I need maybe a few extra weeks of the conference without any actual sessions, just big rooms with food, good wi-fi, and comfortable seats so I can sit with colleagues from across the country, across the world, from high school and 2 or 4 year colleges, from rural to inner city, from brand new baby physics teachers that need to be cultivated and built and supported to the people who’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive and working constantly to update and improve and pass on their wisdom and help us avoid their mistakes. I need more time with them!
Today was another good day. The morning was rough. I was still struggling with good sleep at reasonable hours. Sleepy Val has far less self control than Fully Awake Val, and having gotten approximately three hours of sleep meant Sleepy Val was very sleepy and hit the snooze button enough times that she finally just turned the entire alarm off. Val Who Finally Woke Up A Bit regretting missing the entire morning of sessions, but I think the trade off of not being utterly exhausted was worth it. I got to afternoon sessions and was able to pay attention, listen and synthesize, take notes, and generally be present, which probably would not have happened if I had forced myself up and out in the morning.
I made it to a session on Using Historical and Popular Texts in Physics that included a discussion of having students critique science fiction. I’d heard of the concept before, but this actually put a bit of structure on it that I can maybe sink my teeth into and make something happen. There were also people who talked about classes they taught that were more history or philosophy of science and went back to original documents by Aristotle, Newton, Huygens, Einstein, Etc. I had never considered that before. I LOVE it when I’m confronted with that. New considerations are my favorite considerations.
After that I met up with a colleague and visited for a bit before the plenary session that was a conversation with Shirley Malcolm. Dr. Malcolm had a list of accomplishments multiple pages long, and I really appreciated her insights. She went to college as a Black woman in 1963. She’s seen some shit. She’s had experiences we as a society like to pretend didn’t really exist and still don’t exist. I want to listen to her for hours. Her talk lined up beautifully with and reconfirmed the mindset change that started with Brian’s talk on Sunday at Physics Teacher Camp. We MUST appreciate students for where they are in their journey and help them move farther along their path.
Our job is not to put up artificial barriers and them blame them when they can’t get past some of them. There are reasonable barriers, of course. If a student cannot do basic arithmetic, it will be basically impossible for them to be successful in calc-based physics, but a basic knowledge of trig coming in is enough. Cultivating skills and increasing their knowledge is where it’s at. Her comments on weed-out courses hit me in the guts. I barely got through some of the weed-out courses at Harvey Mudd. They made me feel like an idiot and a failure, and if stubbornness is genetic, I can list people I have to thank for that going back a ways, because that’s the only way I made it through.
Some of the best quotes:
- “If you don’t know broader impacts, you didn’t get funded.”
- “If you want something to happen, you have to change the policy so that it doesn’t allow it to not happen.”
- “We tend to value what we can measure rather than measure what we value.”
The session after that was on the Art and Science of Teaching, which had some very interesting sessions on story-telling and how to give students stories to tell as well as how to get information out of the stories students tell.So many things to talk about and think about and process. Another interesting session was looking at how PER from undergraduate classes transferred to graduate level. I’ve been trying for years to take it to high school, but once again I had not considered the other end of the spectrum. This quote sums it up pretty well:
“In theory there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”
It turns out graduate students arrive thinking of themselves physicists and as experts, but still have massive holes in their knowledge and conceptual understanding. This blows a hole in the false dichotomy of “novice vs expert” that so many fall in to, even me for a long time. It seems research has looked at those two groups, but never really considered the large spectrum in between of people with different skill levels and how they think. That’s a bit of an aside on my part, but the point remains that graduate students are neither novice nor expert. Even using that terminology is automatically using a deficit model, implying that the goal is to “fix” novices and turn them into experts. I’m no longer convinced this should be a goal at all. Novices have different minds, not worse or bad or deficient minds. That needs to be honored and cultured. Start where they are, utilize their strengths rather than focusing on what they are “missing”, and brains will begin to make connections on their own. That’s what brains DO.
I have no idea how to implement this fully in my classroom, but I know a lot of things for me to STOP doing, for sure. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I basically throw out my curriculum and start over again from scratch each year (carefully picking and choosing pieces to reuse), but this is why. When my model is constantly having entire wings demolished and rebuilt, how can I continue to use stuff I now know is inherently problematic? And when I discover the problems in the new curriculum, I’ll throw it out and try again. Sometimes I think life would be easier if I stopped giving a damn, but it would be so boring. I didn’t choose this job because it would be easy.
I met up with a colleague from back home for supper after, and then we went to the High School Physics Share-a-Thon where people brought stuff and shared it with one another. Some of them were incredibly applicable to my context, and I am going to do them the moment I get home. Some were not useful for me at all, and that’s ok! I’m sure someone in the room got value from them, and I still appreciate everyone who got up and offered their materials and ideas.
I still struggle with the concept that I have anything to offer other teachers when everything I have ever done has been taken and adapted from the legends I have the privilege to work or speak with on a frequent basis (Dan Burns, Bree Barnnet-Dreyfuss, Dean Baird, David Marasco, Stephanie Finander, Kelly O’Shea, Zeke Kossover, and I could just keep listing them forever). I am aware this is a symptom of imposter syndrome. I’m working on it. If I didn’t have anything of value, school districts wouldn’t hire me to train their teachers. The first time a colleague asked me a question that began with, “Val, since you’re basically my mentor…” I would have been less surprised if he had begun doing a jig. I mean, hell, this blog itself I thought would be me shouting into the void and a record to keep just for myself, but people seem to be finding bits and pieces of it useful. Hell, my last post on the Physics Camp was read by someone in Oman. The world is a strange place.
Anyway, major take-aways from Monday:
- Honor where everyone is on their individual journey, whether students or colleagues or yourself. Growth happens as and when people are ready to grow. You can’t make someone learn, you can’t make someone change, you can’t make anyone do anything. You can clear a path for them and offer a hand up, but if they want to go another route, or even take a few steps back down the trail, support them. Talk to them. ASK them what they need. They may not always know or even recognize there’s something in the way. The barrier they face may be completely invisible to you (see: anxiety, past trauma, upbringing, cultural norms, and a million other things), but that does not mean they are not real. Honor where people are now. That is the only way they will be happy to have you with them as they move forward.
- Don’t focus on making students experts. They aren’t. They won’t be. Not in one year. They’re teenagers, they have 3-5 other classes (sometimes more), they have sports and theatre and robotics and music and LIVING LIFE. They are not going to put all their effort and energy into this one subject the way someone who chose this subject as their career will. Stop trying to make “expert” happen. It’s not going to happen.
- Make absolute, 100% sure that I am not the barrier in front of their success. I don’t know how to do this other than self-reflection, student feedback, and honest conversations. I may know physics better than they do, but I definitely do not know them better than they do, and it would do me well to listen to them in a more open manner and without my “I’m the expert! I know best!” blinders on.