This Blog is dead, Long live the blog

Catch what I’m doing over at

Just a quick blurb about what’s changed since I started this blog long ago.

I taught for 3 years just outside of Seattle.  I loved that school.  I spent a year unemployed playing hausmann in Germany.  I spent a year in Northern Virginia teaching Physics in a giant wealthy high school.  Then we moved to Wisconsin.

Two years ago I was miserable in a giant school in Wisconsin.  I felt like the local board of ed thought all teachers were idiots out to steal from them, and generally speaking there weren’t enough competent people making decisions to do the good things people wanted the school to do.  I was also pissed about pay and benefits since Act 10 passed.  I made a decision that I would rather work at a school I liked for sub-par pay & benefits, then continue where I was.  The salary stayed the same, but there was a definite cut in benefits.

Last year was my first year teaching at a Charter school in Milwaukee.  I had more time to plan, the entire organization was purposeful and well defined.  I could see massive changes in my students because the entire school was pushing in the same direction.  I only taught Physics, and after a 2 month period of adjustment to skills and culture, I felt like I was a good teacher again.

This year I’m teaching both Physics and Digital Electronics.  I’m trying to edit the Physics curriculum so next year we have a thorough and well designed curriculum that is textbook independent (any textbook can be used).  I also have 13 boys that I advise and I’m trying to make sure that they graduate on time and get into the college of their choice.  I like teaching at this school.

The importance of clear goals

I have a very clear goal when I’m teaching any class:  I want every student to learn the most they possibly can while they are physically present in my class.

That seems obvious, but being able to state this has made almost every behavioral situation much easier to address.

“Why can’t I just put my head down, I’m not bothering anybody.”  That bothers me, because my goal is for you to learn and you don’t learn while sleeping (sometimes I even get into un-learning through dreaming).

“We can’t chat about social drama?  We’ll do the work at home.”  Unfortunately, you doing the work at home doesn’t allow you to learn as much as possible in class, and it actively interferes with the learning of everybody.  You have great ideas, and I don’t want you to hoard them for yourself.

“I was just asking for help/stretching/looking for a pencil/whatever excuse to avoid doing this difficult problem.”  Unfortunately I’ve noticed that you tend to do this when you’re struggling with a problem and I’ve noticed that avoiding the problem only gets in the way of your learning.  And since my goal is to have you learn as much as possible, I’m going to require that you stay in your seat and only ask for help from the three people directly next to you.  Now let’s make sure that you have a strong start – it looks like you were able to do this, but you got stuck here…. have you tried doing this other thing..?

I used this twice today, and in both cases I saw a complete 180 turn in avoidance.  Now I’ll only have to have that conversation 4-5 more times with each student until they’ve completely shifted attitude.

MTBoS Challenge 1 – Constructions & Sickness

I have a large number of guided-inquiry labs that I am quite proud of in Physics.  But I’m not teaching Physics this year – which is definitely having an effect on my motivation and happiness.  However, in between the days when despair overtakes my better senses, I’m working on doing interesting things with Algebra II and Geometry.  (note:  I just looked at the prompt and I wrote too much, but I’m leaving it all here)

Algebra II – I have a lesson and a curriculum that I am proud of, and I think they’re a nice combination of being rich but also very very real.

Credit card debt and exponential functions.  I blogged about this before and looking back it’s a lesson I’d like to do again.  It can easily be modified for exponential functions, but I really like how you can use recursion as a low entry point.

WGHAA Curriclum (actually download the AMBASSADORS curriclum from here, but it’s a huge pdf).  We took topics from Algebra II, and shoehorned those concepts into lessons about Cholera, Malaria, Influenza and Tuberculosis.  There are also matching lessons for US History and Chemistry.


Geometry – this is my first year teaching Geometry, and I just today decided that the given textbook was crap and I don’t understand why anybody would want to learn Geometry that way.  So I’m mostly going to throw out the textbook, and try to teach the class with this general sequence in mind for each topic/unit:

1)  constructions

2)  conjectures

3)  problems

4)  then proofs.

So a rich problem for that?  I keep coming back to putting a gable on a roof, so maybe I’ll make something out of that.

New Situation

I haven’t updated this blog for awhile, and since the last post many things have changed.  Here is a list:

1)  My spouse got a faculty position in Wisconsin, and we moved to near Milwaukee.

2)  I got a position teaching math (algebra II and geometry) at a local high school.

3)  We moved from Germany to Wisconsin

4)  I am now working more hours, with more students and with less pay than I ever have as a teacher.

5)  Due to big changes in the school organization, there has been almost no progress made towards common core alignment, and the math curriculum is straight out of a 2007 textbook.  I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to change the “lessons.”

