Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Letter to My Colleagues

Quick, off the top of your head, why did you become a science teacher?

Now, I'm not talking about the whole, "I wanted to make a difference in a child's life" type* of answer.

I want to know why you became a SCIENCE teacher?

Was it because of the textbooks? Because you like to hear how smart you sound when you lecture? Let me guess, you like nice, neat, orderly rows of chairs, right? Good Lord, tell me it isn't because of the math....

I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that your answer has something to do with the fact that SCIENCE IS JUST FREAKING AWESOME!!! You get to build things, discover things, manipulate things, and, yes, every once in awhile, you get to blow things up.

THAT'S why we went into science, am I right?

So how the hell did we end up spending all this time writing on a chalkboard (or horror of horrors pointing at a powerpoint) and having to "find time to do a lab"?

We can blame the standards. We can blame the textbooks. But the fact remains that we have gotten away from what science truly is. It's mostly the way I was taught, both in high school and college. It's the way I knew, so it was the way I stuck with. And then, one bright shiny day, a little gargoyle crept in and whispered in my ear, "pssst...you're doing it wrong."

And suddenly, last summer, I found my way out of the abyss. I accidentally took a Modeling workshop and completely changed the way I teach my kids.

Modeling is not a set of materials that you use in your classroom. I refer to it a lot as a curriculum, but it really isn't that, either. It is a WAY of teaching, a METHOD of getting students to use their own data and observations to construct their own knowledge of the world around them.

Did you get that? Those kids OWN their learning. And that's pretty powerful.

You can describe Modeling with nearly every past and present education buzzword you can think of: cooperative learning, inquiry, student-centered, constructivism, differentiation, critical thinking, problem solving, formative assessment. The list goes on, but it doesn't need to. I have seen what it can do in a classroom, and I don't need any edujargon to convince me.

I have taught both ways to kids on every end of the learning spectrum, and I can say with certainty, that for me, this is the way to go. I have seen brilliant kids take off and run with it, reveling in the challenges the class presents. I have also seen lower kids finally have the success in school that they never would have experienced in a traditional classroom. Modeling can reach them all.

Now, I am not going to claim that there is absolutely no other method that is effective, but I do know that Modeling has been extensively researched and tested in the classroom since the early 1990s. I have met many other teachers who have had the training and have yet to hear one speak negatively about it. This is not to say that it is an easy way to teach. This is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried in my classroom but it has also been one of the most rewarding.

Oh, and have you heard of the Common Core? How about the Conceptual Framework? These documents are soon going to shape what happens in your classroom. I have sat in on sessions on both of these, and you know what the big question that is on everyone's mind? How am I going to learn how to teach this way?

Get thee to a Modeling class, that's how.

Try it, because really, what do you have to lose? It'll put you out of your comfort zone, but that's what needs to happen if you want to change. I have heard one story (undocumented and purely anecdotal) about a teacher (one) who has gone through the training not fallen in love with it. Want to know my first (undiplomatic) reaction?

Go teach math.**

*Don't get me wrong - that's an excellent reason!

**KIDDING! KIDDING! Math teachers don't hate me. In fact, want to truly integrate math and science? Go to a Modeling workshop. That's where I truly learned about the quadratic equation.

P.S. This was written as an assignment for my Modeling workshop as a way to convince a colleague to give Modeling a chance.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Good Lord, We Have a Textbook

I find it somewhat ironic that our Modeling workshop leader gave us a textbook to read. Not just some quick study, tell-me-everything-you-know-about-teaching-physics kind of book, either. Teaching Introductory Physics. This thing weighs more than my car. If I were to have seen this on Amazon, I would never in a million years even have considered buying it. Even if I had an extra $118 and had seen the six 5-star reviews.

Our first read was assigned last night. The first third of Chapter 2: Rectilinear Kinematics. Huh?* Even if I had somehow managed to obtain the book, I doubt I would have ever thought this chapter would be interesting, let alone comprehensible.

Since I am being graded on this, I figured I had better at least skim through it so I could pretend to discuss it during class.

Just goes to show you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover.

