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Spring Fling

written Sunday, 3/7/2010

Supposedly the beginning of spring is just around the corner. I’ve never been very observant about changes in the seasons, but if it leads to warmer weather, I welcome spring’s arrival. By my raised-in-California standards, it’s been dang cold around here lately. A couple months ago I finally turned on the central heat in my apartment when one of my kitties took to burrowing under my bed covers in the middle of the day. My new electric blanket has been my best friend at night.

Spring also marks a time when the end of the school year comes into view. This coming week is 3rd quarter exam week at Lusher, and the 4th quarter begins the week after. While students may be prone to losing focus during this time, it actually re-energizes me to finish the school year on a high note. Each of the last six school days has found me at school well past 9pm, not to mention how much of my weekends has been spent on school matters. Right before exam week is predictably when some students finally decide it’s time to start learning all this tricky math stuff and my after school tutoring sessions have been even busier than usual. Despite generally enjoying my job, it’s comforting to know that in less than three months I’ll get a nice long break from the long hours.

American Mathematics Competition

The AMC results came in a little over a week ago and at our weekly Wednesday school assembly I had the pleasure of announcing the top finishers. In addition to short poems that I typically write leading up to the revealing of each name, this year the drummer in our high school jazz band provided a drum roll. For however self-absorbed and cruel teenagers are generally perceived to be, events like this help affirm my belief that the kids at our school are a pretty nice bunch overall. Eighty-four 9th and 10th graders took the AMC 10 contest, but the school winner was one of the four 8th graders who participated. He received a rousing applause even though most high schoolers don’t even know him. The young man who was an AMC school winner for the past three years came in 2nd place this year, finally bested by a girl who surprised herself with her own success in the AMC 12 contest. Although I know he would have loved to have the distinction of being a four-time winner, he graciously and sincerely congratulated her in class. A couple of the top finishers were students who tend to fit the nerdy stereotype and I suspect they are not amongst the most popular in their classes, yet they too received a healthy ovation.

I was most thrilled with the AMC 12 winner. As a triplet who, from what I’ve heard, gets overshadowed by her overachieving sisters, I couldn’t have been prouder to see her get this honor. Even sweeter was the opportunity for me to see how her math smarts have developed through her high school years. Two years ago in my Algebra 2 class I found her efforts to be lackluster and forgettable (if I may be so blunt), yet now her AMC success is topping off a strong year for her in my AP Calculus class.

For all the peer recognition that the athletes and the artists at our school get, being able to recognize the academic achievements of these students through the AMC is always one of the biggest highlights of my school year.

Hot and heavy on the Mathside

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but man, Calculus is the most beautiful and fascinating subject I could ever imagine. After discovering the magnificence of math early in my high school days, my calculus studies in senior year and especially in college marked a sharp decline in my interest. For many years to follow I felt like the classic soul song “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (1973) perfectly expressed the loss of the passion I once felt for math (Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever revealed that fact to anyone before). Now, through teaching AP Calculus, I feel like I’m rekindling a torrid romance from long ago. While trying to teach my students whatever they need to know for the AP exam, every year I also uncover even deeper intricacies and fascinating connections that had previously escaped me.

I imagine one thing that frustrates some people about math is how it appears to be a bunch of separate disciplines (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.) that don’t always have much relation to each other. Yet in calculus, one finds that math truly is one big incestuous family: the algebraic reciprocal function y = 1/x is closely related to the natural logarithm function (who knew!?!), which in turn shows up in the integrals of certain trigonometric functions (holy smokes!), and all of those transcendental inverse trig functions have algebraic derivatives (who saw that coming?!?), and then there’s that mind-blowing Euler’s Formula that relates trigonometry, imaginary numbers, and that underappreciated constant e in a way that still makes me shake my head in disbelief (wowsers!).

I realize that mathematics is a complex creature that has driven many a man insane, and countless before me have loved her. She’ll tease me, torture me, and string me along without ever revealing all her secrets. Others will laugh at me and call me a fool, but dude I can’t help it – I’m in love.


The AP Physics teacher and I recently noted how all the "students" on the covers of the Princeton Review AP preparation books are gorgeous, well-groomed, neutral-skin-toned models of ambiguous ethnicity.

I wondered whether Princeton Review might consider expanding their targeted demographics. These covers may not quite have universal appeal, but seriously, could you resist picking up and flipping through any of these if you saw them displayed at your local bookstore?

Continuing Studies

A couple weeks ago a former student of mine who graduated from Lusher last year started coming to my office hours. He stayed local for college, and his current calculus class has caused him some difficulties. I wouldn’t want it to become a trend for former students to drop by for free help when I already feel stretched thin in assisting current students. However I couldn’t resist in this instance. Some of the problems he’s encountered involve topics that I don’t cover in my calculus class, and I’ve greatly enjoyed expanding my own knowledge as we work the exercises together. Also, it allows me to demonstrate a point in education that I’d like to believe many of my students will someday reach: The point when one can say, “I don’t know how to do that, but I have the skills and intellect to figure it out.” In some cases, I told this former student to put the textbook aside and see how we can figure out the necessary formulas on our own.

I anticipate that during spring break and summer vacation, I’ll likely spend considerable time continuing to study more advanced calculus topics that are not covered in my class. A few years ago I was looking for math courses to take for college credit, but now I’m more inclined to forego that route in favor of some independent study.

Forget the classroom. Just me and my math book… all alone… awww yeah.

Nontravelin’ Man

It’s been almost fourteen years since I’ve left the continental United States. Cramped airplanes just ain’t my thing. However, if the same spurt of adventurousness that led me to New Orleans does indeed take me outside the country to live someday as I’ve previously suggested, it would seem sensible to at least look around a bit this time before settling on a new destination. An old friend has been pestering me to take advantage of my free summer time to go traveling. It’s a good idea. I really should go. At this moment I truly intend to do so, but you know how those good intentions sometimes don’t pan out. Friends and family, please feel free to chime in and not let me make excuses on this one.