Fly, You Fools!

This semester, a few classes asked for bi-weekly review over the entire year so they can keep old material fresh. I was really happy to get these requests because it shows a higher level of maturity than I’ve seen lately and that they recognize that old stuff still applies.

State testing starts this week (blargh) so I decided to use Friday and today to do some review over forces with a paper airplane challenge.

We spent some time discussing balanced and unbalanced forces, what causes acceleration, and what forces might be acting on a moving aircraft. Then, I tasked groups of three with building aircraft that would 1) fly really far, and 2) stay in the air for a long time. It’s tough to do because you can either go right for the glide or shoot for something that handles projectile motion a little more effectively for increased distance.

Most groups split the difference with an in-between design which led to pretty consistent success on both counts.


The lab isn’t perfect. There are things I’ll change for next year. It would be great in the forces unit, but I think I’ll keep it as review because 1) it’s a good break up of the monotony, especially in testing season, and 2) we can apply material immediately rather than slogging through principles.

Plus, it’s hard to be discouraged with the state of education when you hear cheers about a paper gliding for 20+ meters down the hallway.

Here’s the document if you’re interested in running this with your students.

Don’t Call it a Sheep

Test prep is becoming more insidious. Rather than being outright drill-and-kill for the multiple choice marathon students are forced to take, now it masquerades as “critical thinking skill development” and “article analysis.”

We’ve spent the last few months at school designing writing prompts based on articles. We then had the students read the articles, discuss the topics, and do a written response on it. Not because that’s good instruction (I’m not saying it isn’t…) but because that’s what the almighty test has them doing now.

Test authors and companies had to get sneaky. The pushback on high stakes testing has hurt business, so they changed the format. Students are now tests on analysis and critical thinking. But, it has to fit within the acceptable parameters of the item.

Indiana is particularly bad this year. My high school students will take the test for a total of eight hours and thirty minutes this year (starting this week). And that was shortened from the original 12 hour draft released by the state. At the same time, Pearson will make $72 millon over the next two years to tell me what I already know about my students. We will also continue to pay CTB-McGraw Hill another $68 million (after losing the ISTEP contract because of repeated errors) to create practice test.

Indiana’s total testing bill over the next two years: $133.8 million.

And I’m having my copies counted to make sure I don’t print too much out.

Hours and hours wasted this year, as in years past, and if patterns continue, for years to come. Protect your students, protect your time.

Now begins my grumpy time of year. We have ~60 school days left, 28 of which are slated for testing in Indiana.

Above all, I must not play God.

The Hippocratic Oath really parallels education. More on that somewhere else.

I cannot play at God in my classroom. I am not a dictator. My role is to provide an environment and situation in which students can learn. I work hard to do that. I take that responsibility very seriously.

flickr photo by DarkB4Dawn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) licenseflickr photo by DarkB4Dawn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Choices are made by students to either trust me in the process laid out or to try their own road. Some can definitely handle their own road and I’m proud and thankful for that. Others need to be carried a great distance before they’re ready to walk on their own.

But I cannot make it happen. It isn’t my responsibility to make the choice for students. It never will be.

I can’t hold myself accountable for decisions that aren’t mine.

I’m not a doctor, but I think this idea stands out the most.


Before I dive in, I think Justin Aion and I are parallels of one another in the multiverse. His day was similar to mine.

Six weeks into this semester, I have three of six classes with averages in the 50% range. Some of those classes include students with sub 30% grades. Most of it is from choosing not to engage in any way, shape or form. I’ve tried blanket policies. I’ve tried meeting in the middle. I’ve tried strategy after strategy to no avail in some cases.

So I sat down with each class and asked them what to do.

Five of my six classes had fantastic conversations about the choices that have been made. We’ve talked about why we come to school, what the purpose of the class is, why I do what I do…it was much more insightful than I expected. But, there was still business to attend to.


Most classes came up with conduct agreements that we all signed (students added their names to a Google doc which I then printed and signed) and are now hanging up on the wall as a reminder of what we’ve all agreed to. It includes things like:

– One day each week to go over the week’s stuff to make sure we’re all on the same page.

– Group roles (similar to POGIL) to be used any time group work is being done, not just special tasks.

– An actual tray to turn papers in to, not just the corner of the lab bench.

– An actual dedicated place to find extra copies of stuff (rather than relying on me).

And then the elephant: phones.

They’ve been a problem for the majority of my students. Some classes more than others. Most agreed to a Phone Jail system where the phone goes when it’s reached the limit. They came up with particular infractions which will be self policed (that’s the idea anyways). I’m the final say in Phone Jail.


I’m trying to keep it lighthearted. They know when they’re distracted, I think calling it out with something silly/serious like Phone Jail will help.

All in all, I think they were healthy conversations that helped us all understand each other a little better.

Then, The Class Who Chose Not To Choose.

I prompted, they were silent. They came up with, “You need to be more strict” and “Just kick people out.”

Another asked, “Dude, why are you asking kids how to do your job?”

That was a good one.

It’s sad that our culture is one in which students can’t imagine a better way to work together. I’m the teacher. They’re the students. What I say goes (unless they disagree with it, of course).

I made it very clear that their indecision and unwillingness to work with me meant lockdown. No phones, no freedoms to choose seats…nothing. I was met with silence. When we got to work and I gave two students a phone warning…well, you can imagine how that went.

Changing culture takes time. I have to remind myself that it’s a multi-year process. I’m blessed that the majority of my classes are willing to try and address culture shifts. It’s jarring when one group of very talented people choose not to take that step of faith.

