Skill Rubrics and Check-Ins

This year I’m focusing carefully on getting class started productively, so that the rest of the class can run smoothly. The rest if the class running smoothly is still a challenge (##setbacks) but the beginning is making some progress. A lot of that has to do with the “Check-In” that students grab when they come into the room. It gives me a chance to do this like roll out skills and give zero-consequence feedback on practice in preparation for a quiz, which is something I’ve struggled with being consistent about in previous years.

On this Check-In, I’m rolling out the skill rubric for energy skill 3a: I can use evidence to identify energy stored in gravitational, kinetic, or elastic form. Students underlined things that seemed important to them, gave me feedback on my sample work, then tried to correct my bar chart. In this case, I got a “P” because I used evidence about the decrease in speed, but ignored the fact that the height of the block stayed constant.

Problem is, from looking at the Check-Ins (my primary activity during my hour-long subway commute between Brooklyn and Harlem every day) it’s obvious that students are only kind of using this time to do careful work. Many students usually write their name at the top of the page, and then hang out for a while. I’d hoped this one would be pretty straightforward for them, and while most students recognized that my work was “Improving”, basically no one corrected the bar chart in a useful way.

We’ll get there, I hope… Check-In by check-in!

##physicsfirst ##etm ##culture

Skill Day Personal Feedback

So….. I had a bright idea that I’d use a coded excel spreadsheet with a python script to construct personal notes to every ninth grader in response to skill day. If someone was close to improving, I’d tell them so, and encourage them to stop by office hours. If someone needed a lot of careful practice, I’d tell them so (and encourage them to stop by office hours). It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was technologically REALLY satisfying to get working, but I’m not so sure what immediate effect it had. After all, no one showed up for office hours today…

Then again, this is all a great experiment in culture-building. It’s hard to say what effect something like this has in the long run. Maybe it’s fuel for conversation when I end up talking to a student in the hall or at lunch. Maybe it has the opposite effect, when they realize that the only way for a teacher to write 140 notes to 140 students is if the notes follow a certain format. So, code away, and we’ll call it all when the dust settles!

##physicsfirst ##setbacks

ऊर्जा Skate Park: A Qualitative Energy Paradigm Lab

So, for a while I’ve been struggling with how to introduce my qualitative energy unit, which I use to divide up two chunks of my experimental design and analysis unit. Students in my ninth grade classes haven’t had really solid slope analysis skills to call upon at the beginning of the year, so I need a unit that’s thought-provoking and fun to postpone this quantitative work and let the math department do their thing. A qualitative energy unit is perfect for this, but since we don’t have any OTHER physics terms defined the concept of energy is hard to roll out in a way that’s consistent with what Eugenia Etkina has termed “The Arons Principle” – that all concepts must be identified and explored BEFORE they’re given a name. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because I discussed this in a post last year.)

The solution that I arrived on, on an ingenious suggestion from the folks at PhET (@PhETSims), was to unroll the simulation using a version where all terms are displayed in foreign language. I chose the Indian language of Marathi, because it has such tremendously beautiful script. You can download the Marathi version of “Skate Park Basics” at and play with it yourself, but I’ve included a screenshot below:


In the past when I’ve used the Skate Park as an energy introduction, I’ve had students focused entirely on confirming what they already know about “potential and kinetic energy,” and using their idea of “friction” to confirm that “thermal energy” is “created” when object heats up. For example, very few students focused on the crucial observation that the red bar jumps up whenever there is any collision with the track or the ground, so “heating up” ended up being their go-to evidence for energy being dissipated, rather than the other way around.

This year, students were actually focused on making connections to the things we have evidence to describe: changes in height, speed, and banging or sliding that has occurred between objects. The red bar jumping is connected with “impact,” setting the stage for me to blow their minds with the smashing steel balls activity. When the yellow bar isn’t marked as “Total,” students mostly interpreted it as “the starting height” – allowing us to have discussions next class about why the starting height is an indication of total energy in this case. When some students inevitably made the connection to energy (things going up and down in a post-middle school science class will inevitably have this effect, I’ve found…), I got the chance to remind them that those words were “locked” (more on this later), and we didn’t actually yet have any EVIDENCE that we could use agree on that claim. This was quite convincing to them, and may serve as an early experience of success in allowing themselves to free their minds from the science-sounding language they tend to lock themselves into.

