it…
I introduce the idea of flipped instruction. First I talk about the old model of instruction. I act it out – with some drama for good effect. I describe how I would talk and lecture and they would take notes. I tell them how hard I try to explain and make it as interesting as possible. I remind them how I will ask if anyone has questions. I tell them that I know they won’t ask. I know there is NO WAY they will ask a question and look dumb in front of their friends (I’m gaining traction now because some students can’t hide the look in their eyes that tells me I nailed it).
I tell them that I would hand out a worksheet. They would go home and try to do it but get stuck. They would text each other asking for help and get frustrated because nobody knows what to do. I tell them I KNOW they meet at school and copy from the one person that got some answers. I know they copy – not because they are bad students (there’s that look – WTF? – he doesn’t think I’m a cheat?) I tell them I know they copy because school is important and they are completing the work the only way they know how so that they have it when I ask for it.
One student asked, “Mr. Strickland – have you been hiding in my room?” Another says, “You just summed up my life…”
Now it’s time to set the hook…
I ask them how they would feel if we did it differently. What if they watched video at home and took notes, then we worked on the physics in class? What if we worked together like in the number talk? What if I’m here to help when they get stuck?
I see nods of interest. I see them dare to believe that this class will be different. I see them beginning to believe that they might be able to trust me. I continue by telling them we will do interesting things in class. If they watch the videos at home we will have time in class to DO physics – not just hear about it.
Now I need to make good on my promise to DO physics. I hand out some bowling balls – what’s not fun about that? I ask if bowling balls sink or float. Many say sink; some assume it’s a trick and say float. Having an aquarium of water at the ready we test them – some sink and some float…
Now I present one ball held in reserve and ask what it will do. No, we are not putting it in the tank – we have to develop a model that will allow us to calculate and predict with confidence whether the bowling ball will sink or float. And off we go – I won’t go into the details. What’s important is I start with an interesting question. You may realize we are discussing density. We identify volume and mass as the relevant dimensions that need investigation. We substitute pieces of limestone for bowling balls since there aren’t enough bowling balls to go around. The kids spend the rest of the period measuring mass and volume.
The students continue their investigation. They learn lab technique. I have them find volume using two methods – they discover the methods don’t provide the same answer (what did I do wrong?). They learn about error in measurement – they didn’t do anything wrong. We plot data points – somebody “sees” a linear relationship. Say what? Math – all of a sudden? We look at the relationship. D=m/v. Wait, that’s not the formula for a line. The formula for a line is y=mx+b. We play with a little algebra and – wait, do what?- the two ARE the same. I see kids believing this is FUN.
As the day progresses I hear the following remarks:
Student 1: (Pumping his fist) After FOUR YEARS – I finally understand something!
Student 2: Mr. Strickland, physics is not so hard.
Me: It doesn’t seem hard because you understand.
Student 3: I heard today is going to blow my mind.
Me: Is that good or bad?
Student 3: The other kids said I would get really confused and frustrated – but if I hang in there it will be ok and I’ll get it in the end.
That’s tomorrow. I have the last of my practices that are “different” to introduce. Tomorrow we will learn to write a reflection. I don’t have time to teach them in depth, but I want to get them writing for me NOW – in the first week. I am going to ask them to write about what we have done, what has confused them, what has surprised them, and what they have learned. I think they are going to do a great job. I think they are beginning to trust me.
I have spent the first week of school and have not covered any of my required content – am I crazy? I don’t think so at all. I think I have spent the first week laying a foundation of trust and hope that will pay off in the hard weeks and months to come. I think I have used the language of a growth mindset to convince them I believe they can be successful. I think I myself have begun to believe they can be successful.
I am so very thankful I spent this past summer learning. I am glad I have a robust PLN. I am glad I took Jo Boaler’s MOOC and learned about Carol Dweck and the growth mindset. I am glad I listened to Rick Wormeli and learned to believe in do-overs. I am glad I read Drive by Daniel Pink.
I am glad I did these things because I see my students through new eyes this year. I see the scars of past pedagogical practices. I see the effects of constant testing and sorting. I see the difference we can make by changing our practices and our own attitudes.
My students are amazing. I'm sure they always have been. I'm happy that I have changed enough to see them more clearly. I can't wait to find out what they are capable of doing. I can't wait for them to to discover what they are capable of doing.
Things may fall apart next week, but this has been a fantastic start. I’ll keep you posted on how things go in the coming weeks. I hope your first days are this rewarding.