During the first week of school, I had my students write a short essay about what their hopes and fears for this class would be, and another telling me their personal history in their past science classes.  I collected them, read them to learn more about each student, then put them in a file.  During the last week of school, I handed back their essays.  I asked them to write me another letter, a response to their first week’s thoughts and a reflection of their experiences in the class.  In particular, I asked them to tell whether they had changed how they saw themselves as students, as learners, as people.  I also asked them to critique the class itself, the structure and the tone of it.

Here are some examples of their writing:


I strongly believe that I learned more in this class than I did in any other science class throughout my high school career.  I was able to learn the material for what it actually was, rather than just memorizing the information to be able to spit it back out simply to get an A on a test.  I also don’t think I was ever fully aware of truly how much I was learning until the first semester exam rolled around.  After discussing the test with other fellow physics students who had other teachers, they were stressed out about how little they felt they knew on the test.  I, on the other hand, felt much more prepared for the test and although my grade might not have been absolutely perfect, I felt confident while taking the test.

I think as a student I really benefitted from the structure and style of this class.  The fact that the grade I received was not based solely off a point system was a completely new concept to me.  I think this fairly displayed the effort and level of understanding I truly had about physics.  I wish more teachers would adapt this system because I think it would be extremely helpful for students to become engaged in a different outlook.

Ella K.

In all honesty I never wanted to study physics.  I had never planned on taking a physics class unless I was required to in college.  I am not a “math person”, so why would I have any want take a math based physics course?  Or so I thought.  I couldn’t be happier that I switched into this class after dropping Biology AP.  This class has grown into one of my favorites.  I am thoroughly dumbfounded by each new concept we cover.  Can it really be true that there are black holes?  Are stars really that far away?  Is gravity really not a force?  It is ideas that send me walking down the hallways of ETHS with thoughts of physics jumbling around in my mind.

This class has been possibly the most captivating class I have ever taken.  I have never felt truly motivated to share my classroom experiences with friends or family before this class.  I find it amazing to bring these ideas home to my parents and discuss them over the dinner table.  My friends and I stand around our kitchens munching on an after school snack talking about the amazing things we discovered in physics today.  This is really what learning should be about, and this class has proven this to me.  It has given me a better idea for the type of education I am seeking for my future.  I have found that I have to truly love and be enthralled in the material I am learning to even begin to care about it and to dig deep into it.

The other best thing this class has given me is more confidence.  I have become a leader in this class.  As a study group leader and a member of the steering committee I feel like I am making a difference in this class. I have become more confident around my classmates, and feel like I am making a difference in the classroom atmosphere.  This class has give me not only a great education, but has helped me grow on a personal level.  This is what makes this class so important to me.  In enjoy this class so greatly and the way it is organized and structured makes all the difference in my physics experiences.

Liz B.

You have developed a classroom environment that breeds learning rather than busy work and one in which students can teach each other and communicate with you as equals.  You provide us with the tools to learn more than just the curriculum if we want to, and are lenient in letting us do less when our lives get busy.  It is nearly impossible to come out of your class without more knowledge, understanding, and intelligence.

I want to thank you.  I want to thank you for listening and for bearing with me while I was late to class and late with work because I was so busy.  More than that, though, I want to thank you for everything you’ve taught me and for everything you’ve ever allowed me to teach myself.  I’ve really enjoyed your class, and I know that whether I end up studying Physics in college or not, I am well prepared for my life in college.  You contributed greatly to that preparation, providing me with both new knowledge and a broader, more open perspective.  Thank you for simply being a person whom I can aspire to emulate.

Simone S.

When I first enrolled in this course I was very nervous for the math portion that was involved with Physics.  However, after taking it I have learned that all you need is practice to be able to succeed.  I have learned that I learn better when I have to do the teaching.  It forces me to see what I actually fully understand and know and what I do not. I now know that it takes time to grasp a concept and no one completely understands a concept the first time they learn it.

For most of my high school career, my mindset has been learning for the sole purpose of getting a good grade.  This course has changed that.  It has shown me that a grade is just a grade and the important part is whether you have grasped the material and have grown to your full potential as a student.

I think this course structure is the most beneficial structure a class can have.  It forces the students to not constantly worry about what grade they are getting, but rather on the material they are learning.

Felix K.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that letter at the beginning of the year.  I thought I wouldn’t be able to master the course work, or that I wouldn’t understand concepts.  How silly!  It might be due purely to your teaching tactics, but I feel like I’ve learned more in Physics than in any other class I’ve ever taken.  I truly feel like I’ve learned and not memorized.  Before this year, I don’t really think I knew what learning was.  Sure, I could remember formulas and plug in numbers, but what did it all mean?  What is the point of F=ma if I don’t know what it means?  What’s the point in memorizing anything if I don’t learn from it?