Next class, we’ll use the English language version of the simulation to see more complicated elements, like the Eg = 0 reference line, the concept of chemical energy in the fuel in the skater’s jet pack, and maybe even establish a proportional relationship between Eg and mass, height, or g-field. They’ll be relieved to see that their intuition about energy was spot on, but now we’ll be connecting this term to useful connections that already been made to those colored bars.

Here’s a PDF of the handout I used for the lab. Feel free to use it in any way you choose!


Skill Day!!!

On Friday we had our first ever “Skill Day”, and it was a rousing success!! Exhausting, but a success nonetheless.

The idea behind Skill Day is that if I expect students to actually take seriously the process of learning from their mistakes and reassessing older skills, I need to carve out time in class for that to happen. During that time, I can pair students based on who can help who with certain skills, and then give everyone a chance to take an “Extra Opportunity” (aka a reassessment) at the end of the period.

Of course, some students (ranging from 3 of 28 in one class to 9 in another) have already figured out the skills on our first quiz, so they’re given a chance to do something extra. Today, since our focus has been on isolating variables and designing experiments, these students got a chance to investigate factors that affect (or don’t affect) the period of a pendulum. I gave them the “time it takes the object to swing back and forth” as the DV, and asked them to choose either the object mass, the string length, or the drop height as the IV.

This is differentiated education like I’ve never been able to manage before. Students who can’t scale a graph axis consistently are working productively in the same room as students who understand that multiple measurements can be useful for quantifying uncertainty. In the front of this picture, you can see one student coaching another through a graph. In the background, three girls are coming to the shocking conclusion that mass doesn’t really affect period.

I’m excited for where this will take us in the future, especially because the pendulum work was so visible (and visibly interesting) to the other kids in the room. This can be a place for all the cool activities that I never have time for, done by kids who really bring sophistication and maturity to them. Other kids can do these activities too, but only outside of class, giving them a reason to come in and work on their more basic skills.

I’ll keep you posted on the next skill day, when some kids will be shooting blocks of wood across the floor with a rubber band string across a chair!

##physicsfirst ##sbar ##expdesign

Professionalism Skills and Uncertainty in Predictions

This year I decided to roll everything that’s not physics related into a category called “Professionalism Skills”. It’s only worth 10% of a final grade, but that doesn’t seem to really effect how seriously students take the feedback. The idea is that these are the things that you should be doing to learn the physics – show up on with required equipment, take conscientious notes in class, self-assess quizzes thoughtfully, etc.

For my daily “Check-In” students used a secret code to check their standing on P-Skills from the last few weeks.

This sheet will refresh frequently, unlike the regular skills, so it’s not posted on the wall. Mostly, I want the folks who didn’t ever bring their binder to class to have to write down that “X”, and think about what they can do to avoid that X next time. (Bring that binder!)

The other part of the Check-In plays off of the last Check-In, where students predicted a range of values for how many marbles would break a bridge made of 12 noodles. I could tell from their answers that only a few had any clue what the concept of uncertainty in a prediction was all about, so I wanted them to think harder about these three common suggestions. (Look back at the Check-In photo for details…) Student A didn’t think about the fact that 12 noodles was a value that hadn’t actually been measured, a very common mistake… Makes me wonder how I could have made the question clearer. Do you really think that 10 marbles is going to break that bridge?

Here are a few predictions, and one example of the test. Afterward, we plot the new point on the graph and talk about whether it fell inside our predicted ranges.

One warning: The pasta appears to be VERY sensitive to little uncontrollable things like humidity and temperature. Also, the relationship doesn’t seem to be linear when you start worrying about packing questions for large numbers of noodles. This class chose a huge range, but tests in other classes didn’t go quite so huge and we’re surprised to see 125 marbles and 128 marbles break the bridge – well below the trend line.

My solution for now? Cheat… With my last class I secretly used 15 noodles and a separation slightly smaller than the 10cm I used for the tests. Got a little closer, at 156! Hurray for uncertainty!!!

##physicsfirst ##uncertainty ##graphing ##sbar