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Seven Down

written 7/30/2012

2011-12 class

Year 7 of teaching is in the books, with Year 8 coming up very shortly. I’m recalling my 2011-12 roster of students as the overall nicest group of students I’ve ever taught.  Academically it was pretty much the same story of highs and lows as in previous years. But personally so many of them were exceptionally good-natured and pleasant to be around. And funny. Especially during my office hours, when the climate is more relaxed than during class time, some of them ensured that my workday ended with plenty of laughs. Even the handful of painsintheass had their endearing qualities (well, most of them at least).

It has me wondering, was this group really more exceptional than my previous years’ rosters? Or have I reached a point in my career where I’ve learned to better recognize and appreciate the personal qualities while still handling the teacher/student business?

Perhaps on a related note, I reached a major career milestone: For the first time I endured an entire school year without losing my temper in class. To be clear, this has never been a daily occurrence, but typically there have been two or three or four times in a year when I’ve lost my cool and felt awful about it later. All the how-to-be-a-super-duper-awesome-teacher books suggest that there are simple recipes to follow for maintaining one’s composure. In my experience though, averting the perfect storm of professional and personal stresses in a classroom of hyper-hormonal teenagers over the course of 9.5 months is a remarkable feat. Will try for two years in a row next year, but no promises.

thank you letters

Letters on my fridge

A half-dozen students took the time to write thank you letters at the end of the year. They are all posted proudly on my fridge, energizing me to look forward to the coming school year and trust that my efforts are being appreciated by some even when classroom behaviors may suggest otherwise. Infinite gratitude to those thoughtful kiddies.

Had a high number of short kids on my roster this past year. Abnormally so. Maybe historical records would reveal some kind of environmental disaster in New Orleans around the time of their birth that might explain the phenomena, but these are indeed very tiny, tiny people. I suppose I laid on the little-person jokes a bit thick at times, but don’t worry about them. They knew how to take it with a smile and dish it back just as hard.

AP Calculus

Early in the year I recall telling the twenty students in my two Calculus AB sections that there was no point in issuing another tattoo challenge because they were not nearly as awesome as the previous year’s roster (Three students from that roster were still in high school, now studying Calculus BC with me). Yes, I was intentionally being a jerk. The belief was authentic, but I promised I’d be the first to enthusiastically congratulate them if they could prove me wrong. There certainly were moments throughout the year when I was underwhelmed by the efforts too many of them were offering, yet as the AP exam drew near their test scores started to suggest that a good number might do better than I had been predicting.

After the grueling 3.5-hour exam on May 9, many of the students reported that they felt pretty good about their performances. Curiosity weighed on me through most of the summer and I woke up early on the morning of July 6 to catch the Internet score posting. I could hardly contain my giddiness upon seeing the results. Almost all students earned at least the passing score of 3 (out of 5), and even the few who didn’t still had individual reasons to be proud in my eyes. The class average far exceeded that of any preceding roster of mine.

Calculus 2012 class

2012 AP Calculus roster deserves to be proud

The 2012 Calculus roster soared beyond my expectations, prompting me to send an exceedingly-gushing email praising them for their efforts. I’ll take my share of credit for continuing to find ways to improve my own skills as a teacher, but the bulk of the credit definitely belongs to them. An AP score alone is an inadequate and potentially-misleading measurement of a student’s total experience in a class. However, the AP score is undeniably the single indicator that a student is able to efficiently produce to demonstrate competency in the course subject. I am absolutely thrilled that so many of my students were able to end their educational experience with me having earned that validation.


Calculus 2012 class

Charles Prosser

Over my first six years of teaching I never experienced the passing of a colleague. This year we tragically lost two. Our college counselor, Charles “Chaz” Prosser, was truly one of the greatest assets to our school. He was the single person on campus who would directly impact all students at some time in their high school journeys in a major way and he invested himself deeply into this role. So many students remember him as a man who took the time to get to know them personally. When college acceptance letters and scholarship offers came rolling in, Chaz celebrated their success as much as anyone. Some say he was even more excited than their own parents. Chaz came across as a kind and gentle man, yet those who enjoyed his friendship outside of his formal school role also loved his wicked sense of humor. Even within his school role though, he wouldn’t shy away from a little goofiness.

