Category Archives: Uncategorized

Forgot I wrote this. On meanings and messages

This passage was posted on my course page for general physics about 10 months ago.  Now, at the beginning of a school year I can’t think of a better bit of writing to reflect on.


What do you do on a regular basis in school?  Listen?  Take notes?  Study?  Take tests/quizzes? Follow rules?

What are your expected outcomes from school?  To be a better communicator?  To think critically? Check out your Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs) for more.

If the expected outcome from a high school education is that each student fits the ESLRs, teachers must strive to implement those characteristics in class daily, not only during semester projects.  The methods and day-to-day practices teachers implement to help students learn is the medium of education.  Saying that the “Medium is the Message” implies that the actual things people do in class strongly influences what they end up learning.  If you spend your time listening to lecture and taking notes, you may become a good lecture note taker… not necessarily an expert on the content of the lecture.  If you study for and take weekly multiple-choice exams, you may become exceedingly good at that, too… regardless of the content.

Of course you only do well at those things if you buy into the idea that they are valuable.  That goes for the content of the courses, too.  If you don’t care much for World History, or Physics, it won’t matter how good a lecture-note taker you are, you will not learn much.  So, it is incumbent upon the instructor to develop a medium of instruction that meets his (and the school’s) learning outcomes.  If students should be “effective communicators who listen, speak, write and use symbolic language,” then the instructor must have them do just that every day.  If students should be “critical thinkers who formulate appropriate questions,” they must do it regularly.

It is my goal, as your teacher, to effect such changes during this school year.  While I want every student to know and understand Newton’s 3 Laws of motion, I also want them to be able to write good questions asking how those laws play a role in their daily lives.  I want students to be effective at communicating what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know yet.  By increasing the number of critical thinking assignments, facilitating communication between students, and eliminating busy-work, I hope to make such a difference.  

But it takes time.  This is as new to me as it is to you.  So, be patient with me.  I promise to be patient with you! 

Keeping Myself in Check(mate)

I want to gamify* my classroom.  Like, real bad!  I’m always thinking about new, cool, innovative ways to make physics class more fun (on almost no budget, without a ton of cool equipment).  This past year I tried a few too many new things, and got overwhelmed.  Flipped class, standards-based assessment, mastery learning… all good ideas when implemented correctly, and ideas I don’t plan on abandoning.  But games just seems to click.   And adding game elements to school work or in-class activities sounds fun.  And since just about everybody loves games (even animals play games to an extent), it would make sense to add it into the one place almost every teenager hates to be: school.

But why? Why do students hate school?  I personally believe the biggest factor is the compulsory nature of school.  They have to be there, rain or shine, good mood or bad, for nine months.  Oh yeah, and they don’t get to choose the hours, or the people they are around, or their teachers… pretty lame!  But they like games.  They’re playing Candy Crush, or 4 Pics 1 Word, or whatever under the desk/at lunch/at home.  So they like games to some extent.  Either to kill time, distract themselves, or just for fun.  Attempting to channel that behavior is a natural reaction.  Just like having them discuss problems in groups is an attempt to channel their chatty behavior.  But without some serious structuring all that behavior channeling can backfire big time.

So, lots of planning, structuring, buy-in… let’s assume I’ve got that locked down.  Why exactly do I want to add gaming elements, and supposedly make my class more engaging?  I see two main goals a teacher could have:

Blue Pill: Have students be more engaged in content delivery (its a game now 😀 !) and thus earn better grades, score higher on benchmarks/standardized tests/AP Exams, etc.

Red Pill: Have students be more engaged in methods used by professional insert profession, thereby learning more than they would traditionally.


The Matrix, Warner Bros. (1999)

I’ll take the red pill.  Sure the blue pill seems easier, heck its probably what most teachers and admins would think the ultimate goal of any trendy, talked-about, TED Talk method of teaching.  And all those things would be great, but they’re not what I really care about.  I want kids to think like a scientist, ask questions, work through problems, fail, retry, succeed, share with others, and become better students learners as a result.  In order to make that happen I can’t simply rename points into XP, or Gold Coins, or Cheeseburgers (never use food references in class anyway, it just makes the kids complain that they’re hungry… Now I’m hungry), or some other item, and just change “units” into “worlds!”  That will just be rebranding, like calling grape-lemonade “Purplesaurus Rex” … fun, but without any real change.


