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Starting Year Aug 25 2013

Starting the Year Off Well: Communicating with Students, Parents and Colleagues.

Moderators: Craig Buszka, Seth Guinals-Kupperman, Irene Ning, Mark Schober

Starting the year off well with students:

1. What do you do on the first day?

Do a lab:

 Buggy Lab

 Circle labs: circumference vs. diameter, radius and area, height and volume of cylinder

 Rollback can -- don't use this name for the device with students, let them figure it out (model-building discussion)

 Thought experiment: What happens when you jump up while riding a train?

 Spaghetti bridge lab

 Spaghetti/marshmallow tower: Marshmallow challenge 

 Zhanna uses a set of four pictures – students make observations and inferences

 Inquiry cube activity



2. What tone do I want to set? How do you set the tone for your class?

 Set a culture of consensus building and the learning process

 Establish your personality in the room: an activity for students to ask questions about the teacher.

  Careful not to reveal everything about you – Students are intrigued by the instructor and that is a valuable asset for the teacher to manage.

 “We are all failures, or at least the best of us are.” attrib –

 Recent wired magazine article on failure inthe context of Michelson-Morley experiment.

 Struggle = Learn. If you’re not struggling, you’re not learning. (The same thing is true in the weight room.)

 Prototype and revise – alternate language for “failure” and a good way to get students to think about learning as an ongoing process.

 Failure is a loaded word but yet one with lots of value in the classroom learning environment – a good one to develop the concept first and then give it a name.

 When do you feel smart? – (students often have unproductive ideas about this, i.e. “when things come easily” “when I can answer before my peers” “when I get a good grade”) You want to move them to more sophisticated ideas, i.e. when you make the transition from not knowing to the state of figuring things out, when you try a really hard problem that you couldn’t do initially, but you broke it down until you were successful. See Carol Dweck's book, Mindset

 Learning is not a spectator sport!


3. How do you introduce classroom procedures? (routines, whiteboards, care of equipment, cleanup  . . .)

 Do on a need-to-know basis – front-loading by reading the syllabus on the first day is a waste of time – the kids will never remember what they need to know when they need to know it.


4. What are good ways of teaching students your assessment and evaluation system?

Confused? good – that means you’re about to learn something

quizzes are a conversation

Confusion is ignorance leaving the brain

Being wrong is on the path to being more right

De-emphasize the end point – learning is all about the process along the way. How do we tackle difficult ideas and develop new understandings. 



5. How do I foster student buy-in for students who come from cultures (family and/or classroom) in which articulating themselves, thinking critically etc. are discouraged?  Or for whom memorization has seemed the key to success?


Help kids to take risks.

See the book: How Children Succeed


Additional Resources:

(Kelly) Advice from last year’s students to this year’s students

Kelly's advice to her students for success in physics. 

Mark – Physics syllabus at Columbia Secondary School

Mark – syllabus at Trinity with references to SBG

Use website “Today in Science” to celebrate student birthdays. (Craig’s example.)




Starting the year off well with parents:

1. How can you assuage the worries of parents? (What do parents worry about?)

2. How can you win over parents?

3. How do you work with difficult parents?

4. How can I communicate proactively for various levels of parent involvement?

5. Do I want to present our class cultures and practices as different from what students have seen before?

6. What evidence is there that our class activities are successful in teaching skills?  (For both families and admin)


“value added” conversations – avoid talking about grades

Initial email blasts to parents – scope, what’s upcoming – be proactive

examples of learning objectives, whiteboarding sessions

give yourself a time limit for emails – save complex ideas for phone calls

links to class website; remind parents to check it, talk to your kid about what is going on in class.


be clear about steps students can take, have taken, and how to support this.

What are parents really worried about?

find out what is behind parent anxiety about 


Skills helpful: in life, in college in

Stan Litow – (IBM) helping to bridge the skill gap – working collaboratively in groups, computer skills,


Learning from peers (learning wrong things from peers?) – evaluating evidence is a critical skill to develop


Proactive communication!! early and often – for good news as much as if not more than bad news.