I think we as students become so accustomed to the way every other teacher teaches that we’ve just unlearned how to learn.  I think the way you teach physics makes it so much simpler.  I don’t think that any other classes learned any more than we did, but I think that their classes were harder.  They were harder to comprehend and harder to learn in.

The way you run your class is how all classes should be run.  It’s not about the teacher, it’s about learning, it’s about the students.  You tailor to the individual student without smothering them.  Even the small things, like not having to ask you to go to the bathroom, or not having those hideous overhead lights, really make a difference in the atmosphere of the classroom.  No one really thinks about how degrading it is to have to ask someone else permission to use the bathroom.  The more I think about it, the more preposterous it becomes!

I’m really trying to think of something to criticize you on, so that this letter isn’t just praising you like crazy, but I can’t think of anything.  Just the fact that you are constantly learning along with us makes your weaknesses less weak.  You are always trying to improve, and I think that’s what makes all the difference in your teaching ability.  Many teachers think that once they get comfortable, that they can just go through the motions.  You never do that.  You are constantly engaged and having fun with us.

Physics is a life altering course.  It’s how the world functions and how people found that out and how we can understand it further.  It really has been a pleasure being in your class this year.  I’ve learned a lot about physics, the world, and what school should really be like.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that you are the best teacher I have ever had.  Thank you so much for everything, and I plan to keep in touch for a long time.  

Happy Retirement,

Melina N.

As I read the letter I wrote to you earlier this year I found it interesting because I spoke a lot about how much I didn’t enjoy science.  And thinking back I definitely do remember detesting science class, but this year it has been one of my favorite classes to come to.  I look forward to your class every single day. I think I look forward to it for multiple reasons. I enjoy reading the new quote you put up, I love the people in the class, I like the vibe and atmosphere of the entire room, and I am always intrigued by what new crazy lesson I know I am going to learn that day.  It’s sad to say but for so much of this year, school has made me feel dumb and overwhelmed, but I always knew that in your class I could for once feel important and treated equally.  

I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing that was to me.  I always felt like I could go to you if I didn’t understand a new concept and you wouldn’t give up explaining until I understood.  I feel like I can honestly say that I will remember most of the concepts I learned this year for the rest of my life and I don’t remember a single thing from chemistry just last year. 

Your teaching style and technique made me want to work hard and learn.  Also your concern for everyone just as human beings made me feel more comfortable in the classroom and I was never afraid to be myself and speak whenever I had something to say.  I think that is true for everyone in that class.  Everyone felt trusted and comfortable so everyone’s personalities shined.  That is probably why I feel I have become such good friends with the people in our class.  Our class has a really special bond that no other physics class can really understand.  Thank you so much for an absolutely incredible year.  You are honestly one of the best teachers I have ever had and I will always remember you as the teacher that taught me to learn to enjoy science.

Katie M.

I really respect the fact that you respect your students.  That is one of the things that matters most to me in a class, is that I feel like I am being talk to, not down to.  It makes me more willing to listen to what you have to say, and more likely to do the work in class well instead of just trying to “work around the system”.  I’ll be honest; most assumptions just won’t be effective.  Students cheat, lie, copy, BS stuff, and generally see learning as a burden rather than a gift.  That’s not something that can be changed, for most people.  It can definitely help them move in a more honest direction, but the habits and thought processes are just too ingrained.

I really gained more than knowledge in the class; I learned how to get excited about learning.

Julia M.

This year in science has been such a different learning experience from the rest.  I got very used to this different style of learning and now find it hard to have to go back next year to that more factory style type of learning

If all of my teachers could have the faith in students that you do I truly believe that students would make more of an effort to learn and do well.

Mikaela M.

As a person I have learned that I work really well in groups.  Because in this class I got the chance to do my work and struggle through things, and then come together with my group.  Being in a group I could check my work and then have the time to see what others weren’t understanding.

Erika K.

First off I want to thank you for putting up with me for a whole year, and doing your best to help me learn no matter how difficult the material was for me.  This year, I have learned a lot about my learning style, that if I apply myself, I can be a really good student.  However, I’ve also learned that if I don’t immediately understand something, it’s easy for me to give up.  I think your personal help, and the help of other students, helped me study.  Though it was important to find the right group of people because when I worked with people way above my intelligence level it was hard to follow and I found myself giving up.

James M.

As a student, I have always been motivated to learn, but I have always been forced to memorize things instead of actually learning them.  When in Physics, I have always been motivated to do work, not forced (“Forced” as in there’s a threat of grade-reduction and penalty).  I tend to learn when I am genuinely interested in class and not when I am just “going through the motions”.  