What comes next, then?  Making some big decisions!  I will be teaching mostly AP Physics next year (3 periods of AP, 2 of general physics).  The issue there is that AP is on such a ridiculously tight schedule that “adding” games to the curriculum is a no-go.  Stuff needs to be transformed.  Rather than posting video lectures on our Canvas page, which would run 20min sometimes, I can post shorter snippets on specific topics or example problems, and call those something fun, like “elements.”  And the students can assemble them into “circuits” (I’m taking an electric circuits approach here), which the information can flow through.  And these “circuits” can be collected as evidence of content exposure, which I will allow them to “trade in” for some sort of “weapon”, provided they understand the “circuit”, with which they will attempt to take down the all-powerful AP Overlord!!!  But that is sounding a little blue pill-ish.  Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of time for complete transformation here.  I’ve got about 6 weeks to come up with something.  And I’d rather it be a fully-baked and simple…

than rush something huge and risk ruining it…

I’ll probably do the same sort of ingamifusing™ in general physics too.  And as time allows I might add some more complex elements such as quests!  We’ll see.

*I am starting to hate** the term “gamify” as of late.  It sounds gimmicky and cheap.  Gamifying is really just adding game elements to something.  Though, if I added learning elements to a game, I would definitely call that “learnifying.”

**Hate is a strong word.  I don’t think I am concerned enough to actually hate it.  But I’ll do my damnedest to not use it anymore!

Gaming in Education: my Who, What, When, Where, Why, KAPOW!


It has been months since I last blogged.  Without actually looking at the date, I’m going to guess around January.  That is when I was thinking about implementing a standards-based grading scheme for my classes.  Follow-up: I did, and I liked it, the students sort of hated it (at first), and it needs a LOT of tweaking.  Lesson: don’t implement a radically different grading system at the semester 🙂

Who? What? When? Where?

On to the gaming.  At my district’s TechFest this past month I had the pleasure of sitting in on a session on “gamification” hosted by Michael Matera and Rory Newcomb (check out their blogs!).  They discussed how they each used gaming in their classrooms to encourage participation and help in learning.  Michael transformed his 6th grade history class into a ‘Game of Thrones’-esqe battle between class periods.  Rory used gaming for the physics unit of her high school science course.  Very different levels of gaming, but both very well planned and executed.  Their accounts of the trial-and-error involved in setting up the games, and the fun they had along the way was appealing.  Videos and pics of their students in excited states of learning sealed the deal.  I just HAD to try gaming.

I then began some modest research.  Hey, school was still in session and I was burnt out!  So, I tried looking up other teachers who had done physics gaming.  Not many results beyond individual games for a chapter.  I also tried to find teachers using Canvas to implement the games.  Again, not much luck.   But I did find Jane McGonigal‘s book Reality is Broken.  The book is great.  It doesn’t try to convert the reader into a D&D player, or a World of Warcraft addict, it just outlines why games hold our attention for hours/days/years! at a time.  And she doesn’t stick to video games.  She discusses how turning daily activities into games is motivating, too.  I’m only about half-way through the book (I’m a slow reader), but am loving every bit of it.

The icing on the cake of, er, gaming, was going to InstructureCon 2013.  I love using Canvas in my classes.  And I jumped at the chance to attend the conference in Park City, Utah a couple of weeks ago.  Aside from learning all sorts of cool things about Canvas there was a session on gaming.  It was called “The Saga Continues: Dungeons & Discourse, Level 2” and was presented by Gerol Petruzella (who did the webinar for GE4L).  He showed us how he implemented gaming in his college philosophy course.  He used Canvas as the delivery system and had friends create artwork and music for the role-playing game quests his students would follow.  I’ll add a link to the video stream of his talk once Instructure posts in on youtube.


Why gaming in class?  Well, I’m not an expert, but I’ll share why I want to try it.

  1. Students need feedback, and from what I’ve been shown by other teachers, games can provide very positive feedback
  2. Students need a goal, or objective, to complete.  Games are all about goals.
  3. Games can, if made correctly, keep students coming back for more.  Failing in a game is followed by a try-again screen.  In the classroom failing is followed by anger and accusations!


Hmmm.  Kapow.  It rhymes with “how” so I threw it in there.  “Kapow!” is what I want my students to feel after they finish their first challenge/quest when I start gaming in class.  “Kapow!” is what I want their minds to feel once they realize that they can learn while having tons of fun.  And “Kapow!” is what I want other teachers to experience when the students we share ask them, “Why don’t we play games in your class?”

>> This post is part of some posts I will be making for the course “Gaming Elements For Education” I am taking.

Content Mastery and Problem Solving Skills

I recently had the honor to help host a district showcase on the uses of the Canvas LMS.  It was set up like “speed dating” where I sat in one place, with my laptop connected to a large monitor, and interested parties moved from table to table, and asked me questions, or watched a demo of how I use the LMS.  It was cool.  And I got asked many great questions.

