Sample Fieldnotes from Noah Finkelstein Teaching at High Tech High School in Southern California.

Note these notes are written during an experimental course to offer a college course inside a high school. Not just AB or IB, but a course where students would receive college credit. 44 students enrolled in the course which I taught 3 days / week.

These notes are written within 24 hours AFTER the class on:


General Site Observations

Because of the lax beginning to the week, the prep for Friday was pretty minimal (just going over the slides I had already assembled). The class was pretty much strictly 'chalk-talk' without the chalk.

Nonetheless, I was quite harried to get to HTH for class. I had gotten up early to prepare for a phone meeting with Harvard, and then had a long productive but mildly frustrating meeting. I'm not sure how much more I'm going to be involved with this project. They want me to run interviews of kids and it will either happen in the summer or in the Spring. I'm just not sure ... the up-side is that it will provide me cash, an interesting experience in the educational film industry, they are counting on me, and I would no doubt capture gobs of data on kids thinking about physics in a quasi-clinical interview setting (if I wanted to start writing about children's ideas in science). The downside is time and timing.

I was rushed enough that I didn't get my morning coffee. Addict that I am, I stopped at the AM/PM to get some (just to avoid the headache). I arrived 5 minutes before class, which is far closer-cut than I would like. Nonetheless, the class area (not really a room mind you) was pretty empty. Most of the class is there by 5 after 11a which I believe is the official start time to the class. Though, Fridays are these odd days of limited organization / structure at the school. There is plenty of noise in the hall as kids traipse around. I overhear someone talking to Cody in the hall. I shout through the curtains, "Cody has to come to class now".


Now Tom had come in early to show off his 1970's suit and hat. It was most impressive. He and others were disappointed in my lack of festive wear for wacky-Friday. What sorts of expectations have I set? I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, mind you. Nonetheless as class began I apologized for my lack-o-wacky-ness and gave some chocolate to Tom for serving as my proxy wacky Friday representative.

Today's class is review and prep for Tuesday's exam. The class is pretty low energy (it is possibly me, see below). Anyhow, there is a decent about of q & a about the test. Lots of structural questions. At one point I answered Billy M's question about how many questions will be on the test with "Well, I've repeatedly stated that this test will be like the last test and that I'll focus on giving you enough time to answer questions thoroughly. So something like four, but I've heard this question so many times that I'll add a question each time this question is asked" I went on to emphasize how I was interested in students learning, rather structural organization of a test, but I recognize their emphasis is to do well. A decent compromise is to insure that if you learn the material you'll do well on the test.

The class was a basic review of material to date. It was not all that exciting, except intellectually it was neat to see all this material coordinated in coherent fashion. I'm not sure that the students were in a place to see this though. Some might.

Andi asked a few questions on basic material (like the dot-product) in a way that had me answering exactly as I had stated when I introduced the topic. Though, this time he seemed to get it. Oddly frustrating as a teacher. So class goes on, mostly me lecturing, some with the students asking question, but mostly me talking.

Most students are taking copious notes (e.g. Michelle G) though some were just sitting and Nathan M was reading the paper (I can't blame him.. he's in the wrong class). I try to include him and Kiel, but there isn't much to do in a review that they already know.

Towards the end, I'm coving the conditions for statics and had realized that many students were confused about the axis of rotation necessary for stability when net toque is zero (the answer is any axis; however, I had emphasized (perhaps too much in class) there are natural places to consider, such as center of mass). I tell him to stick around and check with me after class.

Class ends, and I remind folks about recitation.

Kyle sticks around and has a counter example to my description of torque about any axis. He draw a picture of a disk with a center axis and a force on the side. I point out that is not in equilibrium and hence should rotate (and would). Right he says, and carefully draws two other forces to counter balance. Good I said. No pick the torque about any axis... He looks for a minute and says...."coooooool" It won't rotate.

I extend this argument to a homework problem (a mass on a weight bar). He works through it quickly and gets what's going on. He splits for lunch.

I spend lunch cleaning up organizing and overhearing a fellow talk to all the seniors about graduation.

