“I ask them to take physics/ and hold it up to the light/ like a color slide…but all they want to do/ is tie physics to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it./ They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.” According to senior Sundar Solai, “If you are familiar with Billy Collins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry,’ just swap out poetry for physics and you have Mr. Spero’s class.” From dancing the waltz and graphing its angular motion to rollerblading in class to demonstrate motion diagrams, physics teacher Tovi Spero engages his students using unique teaching methods.
Spero has wanted to be a teacher since middle school. His hard work and rising grades in his algebra class prompted his classmates to ask him for help, and he would explain the steps to solving various problems. In high school, he kept a lookout for classes that he might be interested in teaching, and in his junior year, he found his match. “My junior year when I took physics, I was completely lost, I was so confused; it was so interesting, and I had to work so hard just to be moderately successful that I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do,’” Spero said. “I would see wheels rotating on cars and I would start thinking about it, and everywhere I looked, I would start seeing physics.”
Spero’s love for physics is evident before you walk into his classroom: a sign outside his door reads, “I don’t teach physics for a living, I teach it for fun.” He encourages his students to also be teachers in the classroom—during group work on derivations or problem sets, students who finish the assignment early spread out to other groups to help.
Spero calls his students his “pod children,” and it makes sense seeing as he is so committed to their learning. He devotes hours of free time working one-on-one with students if they are struggling so that they can love and appreciate physics the way he does. “Before school, study hall, after school—he puts so much extra time into all of us,” junior Aasha Shaik said.
Spero’s dedication reflects his overall philosophy of guided inquiry. “I think that based on research, students learn best when they have to figure things out for themselves in a guided setting,” Spero said. According to senior Alisha Kanitkar, there is never time when the students are at their desks working alone. The class is based on collaboration and analysis. Senior Allison Wong said, “He wants us to be independent thinkers, and we learn best when we can sit down and do it rather than listen to a lecture that may or may not make sense.”
Spero has implemented a new way of learning through his reassessment policy. He has a form of currency called Einstein dollars. Students are awarded Einstein dollars when they assist classmates with problems, find mistakes in assignments, or have success in a particular activity; dollars can be redeemed to redo assignments or for more whimsical things like a personalized hat or scarf knitted by Spero himself. Students are also awarded Einstein dollars the first time they come in to reassess an assignment. Labs, homework, tests, and all assignments other than the midterm pieces and the final can be reassessed. Spero gives different versions of the test questions the student solved incorrectly and students can earn back up to 100 percent of the credit lost. If the student does not complete his reassessment by the time the study hall or hour ends, he can come back any time during the marking period to finish, but he must pay Spero an Einstein dollar.
Students currently enrolled in Spero’s ToPhy class feel the reassessment policy has benefitted them. “In the real world, reassessments are common and a method to learning,” senior Ryan Lin said. “If an author submits a draft of a book to a publisher yet is rejected, that author is not going to say ‘well, the editor didn’t like it, so I’d better just work on a totally different one.’ The author will most likely try to re-write parts of the draft, and then resubmit it so that the publisher would publish it.”
Senior Brice Huang, who took ToPhy with Dr. Chen in the 2012-13 school year, said that Chen would usually give a set of challenging problems for the class to work on, discuss in small groups, and then present solutions on the whiteboard. “To me, these classes became fun problem-solving sessions where we stretched our brains solving interesting puzzles and challenges,” Huang said.
But Chen’s and Spero’s classrooms are not as different as one would think. Both heavily rely on group work for problem-solving, according to Kanitkar and Christoper Shao, who took ToPhy with Chen last school year. Both teachers also have the highest respect for their students. “I also appreciated that Dr. Chen treated us all like adults who were responsible for their own learning. She expected us to care about physics a lot,” Huang said. Lin and senior James Chi interact with Spero not only as a teacher but also as officers of the Japanese Animation and Music club, and according to Lin, “[Spero’s] best personality trait is that he treats the students as if they were his equals.” He’ll discuss various anime series with the club members and even has a knack for the Super Smash Bros. video game—he played against other contestants at the Manga Club’s tournament last November.
All hobbies aside, Spero has changed the course of ToPhy classes by refocusing students on conceptual understanding above all. “Spero is more about whether we can figure out the concepts and then figure out how to apply them,” said senior Allison Wong, who has had both Chen and Spero as physics teachers.
Spero’s radically different teaching style is changing the way students think about their individual learning. “He does bring in a new way of assessing students. It is grounded in the standards just like the other ToPhy teachers’ assessments are, but it’s targeting those specific skills outlined in the standards,” said district science supervisor Richard Stec.
“I really like his grading system and reassessment policy, because it takes the emphasis off grades and puts it back on truly learning and understanding concepts, which I think is a huge issue in a district like WW-P,” Shaik said. Spero has made ToPhy accessible to more students. “When I came into North as a freshman, ToPhy was infamous for being ‘the hardest class at North,’” Shao said. “And Spero’s changes have perhaps changed that.”