Friday, February 3, 2017

Giving voice and taking action

I feel lucky to be sitting here today writing this post. I'm buried in work and exhausted after a grueling day of class and a long drive home last night on snowy roads, but at least the barriers I faced over the past 48 hours were of my own making. I should probably be reading or writing, but on the other hand this needs to be said. And more importantly, I need to say it.

As I waited at the border last night to come back into the US, I began to get nervous. I've never had problems at the border, but things have changed over the last week. There were 4 cars in line. I didn't see what happened to the first one- I had put my car in park and was trying to get my voyzer app set to play the next pdf (if you drive a lot and have pdf's to read- it's a solid investment). The second car in line was sent back to Canada. The third car was sent for secondary inspection after a long exchange with the agent. I pulled up and wasn't sure what to expect. Within two minutes I was on my way home without a fuss. Was it my Nexus card? Study permit? The fact that I cross the border so frequently that I recognize many of the agents from previous interactions? Or did it have something to do with the color of my skin and the way I speak?

Yesterday I came into contact with a wide range of people from different places, which is one of the best things about McGill. In a single day I personally interacted with Canadians (of course), and Americans, but also people from Colombia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Argentina, Brussels, India, Japan, and China. And those are just the homelands of people I know.

Two of my professors not only acknowledged the recent events that have caused distress for many students, but also provided space and time for a discussion. This meant the world to me- more and more I get the feeling that I am doing exactly the right thing in a place that is perfect for pushing me in the directions I need to go. Looking back I cannot imagine how my day would have gone without having had those opportunities, while recognizing that these conversations might not have happened at different institutions.

During these discussions I learned that my peers experience much of the horror, frustration, and fear that I do, but also that they are determined to fight against the forces that pull our world further toward racism, oppression, and violence. I learned that classmates had been urged by their families to abandon their studies and return home while they could still travel. Others have been forced to curtail their activities and modify their lifestyles to avoid putting themselves in harm's way. Collectively we struggle to console each other during these dark times, but I was heartened by the incredible sharing of experiences that were terribly painful. They strongly affected me and increased my resolve to take action.

I was urged yesterday to do what I can to resist in whatever way possible. That is why I write this post today. I am not from one of the countries affected by the illegal travel ban. I am not Muslim. I am not female, nor do I have colored skin. I am the veritable epitome of heterosexual white male privilege, and I today I use this privilege today to share experiences of others with an audience that they are unlikely to reach. I write today in confidence that I am not alone in how I feel about recent events and how they have affected people who have done nothing to deserve such horrible treatment.

I encourage all of you who happen to read this to act in whatever capacity you can. Share this post, talk to people who have different world views, sign a petition, attend a rally, stand in a vigil, point out propaganda when you see it- whatever you can do, please resist. For those of us with privilege, resistance takes effort but is unlikely to cause lasting damage. This is not the case for many, and because of our position in this world we must act.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


Good day intrepid readers! For those of you who are wondering how my new gig is going, it's a bit like this: Reading, reading, and more reading, followed by lots of writing, then some driving while thinking about the readings. Repeat.
Not graduate work- can't forget to go play!
Seriously though, it's good. I feel like I finally have a breather- not from work, of course, I'm still wicked busy- but rather a breather in the sense that I finally have a chance to step back from the everyday life of a teacher to look at my actions and how they affect student learning. It's a really rich process to go through, and I realize that one of the biggest problems today for many teachers is that they're so busy and overworked that they never get the chance to see the big picture. For example, maybe it's not that critical that you get the next worksheet formatted just right or that you select the perfect question for a test, but rather the next thing you say to a student when you're in the middle of a discussion.

I'm working with some really neat folks. The DISE faculty are awesome, and hearing my fellow doctoral cohort mates introduce themselves during our first seminar was incredible. They're working on such cool stuff that it's impossible not to be stoked just being around them. I've already had more opportunities to practice my rusty Spanish than I've had in ages- and with native speakers no less! I've also been hanging around a bit with the SALTISE research group, which is doing some incredible things with technology.

Mad props to LaTeX as always, started using BibLaTeX and it's slick, especially when paired with Zotero.

I'd like to close by saying thanks to my former students for coming up with some many great Pandora stations. Whenever I feel like my options are getting stale, I open up one of the random creations we listened to during class. Right now I'm on the Superman station (classical scores), but earlier today I was jamming to Caravan Palace. And though this might be sacrilege to my AP students, I haven't touched the smooth jazz station yet- I'm keeping the big guns in reserve!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Social Justice in the Physics Classroom

In the spring of 2015 I read a series of blog posts about teaching social justice in physics classes. At the time I wasn't in a position to implement it (the NYS Regents exam in physics doesn't leave a ton of space for extra topics, particularly when using the Modeling curriculum as I do). This year however, I wanted to do something special with my AP Class after their exam. We had a brainstorming session and were throwing around ideas for fun projects. A rube goldberg machine, battle bots, etc. Then I added social justice to the list.

The students wanted to know what I meant. I told them that I was interested in discussing race in physics. The students immediately wanted to know what I meant, and I turned it back to them and asked what came to mind when I mentioned the topic. One was pretty sure that she/he knew, but was hesitant to share it with the class until I pushed and said that there was no wrong answer. She/he finally spit it out: "I think that when you say race in physics you mean that black people are affected by gravity differently than white people are." That statement sealed the deal- we were definitely doing this!