Most of the specific questions were on quizzes.   This is because in my AP and gen. physics classes I give all quizzes on Canvas.  I have quiz banks set up, from which Canvas pulls random problems, and the students do their best to answer them.  Most of these questions came after I said that I gave the students multiple attempts on the quizzes (up to 5, at their own pace in AP, and as many as needed by conference in gen. physics).

One question went something like this, “Well, how do they take the quizzes? In class or at home?”  I could tell right away that the concept of multiple attempts was throwing the teacher.  I said that both venues are used, though generally in-class for he gen. physics kids.  I later got the concerned statement, “Well if you have a bunch of kids sitting near each other they’ll cheat.  They can all work on one quiz, then shift to the other kid’s quiz, and so on… and they’ll all get 100s.”  I tried to alleviate this concern by saying that there are time limits, etc., and I am observing, so its hard for them to “cheat.”  But then I realized that what was really being voiced was a difference in opinion on what quizzes are for.

It would seem the other teacher viewed quizzes as mini exams.  They are a way to see just how much a student can recall, or solve, in a set amount of time.  The results of the quiz should be used to inform the student what they need to study up on (because they will have to do it all over again, on a much larger exam in the near future).  Therefore, students must be isolated, just them and their brain, and pour forth their knowledge.  So, having two or three students with laptops taking quizzes in class could lead to them ::gasp:: working on problems together– I mean, cheating!  And thus defeat the purpose of the quiz: to see what Student A remembers.  (And yes, I understand that a real concern is that one student does all 3 quizzes.  THAT would be real cheating)

But I don’t use quizzes that way.  I don’t think I have since, maybe, my second or third year as a teacher.  Well, they were like mini exams, but not just to gauge student understanding, but to give them credit for what they knew.  I would always try to give partial credit on problems, ask students to tell me what they meant, to give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.  Now with Canvas (and previously with Moodle to a lesser extent) I use quizzes as a mastery tool.  Students work on a quiz.  Canvas scores it.  If they get below a 75% their score gets marked as zero until they conference with me about each question they got wrong.  Then, after I feel they understand their mistakes, I give them another attempt, on another 5 randomly chosen problems.  Often this results in a student going from a 3/5 to a 5/5.  Now, as I walk around my room I will see students “looking in” on someone else’s quiz, maybe even discussing a problem with the quiz taker.  But I generally don’t get upset about this.  I see it as a form of group problem solving.

Sure some students may be “cheating” a little, asking someone nearby what the answer is when I’m not looking, but generally this is not the case.  And I wouldn’t want to clamp down on quiz taking by, say, isolating students to a corner of the room, because I like the idea of them working together.  There is something about the name “quiz” that makes students take the work seriously.  I used to give group quizzes in the past, and I would see a level of  diligent work and group communication not present during regular assignments.  So, when I see, or hear, students talking about a quiz question I allow it.  I’d rather have students working together to solve a problem, even if they’re being covert to an extent, than suffer alone.

Ultimately I want my students to master the content of the physics standards, but I don’t want that to happen at the expense of problem solving skills.  The way I see it, I can have both.  By requiring students to discuss, one-on-one, what it is they didn’t understand, I am helping to move them towards mastery.  And when students work some problems out together in the “quiz” environment, they are struggling to solve a problem under pressure.  And I think that is a good thing.  Aside from being a good skill to have, it makes the classroom a more welcoming place to be.

So what should I tell a teacher who raises a concern like the one above?  There are really only two options. 1) Set up computers in the back of your room, with the monitors facing you, and make sure they are far enough apart so students can’t help each other.  Or, 2) change your attitude about quizzes.

Trying new old things (part II)

First, I think it is amazing that everyone I talk to about my concerns and issues with teaching (be it the flipped classroom, or just general issues) is very supportive and sympathetic.  I have yet to meet anyone, thankfully, that is patronizing or condescending.  So thank you!

Back to what I posted about the other day, on the topic of why students seem to not be very interested in thinking or learning, I’ve been doing some reading of other blogs, posts, articles, etc.  Of course (and unfortunately) there is no magic bullet.  Kids are kids.  Some will adapt to new styles of instruction, others won’t.  Some will complain, others will suffer in silence.  And some will perform well, and others will fail… seemingly with no real correlation to ability on occasion.

