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Year Five Ends

written Friday, 5/28/2010

Lockheed Martin Visit

In April I revisited a bit of my past. Or more accurately, four people from my Lockheed Martin days traveled on business to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans’ infamous Ninth Ward. Will helped me learn the ropes on the Fleet Ballistic Missile program (FBM), my first assignment right out of college. I briefly worked with Bob early into that stint and encountered him again on the Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) satellite program. There I worked with Patricia, who had also gotten her start in FBM, and before too long we both moved on to Airborne Laser (ABL) where we shared a cubicle for the last couple years of my Lockheed Martin employment. I also worked with Mark on the ABL program.

Patricia and Mark are finally moving on from ABL. I shudder to think of how much money was required to fund ABL since its 1996 initiation up until it finally achieved a couple successful shoot-downs of test missiles back in January/February of this year. Then, immediately following these long-awaited milestones of ostensible progress, an overseeing Air Force chief deemed the entire program not to be “operationally viable.” ABL will no longer be funded. So goes the aerospace industry.

Will, Bob, Patricia, and Mark arrived in New Orleans for work on the Orion Service Module Radiators, which Patricia tells me is also going to be cancelled in September.

I enjoyed catching up with them and recalling some of the great camaraderie I experienced during my nine years at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. I asked them to contact me when they next head down to Michoud. However, talking shop with them reminded me of why I left that industry five years ago. Prior to meeting up with them I had wondered whether reminiscing with former LM colleagues would cause me to miss my engineering days.

I don’t.

Another School Year Under My Belt

Like the defense industry, education is certainly not without its maddening headaches and gross inefficiencies. But at least at the end of every school year there’s plenty of pomp and celebration to help remind/convince ourselves that something significant has just been accomplished. And at least when a teaching assignment comes to a close every May, I can believe that I’ve left something positive in the lives of my students (well, many of them at least).

Last Friday was the last day of school for students. Faculty stuck around to wrap things up for a few more days and yesterday was our last day.

This year was special in that the class of ’10 entered Lusher High School the same year that I started working there. This was also the same year that the Middle/High school moved into the historic building that had been known as Fortier High School for so many decades. I knew some of those students during their freshman year while others I didn’t get to know until they entered my classroom later in high school. It’s been a joy seeing so many of them grow over the past four years.

Some from the class of ’10 and the rising class of ’11 who come to mind:

  • A young man in my Calculus class whose incredible mathematical aptitude reminds me of a younger me in many ways. As part of his senior project he did a wonderful job assisting me with after school tutoring at least twice a week. While I just want some students to get the big picture of my lessons, I’ve loved knowing that there was at least one kid picking up and appreciating the beautiful intricacies of math. Like the younger me he lacks a clear direction, but if he can find a specific path of study to really fuel his passions I can’t wait to see how far he’ll go.
  • A young woman who had to fight her way into my AP Calculus class against my contentions that the subject would overwhelm her. Math had always been her weak subject since kindergarten, she once told me. Rather than worry about how her Calculus grades would affect her GPA, she took pride in confronting this daunting intellectual challenge. Even in moments of frustration her level of effort never lapsed. As my most perseverant student this year, I couldn’t be prouder of her.
  • A young woman whose name I always prefaced with “loud” when calling on her. She’s one of those dramatic theater types who slacked through my Algebra 2 class and the first half of this year’s PreCalculus class under the guise of being a “math retard” (her words, not mine). Then she suddenly mustered up the motivation to stop making excuses and start becoming one of my most consistent after-school customers along with a few of her friends cut from similar molds. Her efforts took a while to yield observable results, but she kept showing up for help and eventually earned respectable grades in this subject that she always thought had been her enemy.
  • A young dude who generally takes a casual approach to school and life and was frequently guilty of dozing off in class. Nonetheless he gave up a majority of his lunch breaks to come by my room and work on PreCalculus. I never condoned his weaker study habits, but I couldn’t resist liking him a lot.
  • A gal with a reputation as an academic and social superwoman, and as such I really tried to avoid being overly impressed by her. Despite my resistance I found her reputation to be completely justified in my PreCalculus class. I can’t wait to see her truly challenged in AP Calculus. I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to assist with my after school tutoring next year as part of her senior project.
  • An excitable young guy who, despite a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker, brought an infectious enthusiasm for math to my morning Calculus class. When he occasionally didn’t do his homework, it was often because he had become too engrossed in some other mathematical exploration that I hadn’t even asked him to do. I don’t think he knew it, but I rarely penalized him as long as he was pursuing his math interests.
  • A group of five young women in my afternoon Calculus class whose primary passion is in dance. Despite my taunts that dancers are not cut out for calculus they persisted all year in proving me wrong. While educators often gear their lessons towards the “visual” and “auditory” learners, they reminded me that I shouldn’t ignore the “kinesthetic” learners.
  • A dude with whom I simply did not get along in Algebra 2 last year. I found him annoyingly negative and I’m sure he found me to be an incredible jerk. At the start of this year I considered requesting that he be placed in the other PreCalculus teachers’ class due to our apparent personality clash, but I decided to just suck it up when he showed up on my roster. To both of our credit I think we both consciously chose to have a better year this time around. I ended up finding his improved attitude quite enjoyable. Despite him still not being a huge math fan, he also expressed having a good experience this year.
  • A gal who demonstrated great work ethic from the start of the year yet became annoyingly unsettled by any PreCalculus material that nudged her even slightly out of her comfort zone. As the year progressed though, she steadily learned to tackle the more difficult material without becoming overly frustrated. While she’s probably happiest about the good grades which resulted from her efforts, I’m happiest about how much she toughened up in the process.
  • A young woman who seemed to have a miserable time in my Algebra 2 class and subsequently transferred out of my PreCalculus class early this past year. Nonetheless, on two occasions of running into her dad, he insisted that I had some kind of significant impact on her. It’s a good reminder to me that there may be some silver linings that I don’t ever get to see.
  • Numerous other kids, some of who possessed natural mathematical talent and others for whom math skills did not come easily. I thoroughly enjoyed the honor of teaching all those who were willing to put forth the effort to reach their potential.
Some of the Calculus students, somehow able to muster smiles after the AP exam. Motto for the AP Calc Class: "Make me look good." Hopefully they did on this year's exam. View from my front porch a couple weeks ago as heavy rain brings on the flooding.

