How do you set the stage for your class?

For the last two years I’ve had my students (seniors in high school) put together puzzles on day 1 of class. I first learned of this activity from one of my modeling physics workshop leaders (Thanks to Doug Forrest). He said doing this activity was a fun way to show students that his class was ‘different’. After trying it, I couldn’t agree more.

**Materials: **Set of blindfolds and about eight 24-piece puzzles (ages 3+!).

Here’s the activity:

This has typically taken me a full period, but if students finish quickly I ask them to answer the questions together and make a whiteboard. One important part of this is to let students finish, no matter how long it takes them. It’s important that they leave the first day successful in accomplishing a task. I’ve never had a group not finish in one period (but I work in 70 minute classes).

This activity serves many purposes and will serve as a metaphor for how learning will take place throughout the year. In our discussion of this activity I ask students the following questions:

**What was difficult about this?**-Some typical responses include: The blindfold. Keeping left and right straight…since we were facing opposite ways. Actually fitting the pieces together, since we couldn’t see.

**What helped make this task easier?**-In order to make this challenge easier, it is best to **think about how the other person is thinking**. I ask…is this typically something you have to do in school? I try to connect this to learning and get students to realize that in order to help someone learn something or learn something yourself, it helps to think about how the other person is thinking. We work in groups everyday in my class so this is essential.

-It is also useful to **communicate** using words that have the same meaning to both people. ‘Left’ for the assembler doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘left’ for the director. So students had to be more specific and use terms that both people understood like ‘away from you’ or ‘your right’ or ‘toward me’. I try to emphasize that this is the goal of class, to build a** shared understanding** of physics. All students who walk in my door the first day have different understandings about the world. For example, the concept of ‘force’ means different things to different students on day one, but our goal is to move closer to a common understanding of it throughout the year.

**Would this task have been possible alone (putting a puzzle together blindfolded)? Is it easier as a group?**-Most students think it would be possible alone, but as a group it is definitely easier. I emphasize that you are not alone in learning physics. We are all in this together. Learning as a group is easier and more fun than learning alone.

**How did this activity make you feel?**–**Frustrated!** Most people dealt with some frustration during the activity. The director and assembler had to deal with the frustration of miscommunication and the misplacing of pieces. The enforcer had to feel the frustration of not being able to help or say anything. I ask the enforcers if they’ve ever felt this way in a class. Most have. They want to help, but don’t or can’t. I also ask if it would have been helpful of them to take the pieces and put it together for the other two. Probably not. I try to get students to realize that it is important sometimes to let others struggle a bit and accomplish the task on their own. I point out that there will be times when physics is frustrating, but **sticking with it** and letting people work through their struggles will lead to the most success.

**Who made mistakes? Are mistakes okay?**-Most students agree that **everyone made mistakes** and that this is okay. I ask…do you think this task is possible without making mistakes? No. Is that a bad thing? No. I try to get them to realize that after each mistake they made a slight correction in method. In fact, the mistake was a necessary precursor to the correction. I ask…so if mistakes are inevitable and we can use them to learn from, doesn’t that mean **mistakes are good!? **I tell them that they will make mistakes in learning physics, but I want the mentality in the room to be that we value (or even celebrate!) mistakes and learn from them.

**Did everyone finish at the same time? Is that okay?**-Not a chance. This is absolutely okay. I connect this to learning. Do all students learn at the same rate or in the same way? No, and that is fine! I use this to mention that our grading policies this year will allow students to progress at their own pace. I don’t care how fast you learn, I just care that you learn.

I like this a lot, one of my colleagues tried this a few years back, and then weighted the mass of how many puzzle pieces each person was able to assemble in class time. He claimed it correlated with end of semester grades better than any other measure (previous year’s science grate, PSAT, etc).

Interesting…An alternate form of pretest? Did he use groups?

I think it was before both of us started working at this school. I’ll ask, but based on his comments, I think he must have had students to this individually.

I like this. There’s an activity in the book Designing Group Work that this reminds me of. You have a circle cut into pieces. Each group member gets an envelope with pieces in it and eventually need to realize that they will need to work together because they each have pieces of each other’s circles. Oh and they can’t talk the whole time.

How do you use the activity? I hope this year I’ll keep referring back to this activity or at least the discussion points…I don’t think I did it enough last year. I don’t think I even realized how relevant all of these layers to this activity were present in our day to day lessons until I reflected on it again this year. I feel like there could be points in class throughout the year that I could ask…”How is this like the puzzle activity we did on the first day?”

Oh I’ve never done it so I don’t know. I just remember reading it. But yeah I agree on referring back. I use a handcuffs activity the first day and I constantly refer back to that sucker.

This was Amazing! My students ‘got it’ and had a frustrating blast. I’ll be using this from now on. Thanks for sharing.

Glad it went well!

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