When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year. At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes. My physics classroom was this huge open space. One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses. On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process. There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms. Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail. In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room. I could go on…
As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity. I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things. I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails. But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook. You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class. Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom. Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.
Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate. The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover. There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments. Would we have gone as deep with the experiments? No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.
This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.” Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.” (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher). That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students. If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms. I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?
Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways. Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged. How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready? If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers. We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!
Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year. I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore. I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity. I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.
The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning. Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future. Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.
Do you have memories similar to mine? How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes? Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?” Share your thoughts in the comments below.