AP Teacher Q&A: Joshua Beck from Clayton High School

The AP Physics 1 teacher shares what he has learned from teaching online and working as a teacher through a pandemic

Since launching in early March, there have been nearly 18 million views of the Online AP Classes and Review Sessions that stream live daily and are archived on YouTube. More than half a million of those eyeballs have been on AP Physics 1. And when students tune in to prepare for their physics exam, one of the teachers they see is Joshua Beck.

Beck has been a teacher since 2008, and he has been part of the AP community since 2011. He teaches at Clayton High School in Clayton, N.C., and incorporating video and other online assets into his classroom isn’t new to him: he has been making short explanatory clips for his students for years, to help supplement what they’re learning at school. But teaching live AP classes online presented new challenges to him, from prepping for a live class to making sure he had all the tools he needed to co-teach the course. On that score, though, Beck got lucky. He’s teaching AP Physics 1 online with Greg Jacobs, from Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Va. Jacobs was Beck’s guide into teaching AP Physics, and their relationship and like-minded approach to the material creates a sense of consistency for students.

Beck spoke with The Elective about getting comfortable teaching live classes online, the challenges of not interacting with students face to face, and the way he hopes teaching through a pandemic will change education. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

screenshot of ap physics teacher joshua beck

AP Physics 1 teacher Joshua Beck

When you were approached to teach these live AP classes, what was your reaction?

I was really excited—and then I was nervous when I found out that there were going to be live daily presentations. Initially I thought they would be prerecorded and then posted. That was partially because there was so much up in the air with my regular school schedule. At that time, I still didn't know what actual school was going to look like. I didn't know what my requirements were going to be, and my availability and my schedule and things like that. Would I be able to fit it into my schedule? Once I presented the opportunity to my administration, they gave me the go-ahead so that I could adjust whatever my school schedule was to work around it.

Have you gotten more comfortable with the live format?

Sure. It's interesting because it feels very similar to the normal progression of a new semester with new students. You walk in the classroom and on day one you have confidence in what you're bringing to the table as a professional, but you're anxious because you don't know how that's going to be received by the students in your class. And so on day one, you have to start establishing that rapport and getting to know those students and making sure that they get to know you. These virtual lessons have had a similar feel, where I've gotten more comfortable as it's gone on because I'm more familiar with the format and things like that. And when I look at the old videos and see it's been viewed 20,000 times, that doesn't make me as nervous anymore. I think part of what's helped me with that process is making myself available through Twitter @MrJBphysics to answer student questions. That's created a bit of a more personal connection, where I've recognized that there are students and even teachers on the other end of this that are watching and then asking questions. Having that ability to give feedback and then hear back-and-forth from them makes that personal connection that I was really worried about not being able to have with the virtual lessons.

Was there ever a worry that no one would watch these?

I was worried that my students wouldn't bother to watch them because they probably thought they already knew what I was going to say. So I've been pleased to get feedback from my own students too. But no, my fear was the other way around. My fear was that a lot of people would watch them with a critical eye. What if all these colleagues that I have, all the people that I've known for all these years through the AP community from a variety of different things —what if they're going to start critiquing everything that I do? I think it's just a natural concern. I want to make sure that I'm presenting a product that other people can support and say, “Yeah, I want my students to watch this.” Very quickly, I started getting really positive feedback from people that I know in the AP community. And then I even started getting feedback from people I hadn't heard from in a while. I have an old college roommate who teaches physics in New Jersey, and he sent me a text message and said, "Dude, I told my students to start watching these videos. And then I tuned in and saw you up there! I immediately got all this extra credibility with my students because I know that guy!" So it's been overall a very positive experience with a lot of very positive feedback, both from teachers and students alike.

How different is the vibe that comes from teaching a class where you can't get the reaction of a student and they can't get your reaction to them physically and in real time?

