.boxed { border: 1px solid green ; }

Reflecting on 2020-2021

Ashley McCarl Palmer, Waterloo Region District School Board, OAPT Vice-President
ashley_mccarlpalmer@wrdsb.ca or @physicswithmcp on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube

As we move into the end of a very difficult and challenging school year, I think it is natural to take some time to reflect on where we are now compared to where we were last September (or even last winter, pre-pandemic). Once you’ve taken some time to do what makes you happy, refill the tank or bucket or whatever metaphor you wish to use, and feel like you have the energy, I encourage you to reflect on what we've all accomplished as a community of educators. Some things we have had to learn quickly, like a new technology platform, or perhaps a different approach that has surfaced in the classroom when we were forced into hybrid or distance learning. I think it's good for all teachers to think about practices we’ve used over a school year and think about which ones we’d like to keep and what we will let go of and thank them for what they have given us (a little Marie Kondo for those of you who, like me, ended up organizing the house last March after watching her show on Netflix).

For me, this year has been one of significant growth. We’ve had to pivot (tired of that word yet?!) so many times that teaching as we had in the past was impossible to do. To get through these changes I've looked to my peers across the province, and even across the world, through things like Twitter, conferences, self-driven PD, or the board in our virtual high school. Some of the things I'll be keeping with me include the use of new technologies like Desmos, Brightspace, and the added layers of Google I never knew existed (try the Chrome extension “Kami”, it's brilliant for filling in pdf worksheets!! You can draw, type, do subscripts, etc.).

Another thing I’ll keep in my practice is the ability for students to do labs at home. In the past I have always done labs or demos as part of our class work and then sent students home to do the analysis. There is a lot of value in doing labs at home and then bringing the results back in to do the analysis in class. Physics at home is really effective because there is no “magic of the lab”, instead, the science happens in the “real world”. It provides the students with the added bonus of being able to understand where the data went wrong, or learning about things like accuracy or repeatable results when you move outside of a lab environment. The misconception that science is “perfect data” is blown apart when the experiments are performed at home.  At-home labs can be done easily with simple materials such as marbles, bouncy balls, or string. Being able to hear the student conversations the next morning as they compare data is also amazing to hear because it gives us teachers a glimpse into what they really understand. Other advantages include that students do their homework because it's “fun”, and when discussing in class the next day you get to see those highly sought-after lightbulb moments. I live for seeing that facial expression that comes across a student's face when they finally get it!

Over the course of the past year, scientists came under fire for what appeared to be, in the eyes of the general public, frequently “changing their minds”. As more research emerged about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, our models changed. In science, this is standard practice: you develop a hypothesis, test it and refine it based on your findings. The challenge with this happening in the public on a global scale was that a level of distrust formed when people did not understand the scientific process. We can easily help break such misconceptions in our classrooms by making one simple switch. Focusing on model-language (for example saying this “model” of gravity instead of this “theory” or “law” of gravity) sets the tone for this refinement process in science. Words like “law” make people think of something set in stone. By using the word “model”, we set the stage so that when scientists refine their ideas, or change their models, the public will not think scientists were wrong, but instead that they developed a better model.

While I think many of us try to bring “real world science” into our classrooms, it’s never been as important as it is now. Take for example, the COVID-19 pandemic itself. There has been a massive amount of misinformation spread about the virus, not helped by the fact that many scientific papers related to the research around the novel coronavirus were published before a robust review. The media ran with what headlines would get the most clicks. As science teachers, we want to help our students differentiate fact from fiction, find reliable sources of information, and read beyond the headline. COVID-19 gave us the perfect opportunity to teach these lessons in our classes, whether through a formal student-run project, or just starting the day with an article and asking students “what do you think?”, “should we trust this source?”, or “does the headline match the science?”.

Lastly, what I want to keep in my practice from the past school year are the connections I've made with colleagues outside of my “bubble”, whether it's through EduTwitter or taking part in things like our own OAPT virtual Physics Hours. I've been able to share ideas and learn from a whole host of other brilliant teachers across the province and beyond. In physics we tend to be isolated, maybe with only one or two physics teachers in a department at our schools, and it's hard to find out what other people are doing in their classrooms, hear of other approaches, other technologies, or other ways to do labs. The opportunity for us to continue to embark on this journey and maintain the momentum we've gained this year in our digital world is one we should capitalize on. I like the idea of being able to meet through video conferencing calls with colleagues that I normally would not have access to. While I’ll be the first to admit it can be tough to sit in front of a computer even longer, taking advantage of these sharing opportunities has allowed me to see lots of really cool ideas that I can implement into my classroom.

I want to continue facilitating these dialogues and fostering these connections. We need to take advantage of this community of educators online, where we can share best practices and ideas. The OAPT Newsletter is a great forum for sharing, but I also know many of you are online in other ways. For example, I have a teacher vlog via @physicswithmcp on Instagram, and other people collaborate through a website, Twitter or email to reach out to a colleague. Watching each other, growing and learning from each other, and capitalizing on these moments is a really important tool. To help us find each other I’m organizing a bank of handles/websites/feeds for people to take a look at. If you would like to be a part of this list, feel free to fill out this form, and if you want to see who’s out there, keep an eye on this running list. If you have people that you love to follow or think would be beneficial for this group, add them to the form as well (at the bottom).

I'm hopeful that in the future I'll get to see you in person at the OAPT spring conference. If I don't, I hope that I get to see you online as we continue our dialogue. The pandemic has caused many of us to change how we approach learning in our classrooms and we are on the cusp of some amazing changes in education. We had an idea of what the COVID-19 disease was last year but we are constantly learning about the virus and refining our model. Just like the virus, we have one model of education that we had been running with and the pandemic has given us the opportunity to refine our model. Take the time to recharge those batteries, and take the time to reflect over the summer. Continue to be a part of our community and learning so that you can bring something new into your classrooms. I'm so excited to see what the future of physics education and learning has in store for us!
©Ontario Association of Physics Teachers Contact the Newsletter