Focusing and Unfocusing

Friday was an interesting day in my physics classes.  The work we did really helped shed some light on activities that work to focus students and engage them all in work, and activities that immediately lose half the class.  Management and engagement has been a focus and big area for improvement for me, and Friday had times with students behaving at their best and worst.

At the beginning of the period, I gave each group a short problem where they had to draw Free Body Diagrams for different situations.  Each group was given a whiteboard and a marker.  Without doing anything extra (other than giving a time limit) students engaged in this activity and got to work.  Each table had students leaning in over their whiteboard as they drew the picture of what was happening and added force vectors to show each force.  It was the most focused I’d ever seen them (even more focused than when they take a test).

After this, my plan was for students to present their whiteboards and explain their solutions while I asked them questions.  This lost everyone, and half the class was talking or not paying attention to the group presenting.  This process went on for way too long and little good work came out of it.  I really want students to be able to present and listen to a presentation, but there were not accountability measures put in place.  I think if students had to answer the problems that they other groups did from the presentations that might help focus some of the students, but it was still just very disorganized.

In my last class, there were two additional activities that shed some light on what can focus students and what loses focus.  I originally planned to do a mini lecture on Newton’s 2nd Law while students took Cornell notes.  Once again, many students would talk or not pay attention and it just didn’t work.  I stopped that notes and just gave them the worksheet that they were going to practice after the short lecture.  The worksheet focused them a bit, and then telling them they won’t be dismissed until it is complete focused them a lot more.  In the end I brought the students who wanted to work on the worksheet with me to one table and as students talked or misbehaved I sent them to a different table to work on their own.  I ended up with most of the class around me as I solved problems.  In my solutions, I had students guide me by telling me what to write and offering some assistance.  The students definitely caught on and learned quite a bit at the end of this and it was a very successful last activity.  During this time, there were a few students who did not work and participate and did almost nothing in the class.  I decided that it was ok to let them be and give the students who wanted to learn a chance to work with me since I usually focus more on the problem students.

After this day, I worked on creating a student self pacing self selection list of activities for next week.  The idea here being that there is plenty of work that students who want to do their work and learn can do without needing my attention the whole time so that I can better focus on the students who need more monitoring.  I’m also rethinking my mini-lectures to give students good notes by making it more like a “worksheet” that needs to get done and they can do it through the book or listening to me.  I’m thinking about working with the Cornell Notes format and just giving a list of questions at the beginning that I can either walk the students through or they can use the book or a lab or something else.  They will end up getting the same end result as the Cornell Notes, but instead of me trying to get them to listen to me, they need to get me to help them answer their questions.  I hope this slight format change will result in more engagement and some better differentiation.

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