Later, as I'm sorting through some email a 9th -10th grader shows up to talk to me about OSX, since I'm working on a mac. He knows all the ins and outs and bashes on apple's web browser a bit. Michelle G. shows up to ask me a question. I excuse myself from the 9th grader, who then steps up ands say, "I see your running a PPN [peer to peer network]. Peter [the IT guy] won't like that." "Right, you don't have to worry about that, that's not running here." "You're running Limewire?!!? Peter really won't like that" "Okay thanks for the tip [kid, you're bothering me]"

I start chatting with Michelle who has a question about dot products. What they're about and why they work. The 9th grade gets bored and leaves. Michelle and I spend about 15 min. covering why dot products are useful mathematical tools, and what they represent. Our board is full and messy by the end. She claims, "Oh, I finally get this now... let me copy it down" I look at the board and regret not being more organized, but circle some relevant sections for her.

At this point, recitation should begin. There are about 15 students around. Five are repeats from the prior day. Students ask for the standard workshop sheets, but instead this is a review. I tell them they can work on HW / or review class notes.

The students break up to form groups. I move from group to group.

Ker and Thai working together again.

Michelle and Bao ask about problem mass on rotating disk... They've seen this many times. It is a solid disk with a weight attached. Calculate the acceleration of the brick and the tension of the string. I lead them through guided solution and then reflect back on their learning process. At each step, the students knew the physics and the relevant equations; however, they had problems visualizing the entire problem and what steps were needed when.
I guide them through my thinking process when I see a problem like this.

Kiel's group of five or six students are still organizing themselves about 10 min into class. They're a great group of students (as are all), but this is the really bright crew. Kiel mentions that I seem tired-- I seemed awfully focused on the content today. Another student chimes in.. yeah, your jokes were off today.. you were off your game. ( I was flattered and joked around with the kids and we went to work. By the end of recitation, Andrew said, 'You got your game back Dr. Noah' once again I was flattered). I got the big group of class stars working on the homework and roamed the room.

I spent a fair amount of time with one group of 5 which ended up staying long after the end of recitation section. I worked with Steven S. particularly. He rarely has come to recitation section. He's clever, and got decent intuitions about the physics, but doesn't seem to focus enough on the class. I took the opportunity to challenge and guide him though the first problem. He did a great job and really saw the utility and power of being analytical and a little more precise about our thinking. In particular, instead of saying the momentum decreases in one problem, we figured out the velocity had to drop in half (because of a collision with a mass of equal size and rules about conservation of momentum). He then used this bit of knowledge to calculate relative size of total momentum, kinetic energy of each piece and the entire system. Furthermore, I sat and listened to him appropriately guide his other classmates through the initial calculation of velocity. He gave Michelle and Andrew enough to go on that the two of them wrestled through the rest of the problem correctly. That freed me to work on my stand-up routine.

The final large group (David W, Nathan M, Kiel and Billy) raced through the homework. I asked them if they had reviewed the prior homework (where they had surprisingly poorly). They said no but acknowledged a lack of effort. Nathan made a claim that it frustrated him that the string in the disk / mass problem (described above) was mass-less. That messes up the entire problem. I then challenged him that it was consistent mathematically with a string of small mass. In fact the tension at the top and bottom are now different (by a small amount). How much, Nathan? the string mass times the acceleration. A ha... so if it is masssless what is the difference in the tensions? nothing. but..... okay... I get it.

Andrew asked me if I could chat with him sometime about AP exams. We spoke for a few minutes where I learned that he isn't sure if he should take the AP mechanics (which we've covered) or add E/M which we haven't. I told him I'd write my buddy who is a high school teacher who would know the answers we're looking for.

A few minutes later David W. asked me about whether he should take mechanics at the Community College. Absolutely not I said... unless you want to bore yourself. Nathan M. chimed in...yeah, we could take this class for a fourth time. At least you have a good instructor with great jokes this time, I offered. Yeah, but his game was a little off today, retorted Nathan ... Anyhow, I told the students they should test out of Mechanics and we'll see if we can get a group of ya'll up to UCSD to work on some cool physics. Otherwise, think about taking E/M. We'll talk about all of this more next week, after the exam.

[Normally there would be reflections here, but they are both embedded and included in other notes]