This class has actually changed the way I have looked at the world--science-wise and my entire being. I’ve been very successful in learning Physics this year.  When I speak to other students who take Physics--with teachers other than you--they rarely ever speak of Physics, and when they do they speak about it as if it were just another class.  But I talk about what I learn to everybody I know--literally.  I randomly bring up Physics subjects to my parents, my boyfriend, my siblings, and some of my friends.  This is a result of my motivation to learn, not me being forced into learning.

At the beginning of the school year I didn’t expect to learn anything new about the way I learn.  I believed this was just going to be another class, but I was wrong.  The working assumptions you presented are completely true and those are vital for a good learning environment. 

Having teachers run classes doesn’t help students learn the way they’d like to learn.  The teachers already know the material, so doing things their way is ineffective.  

Overall, this class has been amazing.  I love everything about how this class has gone--the study groups, labs, grade conferences, etc.) I see this learning structure as being very effective in getting us--as students--to want to be self-sufficient in our learning.  And honestly, this is the only class I have ever taken in my life that I didn’t enjoy walking out of at the end of the school year.  I’ll miss everything you and this class has taught me.

Deanna H.

From this class as a person I have gained the ability to listen to people for advice and ask peers questions to help direct me to the right path/answer.  As a learner though, I have learned to know what I don’t know and need to understand.  I have also learned to be patient with topics that are not clear at first, but as I go about exploring the topic, and asking questions the topic becomes more clear and understandable, even if sometimes the topic becomes clear after having taken the test.

I’m very proud of my journal.  Over time I flipped through it, and the journal is ACTUALLY a reflection of what I have learned.

Pamela N.

It’s the format of the class that makes the biggest difference.  I don’t feel like I’m competing any more the way I did in biology (survival of the fittest-how appropriate!), or shouldering the burden for a bunch of people who expect to coast by on my efforts like I did in Chemistry.  Feeling like you’re part of a group of people who actually want each other to do well changes everything.   Physics is a subject that interests me, but the format of the class allowed me to realize that.

Nadeen M.

I don’t consider myself a math-science person at all, but I always looked forward to your class, not just because you made science class interesting to me for the first time in my life, but also, every day I could count on learning something more than just physics.  Perhaps the most meaningful thing I took out of my year in your course was your philosophy on teaching, the idea of assuming responsibility for your own learning and self-directing your path for success.  I loved that I was able to learn so much in your class, but never once did I feel overstressed or a desire to compete with my peers.  That has never been the case in my other high school courses.  In your class, everyone worked through the concepts together, and we were there to help each other understand.  Your class was unique, refreshing, and I learned more than in any other classroom setting.

As I’m finishing up high school and reflecting, I’m certain that my time in your class was the most positive academic experience I had.  I won’t soon forget all of the lessons you passed on.

Martha L.

I like how you as a teacher gave us the opportunity to be as adults and treat us as adults because throughout all four quarters we were able to grade ourselves and have you give us feedback on what we really deserve.  Every time when we did the self evaluation I always gave myself a lower grade because I felt that was the type of effort I was giving to the class but you proved me wrong because you saw the potential I had and how well I could be in the class.

Jennifer C.

I really believe that because of this creative and helpful approach to learning physics, that I have finally been able to actually retain the information that we have learned this whole year.  I barely had to study for the semester exam because all of the concepts came back to me really quickly.

I really like the system of the contracts because it incorporates another new learning style into the classroom and makes learning fun.  The contracts also provide a great feeling of accomplishment because as soon as you finish one you see all the work that you put into that unit.  I also feel like contracts are really helpful in every day life because there are going to be times where you have to complete a certain amount of tasks to get something done, whether it be for your job, family, etc.   I have never felt like any of the physics work we received this year was busy work.  The tests have always seemed very fair at assessing what our class has learned.  My grade has definitely reflected my learning.  When I might slack a little on my contract, my test grade drops a little, and when I really put forth the effort on my contract and go the extra mile, my test grade shows this effort.

Hannah W.

Dear Mr. Geni,

It’s hard to believe that it’s the end of the year already. Seriously, it feels like it was just the other day that you videotaped us awkwardly saying our names.  On that first day, you promised that you would go home and study our names that night, and you told us that you expected us to learn all of each others’ ames as well.  That’s when I first knew that this class would be special;  very few teachers really care whether or not their class knows each other, as long as they don’t cause a disturbance, and still fewer would spend a whole evening working on names so that they know them on the second day.  The rest of the year just worked to confirm what I thought from the very beginning.  You are a very special teacher, Mr. Geni.

