Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Teaching what I don't know: Physics

Monday, June 27, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

Most of what I worked on with Jack this year was what I knew. I studied social science (developmental psychology as an undergraduate) and the humanities (literature in graduate school), and I have taught literature and writing in college. I can certainly do a passable job teaching literature, history, philosophy, the arts, intro to social sciences, and even some scientific methodology. But what about fields I know very little about...?

I used to be a math major in college (before switching first to music, then to psychology, and finally to comparative literature) and while I remember hardly anything from all the math I had I do remember the pleasure of studying mathematics. I also studied a good amount of physics and chemistry but I am sad to say I found no pleasure in that. Weird to say, I was not interested in the practical applications of fields of knowledge. I love abstraction. Maybe weird but true. But at any rate, I knew litle physics and chemistry then and hardly any now.

I know a lot of homeschooling parents whose approach to teaching their kids is to study things with them. This is a fantastic approach and I’ve seen families who have achieved great results doing this. Although what tends to happen is that the kids at some point get better than their parents and take off on their own, which is wonderful to see. But I have felt very insecure taking on subjects I don’t know anything about – this is the flip side of having experience teaching subjects I am familiar with! I felt a lot less adventurous than a lot of homeschooling parents I admired.

So I decided to challenge myself. How do I teach physics, I asked myself?

Years ago I had seen a book that I had been meaning to look into some day: The Physics of Dance by Kenneth Laws. I have been a student of dance, particularly ballet, for many years. I have had some truly awesome teachers. When you study dance in New York your path crosses some of the top people in the field, both in performance and teaching. So I have had the great good fortune of studying with some of the most talented and knowledgeable people in dance, from all over the world. In fact I have perhaps been influenced by this experience more deeply than by anything else. I wrote a little about it here but I plan to write more in the future.

So, not knowing how to approach something I don’t know I went back to dance. I looked up The Physics of Dance. Thanks to the gods of electronic communication I not only within minutes ordered my copy but came across a string of books on the physics of all kinds of sports, including – most relevant for me – the physics of skateboarding. My very un-team minded son only does solo sports, namely skateboarding and snowboarding (and a little skiing and ice skating). I immediately ordered Skateboarding: How It Works by Emily Sohn. 

This is a small illustrated book covering some basic concepts in physics: Newton’s three laws of motion, as well as other important and useful concepts such as centripetal and centrifugal forces, torque, kinetic and potential energy, momentum, gravity, friction, etc. The skateboarding context for teaching physics really worked for Jack. He was able to grasp the concepts quickly and actually feel them in his body. I, meanwhile, applied what I was studying with Jack to my own experience with movement, namely in ballet. So the two of us went back and forth between skateboarding and ballet, comparing and contrasting concepts in actual different movements. Lo and behold, for the first time in my own life I actually enjoyed physics! It’s wonderful how you can take a few basic concepts in science and keep exploring them in different contexts. Now I feel I have the vocabulary to do this with Jack.

Our experience with learning physics gave me some more ideas. I went back to my days of studying kinesiology many years ago and another area I had stored in the back of mind to someday explore more: the sagital, frontal, and tansverse planes of movement. As I looked up that old interest I realized you can learn two subjects through studying planes of movement: anatomy and three-dimensional geometry. Next year I will approach this by learning and teaching how different joints in the body (anatomy) move in three dimensions (geometry). In fact, I am so excited about studying this that I’m planning on making it a sort of class for a couple of homeschooling mom/kid teams.

OK, so far so good for physics. But don’t ask me to teach chemistry. I really have no idea about that and no passion for it. I don’t know how to link it to dance either – maybe chemistry of cooking…?!  But no matter. I’m resigned to not “teaching” some subjects. Either someone else has to step in and cover for me or the kid will be left to his own devices somewhere down the road.



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