Group Conctracts: Firing Group Members

I’m collaborating on a Project Based Learning unit with two other teachers in my teaching fellowship as initial exploration before doing a PBL workshop in the summer.  We’ve just started doing some work on group contracts to keep members accountable and responsible.  There are a few ideas that I love, and some that I find interesting but haven’t made my mind up about.

I love the idea of groups creating their own contracts (with support/guidance from teacher when appropriate) because I am all for students working towards personal responsibility.  I think group effective work is a good discussion to have and can be a very beneficial learning experience.  In the materials we are using, the example recommends having a total amount of points for the project that the group then distributes how they see fit.  They must unanimously agree on the distribution of points.  I really like this idea because I’ve personally been in groups where I end up doing all the work because I care about my grade when others do not.  I wonder though, what happens when students don’t agree. 

I also like the idea of group members defining roles at the start of the project.  One worry though, is will the roles make them work at different times within the sequence of the project.  Will the result be more like a relay race, rather then a unit working together throughout the duration of the project?

I’m interested most in the concept of firing group members.  If a member of a group is not pulling their weight, it makes sense that they should not get credit for other students’ work.  This could also save the issue of not reaching an agreement about points distribution.  However, what happens when a member is fired? I worry it might be especially difficult to engage a student who is kicked out of a group and now works alone.  Does this option set students up for failure or does it help make sure they don’t get pushed through the course by their peers without any personal contribution?


Guiding Student Discussion

The current work with my fellowship involves looking at ways to foster richer in class discussions that guide students towards accepted scientific understandings.  We are reading a book called 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Task-Based Discussions in Science and I find the ideas very exciting.  The main point is to plan and facilitate student discussions that are selected and sequenced towards important understandings, rather than having everyone just share what they did.  I’m still working through the book, but I really like the idea.

Yesterday we started circuits in my physics classes and for the first couple classes we had a discovery based portion of class followed by a mini-lecture that referenced the discovery work and organized main ideas.  In my first two classes I felt like the mini-lecture dragged on.  It wasn’t long (about 15 min with a short Think/Pair/Share around the 10 min mark) but the energy was low and it didn’t feel engaging.  For my last class I decided to try to use the discovery portion of the class to generate notes as we went.  This is not at all what the 5 Practices recommends (there is considerable planning to increase effectiveness) but I just needed to try something different.  It worked pretty well and I reflected and re-sequenced some things for my classes today.

Today my classes work much better and I really enjoyed talking with students in small group discussions and then calling back on them later in my determined order.  My first class today was also my one Formal Observation for the year (trying something completely new was a bit of a gamble here) and it was great.  My principal happily told one of the Education Specialists about how a student who has very few examples of productive behavior and contribution to the class spoke on point and added to our discussion.  This led to my biggest takeaway, which was how effective this practice was at differentiating and pulling in students with lower than average confidence. 

Overall I’m amazed at how much more engages students were today.  While they aren’t that engaged when someone else is presenting (how do we get students to want to listen to each other?) they has their moments of engagement in the topic and explored with the mind of a scientist.  I’m excited to finish the book and actually plan a lesson with this practice in mind, rather than just wing it out of necessity.

FBD’s and Completing the Parallelogram

My lesson for doing a POGIL to learn about Free Body Diagrams and Completing the Parallelogram failed due to broken force probes and too few materials in general.  For the groups who had two working probes it started out well and I believe this could be a fantastic lesson if the materials were all there. 


The goal was to use spring scale force probes to measure the tension the held up a known mass.  With one force probe the weight can be inferred, then two force probes can show that the tension in each probe was reduced to about half.  From here, wedges of paper at different angles were passed out and the students would hold their probes in that orientation, measure the force, and then use the wedge on their paper to match the angle.  For all configurations, students use a scale (1 cm = 1 N) to carefully draw out scaled FBDs.  Students are guided to draw the assumed vertical force and connect dotted lines from the measured, angled forces to the top of the assumed vertical force (completing the parallelogram).


I would love to work on transforming this lesson into a 5 practices lesson to really use student responses to guide the model that we develop.  I think in the future this would be great as two lessons.  The first one to practice using the devices, measuring out the vectors and learning about how mass and weight are related by using different objects and making a graph.  The second would be this lesson where they look at forces from different angles. 


This lesson came from a long “head scratching” experience of how to help students discover free body diagrams, rather than just explaining the steps.  I really want to help students discover more and guide the work that we do and I’m very happy to read the 5 Practices to help with that.  I always thought Free Body Diagrams was a pretty dry topic to learn at first (though incredibly useful) and it took forever for me to come up with a lesson that puts the focus on the students doing science instead of just taking lecture notes.  I think a lot of discovery lessons via the 5 Practices, followed by Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics Worksheets can create a strong conceptual base that is student driven.  Future tasks are to develop strong student discovery based lessons to learn Motion Maps, Energy LOL Diagrams (Bar charts), and Momentum Bar Charts.