Calculus tattoo, Mr. White?

We’ve offered AP Calculus AB at Lusher for the past three years now. Each year I love the subject more and more, and I love teaching it even more as well. I’m still picking up new connections and insights myself and trying my best to make this wonderful subject interesting and attainable for my students. Sometime in July the AP exam scores will be released and I will find out how well they mastered the material according to the Advanced Placement standards. Based on students’ feedback after taking this year’s exam, I think I’ll be safe from having to get a math tattoo. The threshold for my getting inked is a class average of 3.0 or greater out of 5 total, or at least four students with 5’s.

Some students speculated that I secretly really want a math tattoo and will get one regardless of the scores. Not true. Nor am I decided about whether I will even pose this challenge to future classes. However, if I do end up with the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus permanently imprinted somewhere on my body, sharing the origin of the tattoo would bring up memories of students who I’ll remember fondly.

Toughening up the PreCalc Kiddies

I had taught two sections of PreCalculus during my first year at Lusher (second year of teaching). I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing back then and my classroom was equipped with an old-school overhead transparency machine and a chalkboard with a surface that was difficult to write on. This past year I felt like I did a much better job presenting the material and taking advantage of the computer and high-tech interactive whiteboard, yet the results for too many students were still disappointing. Despite typically employing a grading curve that was as generous as I could offer in good conscience, the most common quarterly grade earned was a C, followed closely by a B.

I stated at the beginning of the year that my top priority for the class was preparing future calculus students for the rigors of that course. Numerous students commented that they had filled their entire spiral-bound notebooks with math work well before the end of the year. I told them to start using all the unused pages in their English or social studies notebooks. And if they’re taking Calculus next year, they’d better buy a thicker notebook!

It’s an interesting contrast that even though I’m twice as demanding of the AP Calculus students, they only complain half as much as the PreCalculus students. I’ve actually cut as much material from the PreCalc class as I reasonably can in order to help the lower performing students keep up. I wonder how much of a disservice this may be to the high performers. There are so many topics that I learned in high school that my students will never learn from me: Vectors, parametric equations, polar equations, matrices, analytic geometry in 2-D and 3-D, continued studies of probability/combinatorics.

As much as teaching students actual math content, I hope to help my PreCalc students toughen up in preparation for what many of them will encounter next year with me in AP Calculus AB. I look forward to pushing them harder than they’ve ever been pushed in a math class and seeing them surprise themselves with what they’re capable of achieving.

A Few of my Fifteen Minutes

Not too long ago I was featured in a Times-Picayune article written by the mother of one of my students: DIY pantry project serves up a math puzzle.

Word Arithmetic

When students finish a quiz early I typically give them mathematical brainteasers. A couple of my top students recently became intrigued with the Word Arithmetic puzzles that used to be my favorites in the Dell puzzle magazines I would buy as a kid. I’ve made a few of my own in the past, but the process took quite a bit of time. While my students were taking their final exam I developed a spreadsheet that helped me come up with Word Arithmetic puzzles much more efficiently. Below is a collection of 27 custom puzzles. For some of them, the completed answer spells out a word or phrase specific to math or Lusher. For the latter ones, the puzzle itself contains words that I specifically chose to include. The last two puzzles include the names of the two students who became most interested in Word Arithmetic this year.

Solutions here, if you're a quitter..
First three puzzles were made in Summer '08 and have been previously posted.

With a little interest sparked in Word Arithmetic puzzles, I was motivated to update the Flash versions I had made back in 2003/2004 to these "Lusher 2010" editions.

A Teeny Tiny Request

I question the value of burdensome summer assignments for high schoolers. I’d rather let them enjoy some rest before I work them like dogs during the school year. Over the summer I only ask one thing of my future AP Calculus students: Master the trig functions of angles on the unit circle that they initially learned in PreCalculus. On the first day of school in August I will give a timed quiz on the topic, and I made this Flash program so that they may practice evaluating such expressions under time pressure.

Sinusoidal Curve

I collaborated with several students to make a music video for the sultry mathematical love poem I wrote last summer. The kids did an awesome job bringing this vision to reality. The student who directed and edited it intends to further refine it over the summer, so when he’s done I’ll post the finished product. As a teaser, here’s the promotional poster.

Signs of Summer in New Orleans

Talk has begun of the 2010 hurricane season, which starts in a few days. Flying termites launched their annual invasion of my apartment last week. The roaches are building up their armies throughout the city. Mosquitoes are leaving me bright pink hickies. College students are scattering via U-Haul. And for the second year in a row I just discovered that my A/C is broken. Dangit.


I just realized that this is the first summer since moving to New Orleans that I haven’t been dysfunctionally enamored with some chick. Ahh, traces of bitterness still waft on the summer breeze, but this feels better.