For the latest lesson plans for our physics class, visit Don’t Touch the Photons.
For reasons that somewhat elude me now, I offered to teach high school level physics this year. I swore I’d never take that science on, since it’s the one in which I have the least formal instruction. Biology was a treat and came quite naturally. Chemistry was generally comfortably doable. Physics scared me. I’ve had one semester of engineering-level physics in college. I did well. Twenty-four years ago. How much of that have I used since then? Precious little. But my older son was due for physics, and he already had two classes at the local university. With questionable study habits and plenty of unknowns facing him during this first year in a new setting, I was pretty sure adding physics there could be a big mistake. So I did what I said I wouldn’t. I offered to teach it myself.
Sure, I could have just taught it to my own child, but science is best when it’s collaborative. Besides, I was certain I’d plan far better if I had a child other than mine also counting on me to guide him through this coursework. I’ll admit that I have more planning drive when I’m responsible to more than just my child. I don’t understand why my slacker self is straightened up by the presence of children other than my own, but I know it’s true and act accordingly.
Eleven weeks in to teaching my own 15-year-old and his 17-year-old friend, I’m generally feeling confident. Well, most days. Overall, it’s going well. We’re well into mechanics, just finishing projectile motion, friction, rotational motion, and too many inclined planes. Heat, light, magnetism electricity, and quantum physics all are yet to come. And that single semester of physics seems a light year in the past.
I’m not sure how much I really appreciated the connections and underlying concepts back then. While I did quite well in the course, I recall points of disconnect, where I learned enough to solve the problems but felt I was missing some critical understanding. As a person with a tendency to over-think everything from the meaning of life to which socks to buy, my nagging feeling might have been more self-doubt than reality, but likely there was a bit of truth to it.
Truth be told, that feeling is still sometimes there.
This is hard work. It requires a fair amount of study as I go, and I’m never that much ahead of them. I once said in an interview for either undergrad or graduate school that one of my strengths was being a skilled learner. I know how to learn new material and resurrect material that once was in my head. I’m good at recognizing what I don’t know, seeking it out, and soaking it up. I have a high degree of tenacity that undoubtedly annoys those closest to me yet serves well when faced with a challenge. To put it briefly, I’m smart and stubborn as hell. It works for me. Still, this is hard work.
I also have physics-oriented friends who offer their help when I’m struggling. One leads monthly labs that reach beyond the more typical labs I have the boys do during our weekly class. He pushes them further and (hopefully) is spreading his passion for the subject to them simply via his high energy about the subject. Another answers my questions in English. He’s quick with an example or demonstration and patient with my quizzical looks. Until recently, I’ve underutilized him, not wanting to appear as lost as I sometimes feel. I’m wising up, however. As I tell my kids, use your experts. And then thank them profusely.
Even with a decent brain, tenacity, and a supportive team of experts, this road has been trying. Just vetting books for the course overwhelmed me. The search for something that covered what we needed, appeared approachable, and had a solutions manual available took a good month. I’m fairly pleased with our choice, only second-guessing about every other week. Other years, I’ve caved midway, adding a second text. This year, I’m trying to keep it a bit simpler.
While I do love to learn something new or deepen previous knowledge, I can’t say that I’d have chosen to spend that energy on physics unless my son had needed the class. I am enjoying reviving neuronal connections associated with torque, energy, and friction, admittedly. But it’s tiring to work at my edge continually, relearning then teaching, week after week. There’s a pride element here, too. It just feels a bit better to teach what is comfortably in my domain. And, frankly, in this domain, there’s still so much I don’t know, and what I do know isn’t all that comfortable. I have to muddle through problems just like the boys do (and sometimes they pull me through rather than the other way ’round). I look plenty of things up and utter, “I don’t know,” at regular intervals. This is a stretch.
Not that I’ve not had other stretches before. Matrices, translations of functions, points of inflection, and many other elements of precalculus left me asking my older son (15) for more answers than I was giving him at times. I learned quite a bit, not least of all being that Calculus was something I’d farm out. My younger boy, 11, has learned to skip mom as a history resource (smart child) and head straight for a book or the computer. Then he’ll come back and tell me what he found, whether I’m curious or not. Somewhere between all my “I don’t knows” and “Let’s look it ups,” he gained some terrific research skills along with a recognition of his mom’s limits. What I’ve offered during these times is a model of how to learn and how to persist. I’ve taught them when to seek out an expert and that asking is strength rather than weakness.
While working at my edge through energy equations and free-body diagrams might not be always comfortable or fun, it’s worthwhile for my boys and for me. The boys watch someone learn and sometimes struggle. They see read and re-read and hear me ask questions of those who know more. The process also expands my knowledge. I ask them to learn plenty of things that don’t fascinate them, and it’s okay for me to learn what doesn’t always entrance me. (Although I do love the aha moments and my deepening understanding of the workings of the universe.) I’m better for the process. But next year? Next year, we’re back to biology.
A special thanks to J.K. and B.S. for encouraging me, educating me, and not laughing when I make mistakes or just look lost. You’ve given me the courage to walk this road.