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27 September 2015

How a visitor improved my class's confidence

I teach 9th grade at a boarding school for boys.  When we host prospective students on campus, they often come to my class.  I don't generally let them sit passively and watch -- I make every attempt to get them involved in the day's activity.

Yesterday (yes, we teach on Saturdays, aren't you jealous) a prospective student sat in as I introduced mirror ray diagrams.  We had already covered ray diagrams for converging and diverging lenses, so the class already had the general principles of the topic ingrained.  So class consisted of just a few elements:

1. A three-minute quiz based on questions on our recent assessment.
2. Grading that quiz
3. Six minutes of me demonstrating two mirror ray diagrams predicting the location of an image
4. Setting up a converging mirror to verify the ray diagram's prediction  
5. Handing out this worksheet which includes nine situations for students to practice ray diagrams

At step 5, I put on music and allowed students to work at their own pace.  They brought up each completed diagram for my approval.

So what did the visiting student do?  He didn't know about ray diagrams, right?

No, he did not.  I gave him a copy of the quiz just so he could follow along.  I gave him a copy of the worksheet.  I asked him to make his best effort to join in, attempting the ray diagrams and showing me his work.  To this gentleman's credit, he did -- in a class of students a year older than he, when he must have felt very much the outsider, he joined in.

And, of course, he got things wrong.  In his first attempt, he didn't use a straight-edge.  Many of my class made that mistake seven days ago, when we first tried lens ray diagrams.  I gently explained that he needed to use the ruler I had placed on his desk.  So he went back to try again.

The next time he came up to see me, he had drawn a ray incorrectly, and his image was in the wrong place.  Thing is, my students had made exactly these kinds of errors a week ago, too!  It was cathartic for my guys to help this prospect out.  Everyone in my class was friendly, helpful, welcoming... 

...and a wee bit smug, knowing that they were beyond the rookie mistakes.   

At the end of class, I shook hands with the prospect.  He seemed relieved to be done, but also quite a bit proud to have joined this physics class seamlessly.  

And a couple of my guys walking out with the prospect also walked a bit straighter.  As a student, it's easy to lose sight of the significant progress you've made, even just a few weeks into the school year.  When new material comes at you nearly every day, when tests and quizzes are raining down from every subject, it's so easy to focus on "failures" -- you missed this question, you didn't demonstrate this skill, you didn't remember this fact.  Our visitor gave my students the opportunity to see for themselves the things they DID know, the skills they HAD developed.  Helping this youngling out made them feel good, reinforced their own knowledge through teaching, and built tremendous confidence.

And the youngling?  He kept working, kept listening to my students' advice with a smile, neither ran away screaming nor folded up silently in an intimidating academic situation.  So I very much hope to see this guy in my class next year.

14 September 2015

"Motivation" for completing in-class exercises... inspired by the AP Physics reading

I've heard the AP Physics reading referred to as a "sweatshop."  The moniker is full of hyperbole, of course, yet unironic.  At the reading, teachers used to independence and flexibility find themselves required to work unyieldingly to the clock.  At 8:00, you sit and grade for two hours.  Take a break -- exactly fifteen minutes, exactly from 10:00-10:15 -- and keep grading until lunch.  One prescribed hour for lunch, and back at it... well, you get the idea.

When you've been grading for days, and your brain is tired, and it's still another hour before lunch, what's to stop a reader from just sitting there and pretending to work?  Or from taking a 55-minute bathroom break?  This what I mean by the hyperbole of the sweatshop analogy.  The supervisors at the AP reading have no real power.  No whips.  It's even vanishingly rare for someone to be sacked on the spot (and the presumptive sackee still has a cushy tenured professorship to return to, so even sacking is an empty threat).

The only leverage that the reading leadership truly holds over the grunts is professional pride... and that's powerful leverage indeed.  Teachers generally want to do things right.  They care.  They don't want to look like the weak link in front of colleagues.

So, each day, the table leaders list each reader in the room on a wall chart.  As a reader finishes a pack of 25 exams, he or she makes a tally mark in the correct space on the chart.  There, laid bare for the entire room to see, is a permanent record of how much each person has contributed to the group effort.

Now, the leaders emphasize over and over again: the reading is not a race.  Accuracy is far more important than speed.  There's no prize for the person who reads the most exams.  Just do your best, and speed will come.  No pressure.

Nevertheless, consider a session on day four of the reading in which most of the room reads ten packs of exams or so, but Jason only reads three packs.  How does Jason feel?  How do his colleagues in the room feel?  No one, especially the table leader, will likely come to Jason and have a word about his slow relative reading pace.  The worst consequence for Jason will likely be some stares from his colleagues.  Nevertheless, Jason will have taken a serious blow to his professional pride.

If Jason still is slow in the next session, perhaps the table leader might offer some tips about speeding up -- always reminding Jason that speed is secondary to accuracy, and isn't truly that important.  Perhaps in the beer tent that night Jason might take some good-natured needling from his friends about his slow day.  But the real incentive here is that Jason will want desperately to feel like part of the team... no one at the reading wants to feel like he or she has let down the communal goal.

So what does this have to do with your class?

A standard type of class, especially with my 9th grade, involves students working at their own pace on in-class laboratory exercises.  I'm often asked, how do I motivate students to stay on task?  Certainly I offer credit for each completed exercise, but to a 14-year-old, it's likely that gossiping with friends or secretly checking a fantasy football team will trump physics work any day of the week.

Well, to start with, I have a pretty good classroom presence.  I generally notice quickly when conversations turn to sports, music, or sex rather than to physics.  Just a friendly but firm call-out from me, especially early in the year, can remind students that I'm paying attention, and that I expect them to focus.  My eyes and my words take care of egregious issues.

What about the student who would rather sit with his mouth hanging open rather than do the tough work of engaging mentally with physics problems?  I do require frequent trips to the front of the room to check with me.  When I haven't seen someone in a while, I may inquire why not.  

As at the AP reading, though, the real incentive is a transparent display of progress.  Students earn credit for each exercise they complete.  To keep track of how many exercises each person has done, I use an AP-style tally board -- see the picture above.  It becomes a bit uncomfortable if Jason hasn't finished an exercise at all, while his classmates are all on number five or six.

I've observed that 9th graders aren't usually embarrassed about poor or lazy performance when the teacher is the only one who knows or notices.  "Oh, sorry, physics is hard, I'll never get it, I'm just not that good."  But when their peers are the ones taking off points on a quiz; when their peers observe perverse slackage; when their peers say "you know, we've only done a problem like this four times, it's not that tough" -- then those 9th graders tend to pick up the mental effort.  

Please understand, the intent of the progress board is not to shame anyone.  Taking a cue from my years as an AP table leader, I emphasize repeatedly -- physics exercises aren't a race.  No one gets a prize for being fastest.  It's more important to be right than to be sloppy and quick.  I never call anyone out merely for a failure to keep up.  Nevertheless, the board is there, staring at the class, giving some folks second thoughts about taking a bathroom break, perhaps encouraging someone to get just one more done before the bell rings...