6)  This isn’t new, but I feel like I’m exhausted all of the time.

I blame most (not all) or this on the current aversion to taxes and providing schools with the funding and resources to do the jobs that we are tasked to do.  Losing collective bargaining in this state is just making the abuse of teachers (and school administrators frankly – their jobs are only getting harder also) legal.  This isn’t a political argument, it’s just about the simple calculation that the pay hasn’t changed but the job has gotten way harder.

This ended up as a bit of a rant, but I wanted to get that off my chest in a public forum.

I intend to participate in the Math Twitter Blog o Sphere challenges, so look for those if you ever read this blog.

Constant Velocity & Forces

This is just a quick post to get down my thoughts, but I’d love to get some feedback.

So I tried to teach with a blend of the physic by inquiry and modeling instruction that I understand.  It worked okay, but there were a few things that didn’t go super smoothly.  One of those was definitely getting stuck in the kinematics doldrums.

I even tried to introduce balanced forces before moving on to acceleration (as suggested by Kelly O’Shea), but I couldn’t find a experiment that made the idea stick.  Instead I reverted back to unbalanced forces cause acceleration – therefore no net force means no acceleration.  At the end of the year, a solid chunk of my students had reverted back to thinking a net force is required in order to move an object at all.  Ugh.

So for some reason I was just thinking about this, and I think I have an experiment/situation that might enable me to introduce balanced forces before acceleration.  Here’s the idea:

Make a train with the following sections:  Constant Velocity car, spring force scale/gauge, dynamics cart, another spring scale, and a friction block.  Have the students determine if the cart in the middle matches the constant velocity particle model.  Record the measurements on the force gauges.  Try a different friction block (to get different forces, but small enough the car can still pull), check for constant velocity and record the forces.

I think that would flow nicely to adding that part of the constant velocity model is balanced forces.

I haven’t done any modeling workshops, so I’m really just picking up the parts I understand.  Is there anything else I’m missing here?  Do you think this will work?  Do you think this won’t work?  Constructive criticism needed!

Job Seeking

Hi all 30 or so people that read this blog!  I just read Sophie Germain’s post on having a network, and I realized I haven’t tested the extent of mine.  I’m moving to the immediate Milwaukee area for my wife’s career.  Hopefully this will be the last move for a long time.  I’m searching for jobs at high schools around the area in math or physics.   If you’re not a careful reader, you’re going to tell me I can apply for jobs on the WECAN site.  I know this, and I will.  I just want to activate the underground network also, and anyone that has information on schools in southeast Wisconsin, I’d appreciate that information.   Particularly any schools that lean in the direction of inquiry learning, actively building school academic culture or standards based grading.

Thank you network, even if you can’t help me in this instance.

Edit:  My real name is Chris Hill, and you can contact me at cphill at the gmails.

Things I meant do well this year

… but I didn’t.

I have explanations, but no excuses. It was my first year in a new school, new culture and new curriculum. I had to give “transfer tasks” which were really just glorified projects with really crappy rubrics. Science Fair. Let me say that again: Mandatory Science Fair.

In any event, as this year draws to a close there are some things that I realize I should have taught, but I didn’t. I’m going to record them here so I can be sure to work on them wherever I end up next year.

1. Reading. Careful, Active, thorough, sense-making reading. I realized way too late in the year that my students were not actually reading the entire problem. It was very apparent when I asked a student to read a problem aloud, and they skipped entire sections of the text. I asked them to read it again, and again they skipped over the same section of text. We’re not talking paragraphs here, I mean all of the words after a comma in a sentence.
After I realized this, I explicitly taught a process where students read the problem 3 times, each time looking for different information to underline. That helped, but I really should have been teaching the reading process I have on this very blog from the beginning of the year!

2. Group work norms & team building. Yeah, rookie mistake. I didn’t spend time on classroom norms at the beginning of the year. I’m paying for that in spades now. There are several times where I would like to point to a poster in the room, and say “are you behaving according the classroom norms that you decided at the beginning of the year?” And groupwork, that is a huge issue. It turns out that physics was one of the few classes where students were required to work in groups all the time, and some of my students are real snooty. They are downright rude to their classmates, through verbal and non-verbal snubs. I pull individuals out to have a chat, but it’s hard to force someone to acknowledge and discuss with their group mates. Groupwork norms would help a ton – along with an icebreaker each time we form new groups.

3. Discussion prompts. I’ve actually created an assignment (as a way to bring up horrible midterm exam grades) where the students write a dialog between two students in the style of Physics By Inquiry or Derek Muller‘s presenting common misconceptions before correct explanations.  I plan on using the best of these throughout the next year as the basis for a class discussion.

