Reading, Writing, and Physics

Article excerpt

Like many schools across the country, the high school where I teach has been pushing for increased reading and writing in all classes. By the end of my first year of teaching physics, I found a way to incorporate these literacy skills while addressing another common dilemma--a lack of current physics studies in the curriculum. I designed an assignment in which students read, write, and study current physics topics without diverting class time from the curriculum. In this Idea Bank, I describe this assignment and the unexpected benefits for both students and me.

The assignment

Students read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1998) and journal about each chapter. The assignment setup is simple: Students read one or two chapters each week (based on a schedule I distribute) and write journal entries. The entries have three parts: a summary, a reaction, and questions. The summary is necessary to ensure students read the chapter, but I'm more interested in their reactions and questions. In the reaction section--the bulk of the assignment--students describe their understanding of and feelings about the topics in the chapter. Students connect at least one of Hawking's ideas to a topic we have covered in class. Here, they demonstrate their understanding of the book and, indirectly, of the state curriculum. In the questions section, students ask at least three questions about what they didn't understand or ideas they want to know more about.

Though famous for discussing cosmology in relatively simple terms, A Brief History of Time is outdated in places. I point this out in class, drawing connections to contemporary physics topics in the context of our current unit. For example, we now have a greater understanding of particle physics and the fundamental forces of nature--including hints of what is possibly the most sought after fundamental particle, the Higgs boson--due to recent discoveries made by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC has also given us a glimpse of the origin of the universe by recreating the conditions, according to the Big Bang Theory (CERN 2011). I discuss these recent updates with students during lessons for Chapter 5: "Elementary Particles and the Forces of Nature" (Hawking 1998, p. 65) and Chapter 8: "The Origin and Fate of the Universe" (p. 119). We also discuss dark energy, updates to M-Theory, and the discovery of additional black holes and their effects on space and time.

The results

This assignment is a fairly simple and rewarding way for students to read and write in physics class without sacrificing the state standards. Equally rewarding have been the unexpected bonuses: getting to know my students better and challenging myself.

At my school, with semester rather than full-year courses, there's hardly time to get to know students before the term is over. This assignment speeds the process. Students are surprisingly candid in their journals--writing about their faith, beliefs, likes, dislikes, and many other topics--knowing that only I will read them. In his journal, one student referred repeatedly to a Japanese anime TV series, and subsequently I used a scene from the show as the basis for a question in class. Other student revelations go deeper, but no matter what they are, they help me adjust my teaching to better suit students.

This assignment also benefits me. To make sure students get the most out of their journal writing, I comment not only on the content but also on grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, language usage, and so on. This challenges me to improve my own writing skills. The assignment also encourages me to continually update my lessons. Students' questions and other journal entries direct my lessons to current topics that interest them, helping to keep my lessons from getting stale. …