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Class Notes
Getting to the school year’s halfway mark
(Published February 11, 2002)


Last week was the beginning of the second semester for students in D.C. Public Schools. For some that meant schedule changes in one-semester classes: an art class replacing P.E., or maybe cosmetology instead of health. For some students, the new semester started with a couple days off school, as the District imposed its immunization requirement by sending home any students who did not have records for the required shots.

For me, a first-year science teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Business and Finance, the new semester has been a chance to re-evaluate and redefine my instruction, management, and assessment policies in the classroom. Last week I passed out an addendum to the syllabus-the third such revision since the beginning of the year. As I learn more about my capabilities as a teacher and about my students' capabilities as learners, I continually tweak the course requirements to make them simple, fair, and demanding. When should I schedule tests? How much credit is homework worth? How do I grade essays? Sometimes I wish fancifully that I could have just gotten everything right from day one, but to have such an expectation would be to deny that teaching and learning are interactive, organic processes.

When I reflect on my experience so far as a DCPS teacher, I often think back to how this chapter in my life first began: an all-day solo drive from Boston to Washington in a fifteen-foot yellow moving truck. It was mid-June last summer, and the east coast had just been hit by a mild hurricane, so it took my full concentration to maneuver this mammoth vehicle through I-95 traffic in a torrential downpour. As I squinted through the drenched windshield, my thoughts centered on college graduation the week before and my reluctance to leave old roommates, friends, and a collegiate community that had supported me for four years. At the same time, the excitement of a new life in Washington and the opportunities of a full-time teaching position pulled me onward.

I sometimes wonder what I would say to myself if I could go back and sit in the passenger seat for that long trip south. I might emphasize the importance of learning students' names, since that is the first sign of a teacher's respect for them. I would make myself promise to kick the habit of late-night college study sessions: a full night's sleep would become a daily necessity. I would suggest that sometimes the kids who seem too-cool-for-school can be won over to become your strongest positive role models in the classroom. I would tell myself to stay humble but to also have confidence-students want to be guided by a leader with vision and strength of purpose.

Even if a time machine could make such a conversation possible, it would only be of limited aid to the novice version of myself. What I have learned so far during my short time as a teacher is intricately wrapped up in the actual experiences of having been in the classroom, working with my students, trying, failing, and trying again to get them to learn. I can write down some of the tricks I have picked up, but in a sense they are hollow and lifeless without the experiences that it took for me to learn them. Probably the best advice I could give myself had already been given to me by my own former physics teacher. He warned: At times teaching may become tiresome from paperwork, bureaucracy, grading, or gossip, but always remember the two things that brought you into teaching: love for science, and love for students. If you hold onto those two things, the frustrating details will never take away your joy for the profession.

The title of this column, "Class Notes", is one of the labels that all 119 chemistry and physics students must put on one of the ten sections in their notebooks. If they and I are doing our jobs correctly, that section will become a chronologically-organized record of all the material we have covered in the course. I used to label my own high school notebooks in the same way, and at the beginning of this school year I decided to make careful organization a top priority. Even though I'm no longer the student, my mind is still being stretched and expanded every day at school. So I write down what I learn, and, as I tell all my classes, sharing notes is encouraged.


Send stories, advice, or questions to H. Wells Wulsin at

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator