Thursday, May 22, 2014

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

I am getting more and more excited about the NGSS, the science class addendum to Common Core, which addresses the language and math part of our teaching.The NGSS are not just a list of science standards of concepts students should know. A typical "old" California standard looks like this one:

Motion and Forces

1. Newton's laws predict the motion of most objects. As a basis for understanding this concept:
  • Students know how to solve problems that involve constant speed and average speed.
Notice the students are expect to "know" things - which then can easily be tested on a multiple choice test (except that my students this year couldn't show their knowledge that way anyway!)
This is what a similar part of the NGSS looks like:

HS-PS2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

Students who demonstrate understanding can: HS-PS2-1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
[Clarification Statement: Examples of data could include tables or graphs of position or velocity as a function of time for objects subject to a net unbalanced force, such as a falling object, an object rolling down a ramp, or a moving object being pulled by a constant force.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one-dimensional motion and to macroscopic objects moving at non-relativistic speeds.]
Students here demonstrate their understanding (not what they know) by doing things, like analyzing data, which involves asking questions, making models, planning and carrying out experiments, collecting data to analyze, etc. In other words, students will be doing what scientists and engineers do to figure things out.
You can read the entire standard here : standard can be confusing at first, because it includes the Practices, like Asking questions and Making Models, Cross-cutting Concepts, like Patterns and Cause and Effect, and Disciplinary Core Ideas, like the one shown above on Forces and Interactions.

Paul Anderson has made a fantastic series of videos produced by Bozeman starting with this one, which includes the playlist of all 59 videos:
I recommend doing a couple a day (as I'm doing), starting with the Practices and Cross-cutting Concepts, then skipping to the Disciplinary Core Ideas that interest you (Physical Science and Chemistry, mostly, for me.)
I hope you enjoy this new world of teaching! I think this would also be useful to teachers who are not in a state that is implementing them (like California) because the ideas are so powerful.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


My average student in Conceptual Physics does not like mathematics. Many of them shudder at the sight of a number. But I have been working hard to get them accustomed to numbers and formulas, so by now most students - with a little thought - know that they should divide if they think the result should be smaller and multiply if it should be larger (we're not into things like decimals and fractions very much.) Most of them can take a formula like F=m x a and find acceleration - if they think about it. The thinking part doesn't come easily, though.

I thought, however, that most could read. They read aloud somewhat fluently, so I thought they also knew what they were reading.

I should have caught on to the problem when I was asked to period sub for a special ed English class with a couple of my students. I was told that the aide was good and could run the class; they just needed a certified teacher present. The students were to take turns reading a text out loud and then use vocabulary words from the text in various ways. But I could hear immediately that they didn't have a clue what they were reading about. So I stopped the aide and asked if I could step in and give the students some background information about the text, which the students were quite interested in hearing about. There were NO questions about whether they understood the text in their packet - only vocabulary activities.

Last fall I made the mistake of getting excited about Mastery Learning. I enthusiastically created a lot of scaffolded reading organizers for every 3-4 pages of Conceptual Physics (earlier edition), as well as other guidelines, and a bunch of 5-question quizzes - 3-4 versions for each reading section. Some kids were delighted and quickly worked their way through all the quizzes and got great scores - some of these had been trouble-makers or had poor grades before. I - and my supervisor - were delighted. But then I got the flu, followed by Thanksgiving and some planned elective surgery, where the sub could manage the quizzes, but not grade them, or go over them personally with each student. When I got back, I discovered to my chagrin that some students hadn't gotten beyond the first quiz, while others had completed 5 or 6. Some were just goofing off, texting or checking Facebook. I had lost more than half the class while I was out.
which seemed to be a great way to get the kids to actually read and comprehend the textbook,

By then it was close to the end of the semester, so I arranged for an Authentic (no reading) assessment, where they created an activity that showed that they understood a particular randomly drawn concept and could explain it to others orally. This was a great success. Everyone felt proud that they'd learned something and pretty much everyone passed the semester - and Admin was impressed.

This semester I started getting more and more new students who came back to us from the continuation high school or elsewhere, often with a semester of Earth Science, not Conceptual Physics. And a group of SPED students were also moved into 2 of my classes, with some sporadic aide help. I had to start from scratch, with different materials, so they weren't aware of the repeated content. Everything was Inquiry based, with interspersed activities and computer simulations. I rewrote materials I found online to fit what I thought was their reading level, and we started with a new method. However, they did not follow the inquiry sequentially, instead picked the questions they figured were "easy", because - they said - their English teacher had told them to approach things that way. I kept writing "Read the questions, do them in order..." when I graded packets, but they didn't.

Finally a book, I Read It, but I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers by Cris Tovani, finally gave me the answer to their problems: they think they can read, but they are only "fake reading." They can read the words, they know the vocabulary, but it just doesn't make sense. Tovani suggested a variety of organizers to help them "get it." 