Here are a couple of good resources I’ve picked up while doing some research:

In a nutshell I’ve learned that I need to do what I’ve wanted to do, but resisted doing for one reason or another: in-class discussion of ideas/concepts as a method of developing understanding, mixed with hands-on inquiry-based activities.  There will be resistance by “lazy” students.   All things with mass have inertia, and are “lazy”, and require a net force to alter their motion (or lack thereof).  And students, who have acquired years of poor academic ideals, have edu-nertia* and will also require a force to change their motion.


The Question Formulation Technique (book) was recently brought to my attention, though it is similar to what Postman and Weingartner discussed in their book (they also talk about students resisting thinking, because it is hard!).  The idea is to have students approach an idea by asking, then refining questions.  The ultimate goal is to have your students be able to actually ask good questions.

Implementing this technique could take significant class time if done repeatedly.  While I’d love to work on question-asking for days, I’d also like to have them do physics.  So, perhaps starting with a non-physics topic to get them warmed up, and then introducing physics ideas as time goes by would work.  I’d also like to utilize our learning management system (LMS) Canvas to move these questions refinement tasks online.

Canvas also features an excellent discussion feature.  Students can post, comment, and repost in a discussion and receive credit for it.  I can assign peer review of other students posts, and make comments on everything.  And, since it is online students can participate at home, in school, during lunch, or wherever/whenever they have an internet connection.

The way I see it

  1. Students are asked to think about and question a topic
  2. Questions are refined and discussed
  3. Hands on activities are completed to build a conceptual framework
  4. Conceptual framework is discussed and tested through further investigation
  5. Results are shared and discussed
  6. Students get Advanced on the standardized tests.

Of course, the biggest gripe students have with physics, and math for that matter, is that it seems removed from real life.  They get that momentum is related to cars moving, and forces are required to make things move sometimes, but they see through the thin veil of “real world application” hanging over most  physics problems.  The real trick is to apply the techniques above while simultaneously making the class more applicable to their lives… and simultaneously remaining sane.

*Thanks for the edu-nertia reference @clonghb

Trying new old things.

Status Quo Ante

Several years ago (I almost wrote “a couple of years” but realized it has been 7 or so…) I was at the CA Science Teacher Association conference and sat in on a talk about inquiry learning.  As a new-ish teacher I was happy to hear about less rigid lab methods being used by others.  In my credential program we were encouraged to do inquiry labs in our classes.

I liked doing them because I had a chance to see the students explore and figure things out on their own.  The students rarely liked these inquiry labs.  Even the guided inquiry labs, where I gave them a rough outline of what to do, were met with sighs.  It seemed that the students didn’t like having to think.

At the CSTA conference I was introduced to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1971).  I bought the book and it blew my mind! Over twenty years before I started teaching, Postman and Weingartner were preaching that inquiry activities and question-asking were the keys to an education revolution.  They also lamented the static methodology of teachers: despite the rapid increase in available technologies, teachers still lectured and gave exams just as they did for the previous 50+ years.  They were griping about this before VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, and the Internet!  How bad did I feel that I had a bazillion times the technology at my fingertips as they did and I still lectured and gave exams?  I felt horrible.

So where did this lead me?  At first I was emboldened and made my students write out questions, that I would answer, and did ONLY inquiry labs (sighs be damned!).  And while I also tried to make my kids not get stressed about state testing, I still tried to get them as prepped as possible.  Unfortunately, over the course of the year, I reverted back to some cookie-cutter, follow the direction labs, and withdrew a bit on the inquiry front.  I capitulated to my students desire to amass information in order to regurgitate it on tests, and quickly forget it.

But now I am at a new school!  And I am doing the flipped classroom!  And implementing some mastery learning methods!  And I still see the same desire from the students: just give me the information so I can memorize it… when is the test?.   Not having lectures in class has really thrown some students for a loop: how was I supposed to know that? You never taught me! …even if the content was presented in several videos, online simulations, tutorial websites, and in-class work.  And students still, on a slightly lesser scale, bemoan labs.  But why?  I remember loving labs the most in HS and College.

The Big Question

This question has been bugging me for weeks: why does it seem that given freedom to learn at their own pace, unhindered by the tyranny of a strict exam schedule, are my students still, for the most part, behaving as if I were boring them with lectures?

My gut reaction answer is that a large number of students, even those in AP classes (and maybe more so in AP), have conditioned themselves to place a higher priority on the metrics of performance than the sense of understanding that should come with learning something new.

