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End of Summer

written Sunday, 8/7/2011

I usually don’t remember my dreams upon awakening, but one from a few nights ago took place in a high school guys’ bathroom. Much more spacious than most, this lavatory had become the hangout spot for boys throughout the school day. And eventually girls too. Nothing overtly illegal or offensive was taking place, yet it somehow became my mission to break up these social gatherings. I employed typical first-resort techniques such as verbal pestering to shoo them away, but they just kept coming. Eventually a colleague had the nerve to bring her entire class down to chill in this wondrous water closet. I initiated raunchier deterrents, utilizing natural materials that this location provided in plentiful supply. Frustration escalated as crowds kept showing up.

And then at the peak of vulgarity, I woke up.

The underlying anxieties of a new academic year have manifested themselves through bizarre dreams ever since I started teaching. Summer vacation is officially over now. Faculty returns tomorrow, and students return a week later. As in recent years though, whatever jitters I feel are offset by optimistic anticipation and the assurance that most of my incoming students have got to be more nervous than I am. After all, I’ve been reminded plenty of times about my label of “the hard math teacher.”


Near the start of summer, my label was “featured poet” at a 17poets! reading. Several times before I had read during the open-mic segment following other featured poets. This time though, instead of the 5-minute open-mic time limit, I had 40 minutes. Mostly sticking to a theme of “Love and Mathematics,” I shared (anti-)romantic pieces as well as my three steamy odes to mathematics: Sinusoidal Curve, Lady Logarithm, and Love Triangle.

Lady Logarithm was to result in a new video collaboration with Lusher’s Media Arts students this past year, but the project has been pushed back to this year. Meanwhile, here’s the poem Lady Logarithm, which I somehow forgot to post a year ago when I wrote it.

I also read a previously-unposted poem Play The Game, which I wrote on New Year’s Day and seems fitting to post now at the start of a school year.

A crowd of two-dozen or so included a blend of friends, friends-of-friends, and strangers. Although I’m sure many of the lofty math references were only appreciated by me, the audience was either genuinely entertained or did a fine job pretending to be.

I didn’t take have any photos or videos this time, but here are some of the visuals I used.

Interesting Math Problem

Dave Brinks, a local poet and one of the organizers of 17poets, approached me with a math problem before my reading. He felt that the number 64 had some special properties. He pointed out that 64 x 13 = 832, and adding the digits of this product gives 8 + 3 + 2 = 13, which is the original multiplier of 64. He noted that this property of 64 also holds true for the following multipliers: 5, 8, 10, 11, 13, and 17. Furthermore, all of these numbers add up to 64.

Dave felt this hinted at some sort of larger cosmic truth based on the “Hebrew counting system; and additionally (and systically) with the logos of numerics of eastern origin.” He acknowledged that 15 also exhibits the same property when multiplied by 64, but he felt 15 could be excluded from the final set of numbers since it is the sum of 5 and 10, which are two other numbers in the set. I didn’t agree with this reasoning – by the same logic, 13 should also be excluded since it is the sum of 5 and 8. Nonetheless, I found this to be an interesting math exploration. I wanted to find out, is 64 at all special in this respect?

I created this spreadsheet (Excel 2004) to allow quick discovery of which multipliers held this interesting property for 64 or any other number. I found many numbers yielded larger sets of multipliers. For example, 37 yields fifteen multipliers with the special property:
3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 24, 27

So for example, 37 x 14 = 518, and 5 + 1 + 8 = 14.

Now here’s my intriguing observation: I notice that the digits of both 64 and 37 have a sum of ten. In fact, whenever the digits of the original selected number add up to ten, it yields more “special” multipliers than other numbers (more than ten multipliers on average, looking at selected numbers under 1000). In contrast, when the original selected number has digits that don’t add up to ten, rarely does it yield more than one or two “special” multipliers.

I was inclined to believe that there’s nothing cosmically significant about 64 in this respect, but there must be some mathematical explanation for why numbers whose digits add to ten give significantly more special multipliers. Other than exploring the matter via spreadsheet, my own search for a more analytical approach to the problem initially brought me to a dead end.

