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The Trials of an AP Physics Teacher
Bradley Moser Contributing Writer
May 29, 2019
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As I thumb through sample AP Physics 1 exams from the College Board, I shake my head in disgust at the questions I’m reading.

With the AP exam just around the corner, I wish for each of my students to experience success. After all, they signed up for the course assuming that it will help prepare them for the exam and pave the way to the best colleges. Deerfield’s students, parents, and administrators all have high expectations, and the Advanced Placement program has a proven track record, right?

But I am not confident that my students are prepared for the questions I am reading. The questions are obscure, convoluted, and even tricky. To answer some of them, a student would need a deep, intense study of physics and have an opportunity to make connections across all topics. Instead, each day in the classroom is a sprint to a College-Board-defined finish line.

Credit: Madeline Lee

This past September, I began my first year teaching at Deerfield Academy. I entered the classroom with a bright vision of what my students could accomplish. My teaching style and lesson plans were informed by a constructive approach called Modeling Instruction.

I used this pedagogy with great success at the college level, even though it was originally designed for the high school classroom. Clearly, it would be an instant hit at Deerfield.

Instead, by the fourth week of class I was already a week behind schedule, a schedule that just barely fit all of the AP curriculum before the exams in May. Class periods were too short to allow a full implementation of the curriculum.

In fact, I had fewer than two-thirds of the classroom hours I enjoyed while teaching a similar laboratory-based class in college. I felt dismay, and I had no choice but to make changes.

To make a long story short, as the end of April approaches, I have managed to “cover” all of the major topics that are on the AP Physics 1 exam. Good job, right?

To do so, I made three major amendments in my role as course facilitator: A) I nearly eliminated hands-on labs in favor of online simulations to speed up data collection and eliminate the need to “waste time” correcting errors in experimental methods. B) I stopped having my students write solutions on white boards that they would then present to the class and thereby generate classroom discussion. C) I limited content to only those types of problems that would appear on the AP exam, thus eliminating most of the fascinating applications that make learning physics interesting and fun.

Summary statement: I have compromised good pedagogy for the sake of a test and expectations surrounding an AP class.

In the April edition of The Scroll, Associate Editor Jae Won Moon wrote a provocative article called “Deerfield Should Drop AP Courses.” Although experiencing great success as a member of my AP Physics 1 class, and therefore prone to be supportive of these classes, he instead logically articulated the many weaknesses of AP classes.

I lend my full support to Jae Won’s arguments. In addition, I have written this piece to add my voice from a teacher’s perspective. I find it nearly impossible to meet my educational philosophy and mission within the confines of the AP doctrine.

Is the purpose of high school education to march students through agency-approved curricula, guaranteeing identical experiences and knowledge, while shaping young humans with the molds we’ve adhered to for decades? Or is it to inspire curiosity, encourage creativity, build the skills to learn for a lifetime, and enhance our quality of existence?

I end with an anecdote. Recently, I spent the entire class period working through sample AP exam questions on the board.

Throughout the class, I asked students to actively participate by giving their input and guiding my board work. They did ask questions, but each question was procedural and lacking curiosity. What should I expect? I was preparing them to take an exam; an exam that they would rather not take.

Contrast this with a day one week prior. The physics community had just released the first ever visible light image of a black hole’s silhouette. It was a ground-breaking, remarkable day in physics.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I discarded the lesson plan and showed my class this remarkable image. We grappled with its repercussions and marveled at the technology needed to snap this photo. Everyone posed great questions and participated in the conversation. The energy in the room was pulsing, and it was clear that students were sincerely interested in learning more.

Now, we cannot spend every moment of every class period saying, “Wow, cool!” At times, we need to buckle down, learn how to apply mathematics to physical situations, crunch some numbers, draw some diagrams, and work out some details.

But I strongly believe in one particular sentiment: any day that we spend practicing AP exam questions in class feels like a day wasted. I can offer my students so much more, and I would like the opportunity to do that each and every day.