Help! We need to do better.

One of our recent physics teaching graduates took a mid-year vacancy teaching 8th grade physical science in an struggling urban area. There are many factors making this job particularly difficult for the student, operating under survival mode.

  • The new teacher is coming into the classroom mid-year, with students who have had a substitute for the past month
  • Between the interview and first day, there were four days, little to time to prepare and get oriented.
  • The school appears to have no induction process for new teachers
  • The school really is a struggling / failing school, both by qualitative sense and quantitative measures
  • The population this teachert is working with is very different than populations he experienced while student teaching
  • Our existing program does too little to prepare students for classroom management
  • Both the students’ content and pedagogical knowledge better prepared him for teach high school physics than middle school
  • Our program doesn’t yet properly support students in making job decisions and initial/ongoing  support.
  • Our program doesn’t yet have students leaving us with any fail-safes like, if all else fails, “Here is exactly what you are going to do the first month you are teaching, and here is a basket of all the things you’ll need to pull that off.”

By far the biggest problems he is facing is typical for new teachers–classroom management. One of the things I’m wondering is, what role can the physics department play in preparing / supporting students in this way? I mean, I can say, well, “Shouldn’t the education classes deal with that?” But I think that’s just punting on responsibilities to put our physics teacher in the best possible position to succeed.

I feel like that last bullet might be the thing that we can change the most in our department. Make sure that when students leave, they have very specific plans in place, including activities oriented toward setting classroom expectations. A kind of thing that can carry them through that terribly difficult beginning. And the second thing is for us to be more involved with them in the decisions they make for jobs.  And obviously, we need to better coordinate with education side on initial and ongoing support, because we can’t do that alone. But we should be involved.

Help! What do we need to do? What do we need to think about? Grace, I’m looking at you especially.


The first two days of the teaching of physics were a bit unnerving for me and for students this semester. Students ended up being confronted with a lot of things they didn’t know, or weren’t able to do, or didn’t understand–mostly things they were confident they knew, were able to do, and understood. The feeling in class was tense-confidences shaken, identities threatened, feelings of shame rising…

But, today, for whatever reason, we emerged more gracious, more accepting, more willing to be wrong, more willing to open up, more willing to sit with confusion, to listen to others’ confusion, more willing to lean into to the unknown and face it admirably.

More than anything, that constitutes significant progress.

I am asking a lot of these students this semester–a lot of reading, a lot of synthesizing,  a lot demonstrating mastery of physics concepts, a lot of practice teaching, a lot of learning about student thinking, a lot of applying what they’ve learned to new contexts. I am likely going to overwork them to more than one breaking point.

But the hardest thing. The hardest thing may be the vulnerabilities I am asking them to step into and embrace. At least for today, we stood together, courageously so.

Readings I’m using in Various Science Teaching and Learning Courses

This semester, I am teaching (i) an inquiry course for future elementary school teachers, (ii) a teaching physics course for future physics teachers, and (iii) a teaching and learning seminar for physics majors who are serving as undergraduate TAs in one of our reform-oriented introductory physics courses.

As semester goes on, I’m going to try to keep up updated reading list for each of the courses. Here’s where we are thus far…

Inquiry Readings:

Week 1:

“The Pendulum Question” from Seeing Science in Children’s Thinking: Case Studies of Student Inquiry in Physical Science by David Hammer and Emily van Zee. [Video portion discussed in class on first day]

Week 2:

“The virtues of not knowing” from The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning by Eleanor Duckworth.

Teaching of Physics Readings:

Week 1:

“The sun goes around the earth–Goals of Science Education” from An Inquiry into Science Education: Where the Rubber Meets the Road by Richard Steinberg

“Student Inquiry in a Physics Class Discussion”, in Cognition & Instruction, by David Hamme

Week 2:

Selected sections of “Chapter 2: Rectilinear Kinematics” from Teaching Introductory Physics, by Arnold Arons, paired* with “Building the Constant Velocity Model” over at Physics! Blog! by Kelly O’Shea.

Every student will read one of the following papers and with a group give a brief presentation of the research, its findings, and discuss how a PBI problem they did earlier seems informed by this research.

Teaching and Learning Seminar:

Week 1:

“Unpacking the nature of discourse in mathematics classrooms” in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, by Knuth & Peresseni

Week 2:

“Questioning and Discussion” from Teaching Secondary School Science: Strategies for Developing Scientific Literacy, by Bybee, Powell, and Trowbridge.