Output from class – blog, website, emails, things that indicate what is going on in class.

To Parents – thank you for all of you that shared positive experiences about your child’s experience in class. (Even if few have, this can prompt others to chime in!)



Dealing with a difficult parent:

1. Be proactive to get them on your side

2. Hear them out – you can get directly to the real concerns, and as they talk, they often suggest what the real problem or solution is. (i.e. my child is overcommitted.)

3. Cite additional resources available and how students can connect into them.


Data for efficacy of Modeling: AMTA site

Information about using a physics first sequence: AAPT site


Most important – have a plan, show your confidence, show that you care about your students and their success. Don’t express your own fears or anxieties.


Outsource labs – what can students do at home with their parents to get the parents involved as well.


be trans - parent


Lots of parents are too busy to be very involved. Some parents dump all responsibility to the teacher. In either case, how can you get parents involved? emails, blog, phone call, postcards


Why don’t you answer my kid’s questions? Use a parking lot of questions written on sticky notes. Could use google voice number – students could text their questions to this number. Could use a google form.



Science has exploded in terms of content and scope – we cannot teach students all there is to know. We will teach students some of the most important ideas, but even more importantly, we will teach students the skills for how to learn science.


“Suppose you couldn’t test your students at the end of an instructional unit. Suppose instead that you had to wait an entire year to test the content of the unit. What would you teach, and how would you teach it?” -  Hal Harris, University of Missouri, St. Louis. 


Additional Resources:

Craig’s emails to parents

            083112 Welcome Letter to Parents

            090712 Day 1 Circle Lab

                        Example of notes for Circle Lab

                        CircleLab Hon sept 7

            092412 blog, phet Skate park

            100112 Parent’s night

            101912re first test, PEAS


Before Craig sent this series of emails to parents, he used this powerpoint presentation.

Back to school night handout (Craig) AIPstatistics for parents 

Craig’s Parent’s night guide – mostlycontact information 

Back to school night (Irene)

Why can’t Montgomery High school teachphysics like normal schools? (Craig – ppt) Shown to rising physics students and to students after they have completed the FCI posttest

Mark - Parent's night handout at Columbia Secondary School 



Starting the year off well with colleagues and administrators:

A mix of various admin and colleagues

How can I let students and their performance communicate with parents/colleagues/admin? 


What are strategies for working with the following mindsets of colleagues and administrators?

       Colleague who is very interested in what you are doing in your class.

       Colleague who is intimidated by what you are doing in your class.

       Colleague who doesn't care about what is going on in your class.

       Colleague who is opposed to what you are doing in your class.

       Supportive administrator.

       Hands-off administrator.

       Antagonistic administrator.



Communicating with colleagues:

 Stress that we’re teaching students how to think

 Be careful not to throw other colleagues under the bus.

 Invite others into your classroom, informal and peer observation

            Encourage them to look for certain things – quality of student questions, what students say in class . . .

            ReformedTeaching Observation Protocol - RTOP

 Common assessments (Force Concept Inventory, Assessment of Basic Chemical Concepts . . . See the AMTA assessment page)

 Colleagues can be the hardest to get buy in. Start talking to them, or more precisely, ask them questions and then listen.

  Ask about teaching philosophy, lab goals and alternative labs, how do you know when students really know?, how do you help your students to understand concept x, how do you make sure that most students learn every concept?


 Don’t worry too much about “proselytizing the unwashed” – once a person has devoted their life to a particular way of teaching, it is understandable if they are reluctant to change what they do – your energy is better spent on the willing. Let your results and student involvement speak for you.


 Identify your allies and build off of each other




 Invite them to your classes – sell what you do

 Use scores on common assessments or research tools to inform your own teaching and to support

 Be willing to learn from other teachers and administrators – everyone has skills and abilities that are noteworthy and worth sharing.

 Need support with money – can get parents on board as allies

 Listen to the phrases administrators use so that you can repeat them back to the administrators in the context of selling your classes. (Grit, resillience,



Leverage the power of the PYNYC (and students) to show what is going on in your classes.