AP Physics Reading: Day 3 (the conflict)

Monday, June 4

I didn’t write this up yesterday, because after three solid nights of being super social I needed to hermit a little bit, which does not include heavy processing and writing about feelings. My fitbit says I got almost 12 hours of sleep last night. In reality, the first four hours it counted as sleep were me resting (reading) in the dark, quiet and alone. I also learned in the afternoon that my roommate had a family emergency and would be leaving early. I’m heartbroken for her and hope she travels safe and gets to spend quality time with her family when she returns.

So, my conflicts about the AP system are not anything a thousand other teachers have expressed. Just google “conflicted about AP program” for a few examples and then check out the related searches at the bottom. It’s not a new concept, and many of the objections are completely valid. The thing is, despite those conflict AND despite my utter aversion to standardized testing, I am 100% complicit in the system. I am actively advancing the system. I teach AP classes. I grade the AP exams. I write AP exam questions. I’m active in the AP community. And I enjoy all of those things, quite honestly, even if I also hate it and myself just a little bit. Let’s go through those four things one-by-one.

I teach AP classes. I have taught AP classes sine 2008. I have now taught four different AP Physics classes (Physics B, Physics 1, Physics C Mechanics, and Physics C E&M). I started the AP Physics program at my first school. Ultimately, if I were not willing to teach AP physics, I would severely and immediately reduce my career prospects. It is such an ingrained part of the education system that boycotting it or working to undermine it would be working against myself. It’s my job to teach AP classes. Some schools have moved away from AP courses, sure, but in this super messed up education culture, the school has to have zero problems with recruiting and retention, because a strong AP program is a marketing feature thanks to the way kids are coached to build their resume for college. I hate THAT, too, more than I can say, and definitely more than I can fit into this blog post. So, since teaching AP Physics is my job, I want to do it well.

Thus, I grade AP exams. Because it is absolutely incredible professional development for learning exactly what needs to be covered and teaching to the test. Because, as much as I chafe at it, my job as an AP teacher is to teach to the test. And since the AP test means very different things when it says “determine” vs “calculate” or “explain” vs “justify” or “derive” vs” show”, knowing a lot of meta-test-knowledge to pass on means better test scores for my kids. It also helps me learn more physics myself, quite honestly. Looking at questions I’ve never seen before and the solutions helps me make more connections and see relationships I didn’t quite have cemented. There are always softer bits and pieces of knowledge, and this helps me find those and shore them up. Doing this is very, very selfish for me as a teacher. You know what also helps me as a teacher?

Writing AP test questions. I do this because it forces me to sit down and write more new questions for different topics a couple times of year. The topics are assigned, and that pushes me outside my comfort zone. It lets me unleash my creative physics juices to write what I think are interesting problems that directly address learning objectives. It also lets me get my thoughts on how questions should be written in to the AP tests, or at least seen by the AP people. Also, after we submit our written questions, we get a packet of questions written by other teachers, which I then solve and review. This lets me test my knowledge, learn more ways of thinking about writing problems, and see the thoughts other people have on how questions should be written. Another thing that lets me do these things?

Being active in the community. There is a HUGE community aspect to AP physics. We teachers bond over the good and the bad. We share tips, we give suggestions and advice, we argue, we trade barbs, we complain, we empathize and sympathize and give each other no end of trouble. It’s really wonderful to be surrounded by so many people who have so much in common. I stopped being active in the online community when I went to the South Pole and basically signed out of all of my listservs. I never bothered to turn emails back on in a lot of them, including the AP Community, although I’ve now fixed that as of tonight when I was talking with a colleague who asked why I wasn’t active anymore and if I left because this one dude was kind of a jerk to me. Apparently “everyone thinks that”. I was first totally surprised that anyone noticed or cared that I was there and then I wasn’t and then completely shocked that they thought this one dude was enough to push me out of a teaching community. My laziness alone did that, good sir! Anyway, I’ll start getting digests again tomorrow.

Just in the past five days, I have had long conversations about all aspects of teaching, both in general and specifically physics, with dozens of people. That’s one reason I love the grading so incredibly much. You can sit down next to a complete stranger, ask where they teach, and then talk for hours about whatever. AND EVERYONE ENJOYS IT. Tomorrow night is the symposium where people share things they do and we all walk around and ask them questions and visit and talk teaching even more. It’s like a magical physics nerd vacation with 380 of my closest physics nerd friends, most of whom I haven’t even met yet, but when I do, I’m quite certain we’ll have some fantastic conversations.

So there you have it. While I am conflicted about the AP program as a whole, and many parts of AP Physics in particular, I also feel required to participate. And if I am going to participate, them I am going to get as much benefit for myself and my students out of it as I can. If my job is to teach AP Physics, then by god I will be the best AP Physics teacher I can be. Neck deep in it and always moving forward, not backward. Upward, not forward! And always twirling, twirling, TWIRLING towards freedom!

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