instructional change

City physics educators retool their teaching in summer school

On most days, Room 404 in Zankel Hall is a laboratory used by graduate students at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

But for the next two weeks, the lab is the temporary headquarters for a group of educators who are rethinking what it means to teach physics to high school students.

The educators are participating in a workshop about a three-decade old teaching strategy called Modeling Instruction in Physics. The strategy shuns the rote memorization of physics formulas and instead applies abstract ideas to real-life situations so that students can observe and understand concepts from “model” experiments.

“This modeling instruction method incorporates the best things that have happened in physics education in the last 50 years, and puts it in a way that is teachable and reproducible to a large extent if the teacher is motivated, interested, and well-educated,” said Fernand Brunschwig.

Brunschwig chairs Physics Teachers NYC, a 100-member group of educators who meet once a month to share ideas and trade instructional methods. The group organized the summer workshop.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “We started this organization a year ago because we wanted to do something positive for physics in New York City, which we felt hadn’t built up very well.”

Teachers who have taken part in Physics Teachers NYC said the group provides crucial opportunities in a system where physics teachers are relatively scarce.

“I found it extremely helpful,” said Elizabeth Dowdell, who teaches at Frederick Douglass Academy VII in Brooklyn. “In my school, I’m the only physics teacher in the building so it’s my one opportunity to collaborate with other teachers in other schools. For me, it’s my main way of getting ideas and refining my own practices.”

A large part of the summer workshop is teachers playing the role of students, completing hands-on experiments to derive theories about how the world works. On a hot morning last week, participants raced to solve equations on whiteboards before presenting their answers to each other and working together to resolve mistakes. And while the teachers might have relinquished part of their summer vacation, they get to play with bowling balls, motion detectors, basketballs, and other “toys” in their experiments.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount in nearly five days but one of the most profound things I really learned is just the experience of being a student again in the class,” said Ali Kowalsky, who teaches at the NYC Lab School for Collaborate Studies.

“Being a teacher all year sometimes removes you from the student lens,” she added. “It’s kind of great over the summer to have an opportunity like this to put myself back into the student voice and student experience so I can draw from it and learn how to best meet the needs of my students.”

Brunschwig, an adjunct professor at Teachers College, developed the three-week summer workshop to build upon the first year of Physics Teachers NYC — and open its approach to teachers from elsewhere. Of the 23 participants, half teach in private schools, and half come from outside of New York City. One teacher came from Florida.

Participants come from all over the country because of a national shift toward modeling in physics instruction since the method was introduced by David Hestenes, a physicist and professor, in the 1990s, according to Mark Schober, one of the workshop instructors and president of the American Modeling Teachers Association.

“Just having memorized some science fact doesn’t give you further mileage down the road,” said Schober, who also teaches at the private Trinity School on the Upper West Side.

“It’s about learning to interact with the world and finding patterns in it,” explained Schober. “That’s what we’re trying to help people understand so they can allow students can use the techniques of science, which is very different from sitting and listening to someone talk about science.”

The modeling method, Brunschwig explained, also helps physics teachers learn how to incorporate new learning standards, known as the Common Core, which emphasize real-world applications of abstract concepts. Plus, the group uses a curriculum that closely follows a new science education framework designed by the National Science Board and National Research Council to be Common Core-aligned.

For Bill Parsons, modeling simply offers a new way of keeping his students interested in tough material.

“I had a terrible year teaching,” said Parsons, who became a Teaching Fellow in 2008 after being laid off from a job as a technology project manager. He teaches high school physics at the Secondary School for Law in Brooklyn. “This year was the worst ever. It was a combination of my techniques and it was a particularly tough class in general.”

“I am actually going to try and follow this with some modifications starting in the fall,” added Parsons, who paid for the $450 workshop out of his pocket after his principal declined his funding request. “I just felt I had to do something differently to suck them in more, to get them better engaged.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”