AAPTSM18: Sunday HS Physics Teacher Camp

Physics Teacher Camp

I had heard so much about High School Physics Teacher Camp being absolutely amazing, but genuinely had no idea what was going to happen. I just trusted that Kelly, Martha, and Michael would put together something spectacular, and I was not disappointed. I was so caught up in the day that I didn’t take a single picture, so enjoy your giant wall of text.

Session 1

Different people had conversations about what they wanted to discuss in a session, and those sessions were assigned to different rooms. I decided to go to the discussion on equity. It was an interesting mix of people. Like physics in general, it was largely white men. A super long conference table was mostly full of people, and only five of them were women. There were even fewer people of color. I am so, so appreciative of white men who are willing to engage in these conversations and do the work to figure out how to change the culture of physics.

The goal was to talk about how we can make systematic changes, but the conversation kept wrapping back around to how we “fix” girls and under-represented minorities. My opinion is that the interventions need to be on the part of the men and boys in physics and physics classrooms. This makes men and boys very uncomfortable a lot of the time, and my point was quickly moved on from. Honestly, though, systematic change needs to happen on the people who are already there, not on the populations that already are not being included or welcomed. Sure, if all food available has iocane powder in it, people who want to eat need to develop the ability to withstand that poison or find another option. BUT HOW ABOUT NOT PUTTING POISON IN THE FOOD? Then everyone who wanted to eat could be nourished without putting themselves at risk.

Another similar point I made a few times (probably a few too many) was that women and PoC can’t do the work to change the culture of the majority population. Here’s an example pertinent to the AAPT summer meeting I didn’t think about until writing this up. If only women and non-binary people wear the pronoun stickers, it’s something that marks them as “other”. EVERYONE needs to wear the stickers for it to be an inclusive act. If you think, “Oh, I don’t need one. My pronouns are obvious,” you are missing the point. It’s not about your pronouns. It’s about making it normal to announce your pronouns. Making that a thing that is as expected and welcomed as a part of your identity. When you set one identity as default and all others have to identify themselves as “something else”, that is unequal power structure. Think about the way society largely assumes characters in media are white unless specifically described otherwise, and sometimes not even then (see: Rue in Hunger Games. Scarlett Amber Perkins in The Graveyard Book). That’s white supremacy.

The majority population who understands the problem needs to do the work on the rest of their majority population. Women can’t normalize discussions about gender. Men who have them are considered woke and progressive and “good guys”. Women who have them are “femin*zis” and “bitches” and “pushing a political agenda”. I’ve been called all that and more for being a feminist out loud. It’s tiring to constantly defend the existence of people like me. I’m lucky to have a local section of AAPT that works hard on diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. I’m lucky to now be teaching in a school that supports this work and these conversations. It’s still a problem that it’s largely the people who are affected most negatively by power structures are the ones expected to do the fighting to undermine them.

I appreciated most when one of the men asked for resources and things to read, and I pointed them toward feminist literature. Feminism IS the fight for equality of genders. Intersectional feminism IS the fight for equality across all power structures. I know that word is threatening and people get weird about it or feel uncomfortable using it. Sit with that discomfort and try to figure out why it makes you feel those things. Words have power. That word was actively undermined to weaken the fight for equality. Don’t buy into the negative press around the word “feminism”. Here are a few resources that might be helpful once you are ready. Please be ready soon.

My personal journey into feminism was a long process. I’m a little wary of telling it considering how pulling receipts is getting people in serious trouble these days. Let’s just say I’m super glad Twitter didn’t exist when I was in college. Becoming aware is hard. It sucks, it makes you look back in shame, it makes you feel horrible about yourself, it makes you realize that you have made mistakes that you won’t always be able to fix. That you hurt people, even if you didn’t mean to. The easiest thing to do is wallow in guilt and try to get the minorities in your life NOW to assure you that you aren’t a bad person and it’s ok. To look for absolution from your past. PLEASE don’t do that. Learn from it. Sit with it. Recognize it. Acknowledge it. LEARN FROM IT. And change.

I could write a lot on this topic, but I want to get back to the rest of the camp, because it was all fantastic. The last note I took is a reasonable summary, even if it is some mangled version of what was actually conveyed. I didn’t get down who said it or who they were quoting or the exact wording, so if it was you or you know who it is or you know the exact quote, please let me know.

“Good people still make mistakes. It’s more important to handle them than not make them.”