When I discovered the perfect article to have them try it out, a short article about how wind energy is generated (using technology like gears and generating that we've been studying) and a simple vocabulary, I gave them the article and one of Tovani's organizers, with which they were to read the article paragraph by paragraph, writing any new vocabulary words in the first space, and what they'd learned in the middle. I even included a space to draw a picture if they could figure things out by drawing them first. 

But many of the students did as they've evidently been doing in ELA: they skimmed the whole article (highlighting about 90% of it); then they wrote bolded words and headings from the text as "New Vocabulary" and provided sentences using those words, either directly quoting part of the context, or not having much connection with the context in the article - in the next column. The picture column many used for artwork that was rarely connected to the article, like pictures of tables and chairs to define "capacity" - as in "the capacity of this restaurant ..." not "the capacity of wind-generated electricity". At most a third wrote about what they had learned from the text. Some repeated "I learned about [heading of paragraph.]" 

At least I now know that this is where I start next year. Students will learn to use the organizer correctly in the first week, reading a short article of interest to them and relevance to what we are about to study. I will consider it a major goal of my teaching that the students can read for content, not just learn isolated vocabulary words. Front-loading vocabulary is of no use; they have to get the words from the context. 

As my first full year of teaching science comes to a close I am reflecting on what worked and what didn't. 
  • I still like the idea of mastery learning, but they have to know how to read for content before that will work.
  • Inquiry learning is imperative, but they have to know how to work together in their groups, with shifting roles of manager, scribe, spokesperson and quality control, among others (which I learned from POGIL training.)
  • Students have to learn how to work their way through inquiry based packets in the order given, and to read whatever background and summative material is provided before continuing.
  • Activities must come first, and theory refers to activities. But the students must be aware of how the activity fits into the theory. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Turned on Students

I finally found the topic that can intrigue most students - electricity!

Here during the last 3 weeks of the school year, I started my favorite physics topic, and it turns out the students are really turned on by it too. Students who would sit at the periphery are joining in the activities, worksheets are being completed, quizzes are getting a much higher grade average, and expressions like "wow" and "eee" and "come look at this!" are common.

As usual, I've been using the Teaching Physics through Toys book, as well as some activities I've used before, which I've rewritten for this class. As something new, we are using some sections of Active Physics, which I received as a class-set a couple of months ago, and just now started to use. The students love it, and some wish they could take it home to read the Green Pages. No one has ever asked to be able to read something before! Some have even asked about where to read in the Conceptual Physics book they have at home.

We have used hand-cranked generators, batteries, magnets and the sun to generate electricity.
We've studied what happens with magnets when they come close to i(which I put into well-sealed plastic bags because of previous experience) and compasses. On an Active Physics quiz, most correctly chose "compass" when asked what to use to detect a current in a wall.
We've made magnets by wrapping wire around straws to make solenoids, which we've powered with the hand generators to make weak magnets - and they accepted that they were weak.
We've made 2 different kinds of mini-motors, and then experience "real" motors in other settings.
We've taken apart the Operation game to see what makes it light and buzz (including a motor, which not all could identify at first.)
Students can use words like power source, series and parallel circuits (which I illustrated with stories about finding the burnt out Christmas tree lights in the series light strings of my childhood - and discovered that a couple of students still use these at home or at Grandma's.) Most understand that static electricity "stands still" (based on the Latin word) while and electric current "runs" (using Spanish.)
We used some fun "energy balls" that lit up and buzzed when the 2 poles were touched to make human series and parallel circuits. I've left out the Arbor Scientific catalog so they can see where all these fun things come from.
They've used balloons to find how electrons are gained or lost, and can explain that electrons are negative, so "gained" means "more negative." I told them that it's Ben Franklin's fault getting positive and negative backwards, that causes misunderstandings, and that I had a lot of trouble with that in Chemistry, so they have an advantage over their future chem classmates because they can tell the difference. We also pulled in a bit about adding and subtracting negatives, which suddenly also made a lot of sense.
And they know that static electricity and magnetism are both similar, but very different.

But it was when I put a big box of wires, batteries, light bulbs, small motors and tools on their tables that they really got excited. First they all made a switch out of a 3x5 card, a paper clip and pronged fasteners and washers, so that they (that is, most of them) kept their circuits off while they were building them. A few got eager just putting things together to see what would happen - including burning out an alligator clip with a short-circuited battery. Some strung out all the components they could find (and most got the batteries going + to -). One group figured out the parallel circuit on their own, and then added new parallel groups until they ran out of components. Such excitement - and EVERYONE was participating. (It didn't hurt that my supervisor just happened to walk in just as the excitement was greatest, and I was showing a student how to straighten a wire with pliers.) Even the girls got into using screwdrivers and pliers, after some announced that that was a boy thing.

On Monday the groups will get to use multimeters and I hope we'll get in a little introduction to Ohm's Law before we have to move on to finals review.

I'm seriously considering starting physics with electricity next year. If I can hook them with that, maybe they'll stay connected for Newton as well!