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Sharing Your Expertise

posted Jul 30, 2017, 8:17 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Jul 30, 2017, 8:29 PM ]
Presented at the 2017 AAPT summer meeting in Cincinnati upon receiving the 
Paul W. Zitzewitz Award for Excellence in Pre-College Physics Teaching. 

Thank you, Dr.  Bailey, the AAPT awards committee, my students, nominators, and all of you from whom I have learned so much. We can accomplish so much more with each other's help, and so many instrumental people have shaped my career that have not yet received this award. Please join me in nominating the physics teachers that influenced you for the Paul W. Zitzewitz Award for Excellence in Pre-College Physics Teaching. 

Workshops are great venues for sharing expertise. This is not a workshop, so I won’t try to share much expertise. Instead, I have some stories to get you thinking about the professional nudges you’ve received and those you have given. Perhaps, too, my tales about professional learning communities, Modeling Instruction, and standards-based grading might pique your interest to learn more.

It’s easy to imagine that we forge our own professional path -- that our choices and decisions have built our careers. But it seems to me that our paths are much more like Brownian motion – where countless interactions with others shape our path, sometimes obviously, but often invisibly -- pushing us in a particular direction. 

So throughout this talk I’ll ask you to remember people that have influenced you. First one: Think about the experiences and people who first opened your eyes to the world of science . . . I hope you’re thinking happy thoughts.

In my case, my parents ran a newspaper in southern Minnesota where I was surrounded by technical wonders -- a 3000 pound paper cutter with a massive flywheel that rumbled the building as it spun -- the temperamental offset printing press infused with the smells of ink, oil, gum arabic, and quickwash solvent -- the old trays of moveable type and the heavy lead linotype slugs -- the 14-foot long flatbed camera with one end in the dark room where the funky smell of developer contrasted with the sharp acid smell of fixer which accumulated silver ions the more it was used -- the clanky 9-foot tall linotype on its way to the scrapper. We even had a hand pump for water until my parents rebuilt, remodeled, and replaced the ancient utilities and walls, always allowing me to be fully involved in fixing and building.
At home, we maintained a huge yard and garden — planting, weeding, watering, and noting what grew well and what didn't. Harvest involved lots of cooking, canning, and freezing - work that we enjoyed as little tastes of summer during the long Minnesota winter.  Mom and Dad’s curiosity and inventiveness around physics, chemistry, biology and ecology, as well as their dedicated service to the community, created a formative environment that made science and service almost inevitable for me. 

No doubt, most of us see teaching as service. And I’ll bet that those who freely shared their time and expertise are still some of your favorite people. 

Wayne Johnson and Tom Butterfield helped me learn how to lead others in Boy Scouts while using their vacation time to take us camping in the Minnesota boundary waters. Who pushed you out of your comfort zone?

Leo Morgan endured my unending questions as I learned woodworking and industrial technology with him. Who had unlimited patience for you?

Bob Stephans taught me acting, singing, and tech theater. Who assigned you a task and said, figure it out?

Gladys Meyers taught me how to run that cantankerous printing press at the newspaper. Who was your all-in-one tutor, trouble-shooting manual, and personal support?

Band director Burt Svendsen helped me build sets for four community theater productions. Who kept you going on big projects with, “What’s next, boss?”

Professor Mark Gealy helped me to understand physics -- with a sense of humor. Who helped you keep things in perspective?

Professor Orv Haugsby taught me to love differential equations and took me on a month-long mathematical exploration of Europe. Who showed you what math, science, and art have in common?

College roommate and fellow physics-teacher-to-be Eric Koser and I road-tripped to Boise, Idaho in 1993 for my first AAPT summer meeting. At the meeting, Eric’s dad, John Koser, introduced us to everyone and made us part of this community. Who stood by your side and who welcomed you in?

My point is that these nudges of shared expertise shape us even more than our conscious decisions.

I went to grad school just up the road from here at Miami University where I worked with Jim Poth and Beverly Taylor. Dr. Taylor involved me in the Teaching Science with Toys program, and I still use toys in my teaching today. But most of my time was spent working with Dr. Poth. 
I assisted him in teaching two courses where we tested draft versions of Tutorials in Introductory Physics, and Physics by Inquiry. Jim and I would frequently have lunch together to go over every line of the curriculum. Why is this question being asked? What is the student difficulty that this is seeking to counter? What are the key questions that should be asked at this checkpoint? Jim gave me a sense of how you could teach in a rich learning environment by asking good questions. Jim also encouraged me to make a presentation at the Ohio section of AAPT on my work in assessing student understanding of electricity and magnetism. I didn't have very dramatic results, but Dr. Poth started me into the world of sharing with other teachers.