This chapter is about motion (yeah, that's what rectilinear kinematics means) why kids really might not understand motion, even after you "teach" it. Basically, don't feel too bad, we aren't truly wired to intuit these ideas and the ideas that we DO have are often not quite right. These concepts are not things that have been discovered, so much as invented, and even then, we didn't really start to figure it out until sometime in the seventeenth century.

Arons has spent  decades not studying physics, but studying how students LEARN physics. Instead of dryly trying to explain the concepts, he comes at it from the perspective of the student. What misconceptions do kids come in with? And more importantly, how do you get past those misconceptions and get kids where you want them to go?

For example, they probably don't have a good working definition of an instant. (Apparently, neither did I.) Arons explains what those misconceptions probably are (same as mine) and for those of use who maybe didn't get much out of our Physics 101 class fifteen years ago, offers up an amazingly simple explanation. An explanation that I could successfully use in my classroom.

Arons reiterates several times the importance of discovery when it comes to the classroom. "Teaching is significantly strengthened if one carefully abides by the precept 'idea first and name afterwards,' in the introduction of every new concept." Otherwise, you have a 'normal' classroom scene where kids are frantically trying to copy the definition of the term you just wrote on the board and memorizing the equations.

This is the whole basis for the Modeling cycle. Introduce those ideas. Let the kids discover the relationships themselves. Once they have a pretty good grasp on the concept, then put a name to it. Arons even goes so far in his discussion of velocity to suggest flipping the equation over and trying to define it, just to see what they come up with.**

I realize I have only read part of one chapter, and this is by no means meant to be a full book review, but at this point, I would encourage you to check it out.

So, tonight, I'm hoping for a reading assignment.

*Interesting fact: When I typed in rectilinear, it did NOT show up as misspelled.

**Did you know that has already been defined by geophysicists? I had no clue. It's obviously not well know as Wikipedia doesn't even have an entry.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Physics Modeling Day 1 and an Epiphany

If you know me at all, you know that I fell in love with Modeling last summer. My first year Modeling Chemistry was filled with ups and downs and everything in between. It was rough. And exhausting. But I know this is one of the best teaching methods out there. I can't help but think this will get somewhat easier with time.

So this summer, I am taking a Physics Modeling class. Three weeks. Twelve days. Great discussions. Lots of goodies. I have been excited about this class since I signed up in March.

What a nerd.

We took the Force Concept Inventory today. Now, bear in mind that I haven't taught actual physics since some time in the last century. This test kicked my butt! I talked myself out of so many answers you would think I didn't have a license to teach this stuff. So when we go into "Student Mode" this time around, I will truly be able to play that part. All the better for me, I guess :)

Today we covered Unit 1. Mostly this shows the kids how to set up labs and take good measurements. We did the Pendulum Lab. Again, this is probably the same lab done in every single physics class in America.

But different. You know, backwards from the "normal" way to teach. Start with the lab and then develop the ideas.

One quote from our teacher really hit home with me today. "It is important to let students take their own data and create their own graphs and discuss it. They have to see for themselves or they are never going to believe it."

I had never really thought about it in terms of "believing" it before. Oh, sure, I am well aware that some kids simply don't pick up on the ideas and need to come at it from a different angle, but for some reason, I never considered that one of those kids wouldn't believe me. This is physics, for crying out loud, not evolution. (I know, I know, touchy subject, please don't yell at me for that one.) And besides, why wouldn't those sponges absorb everything I say in class. I have masters degree, doggone it, I'm know what I am talking about!

But that's the whole key, isn't it?

When we walked in this morning, there was a set of questions on the board for us to think about. One of them was "What is a student-centered learning environment?" It's one of those things that I kind of knew the answer to in the back of my head, but never really sat down to think about and articulate. All it took was one simple quote and a semi-coherent blog post to really bring it all home.

Those kids have to see it with their own eyes. Write it in their own hand and speak it with their own voice. Only then can they "believe" it.

This is the core of Modeling. The entire pedagogy is based on those kids seeing for themselves how this world works.

Man this is awesome.

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