As I’ve said before, in this class I never had to worry about my grades.  I knew that if I did all the work that was available to me (and there was always more than enough to keep me busy) and tried my best, the grades would just work out.  But what was more important was that I actually learned a lot.  Because I was responsible for my own learning in this class and I felt like I had control over what I wanted to learn, I got as much out of it as I possibly could.  I feel like you understand what many teachers don’t - you can’t force anyone to learn anything, so there’s no point in trying.  The best thing that a teacher can do is to try to make their subject as interesting as possible, and you definitely did that.

Lauren C.

Often times I find myself subconsciously just learning information to memorize it, then forget it later.  I realized when looking over my notes, that a quick review of what I’ve learned totally refreshes my mind and tells me that I’ve really learned the material.  The topics have been extremely meaningful because this year I’ve been more interested in learning for the sake of gaining knowledge about what this world is.

Working with people helps me both when I understand a topic and when I don’t.

I think that your working environment has served me miraculously.  I love knowing that my teacher trusts me in my work enough to let us work with groups and know that we will in fact work because (even though some teachers would be surprised) kids DO enjoy learning!

Ellie L.

From the first day of class, I noticed that you were an accepting and caring teacher and person.  My time in your class changed my outlook on school and life positively.  I learned that things are what you make of them, not just when observing two moving objects, but when starting each day and choosing to make each one of them a good one.  After second period, I had a class that was the exact opposite of the one you have established, and it highlighted the contrast between a productive yet fun learning environment (like your class) and a repetitive, hostile one.

Nico R.

I feel that I was incredibly narrow-minded at the beginning of the year.  All I said was that I wanted experience on how to build planes and that I wanted a good grade.  Now I feel that those things are at the bottom of the list for expectations in your classroom.  Your class is the only one that I know of that has actually made me learn the material and not just regurgitate it when tests come up.

The students teaching students in the class a great idea because kids actually do not pay that much attention to teachers.  I think that your class was great fun and a great learning environment.

Dave J.

This year has been a wonderful experience for me in the science department.  I truly mean physics was enjoyable to me in so many ways.  I loved the group atmosphere and the learning aspect.  I feel I wasn’t forced to learn where I really had a chance to have a desire to learn, which actually allowed me to learn something.  That might be kind of confusing, but I’ll explain.  For example, if my parents demand me to do chores, such as clean my room, is when I want to rebel and not clean my room.  As teenagers, we want to do things on our own without being told to do something.  But when on my own without my parents telling me to clean my room, then I actually have a craving to do it, which is a little strange.

I feel like it’s reverse psychology.  Like with babies when you say “give me a hug”, they might not do it.  But when they’re told NOT to give a person a hug, they will.  It’s the same thing as learning.  When you’re told to learn, students might not do it.  But when students are given the choice to learn it’s more likely they will want to learn.  In the beginning they may even choose to not learn, but really they’re the one’s missing out.  The students are the ones who are missing opportunities to learn.  Even if a student fades away from the beginning, they will always have that curious feeling in what they are missing.  So I think your chill attitude toward life just gives students that desire to learn.

I learned in this class that I am a visual learner and need an explanation for what to do and how to do things.  I like to be given that extra help to connect things together.  I like to work together as groups when there’s something I don’t understand.  I just like comparing answers and going over the ones I got wrong.  However, when I’m doing work I like doing things on my own first and then comparing.  I believe the contract style was very useful.  It made me feel organized and know what to prepare for.  Unlike some classes, where I feel worksheets are just given to you for no purpose and then the next day to be thrown away.  I feel like the work in this class has been useful.

Ashley M.

1st/2nd period physics has been so much fun, and I am so sad it’s almost over.  I’ve learned so much about not only physics, but about myself as a learner.  There are so many valuable lessons I am taking with me to keep for the rest of my life.  I look at the world in a totally new perspective now, and I love it!

I have learned about myself as a person and a learner thanks to this class.  I have learned that failure is an opportunity.  One of the lessons I am taking away from your class is to never frown at failingI have an entirely new feeling towards receiving bad grades, making a mistake, etc.  I now view this as an opportunity to figure out what I don’t know to go back and actually learn it and better myself.

I believe everyone was really caring and kind and this allowed for a great, positive learning environment.  The structure of the class worked really well and I think my grades showed this.  I enjoyed being able to choose what items to do on contracts.  I also enjoyed the fact that when I did work, I didn’t think about points.  I did it to complete it and learn the material.

Erin S.

You allowed the class mood to stay relaxed by allowing us to pick our own study groups.  This gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed.  Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible.

Another positive of your class is the flexible deadlines.  This allowed me to always do my best work.  I was never pressured to stay up all night and cram.

Melissa M.

I appreciate the structure of the class so much, and I can really see that it has paid off.  It’s so much better for me, personally, because I’ve always hated the school system, and grades.  With your structure, I can actually learn, and not be scared to fail.

Anna L.