“It’s Not That Bad”

When a normally conscientious student lets the end of the quarter arrive with a failing (or barely passing) average because of missing work, it doesn’t take a lot of insight to realize that something is wrong.  I had two such students in my room today, doing after-the-last-minute make-up work. Continue reading

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Time Commitments

In 2007 when I taught in Belmont (one of the wealthier suburbs of Boston), I observed that a significant number of my students expressed stress about their time commitments. I devised a survey that asked students the following:

Hours Per Week Activity
33 School (7:55–2:30 Monday–Friday)
Homework (usually 1–2 hr/wk for each “regular” academic class;
4–6 hr/wk for each AP class)
Extra-curricular activities at school (sports, clubs, drama, band/orchestra, etc.).
Activities outside of school (sports, church, youth groups, music lessons etc.; include both in-school and outside-of-school activities).
part-time job and/or child care/family responsibilities (in a typical week)
  Total Scheduled Hours per week

I also asked students to indicate whether their schedules caused them stress “rarely”, “sometimes” or “often.”

I found the following distribution for the number of hours per week for which my Belmont students were committed and their resulting stress levels:


I talked with my students about how 40 hours a week was the equivalent of a full-time job, and the fact that the average student was committed for 55 hours per week explained why so many of them were feeling stressed.

Since 2011, I’ve been teaching in Lynn, a low-income city about 10 miles north of Boston. Lynn kids don’t talk nearly as much about the stresses in their lives, whether from their schedules or other sources, so I naïvely thought that they must therefore be less busy.  This year, I surveyed my Lynn kids about their time commitments and I found out just how wrong that assumption was:


The average time commitment for my students this year is 68 hours per week.

The students were similar academically within their respective schools.  The Belmont students represented a little over 10% of the student body, spanning grades 10-12. Students surveyed were from two AP Chemistry classes and two honors Chemistry 1 classes.  (In Belmont, approximately half of the students take honors chemistry.)  The Lynn English students represented just under 5% of the student body, spanning grades 11-12.  Students surveyed were from three AP Physics classes and two standard level Physics 1 classes.  (In Lynn, because of the math requirement, nearly all of the Physics 1 students are in the top 50% of their class.)

The differences between the two graphs are striking.  The next time someone tells me something about poor people being lazy or less hard-working, I can cite evidence from my own classroom to the contrary.

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Raison d’Être

One of my now former students graduated on Friday.  Just before graduation, she handed one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received.  I am reproducing parts of her letter here, with some identifying information removed. Continue reading

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The First AP Physics 1 Exam

This is a self-centered post, for which I ask my readers’ indulgence.

This has been my first year teaching AP Physics, and the first year of the new AP Physics 1 exam.  (For those not familiar with the change, effective last fall the old algebra-based AP Physics B course was split into two courses:  AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based and AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based.  There were no changes to the two calculus-based AP Physics C courses.)  Like many high schools, we turned the old honors Physics 1 course into the new AP Physics 1 course.

To say that my students were nervous going into the exam would be an understatement; some of them were basket cases.  However, when I met some of them on their way out of the test, they said things like, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” “It was much easier than the practice test,” “Most of it was stuff we saw in class,” and from one of my top students, “I think I got at least a 4.”

I am happy — happy for my students as well as for myself.

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Avoiding Failure by Never Trying

Each year, as students sink farther and farther into the abyss of test-driven curriculum and low-level thinking, I have to work harder and harder to teach them high-level thinking skills.  This year, my students and I seem to be approaching a tipping point. Continue reading

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The Aftermath of Standardized Test Prep

When potential students ask whether (high school) physics is hard, I tell them, “Imagine a year of algebra word problems, in which you have to understand a situation in order to figure out which equation to apply and how to apply it.  Where most students have trouble is with the difference between understanding the problem vs. merely identifying the numbers. Continue reading

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Making A Student Cry

I made one of my students cry this afternoon. Continue reading

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Your Wish is My Command

Every year, on the first day of school, I subject my classes to a ruse in which I eat a “candle”. I get out a candle holder and put a candle inside it. I lead a class discussion in which we talk about the “observations of a candle” activity (which most of them have already done at least once), and I ask them what the flame is, what it needs, and why various means of extinguishing it work. Then I lit the candle and asked them how I should extinguish it. The most popular requests are “cover it” or “pinch it”. But this year in one of my classes, a student jokingly said “Eat it!” So I did, flame and all. Continue reading

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Saving Grandpa’s Life: The Value of Science Education

My father, the wonderful and caring person whom my students can blame for much of my sense of humor, is in the hospital. (He’s doing well and should be released in a few days.) While my fourteen-year-old daughter Margaret didn’t technically save his life, she did figure out a key piece of information that enabled doctors to make sense of a key data point that was baffling them, enabling them to come up with a diagnosis that makes sense and fits all of the data. Continue reading

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Senior Prank 2014

This morning, Lynn English’s Class of 2014 pulled their senior prank, which was a brief, raucous party in the third-floor corridor of the school. Students had various types of party noisemakers. They filled the hallways with confetti as they sang, banged on lockers, and cheered for about ten minutes before dispersing and heading off to class. Continue reading

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