A strategy for learning

|   By Pat Hennessy
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DANBURY—Why is it easier to push a shopping cart than a car? Because a shopping cart has less mass (it’s not as heavy), and the less the mass, the easier it is to accelerate. Newton’s second law of motion spells it out: acceleration depends on force times mass squared.

The topic the eighth graders are exploring during a Personalized Learning science class at St. Gregory the Great School in Danbury goes to the very basis of physics. Physicist Isaac Newton formulated three laws in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, first published in 1687. Used to explain the motion of physical objects and systems, these laid the foundation for all classical mechanics.

“What is Newton’s second law?” science teacher Christine Fahey asks a small group gathered at one table.

“It’s the relationship between mass and force and acceleration,” comes the quick answer from one student.

“When mass goes up, acceleration goes down,” adds another.

The students are deep into exploring this fundamental physical principle, with small groups rotating through several different ways of exploring the concept. At the beginning of the class, Fahey had worked through a variety of problems, solving for force, acceleration and mass. “You have to figure out what you’re looking for, figure out what you’re given and establish an equation,” she explained.

As they put that challenge into practice, one group is watching a video, with pauses along the way to answer imbedded questions. At the end they’ll complete a survey of the material.

A second group reads short comprehension paragraphs followed by questions. “This gives this a reading analysis of the equation,” explains Aidan, who has already completed the video section.

At another station, “Study Island” drills with straight problems—and the chance to play a video game following correct answers. Answers done perfectly, Sarah has successfully completed her studies and is playing a game called Lunar Rally. “This one is the most fun, because of the games,” she says.

When students are finished at Study Island, they can complete other work or look at a report on gravity, space and the human body published by NASA this year.

“We’ve always used technology here at St. Gregory’s and, especially for science, we’ve always had small groups,” Fahey says. “The diocesan Personalized Learning Initiative has made me focus a little bit more, pay more attention to the different ways students learn.”

The teachers at St. Gregory’s, from the youngest preschool to the eighth grade, have embraced the Personalized Learning Initiative with enthusiasm, says principal Suzanne Curra. “They report that students are way more engaged and, in some cases, their classes are ahead of where they were last year,” she says.

Because the program is so new, teachers meet as a professional learning community on Wednesday morning, every week. “They discuss what the needs are and what they’re finding,” Curra says. “Through discussion, teachers can modify their plans and make them better. That’s the craft of teaching.”

In a small group, Fahey can exercise the craft of teaching as she shows students how to manipulate the law of motion through equations. “What can you do to increase the acceleration?” she asks one group of students. As they change their equations, they can either increase the force or decrease the mass. She checks their worksheets, looking for comprehension, mathematical accuracy and completeness.

During the school year, the eighth graders have been introduced to the scientific method and are now exploring physics, followed by genetics and chemistry. “For each of these topics, each of these stations has a different strategy for learning,” says Fahey. “When they get to high school, they’ll have a solid foundation in science.”

By Pat Hennessy