A quick aside: Saranac Lake High School is a public school in northern New York. We have lots of socio-economic diversity, but very little racial diversity. Roughly 1% of the student population is black, and another 1-2% is hispanic or native american. The school is 97% white. These figures aren't official, just wanted to give you a rough idea of the composition of the student body. My own background in Physics Education Research has focused primarily on gender issues. So why did I implement a unit on blacks in physics rather than females? For several reasons:

1. My physics classes have plenty of gender diversity- nearly always 50/50 split between genders. They achieve at different levels (as indicated by normalized conceptual gains- on average males surpass females and underclassmen exceed seniors), but at least they see students of other genders sitting next to them in class. The lack of racial diversity in our student body means that it is much less likely that my students will see a significant number of people of different racial backgrounds in their physics class.

2. I feel that there is momentum building behind the issue of blacks choosing to study physics that could lead to meaningful change down the line. The least I can do is expose my students to a different perspective to help support this movement. (Moses' article was one of the most popular articles published by The Physics Teacher this year)

3. Moses' curriculum was established and had been through several years of refinement. He was incredibly helpful and willing to share. As a teacher trying to juggle a million things, I can't deny that this made implementing the curriculum way easier than it would have been to starting from the ground up on my own.

4. Black lives matter. Period.

So what did I do for the social justice curriculum? I followed Moses' outline and modified his lessons to fit the time we had. The student completed pre- and post-attitudinal tests and wrote nightly journal entries after completing assigned readings. I didn't read the entries- just checked to be sure that they were done. If you're interested in more details, I'll be happy to share more about what I did- just ask. However, I'm not writing this blog post to talk about what I did, but rather to talk about the impact it had.

This was an incredibly powerful experience for my students. The idea of stereotype threat possibly affecting scores on standardized tests hit them like a sledgehammer, especially because BEFORE starting their AP exams just weeks before they'd been asked questions about their gender and racial background. Many other ideas hit home too- especially the Implicit Association Tests and the idea of White Privilege (Macklemore). We also had interesting discussions about statistics and how people measure participation rates- one student attempted to generate statistics on their own using rosters of sports teams at community colleges and it was a god learning experience.

Did I implement the curriculum perfectly? Nope.

Did I maximize every opportunity to create powerful discussions? No.

Was I well-organized? Meh- I tried.

Do I think this unit is worthwhile? Absolutely, unequivocally, enthusiastically- YES!

If you're reading this, you should try it out in your physics or math class. Set aside a few days and dive in. It won't be perfect, or easy, but it's critical that we begin to have these tough conversations so that our students open their eyes.

I'll leave you with a paraphrased quote from a student:

This may have been the most important unit from the entire year. It might even be the most meaningful thing I have learned about in high school.

AP Calculus Final Projects

After the AP calculus test we learn some new material (L'Hopital's rule and integration by parts) and then the students complete a final project. They run the gamut from real-life related rates problems (including data) to illustrations of scenarios to 3-D printing of solids produced by revolutions. I love this time of year and the students produced excellent work. This year two groups produced raps related to calculus, this is the more polished of the two:

Mike drop. 'Nuff said.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Times they are a changin'!

Change is in the wind! For some time I've been thinking about some of the techniques I employ in my teaching (such as reflective writing activities) and wondering if I'm implementing them to the best of my ability.

A little bit of background: over the years I've used reflective writing in many forms. The impetus to use writing activities is from research I've encountered and also from my own experience- I found that articulating my experiences in words helped me understand them better and also helped me make connections between different topics.

While at Paul Smith's College I began using Paul Hickman's Interactive Collaborative Electronic Learning Logs (ICE Learning Logs for short) on a daily basis. I continued this when I moved to the secondary level albeit on a weekly basis to save time. I continue to be pressed for time, and sadly admit that I have done away with regular writing activities in my Regents Physics classes entirely in order to cover material more rapidly. I still use reflective activities with my advanced classes.

My AP Physics students reflect quarterly on their performance in class. My AP Calculus students reflect on a weekly basis in an alternating format: one week is a private discussion between the student and I in a shared google doc, and the following week is a group discussion board where students post anonymously (though I know who each author is).

I feel as though these activities are quite valuable, both for learning content and for helping students come to see themselves as part of the science/math community. However, I do not have concrete evidence to back this up- just my observations and anecdotal statements from students.

Cut back to the present: I've decided to take the plunge to start work on a doctorate so I can find out for myself what helps my students learn best. I've found a home at the Science and Mathematics Education Research Group in the Department of Integrated Studies at McGill University. I'm thrilled to be opening a new chapter in my career and am also lucky to have been granted a leave of absence from my current teaching position to take advantage of this incredible opportunity.

I'll do my best to keep up with this blog and share new ideas as I come across them- maybe I'll even do a better job than I have as of late!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Grouping Activity

A long while back I read a post from Frank Noschese called subversive lab grouping. In a nutshell, you give students cards which tell them what groups they're in. But it's not as easy as it sounds- there is overlap between the words on the cards. For example, I've given students cards with letters on them. They start by trying to put all the vowels together, or maybe all the capital letters. But it doesn't form the right number of groups (4 groups with three students each), so they have to discard their model and start over. The key turns out to be the number of straight lines used to form each letter. X is two, as are T and L. So that's one group. W, M, and E are similarly grouped. Frank and his followers have thrown down a bunch of other ideas for groups, some of which I've adopted, but I've also made up my own.

My students love this activity and wanted me to write about it. Since this is the first request I've ever received for a blog entry, I figured I ought to honor it! I usually use it in calculus- I'm not sure why, but I haven't implemented it with my other classes yet. Maybe I will... one limitation is that you have to specify the number of groups and their sizes. If students are unexpectedly absent, it can throw a wrench in the works.

If anyone is interested in the groups I use, just say the word and I'll be happy to put them up.