Pursuing a teaching position in St. Louis, I met Bill Brinkhorst as he led an AAPT make-and-take workshop with Val Michael. 
I had skilled, generous colleagues in Bill and my office mate, Jerry Taylor -- Who took you under their wing? I still struggled as a new teacher, recognizing that the wonderful materials I had worked with in grad school were completely unsuited to my high school students. I borrowed extensively from my colleagues, without really knowing how to use their materials to serve my students best.

In my second year of teaching, I was encouraged to apply to a professional development program called Modeling Instruction, recommended by Rex Rice. Who looked out for you -- identifying opportunities that you didn’t know existed? 
I committed to two summers at UC Davis under the guidance of Don Yost, Wayne Finkbeiner, and Jeff Hengesbach, and it was just what I needed. 

The multi-week modeling workshop placed participants in student mode while the workshop leaders guided us through labs, problem solving, and lab deployments as they would with their own students. We represented problem solutions on big dry erase boards and presented them to each other, fielding inquiries and socratic questions from fellow participants and the leaders. Despite our degrees in physics, we found that we often hid behind terminology or algebra. The immersive experience allowed us to relearn physics content, practice new pedagogical approaches, and discuss common student issues. 
We turned away from a topics-based approach to physics and started thinking about how to use lab data and multiple representations such as graphs, diagrams, equations, and words to develop the underlying and unifying models of physics.

Modeling gave me a practical framework to implement an instructional philosophy that built upon my prior experiences with Dr. Poth. The sample curriculum was editable and adaptable to my students’ needs. The Modeling instruction community, born out of the intense process of questioning everything that we thought we knew about physics teaching, formed committed bonds with our fellow teachers. 
We believed so strongly in keeping Modeling Instruction going, that we formed the American Modeling Teachers Association to promote, strengthen, and train teachers in Modeling Instruction. I led scores of workshops and worked with the most wonderful teachers across the country in the process. I served as AMTA’s president and I’m now back on the board as we strive to fulfill our mission while staying true to our grass-roots origins.
There are a number of in-depth professional development programs for high school teachers like Modeling, and I hope that you have connected with one. My teaching, before and after I started Modeling, is the difference between playing notes and making music.

Of course, we should attentive to our students’ feedback, because any one of them has spent more time in our classroom than any adult ever will. So, once I started Modeling, I asked my students what happens in our physics class that helps them to learn well.

One student said “I like how we work in small groups then share our work with the rest of the class, and we all give each other beneficial comments.

Another said “When we work through problems as a class and have different groups present them. Also, when we are shown physical/drawn representations of different ideas.

A third said “Completing labs helps me to understand the math behind the physics we do and helps me to have a greater understanding of the material by seeing it first hand.

In St. Louis, I was warmly welcomed into the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers – a group of mostly high school teachers that got together once a month in each other's schools to share a workshop on some aspect of physics teaching. Physics teachers are rare enough that we really need local professional learning communities to find peers beyond our schools. 
Here I learned from peers while also being encouraged to share what was going well in my classroom. We learned from each other and we shared with one another. 

I hope that you have been able to find a local professional support community, but these are still few and far between. For example, when I moved to New York City, I looked forward to finding the equivalent of the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers. To my surprise, no such organization existed. 

My new colleague, Nate Finney, had just completed his program at Teachers College Columbia University, and suggested that I talk to his science education professor, Fernand Brunschwig. Fernand was also was interested in forming a teachers’ group and he started reaching out to other teachers. We offered a weekend workshop that attracted enough people and produced enough momentum to run a series of weekend workshops throughout the coming year. It quickly became clear that physics teachers NYC was too limiting a name for the diverse group of teachers we were attracting, so we rebranded ourselves STEMteachersNYC. 
Five years later, our Google Group has 800 members, we run about 20 weekend workshops a year, we’ve hired staff, and we’ve formed partnerships with AAPT and AMTA among others, enabling us to offer extensive summer workshops: for teachers, by teachers, about teaching.

It's hard to imagine starting a group like STEMteachersNYC, (especially without Fernand, and his professional fundraiser spouse, Jennifer Herrig) but an all-volunteer group like St. Louis Area Physics Teachers has pretty straight-forward ingredients: Gather some teachers in the same space. Ask each teacher to introduce themself and share one thing that went particularly well in their classroom this year. That’s it.  You could add coffee and donuts of course. Note the teaching practices that you want to learn more about, and build workshops around them. It’s worked in St. Louis for over 30 years.