I think the hardest aspect of that is on the preparation end. With my own classroom, I know what they've learned and know what their strengths and weaknesses are. And a lot of those are because those are areas where I have strengths or weaknesses in presenting content. So when we get toward the end of the curriculum, I know which areas I need to do a better job of reviewing, because I know that maybe I didn't make that as clear when we first went through it. Things like that. So the extra challenge, since I don't have that feedback and I don't know where the students are at, really comes on the preparation end. I’ll take a unit and think, "OK, these are the demonstrations I would do, these are the labs that I would do. These are the ways that I would explain this. And then these are the skills that my students would already have." But try and recognize that the students that are watching, they may have heard the same concepts in a different way. They may have been taught in a very similar manner from mine, they may have been taught in a totally different manner. They may have not even covered this topic. And so I don't want to present a lesson that bores everybody, but I also don't want to present a lesson that requires so much background information that only half of my viewers can really follow what's going on.

How do you balance that?

I guess I don't know if I am balancing it, right? You don't get that feedback. I try to start my lessons with a little bit of basic knowledge—fundamental stuff, maybe definitions, that I figure would be a safe bet that the students watching have heard before. It never hurts to refresh students’ memories, because these are designed as review sessions. And then what I'm trying to focus on really is: What are the ways that I could present information that would require students to think about them in the ways that they'll have to think about them on the exam? I try and lean more towards explaining why or describing what would happen if I changed this thing like that. I’m really trying to get the students to think about these topics in the way that they'll be assessed.

I'm thinking back to when I was a physics student in high school, and time in the lab was really important. Clearly you can't do that from home. How do you overcome that need for a student to have hands-on experience?

With my own classes, I can handle this a little bit differently because I can film a variety of different sorts of discrete events, and they can go through and collect some data. With one of these live AP review sessions, I don't want to spend the entire 45 minutes just collecting data to solve a single thing—to find the mass of this after all this experimental data—because I don't think that's time well spent for the review sessions. So what I'm trying to do is model some of these lab-style activities, so that the students get some visual exposure, at least, to some of these different things.

I’m also trying to create scenarios that they have maybe talked about in their classroom but haven't seen. Ideally, it would be great to let them manipulate these things. But I think the next best thing would be to show them what it might look like. What I've been doing for a lot of my lessons is prerecording small video clips of various things, something like rolling a sphere down a ramp next to a disk, and before I play the video I ask them what they think would happen and then maybe even ask them why. And then I can show them what's taking place and then we can talk about the explanation. It’s something that the students would be doing themselves in the class, but at least they sort of get the experience of predicting what's going to happen and then watching what happens and explaining why.

You're splitting the course load with Greg Jacobs. What's that been like? And is this a new thing for you, to sort of split class time up with another teacher?

I'll answer the second part of that first: Yes, it's very new for me to split this up. The school that I teach in, I don't have anybody else teaching any other their level of physics. So all the physics, whether it be just the state-level honors physics, or P1 or P2 or AP Physics C or back when it was Physics B, it's always been just me teaching them. That has its advantages and disadvantages. It'd be great to get ideas from other people, but it's also nice that whatever I decide I want to do in class, I do. So that's been new, sharing the responsibility with somebody.

The nice thing is I've known Greg longer than anybody else in the AP Physics community. So this has kind of come full circle. Back in 2009, I took an AP Summer Institute and Greg Jacobs was the instructor. My very first exposure to teaching AP Physics was in one of his summer institutes. I learned a lot from him. So while the delivery may be different, the style and the intent behind the way we teach is very similar. Right out of the gate, I started modeling things the way that he modeled them in the AP Summer Institute.

That's really great.

Yeah. He's the one who encouraged me to go to the AP Readings for the first time, and my first time in the Reading, I was on the same question as him. He and I've been table leaders together various times. We both model our instruction a lot after quantitative demonstrations. Both of us like to take what would typically just be a question and instead turn that into a demonstration and ask all the same things and get to all the same explanations and require the students to do all the same things, except they're not reading it off a paper but doing it based on the setup that's in front of them.