4.  Use Minds on Physics from the beginning.  If you haven’t looked at this already, check out and their online Minds on Physics quizzes.  This year we got our school to foot the bill for a yearly subscription.  In the future I will gladly drop the bones out of my own pocket, because they helped provide solid conceptual practice.

Culturalization(?) & Meaning

I’m not even sure if that’s a word. Just checked, it is. I’m noticing something big about my students as I’m grading quizzes on Momentum. Something about using conservation of momentum is making it clear which students are memorizing formulas vs. understanding the basic idea of conservation.

Here’s where I’m noticing something radically different than I saw at my last school: My perception right now is that I have more female students memorizing than male students. I have several male students that I know are grappling with the meaning, but only a few female students that consistently grapple with meaning. This is not how I remember my physics classes in my previous school.

I have no data to back this up, but my current perception is feeding into the notion that any gender difference in any field is more cultural than anything else. And I don’t like any culture that favors any level of memorization for anyone over grappling with ideas and finding meaning on your own.

Document the Positive #3

Another thing that I did well this year, was getting guesses before we delve into the problem, or find a solution.

Asking students to put down a guess did a whole lot of things, all informative and only some really helpful.

1)  It revealed to me that they had never considered using their own experience to determine if an answer is reasonable.  I spend a substantial part of the year trying to divorce them from the idea that the teacher has a magical ability to know the answer.  At first I would just walk through their math and reasoning.  Over the last month, I’ve started thinking out loud some estimation calculations (things like g = 10 m/s/s, round everything off to 1 sig fig, do the mental math out loud)

2)  I found that they had never gone through the thought process of determining a range of reasonable answers.  Even the Hi/Low was a real struggle at first.  I have to think this one through a bit more, because I pretty much limited myself to talking about more/less than 0 most of the time.

3)  One thing I should have done, is to create a page in their notebooks of useful quick and dirty conversions.  Things like 60 mph ~ 30 m/s.  You can roughly double any speed in m/s to get mph.  10 Km  = 6 miles.  2.2 lbs = 1 kg, but also .5 kg ~ 1 lb.  I think those might have helped.

4)  At the very least, by forcing a guess I was able to find out if anyone in the class had a logical thought process.  I could toss out a ridiculous number and the students would all guess around my number.  I did this with estimating how far up a ramp a cart would roll during a gravitational potential energy / kinetic energy demonstration.  All of the guesses in the first situation scattered around my ridiculous guess.  In the second situation they jumped all over the map (at least they didn’t trust me anymore).  In the third and last situation, they did the calculations, and adjusted for friction.  Just by their guesses I could assess how much they understood about that situation.

5)  The last part is that forcing a guess (along with a diagram) forced them to think about a physical situation – or at least read the problem – before jumping off into math world.  Also, having that guess to check against caused more students to bring back that answer from “math world” and see if it actually fit before moving forward.

Document the Positive #2

I made a promise to myself that I would document positive things this entire week.  Today I’m going to focus on experimental method.

At the beginning of the year, I changed my approach to uncertainty and measurement.  I just wish that I had continued the push well into the year.

In the past, I’ve done this great lab on measurement that I got from my cooperating teacher during my student teaching.  The students are asked to measure the length and width of a lab table using only a piece of string.  The point is that their measurement has a large uncertainty due to the quality of their tools.  Then they calculate area to see how uncertainty in measurements propagates.

In previous years, this quickly turned into the rules for significant figures.  During the lab, I made them keep writing all measurements as:

3.4 +/- 0.1 strings

But in honors physics I jumped to just using significant figures too quickly.  I assumed that my honors students were higher skilled than my general physics students (whoops!).

The major benefit was that uncertainty in measurements wasn’t just “our result is wrong” or the useless “human error.”   We changed our language so that uncertainty was in “human hands using a cell phone timer” or “normal eyesight and a meterstick.”   Therefore, it was easier (although still difficult) for students to see slightly different numerical results as equivalent.

So what I’d like to do next year – to push the uncertainty of measurements throughout the year, is to require the plus/minus on every lab.

I’m also thinking it would be nice to have a measurement problem on quizzes/tests.  Something where I’ve taken measurements, and the students need to apply their calculations and provide a prediction along with uncertainty.  Well, maybe that might be a bit much.

Right, so that’s something I’m proud of.  It set me a solid week behind the other physics teachers, starting a slow drift resulting in my being 1-2 units behind the other teachers at the end of 3rd quarter.  I think the ability to compare real measurements is worth the time.