I ran across a video clip of a Taylor Mali poem the other day and it really hit home.  The opening line: In case you hadn’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about… or believe strongly in what you’re, like, saying.  While this is intended to be half humorous, it is also half dead-on.  At least in my experience in the last few years.  Being the “smart” kids has always had an uncool stigma attached to it in the general population (despite making people laugh the guys on Big Bang Theory still have to dress as uncool as humanly possible…).  But I’ve noticed even my college-bound, top-20-in-the-class kids brushing off misunderstanding of a subject because they (luckily) did well enough on the exam to appease their parents.  And students in my general physics course getting upset because I demand they explain how to solve a problem before I give them credit.

Shouldn’t students in high school physics be the sort that crave learning?  Isn’t that why they are taking physics, and not some other elective?

I’ll ruminate on this some more and make a second post about what I want to do, and why, to attempt to reduce this problem…



100% Engagement with Admiral Check-Off

I’ve heard many an administrator talk about engagement during evaluation meetings.  Once or twice I’ve heard the term “100% engagement” thrown out there.  I’ve even been asked if that was a goal of mine for the school year.  In all honesty, no, 100% engagement is not a goal of mine.

Do I think 100% engagement is possible?  Yes.  Just not the way an administrator, or outside observer would see it.  I can see it when I’m giving an exam, most of the time.  I can see it when a fun demo, or lab is being completed.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had all of the kids completely engaged for a whole class period.  Even on minimum day schedule.  And that is what I would call 100% engagement.

So, I don’t think it is a myth.  It is just a reality that comes and goes, flashing in and out of existence, like an electron.  You can’t pin it down and hold it in place.  You can’t make it happen, because the engagement is outside of you.  It is in the students.

For this school year (my first at a new school) I decided to try out the flipped class model, and mastery learning.  I know, it’s like drinking from two fire hoses at the same time.  But I truly think it is the best way, at least in theory, to have students learn: spend time in class working through their misconceptions and building new concepts, and let them peruse course content at their liesure.  While this has actually been going quite well so far (just passed the first quarter mark), there are a few things bugging me.

  1. It is more difficult to keep a large percentage of the students “on-task” during class.  Since they might be working on 2 or 3 completely different tasks around the room it is harder to spot a student not doing their work.  And more than a couple of times I’ve had students who have completed all their assignments days early!
  2. It is getting way too easy for students to get behind.  Specifically behind on classwork, not tests/quizzes.
  3. I am occupied almost all class, often moving from group to group in a loop, answer questions and checking off assignments.

The reason these things are bugging me is that they seem to be ruining what I liked about the flipped class.  I wanted to go from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side,” but it feels more like I’ve become Admiral Check-Off (a self-coined term I come up with the other day).  If I’m not responding to a question about Problem 2 on Assignment X, I’m checking off completion of Assignment Y for another student, or opening a quiz online for another student. While I am giving students the opportunity to self-pace and master content, I do not feel that class time is being used more effectively than in a traditional class.

How does this relate to the 100% engagement stuff?  In a traditional class an observer might see all students taking notes, or working on a book assignment, or a worksheet, and the teacher meandering around prompting students to stay on task as 100% engagement.  But the teacher, in my opinion, is barely engaged in teaching.  Lecturing isn’t teaching, it’s talking.  Prompting students isn’t teaching, it’s proctoring.  But in my flipped class, where at any given time it might look like chaos, most students are doing some form of work (completing new work, catching up on video notes, taking a quiz), though not in a quiet, heads-down manner.  And I, the teacher, am 100% engaged, answering questions or assessing understanding.  And it is this very engagement on my part that can lead to problems 1) and 2) above.  I made it a goal to talk to every student about their work at least once per week.  But sometimes that talk is about the three or four assignments they haven’t completed.  And if I spend more time prompting students to stay on task, I am spending less time clarifying problems and assessing work.

What is the solution then?  I tweeted today that if engagement is a problem in class then a teacher should look at making the work more engaging, rather than getting angry at students, or simply piling on more work.  I was really preaching to myself.  I’ve been tempted to institute a punitive grading system to persuade students to stay on task… because threats always motivate teenagers, right?  I am hesitant, not because I don’t see a need for a better grading/tracking system (for which I do see a need), but because I really see a need to make class more interesting.  Yes, my conceptual physics text comes with awesome concept development worksheets, and they do help, but kids get real bored real quick of that stuff.  And if my goal is to be a “guide on the side” I need to establish what it is that I want to guide them through.  Is it concept development worksheets?  Doubtful.

Somewhere, rattling around in the back of my head, are goals like “improve science literacy,” and “engage students in discussions on misconceptions,” which have gone ignored so far this year.  Perhaps the solution to my problems with my current flipped class/mastery model are those very things I’ve put off doing?