Sometimes the expertise shared with you is less like a nudge and more like getting hit by a truck. Seth Guinals-Kupperman and I had dinner to talk about upcoming workshops for STEMteachersNYC, and I asked him to explain standards-based grading to me. He offered an analogy: when you get the credit card receipt for dinner, it shows the total amount, but it doesn’t indicate what was paid for like the itemized bill does. Similarly, a single letter or number grade doesn’t tell students what concepts they do and don’t understand, so standards-based grading provides itemized feedback according your learning objectives. The learning objectives help keep instruction and assessment focused on what’s important in the course and they provide students with clear criteria for success. Also, if a student has trouble with a concept, they practice and try again.

I looked at Seth and took a deep breath. I had a lot of work ahead of me. Have you had one of those moments of realization? He was right -- this would serve my students better. I had been hiding behind the false objectivity of points-based grading and I couldn’t really say what concepts each student did and didn’t understand. Further, like learning a sport or an instrument, mastery requires sustained practice, specific feedback, and room to make mistakes. I wanted to provide that in my physics assessment.

So, sold on the concept but daunted by the logistics, I got the nudge I needed from meeting Kelly O’Shea. She talked me through a manageable system of keeping track of all of the student data, so I jumped in with both feet and it made a monumental shift in my teaching. My old tests walked the line between being too long to finish or having so few items that missing one question completely screwed up a kid’s grade. I now use a series of quizzes that often have a single problem on them that are rich, robust, multifaceted questions that really make it clear what the student does and doesn’t understand. Kelly describes SBG assessments as low stakes, (because you can try again) with high expectations.

I asked my students to describe our system of assessment and how it impacts their learning:

One student said, “I really, really love the system. Especially because with retakes, you’re constantly having to remind yourself of old material and everything is cumulative.

Another said “In Physics class, I can feel that it is okay to make mistakes because Mr. Schober encourages us to try our best and work on our weaker strengths. (weaker strengths?)

Another said “Suddenly, it's not about me and how 'smart' I am but about what I know.

And another “I enjoy it because it is very low stress; instead of worrying about each assessment being a grade set in stone, I can consider it a learning opportunity and a way to prove what I understand. 

We all share our expertise with our students and children -- that’s our job. But I hope I’ve illustrated how important sharing an idea with another teacher can be. I make this plea to you because 75% of the nation’s high school physics teachers aren’t connected to AAPT, and you, by being present at the summer meeting are the one percent. Further, two-thirds of those teaching physics don't have a degree in physics. These non-physics, non-AAPT physics teachers are wonderful people that mostly come to us from the other sciences. Physics got added to their teaching load because administrator looked at them and said "oh you teach science, teach physics too." We can be an extremely valuable resource to this large population of physics teachers. In fact, most of you could lead a whole variety of workshops in a heartbeat. For example:

Student activities for developing a particle model of light.

Teaching electrostatics with sticky tape, pie plates, soda cans and foam cups. The MacGyver approach.

Using energy bar graph representations - or as the kids call them, LOL’s!

Using labs to introduce a concept - From the holy book of Arnold Arons: concept first, then give it a name. 

Or A make-and-take workshop to send participants away with lab or demo equipment they can use.

Such workshops would benefit those new to teaching physics, or have physics as a fourth prep, or anyone else looking to sharpen their content knowledge and teaching skills. No matter the topic, sharing your expertise locally is vital to improving physics education nationally. 

There are also workshops maybe only a few of you could lead, and if you're one of those teachers, please share: 

How do I go beyond "I treat all my students equally” to “how can I best meet the diverse needs of diverse learners in the physics classroom, acknowledging that not all students need the same attention because of the inequities in our society.”? 

How do I teach physics as part of a unified STEM experience for my students, and how can I work with my colleagues to make this happen?

What can I do in my physics class that helps students transfer physics skills to a greater science awareness and scientific literacy?

I hope during my ramblings you have daydreamed a little bit, and that you are reminded about how much you have to share and how much other teachers need what you have to share. Thank you for this award and to all of you who have shared so much with me. Keep sharing your expertise so that your ideas outlive your teaching career in the teaching practice of others. Thanks to Jerry Taylor, Jim Poth, and Paul Zitzewitz, who did just that.