Learning as a Sum of Experiences

I’ve been working very hard this year to make sure students experience science – or the process of science – as much as possible. Physics and chemistry are real and they matter to us. It’s my job to help them see why they matter to us.

Placed into a school context, I ask students to prove that they’ve learned something. I grade based on standards with a very simple standards-based method (based largely on Frank Noschese’s writing): if you know it, full credit. If you don’t know it, no credit. I don’t fuss with percentages or sliding scales. The objectives (standards has a different connotation to students, more on that another time) weight in at 80% of their final grade. I still give tests and quizzes which can demonstrate the learning, but students are free to show me what they know at any time for credit.

I’ve run into an issue where students memorize snippets in hopes of earning the objective. It’s a checkbox to them. I’m trying to show that learning is more than the simple recitation of information. It’s the sum of the experiences and, more importantly, what you do with those experiences.

I get this way every time I give a quiz or test because I have to constantly reiterate the importance of learning, not just in “passing.”

The Earthquake Lab

Waves are tricky to teach. Students feel like they already have a ton of experience with them (you’ve been to the beach somewhere, I’m sure.) and that there isn’t a whole lot more to learn. So, I try to make it hands on and connect with other areas of interest.

For instance, I brought my guitar into school. Music is waves working well together. So, I fiddled around during class while they were working and had them make connections between the guitar and the theory of waves. A few days later, I moved into a NOVA episode about the 2011 Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami…more waves. Students were able to connect the abstract – longitudinal and transverse waves – with the concrete – P and S seismic waves. At this point I introduced the earthquake lab.

The Setup

Students broke into teams of four and assigned roles – Project Manager, Treasurer, Research Director, Architect – based on their interests. Their task was to build a building at least 40cm tall out of spaghetti, marshmallows, and tape which would stand up to an earthquake. I modified this doc (Word download) and gave one sheet per group.

The Challenge

When I assigned this task, I said the structure had to be at least 40cm tall, but I didn’t tell them that it should be as tall as possible. Some groups naturally went for it (one group hit 98cm!) while others played it safe. Next time, the height challenge will be added.

Also, if you look at the document, I dropped the line of credit to $4000, thinking it would make them think through their designs. I also limited their trips to the store (me) to two visits to really make sure they designed. Nearly every group was very intentional, but I still wish I had added the “economy” challenge to the height: tallest building you can make (at least 40cm) while staying cheap. Things to remember for next year…

The Shaker

The final hurdle was designing an earthquake machine that would shake every building fairly. I also wanted them to see the difference between P and S waves, so it had to shake on two axes. I tried to work through a couple of ideas which would have required cranks, drills, drawer sliders, and lots of engineering and instead landed on something sweet and simple: a tone generator on our LabQuest sets and a hacked apart speaker.


P Wave arrangement. Speaker is mounted below the platform.


S Wave arrangement: lateral speaker with the LabQuest hooked up.

I used some 10-gauge house wire and industrial strength hot glue to add some hooks to the speaker baffle. A small power source let me control the volume of the tone being generated. I drilled holes through a small whiteboard to mount on top of a speaker (P waves) and beside a speaker (S waves). We ran the P waves at around 25Hz and the S between 10-12Hz. The goal was to show students how properly-built buildings resonate with the shake, not fight against it.

It gave a pretty good shake…my speakers this year were a little small, but it worked well to show resonance. I think if we went for height next year, we’d get a few more building failures, which are just as important as building successes.

Thanks to Anthony Purcell for making sure I wrote this up. Leave a comment if you want tips on building your shaker.

My Favorite Video Tool

I’ve done a ton of labs with students this month. We’re learning about waves and there are some fun demos and experiments you can use to illustrate ideas.

My absolute favorite tool is: my cell phone and a ring stand with a claw clamp.

Don't put a ring on it.

Don’t put a ring on it.

I’m now super mobile and can film some sweet science action to use in videos, post on the website, and just generally have in my back pocket when I need something.

Like today, we were discussing how waves travel faster through some media (solids) than others (gases). So, I set up two rows of dominoes, one spaced tightly and the other less so, and let the science happen.

I have a lot of other examples, including a couple which will have their own posts…someday…maybe. If you don’t teach science, ask your friendly neighborhood chemistry teacher if they have an extra stand and clamp. Or, just head over to Amazon and grab yourself a little phone tripod to have. It makes a ton of difference in how you think through teaching a lesson and the more you use it, the more opportunity you’ll find.

The Environment

My video was rambly this week. I think it’s because I have complete control over my environment, but there’s just not much I can do with it. I have a really small classroom and some big classes, so it gets packed quickly.

It’s easy to fall back into default “classroom mode” where desks are in rows for ease of movement, which is important. If you can’t do what you need to do because the arrangement isn’t working, (but hey, they’re in groups!) you’re environment still isn’t flexible enough to push students into owning their learning.

I’m pretty open about where students sit. A year ago (nearly to the day…wow…) I wrote about seating charts and they’re influence on the environment. I’ve resisted making new charts this semester because I’m shooting for the right balance in the room. This ties more in with the culture, but the physical environment is affected: who sits where, how does their interaction demand attention from the space, etc.

Being flexible with the environment starts the change. Being okay with (sometimes) big groups of kids helps send a message that learning is collaborative. Moving around your space (yes, it’s okay to have a desk and a space of your own) so you work more effectively in the classroom space will also help make that transition. Since moving my desk, my interactions have improved, my rapport is better, I feel more aware, and students expect more interaction from me. All good things.