Week 3:

Reflective Discourse: developing shared understanding in a physics classroom” by Van Zee and Minstrell. (1997)


* An explicit goal of mine in teaching of physics to pair readings–one that is closer to the trenches of teaching and one that is closer to research. Both of these reading are fairly close to teaching, but Kelly’s writing is like your are in her classroom, and Arons writing is a bit more distant.

Revoicing and Retrospective Recontexualisation

Lemke writes in “Analyzing Verbal Data” about the concept of retrospective recontextualisation

“Discourse forms do not, in and of themselves, “have” meanings; rather they have a range of potential meanings. Words, phrases, sentences are tools that we deploy in complex contexts to make more specific meanings, to narrow the potential range of possible meanings down to those reasonably or typically consistent with the rest of the context. Even in context, at a moment, an utterance or phrase may not have a completely definite meaning. It may still express a range of possible meanings, differently interpretable by different participants or readers. This is very often the case at the point where it occurs. The context needed to specify its meaning very often at least partly follows its occurrence. So it may seem to have a more definite meaning retrospectively than it has instantaneously. In fact, depending on what follows, its meaning, as participants react to it, can be changed radically by what follows (retrospective recontextualisation).”

I thought about Lemke recently while reading Alex Barr’s post* about productive prior knowledge. In that post, he describes a discussion he had concerning the common misconception about the moon’s phases (i.e., the earth’s shadow is cast on the moon), and how you can think about that misconception in terms of kernels of productive knowledge (e.g., the moon itself blocks light from getting to the back half).

Lemke argues in the above passage that the meaning given to any student utterance happens in interaction, in part based on what proceeds the utterance itself. I’m imagining this in the context of teacher re-voicing. Specifically, I was imagining three different revoicings that might occur after a student makes a statement like, “The phases are casued by the earth’s shadow falling over the moon,” and how they might, retrospectively, change the meaning of the student utterance. Here’s the gist of several possible re-voicing.

“It sounds like you are trying to draw our attention to an important idea we should consider in explaining the moon’s phases–light from the sun can be blocked by objects that get in the way. “

“It sounds like you are saying that there must be something blocking sunlight from getting to certain parts of moon. And you’re proposing that one thing that could be doing that blocking is the earth.”

“So your idea is that if the earth were to block some of the light from getting to the moon, then we’d see changes to how much of the moon is lit.”

“It sounds like you are saying the

Its interesting to me how these different voicings may (or may not) change the meaning of the student idea. The first one (in my mind) attempts to re-voice the idea by focusing on what the teachers know to be a kernel of truth, downplaying subtly what is not true. The second one attempts to re-voice the idea as a particular case of a more general principle, perhaps opening up the idea, giving it room to breath and be connected to other ideas. The third one re-voices the idea as a conditional proposition–one that the teacher knows to be true about lunar eclipses. A more straight forward re-voicing such as, “It sounds like you are saying that the phases of the moon happen when the earth blocks light from getting to the moon,” seems to narrowly frame the idea, sort of pinning it down, giving it no where to go. The re-voicing doesn’t help to put the idea in a broader context or to highlight any parts of it as being more or less significant.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this so much is because next semester, one of the goals for teaching of physics is to develop skills at facilitating classroom discussion. One of the discourse “practices” we will focus on is “re-voice and toss“. There are of course, lots of reasons for re-voicing, but I feel like I’m circling around something here… hopefully more to write on this later.

* Alex is a burgeoning physics education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who you should say hello to, get to know, and keep your eye on. *

Teaching Evaluations Data

I’ve been making my course evaluations public since I got here. Here they are again, whatever they mean.

Physics Fa 11 Sp 12 Fall 12 Dept Avg
Presentation 4.9 4.9 5.0 4.1
Organization 4.8 4.8 4.9 4.0
Assignments 4.8 4.9 4.9 4.3
Scholarly 4.7 4.8 4.9 4.0
Interactions 4.9 4.9 4.9 3.8
Motivating 4.7 4.7 4.8 4.0
Overall 4.5 4.6 4.5 3.7
Inquiry Fa 11 Sp 12 Fall 12 Dept Avg
Presentation 4.4 4.7 4.8 4.1
Organization 3.9 4.3 4.4 4
Assignments 3.9 4.3 4.4 4.3
Scholarly 4.0 4.2 4.7 4
Interactions 4.5 4.6 4.9 3.8
Motivating 4.2 4.6 4.6 4.0
Overall 3.0 3.5 4.0 3.7



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