I posed the problem to my colleague and rap co-star Peter “Curly P” Wenstrup, who was a math major in college. He very quickly used modular arithmetic, the stuff of Number Theory, to come up with an explanation for my discovery. Such topics never came up during my engineering studies, but in recent years I’ve become increasingly intrigued with this branch of pure mathematics. Especially in light of Curly P’s elegant solution to the “64” problem, my next wanderings of the mind will most likely take place in the vast field of Number Theory.

Teacher Development Stuff

Early in the summer I once again participated in the Greater New Orleans Writing Project held at University of New Orleans. I first enrolled in GNOWP as a 6-credit course (for teachers only) back in 2007 and have been involved to varying degrees ever since, most recently as the “Tech Liaison.” My formal duties in this role are minimal and I spent most of my time writing and getting a glimpse into how the ELA (English Language Arts) side lives. As always, I enjoyed the camaraderie of other educators and the healthy nudge out of my comfort zone.

In late July I also participated in the Mathematical Sciences Institute (MSI) held at Tulane University. For one reason or another I had never fit this into my schedule in previous summers even though Dr. Andy Talmadge has been offering it since the Katrina summer of 2005. Andy is a math PhD who insists on being called by his first name, and the education classes I took with him several years ago made the whole teacher certification process more bearable. During MSI I learned some new technological tools and brushed up on my Physics skills while interacting with numerous people far more educated in math than I. Humbling but inspiring. I reveled in the opportunity to completely nerd-out and bask in the beauty of mathematics with fellow educators without encountering the typical eye-rolling or face-blanking that math discussions typically invoke.

The AP Calc Tattoo Challenge

So once again I issued the tattoo challenge to the AP Calculus roster. If either the class average or the number of 5s (the highest possible score) met or surpassed marks determined by me, I would agree to get a math tattoo. I figured I’d be able to offer this motivational gimmick for a good six or seven years, constantly setting the marks just out of reach of my students and being able to avoid having to back up my words.

When I finally received the results in early July, it turned out I had underestimated this year’s class. The scores were good. Very good. Generally much higher than I anticipated. I was instantly overwhelmed with pride in my kiddies and the realization that now I would have to make good on my promise.

I chose the date of Friday, July 29 for the sole reason that 7/29 suggests the number 729, and 729 = 3 x 3 x3 x 3 x 3 x 3, and that’s nerdy-cool. About 10 students showed up at Uptown Tattoos along with a few parents and former colleagues to witness the only tattoo I will ever get. Fittingly, I created a stylized version of the most fascinating equation I’ve ever studied: The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus.

I hadn’t built up the nerve to tell my mom that my students had won the challenge, so this page also serves as a means of communicating that fact to her (Surprise, Mom!)

The number-one question I’ve been asked in recent weeks is: Now what are you going to offer the next class as an incentive?

Well, I’m open to suggestions that don’t involve more ink, but in the end it may just be time to let the profound satisfaction of mastering calculus and conquering the AP exam be it’s own reward!

BC Calc Anyone?

For the past four years, Lusher High School has offered AP Calculus AB, for which a passing score on the AP exam may earn one semester of college credit. In recent months I've been discussing with the administration how we may eventually offer our top math students the opportunity to take the AP Calculus BC exam, for which a passing score may earn two semesters of college credit. Previously I’d expressed my strong belief that a school or our size, resources, and focus needed to concentrate on getting solid AB scores before we even start talking about BC.

I don’t assume that the success of the 2011 calculus roster necessarily constitutes the beginning of an enduring trend. However, due to several factors the high school math teachers were all going to have a study hall added to our teaching assignments this year. While the low demands of glorified babysitting looked attractive in one sense, I figured this would be a good opportunity to request an additional PreCalculus section in which I could groom the most ambitious math students to take the Calculus BC exam in May 2013. Meanwhile, I would also have a few students in that same class who completed Calculus AB with me last year and will now pursue BC studies. Administration was agreeable to this plan, and now I’m scrambling a bit to ensure everything is correctly in place when students arrive in a week. I don’t have a crystal-clear vision of what exactly I will do with this group, but I’m excited for the possibilities.

Maybe if they all do well enough on the BC exam, I’ll pay for them all to get math tattoos on their own bodies. Whaddya think?