Spark in the Classroom

GRANBURY, TX — Janel Morris has a reputation of going above and beyond for her physics students at Granbury High School. Physics is the study of interactions between matter and energy in the universe. The subject can be intimidating, but Janel does more than what is expected to help students achieve a higher level of understanding.

115granbury-wJanel was not always drawn to physics. Her husband, Justin, a physicist himself, helped her interest bloom more than her schoolteachers did. Now, Janel tries to pique her students’ interest in physics by teaching in fun, interesting ways. “I realize most students are not going to grow up and become physicists,” Janel said. “I try to help students make sense of it by measuring and calculating what they feel and experience.

“My mom and dad worked in the school system and instilled in me that school was very important,” Janel said. She was a technical writer, but craved face-to-face interaction. “I would write papers and send them off,” Janel explained. “I never saw anyone, so I never knew if it was useful or not.” Justin encouraged Janel to pursue teaching. She enjoys seeing her students’ faces light up when they understand concepts.

Janel works hard to hold the students’ interest and relate to them. “I teach them three things: Physics is not as hard as they think. Physics is interesting, and they are smart enough to learn it,” She said. “Students will meet your expectations, so I set them high.” In her first year at Granbury, Janel’s students  achieved the highest test scores in the school’s history. Janel sets high standards for herself, as well. She is one of the only teachers in Texas certified to teach all four core classes: English, math, social studies and science. For Janel, however, physics is the perfect subject. “My husband made physics interesting. Now, we spend our time at home watching Mr. Wizard’s World DVDs and debating Bernoulli and Torricelli’s contributions to fluid mechanics,” Janel said. “We are physics nerds.”

Janel met her husband, Justin, at a Christmas concert at the Bass Hall in downtown Fort Worth. “It was just perfect,” Janel said. “We got married 31 days later.” They have been married seven years and have three children, Nowëlle, Nik?laus and Christm?s. “We are big Christmas people,” Janel laughed. “We go all out and start decorating in November.” Janel admits the house is covered, roof to foundation, in red and green, and the barn matches. Every surface is adorned with penguins, Frosty or Santa, and the kitchen resembles a gingerbread house.

Presently, Janel’s classroom is adorned with an impressive display as well. Her AP Physics 2 students are observing electrostatic charge transfer using a Van de Graaff generator that produces a blue spark when electrons move from the surface of a metal globe to a nearby conductor. It’s like rubbing your feet across the carpet and shocking someone, but much larger. “It doesn’t hurt. I let the kids figure out how to do things by themselves,” Janel said. “I want them to learn problem solving skills and the value of not always having the right answer.” Students get creative and stand on milk crates to reduce grounding, which causes their hair to stand on end, or put their open mouths near the machine to generate a spark to their braces.

This is Janel’s third year at Granbury High. “When I first started, all the students had to pass physics to graduate. Now students choose it as an elective,” she said. “We offer Advanced Placement (AP) Physics 1 and 2, but some of the students were so bright I approached them to see if they wanted to try the AP Physics C tests for Newtonian Mechanics or Electricity and Magnetism. We don’t offer those classes, but if I can help them earn an additional 3-6 hours of college credit, I will do whatever I can.” The test is graded on a scale of 1-5. If a student gets a 3, they can receive three hours of college credit at most universities. If they get a 5, they may be awarded up to six hours of credit and can qualify for exclusive scholarships. Janel works with students who are serious about physics both during tutorials and in class for several months to prepare them.

“Covering material and bringing it back up in class again and again is so important to help studentsremember the concepts,” Janel said. “I am lucky to have kids who choose to take physics. They are mature, and I can trust them in labs.” As a sign of respect, Janel calls her students by their title — Mr. or Miss — and last name. She believes it helps them think of themselves as adults and transition into responsible, respectful college-bound individuals.

There are over 120 students in Janel’s classes, not to mention the students in the classes of the other five physics teachers. Janel is the head of the physics department, coaches the science UIL academic team and is the science fair coordinator. As the head of the department, she prepares curriculum binders for each teacher, which includes notes, vocabulary, lab ideas, schedules and tests. She affixes PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos as a way of teaching to every student’s learning style. Janel also collaborates with the other physics teachers when they meet each Wednesday to discuss how the lessons are working and if any changes need to be made. It is a good time to ask questions and get ideas about how to teach concepts in a variety of ways.

In 2013, Granbury ISD adopted a project-based learning initiative. These are large-scale activities that require students to apply their classroom knowledge to tangible products they design and build in teams, and they are literally a blast. The AP Physics 1 students recently used their understanding of projectile motion and constructed parachutes to attach to “potato paratroopers,” which they shot from a compressed air-powered cannon called a petard, modeled after the weapon originally developed by Isaac Newton. They also crafted pinewood cars to race against 60 teams in order to demonstrate their content mastery of force and aerodynamics. In May, the AP Physics 2 class will build a cardboard boat capable of holding four passengers as they paddle across the campus aquatics pond.

“We are physics nerds at home. My 5-year-old already knows physics equations, and Justin is my sounding board. I love having him as a resource. He is a true expert, and he helps me so much,” Janel said. “Most teachers go home after school and do other stuff, but I go home and talk more about physics. It’s our lifestyle.”

Written by Erin McEndree.