Invited Speaker: Brian Frank

This talk shook my entire teaching foundation, but in a way that settled some pieces together that had been unsteady and not well supported before. I love talks like this that tear my ideas apart completely. There are always blind-spots or things that I “know” to be true that I have not really stopped and considered carefully. That’s why I like professional development. I know my own education skewed my sense of what teaching should be like, and I have been taking that apart piece by piece since 2009 when I went to my first ever professional development workshop. Some pieces are so deep I can’t see them anymore and it takes a talk like this to force me into some mental spelunking. Ok. This metaphor is getting out of hand, and I haven’t even told you what the talk was about. Let’s move on to that.

It started with a discussion about how teaching formalized algorithms can actively undermine problem solving ability and negatively affect beliefs about their abilities. Makes sense. I was nodding along. I’ve seen it happen just as he has where students do a few steps, lose the thread, and quit. If they can’t “find the right equation”, then they can’t solve the problem, right? I’ve tried to combat that with going over the algorithms more carefully. If you get the individual steps down, you should be able to put them all together, I figured. Oh, and since you need to be fluent in symbolic manipulation, you have to do that in all your work. You should start practicing that early to gain experience.

Physics teachers may be nodding along and not recognizing the problem here, and that’s because the problem is one of beginning rather than ending. We mostly all have those same final goals, but we can make it easier on students to get there by meeting them where they start and giving them time to understand new content using skills they have instead of asking them to use skills they don’t know to learn content they also don’t know. I’ve made this argument multiple, multiple times when it comes to teaching geometry, but I never reflected that back on myself and what I am doing as a physics teacher. I still find myself sometimes just sitting and musing on ways to do this.

Students often complained that they just want to work with numbers, and I shut that down and required formalized symbolic reasoning “because AP test”. Students often complained that they didn’t understand why they were doing this step because it didn’t make any sense on this problem, and I told them we were practicing it on easy problems so we would be able to do it on more challenging problems. In both of these cases I was not honoring the abilities they brought in to class. I was frustrated that students were complaining about things that were SO OBVIOUS to me, and I had perfectly good, solid, evidence-based explanations for why we were doing it that way. But this was one of those complete blind spots. A big, ol’ unexamined assumption that I put on my students because it was put on me.

This doesn’t mean I will be doing away with algorithms and structured problem solving. It means during the conceptual development parts of my class, I will give them space to discover their own ways of thinking and discovering relationships, and if numbers help them, then use numbers. We’ll need to eventually transition to formalized symbolic algebra “because AP test” but doing that on a “just in time” basis instead of starting with the absolute easiest problems means they get strategies as they are useful to incorporate into their problem solving process instead of jumping immediately to what my high school linear algebra teacher called “dog in circus” algorithms. He sometimes went a little far down the “you get no structure!” path for my ability levels and skills, but that’s the trick of differentiation.

I have so much thinking to do on this. Can I have another two months of summer just for curriculum development?

Afternoon Session

After lunch, where I sat with Seth Guiñals-Kupperman and Dean Baird and had a great conversation, we met back up as a group to figure out afternoon sessions. I decided to go to the discussion about assessing lab reports and lab experiences. The idea we came back to over and over and over again is to ask ourselves “What is the point of this lab?” in order to figure out how to assess it. There is no one Method to Rule Them All. Then it largely became a conversation about doing labs rather than grading them.

Once we’ve figured out the point, our goal, what do we want students to take away from this. The consensus was that labs are for either learning analytical skills or discovering relationships. Confirmation labs where students are given a relationship and then take data to see if that relationship is true do literally nothing for conceptual understanding (see the research of Wieman and Holmes), but can be used to help students practice planning procedures, taking data, taking measurements, and so on.

Discovery labs that focus on students analyzing data to see what story it tells should probably be more straight forward in the planning and gathering data so the effort is focused on the analysis. For the Ohm’s Law discovery lab I do, they take pretty good Ohm’s Law data with resistors and batteries for V=IR. Then I have them build more complex circuits and take measurements there for a more challenging process. THEN I pretty much give them tables of clean data for series and parallel circuits, because the data they take is largely nonsense, because using multimeters correctly for complex circuits is very, very hard to do well. They get better over time, but not quickly enough to get good enough data to find the patterns for voltage and current in simple series and parallel circuits.