He's in a nice situation because he's at his school. He works at a boarding school, so he lives on campus and has access to his lab. A couple weeks ago, I was getting ready to do my lesson on rotational kinematics, and I made a trip to the school earlier in the week, got boxes of all the different stuff that I thought I might need for the entirety of this. And I'm digging through my boxes and I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I don't have my rotary motion sensor.” The key element that I wanted for this demonstration, I don't have it. So I drove to the school at, like, 6 a.m. in the morning so that I could get it and film the video clip. I was a little jealous that he has access right there to everything. But yeah, he's teaching in his classroom and I'm teaching in my office with a virtual background.

screenshot of ap physics teacher joshua beck teaching the class AP Physics 1: Torque in Equilibrium

AP Physics 1 teacher Joshua Beck walks through an experiment during the Torque in Equilibrium in class

Have you learned anything more from him working with him on this project?

I'm sure I have. I always enjoy watching other people teach physics. I don't necessarily enjoy watching people teach other subjects because there's so many different styles of teaching and depending on what course it is, it requires different types of delivery. But I love watching people explain physics demonstrations. We all pick up terminology from other people, and there are tiny nuances and different ways people explain things, for better or worse. I think it's always a great idea to hear that from other people. Sometimes it helps give me a better way to describe things, and it helps to hear different perspectives so that when people in the AP community ask questions you are more knowledgeable of the different ways that people are teaching.

As a new AP Physics teacher, I would often go on discussion boards and hear people talking about certain techniques or certain approaches, and was like, "I don't even know what that means. That's a what?" And so it helps to hear other people teach because then you start to recognize, "Oh, some people are teaching it that way. I choose to do it this way." But it's good to know that method so that if anybody ever asks about it I know what that approach is. Or if I have a student who isn't getting it my way, I can say, "You know what, let me try explaining this a different way." It might not be my go-to way. But at least I've got something else in my toolbox that I can use.

You mentioned you don’t necessarily enjoy watching non-Physics teachers teach, but have you watched any of the other AP classes on YouTube?

I have, yeah. I've watched all the other physics ones. I know some of the people teaching them, and so part of me was just curious. But I've been getting feedback, so I thought I should see what other people are delivering. And then I've watched small snippets of just a couple other random subjects. When I pull up the YouTube page and I'm scrolling to get to physics, once in a while there will be one that's live so I'll click on it just to see. There are a lot of different styles out there, which is what you'd hope to see. I think, as a student, you want to see personality and personal variation in all of your classes. You don't want all your teachers teaching the same exact way, because even if it's exciting it still gets monotonous.

When the world goes back to some kind of normal, what do you hope teachers, students, parents, schools education take from this moment we're all in?

I would hope that this feeling of community when it comes to education is something that can translate back into our "normal" setting. What I'm seeing is a really positive interaction between educators: educators helping each other, helping clarify confusing concepts, helping share resources, helping share techniques, and, honestly, working together, as a community of educators to teach a whole community of students. I don't feel like that's always been the case. I do see that under normal circumstances, but you also see educators who are very proud of their methods, which is understandable, and when they see something done differently sometimes there's almost an air of critique. Almost like, "Well, I'm doing it this way. This is the way that works. Not quite sure why you're doing it that way. Maybe I can help fix your method." Whereas right now, what I'm experiencing is a lot of a lot of teamwork. I see people sharing incredible resources; people saying, “Hey, I've got this file full of x, y, and z, feel free to use it.” You see people sharing video lessons, sharing labs, sharing tips, all these different things. And I think it's created a sense of community that, hey, we all have things that we could bring to the table. Some of them may fit in your style, some may not. And, look, some of them may not be 100% correct, either—we all make mistakes. I don't know any teacher who can stand in front of their class all semester and never say something wrong. So, rather than focusing on that, I think there's been a very large sense of community—people working together, sharing resources, and I would love to see that type of thing continue at this level. That’s been a really productive result of all of this.