Tuesday, June 19, 2012

you don't want to miss this one

Classic Gosling vehicle, truck model, about to collide with a vulture, which came from Smart Notebook. 

Yesterday I was visiting a school and the teacher invited me to give an example problem. I started off as I always do, with a story, which, like many good stories, was accompanied by a drawing. Now, as those of you who have been my students can attest, my art skills plateaued at roughly a 6th grade level. As such, my drawings are frequently a source of humor for my students. One went so far as to take photos of my terrible drawings as they happened and put together an end-of-the-year slideshow. I'm going to pepper this post with images from earlier this year so you can see for yourselves. Don't be fooled- though the images are chuckle-inducing, there is a deeper theme to come. On a side note, I like to think that my drawings help my students feel better about their own artistic abilities. If nothing else, maybe the artwork helps keep them from falling asleep!

Armadillo, close cousin of the turtle. The dotted line denotes the system we chose in class.
Now my example problem involved cars. I can draw a car or a truck very quickly, but they're not great. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to tell which way the car is supposed to be moving unless I add wind to the back and headlights to the front. But it's what I've got, and I drew it in all its glory in front of a class here, doing my best to explain that I am a horrible artist. Then the funniest thing happened- the students didn't think it was that bad! In fact, they thought it was better than the cars that their own teacher occasionally draws! What are the chances that I would visit the one class in the world with a teacher whose artistic talent is a match for my own? I am sure that he's better than me at animals, which are my biggest downfall. 3-D boxes are my bread and butter, but for some reason I draw more cars, people, and animals than anything else.
Poor fellow stumbling over an extraordinarily massive spiky rock
Anyway, I drew my car and the problem went pretty well. As I was showing the solution the teacher stopped me and explained that he always makes his students solve for the variable in question before substituting, as most good scientists tend to do. I don;t know why I didn't in this case- I'm used to doing so, but I spaced out. Not a good example to set! Anyway, we motored through the example and then the students got to work on a problem of their own.
I walked around the room and looked over the students' work. I talked with one group about how to convert units when moving from hour*hour to s*s, and then I ended up at the back of the room, where a student was looking lost. I asked her how she was doing, and then we talked about how she might start the problem. I knelt down next to her desk to point something out and she quietly confided to me that she wasn't really any good at physics. I reassured her and said that my own students have difficulty with these sorts of problems, and then we had a discussion about what she needed to find and how she might be able to go about it. We quickly touched on the idea of converting the given numbers to different units, but the bell rang before she was able to really start the problem. I've seen this happen before, and when it does I'm always worried that the next time she goes to start the problem, she'll have lost the train of thought and feel lost all over again.
Dog. I can never get the front legs right, though this poor fellow has other  issues. My rabbits and horses suffer from similar maladies.
In hindsight, I wish I had responded more strongly to her statement about her aptitude for physics. Maybe I was worried about my ability to express myself adequately in Spanish. Maybe I didn't want to draw attention to her and cause her more discomfort. Mainly, I wish I had said more. I should have explained that physics ability isn't something that comes naturally, and that most everyone has to work at it. It just takes some of us longer than others.
Turtle with balloons to reduce the normal force. The R was for his name- Rodney perhaps? He had a twin brother, who didn't have balloons. I make good use of the clone feature of the Smart software.
I remember going to my first national physics teachers conference during my first year teaching at Saranac Lake. It was a big deal for me- I had successfully applied for a grant from the local Teacher's Center to help cover the cost of attending, and I was presenting on the use of a Reflective Writing exercise to help students learn physics. My talk went better than I had expected, despite the scheduling conflict with another talk that seemed to draw most of the potential audience. It actually worked out since what I did during my talk worked out better with fewer people. Anyway, on the way home from Seattle I was stuck in the airport for a couple of hours because of nasty weather. I struck up a conversation with a guy from North Carolina who asked what I'd been in town for. We got to talking and he explained that when he had tried to ask someone else who attended the same conference (you can usually spot the attendees of a physics conference by their nifty bags or clothing), the person he'd asked had blown him off and left to sit with other conference-goers. We ended up having a really good chat, and at the end of the conversation he complimented me on my ability to explain things in a way that made sense, and also thanked me for spending the time to chat with him.  After I returned I told my advisor about the experience, and he was really excited for me. At the time I was just happy that he was proud of me, but lately I've realized that when I look back on that particular conference, that conversation was what stuck with me the most.
Squirrel in a tree (think National Lampoon's X-mas Vacation)
What I'm trying to explain, in a very long-winded and roundabout fashion (how else did you think I was going to generate enough text to justify including all of my pictures???), is that while I am obviously not the physicist out there pushing the boundaries of experimental knowledge, maybe I'm not meant to be. Maybe I'm the teacher who is around to listen to people and answer their questions when nobody else notices. I don't know if I was able to help that student at all, but at least she was able to tell me how she was feeling. I can only hope that the next time I'm put in that situation I'll react more strongly. I think that this experience belies the reason I'm pursuing the line of research I'm working on here- I think that anything that can be done to bolster a student's belief that they have the possibility to succeed is well worth my time and effort. Hopefully my findings will help prepare other teachers to follow my lead.

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