I’ve struggled with labs. I have a few I really like (circuits, Zombie Apocalypse Lab, Flying Pigs, my variation of the Physics 500), but there are a whole host of areas that I just haven’t found something that works in my context with the equipment I have available (collisions, conservation of momentum, work-energy, momentum-impulse, torque, most of E&M that isn’t circuits). I mean, there are things I have the students do for some of those topics, but I am unsatisfied with the outcomes and need to re-think them completely. This conversation gave me a lot to think about on that front, and the rubric we made yesterday gives me a good starting point for choosing the focus of a lab and making sure all the skills are practiced throughout the year. I’m also going to be using it as a guidepost to help me answer the questions about what I want the point to be to emphasize the point and diminish the time spent on the other areas and slowly have students work on more and more skills in the same lab until they are able to do an entire thing by the end. Because I had always linked labs so closely to content and then whatever skills went along with that content lab were secondary, I had never considered planning labs in a different way.

I am incredibly weary of the number of times this conference has smacked me in the face with things I had never considered before. Why hadn’t I considered it? What can I do to systematically reconsider things without spending a couple thousand dollars every summer? How do you notice things you don’t know are there? I’m not weary of the conference. I want to be made to consider things, but it’s hard to carry the weight of acknowledging all at once doing so many things so badly for so long without noticing. None of them are things that came up during student reviews or feedback, because they were the things students were used to being done to them. Their complaints were about the things I was doing on purpose and intentionally using things I had learned at previous conferences or PD opportunities. It’s also hard to take these things that I know are better practices to my students only to have them shouted down because it’s different and requires more of them.

I think I need to do a more gradual change. I thought asking them to change from the get-go would let them make the shift with less confusion. I’m more and more convinced that I thought wrong.


The thing I usually share with new audiences is the Electric Building Project. I have hundreds of photos, but it turns out I had them uploaded to my previous school’s Google Photos. It took me the entire hour to figure that out as I checked every single account on every single online photo storage I have ever used and searched the various cloud storage and folder structures of my computer in every way I could think of that might contain it. As people dropped by I would stop my search and tell them about the project, and then go back to looking. It was literally AS they were calling us back to attention that I figured out where they were. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is the link to the assignment document AND the pictures!

Short version: Students make a building with a couple rooms out of cardboard or the like. The building has one power source (9V battery). Each room has to have lights on an independent switch that met certain function requirements (basic series or parallel for my 9th graders. You can complex it up if you like or put multiple switches in a room or whatever for higher level classes). If the wiring is correct and all the switches work, that’s 70 points. There are 15 points for various progress reports along the way before the inspection, and 15 points at inspection for how nice and pretty it is. So if a student did the check ins and turns in a brown cardboard box with working lights, solid 85. If they want that A, they have to include the creative aspect.

The photos are from 2014, but the document is from 2017.  In 2014 I was super in to photography and taking tons of photos of everything. That kinda wore off a bit, and I didn’t document future projects quite so thoroughly. By 2017 I had found a satisfactory combination of instructions, warnings, grade ratios, and rubrics that reduced the complaining.


After the sharing event was time to sit and talk or work or do basically anything we wanted. I got the resources for the project squared away and shared, tweeted out my updated rubric from Saturday, let my brain have a brief introvert recharge, and then jumped back into conversation with other teachers there, which continued to be delightful and interesting and insightful and thoughtful. The whole day was engaging and useful and validating and wonderful. There was never a single moment where I felt like I wanted to be somewhere else or was bored. I checked the time once or twice in each session just because I didn’t want them to end.


In a turn of events that will surprise absolutely no one, I was exhausted by the time I got back to the hotel (thanks for the ride, Michael!). I knew there was food in the Exhibit hall at 7, but G got back to the room at about 6:45 and was starving, so we decided to Door Dash something. He was feeling lasagna. I can make that happen. I laid down to rest for the 45 minutes or so it would take the food to be delivered. Then it was delayed another 20 minutes. Then it was delayed another whole hour. Somewhere in the 2+ hours is took for the cold, soggy food to finally be delivered I honest to goodness fell asleep. And that, kids, is why I was still up and tweeting and writing blog posts (like this one!) Sunday night at 3am.

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One thought on “AAPTSM18: Sunday HS Physics Teacher Camp”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and notes. It really helped me to recall the day, which I’d somewhat lost in the blur of the following conference.
    In particular, I appreciate the extensive references on feminism. I never understood the negativity associated with the term. I could use more of an education about it, so thanks!


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