I’m just finishing week two of a three week project on building bridges.  The goal of the project is to further study forces and begin working on engineering practices.  One of my pedagogy-based goals is to connect individual lessons to a general goal and help students create a narrative about what they are learning.  I’ve been interested in the idea of students building a story of physics as a way to understand each topic and hopefully see a clear picture of why they are learning the content.  I don’t know if projects are necessary to achieve this, but so far it is helping me connect the pieces with them and constantly refer back to a singular goal of building a bridge that don’t break under a specified weight, using as little material as possible.

In order to be successful with this project, I gave students a schedule of work to be completed each day (both in class and at home) and a rubric for all graded parts of the project.  This has helped my students keep on track and have clear instructions for any work that is completed at home.  It also keeps me on track because I had to make sure every lesson ended with the students being capable of completing the required work.  I’ve done this kind of backwards design before, but I’ve never done it while planning three weeks of class.  I like the organization that this gives me and I think it gives a much clearer picture to the students.

I also have a narrative with fill in the blanks that goes with this project.  It is several short paragraphs and we complete a new paragraph after each class.  This idea is borrowed from my mentor teacher back when I was student teaching.  We also made a WDIL (What Did I Learn) in this same format and students would call out the blanks as I read the paragraph before they left.  I find this really helps put the entire class period into perspective and it gives a summary of what they learned.  Several students have told me that they really like this.

So far, I really like the organization that this project has brought to my classroom.  I don’t know if I can always come up with a good project for everything, but I hope to do more projects in the future. 

Engaging Questions

Yesterday we read an article about how you die if you fall into a black hole.  Each Wednesday we read a scientific article and identify facts and claims within the article as a push to include more work on scientific literacy as part of the common core standards.  In addition to reading the article, students wrote questions about black holes.  I’ve been trying to spend a lot more time in class generating questions to help play on natural curiosity and work towards student driven learning.  My students had many, many questions about black holes and were on the verge of fighting over each other to get their question out. 

I want to start either a parking lot board or a box for students to put random science questions that I answer at the end of each class.  I’d like to let students allow their curiosity to drive them more in class, but it can be hard to connect each thing we are learning to an interesting question.  I hope that students will write up good questions regularly so that this can be an exciting part of the class.  I also plan to use this as a way to try to drive positive behavior throughout the class period.  If students end up enjoying this and get used to it, the question answer time can be a privilege that can be taken away if they waste time.  

Less Front-Loading

Recently I’ve been playing around with having students work on problems in groups with very little scaffolding.  I’m trying to help them gain experience with seeing a problem, not knowing what to do, and slowly working it out with some hints and some discovery of their own.  A lot of students tend to not try a problem when they don’t know where to start and I’m hoping that with practice, they will begin to practice using the problem solving strategies that we have used in class to put pencil to paper and try something. 

Recently, we took some very short notes that ended with the impulse momentum theorem.  With each variable labeled, they were given a task, in groups, to calculate the force involved in various sports interactions (kicking a soccer ball/football etc).  Instead of giving them a problem that listed out the numbers to plug in, I instead gave each group a small section of an article.  The numbers were all there, but often in confusing units and surrounded by other numbers that may be interesting, but do not fit into our equation.  I told them that often they won’t be given a problem with all the information; instead, they have to search for the information that they need and filter out what they don’t want.  Some students seemed to really get that and while they may not like struggling (they are quite vocal about this), they do seem to get that it will help them.

I’ve done a few problems like this, and while many students complain each time (“Mister, this is hard!”) many of them are more engaged and have better behavior during this.  Some, however, get off task towards the end and behavior goes crazy since it is a less structured environment.  Some of the students are clearly benefiting a lot from this, but I need to work on ways to increase engagement and effort among the students who are still giving in and letting the group solve the problem.  I think during the next problem I will pick a student (one who is often not engaged) and make that student the presenter.  The rest of the group will be responsible for making sure that student can at least explain the solution, even if he/she didn’t solve it first.

Whiteboard Presentations

It has been a while since I have had group presentations to the whole class since I usually focused more on a “speed dating” format to increase the amount of engagement.  Today in all of my classes I assigned a homework problem to each table to write on their whiteboards and present to the class.  We have been working on practice CST problems for the past two weeks as homework and I wanted to make sure that everyone took time to do the problems and share them with each other. 


Normally I have had a hard time getting students to focus and pay attention during student presentations.  Today I was able to get all of my classes to turn towards the presenters, remain quiet, and refrain from drawing, looking away, or otherwise not paying attention. It took a lot of insisting and constant reminders, but they all got to the point were students we respectful. I got a lot of practice with using proximity and non verbal signals to redirect behavior and keep a positive atmosphere during the presentation.


I feel like I’ve been using more engaging strategies as a bit of a crutch and while I don’t want to lose those tools, I think next year I want to spend more time developing proper behavior during presentations in all formats so that when a group presents, everyone knows to turn their chairs (not just their necks/bodies) and look at them.  I think positioning and posture needs to be instructed slowly and deliberately next semester to help make sure students follow routines correctly.  With all of the craziness that is coming as the year ends, I was happy to have some success with behavior improving, even if it was just temporary and took several sets of instructions to occur.