Early in the school year Chaz approached me, very excited at having heard a song called the “Humpty Dump.” I corrected him on more than one occasion – No Chaz, it’s called the “Humpty Dance” and the lead singer is Humpy Hump – but he didn’t care to observe my correction. Somehow Chaz sensed that I would know this early-nineties rap song and indeed it was an all-time favorite from my childhood. He shared with me that the banjo classic “Ballad Of Jed Clampett” along with the associated “Tater Dig” dance had a special place in his upbringing. He suggested that we ought to somehow develop a demonstration around these dances to perform in front of the entire high school. Despite my record for making a public ass of myself within the school walls, I was reluctant. Chaz persisted. Eventually I gave in and recruited Mr. Higgins (social studies teacher, head basketball coach) and Ms. Buckels (dance teacher) to join us. As we approached the end of the school year, we constructed the premise that any young lady who receives multiple prom date requests should have her suitors engage in a dance-off. With this “policy” announced at a school assembly, we proceeded to model how this scenario might play out. Coach Higgins and I led off Humpty-Dumping, choreographed by Ms. Buckels. Chaz then brought down the house Tater Digging, while Ms. Buckels finished off leading a line dance of any willing student participants to the tune of Heavy-D’s “We Got Our Own Thang.”

The next day Chaz rode his bike to school but took a cab home after feeling ill. When he didn’t show up to school the following day, we soon learned that he had passed away later in the evening. No cause of death has ever been made public, although the limited information seems to suggest a heart attack or stroke.

I’m thankful to have gotten to know Charles Prosser, and I find it fitting that the last interaction he had with most of us at Lusher left an entire gym of students and colleagues laughing.

Calculus 2012 class

Steve Volo

I didn’t know “Coach” Steve Volo nearly as well. He taught on the middle school side of the building, yet he was ever-present at just about any middle- or high-school sporting event. We typically exchanged greetings running into each other as two of the earliest arrivers for the school day. Coach passed away very soon after the school year ended from a lingering illness. I could observe that he was extremely dedicated to our students, and through student testimonials I gained an even  greater sense of how much they loved him.

Tragic as is the passing of Chaz Prosser and Steve Volo, the predominant feeling that remains is one of admiration and gratitude for having had them as colleagues.

Summer Nerdin’

Mark off another summer for which I’ve fallen short in achieving lofty goals to read some literature, brush up on Physics skills, fill my knowledge gap in Statistics, learn to use an SLR camera, and forge ahead with all the advanced Calculus that I’ve forgotten since college. This is not stated remorsefully though, for the list of goals was intentionally ambitious and I do not look back and see an abundance of wasted time.

Predictably I guess, I allocated a preponderance of time to the Calculus. I have an uneasy relationship with math. After developing a passionate interest in high school, the sweet sentiments soured dramatically in college. Now I’m delving into the content that had left a bad taste in my mouth all those years ago. Despite being at a completely different stage of life, I find myself hesitant to jump in whole-heartedly. I know it doesn’t make sense from a completely rational point of view, but I can’t shake the fear that the unpleasantries of the past could resurface. Earlier in the year I considered whether the rigor of jumping into a Masters Degree program in Math might be in order to push me out of my rut. However, I eventually discovered that the offerings of such a program that would allow me to maintain my current employment were either nonexistent or unattractive. I also have to question my own motivations for such a move: Maybe I would be seeking such a degree for the mere purpose of upping my “math nerd” legitimacy rather than embarking on an enjoyable ride. I suspect I ought to shove my ego to the side along with unnecessarily-specific milestones. So, I continue my leisurely stroll with no destination in mind, attempting only to keep rediscovering the sense of wonder and adventure of math that first allured me in high school.

spinning cube math

spinning cube model

Math solution and Geogebra model I made to determine the profile of the volume swept in space by a cube spinning about its diagonal (Java required)

Case in point: In June I found myself disengaged when relearning the mathematics of vectors, curves, and surfaces in 3D space… and in my distraction I came across a paper “flexagon” that I had constructed during the summer training prior to my first year of teaching… and I became fascinated with the construction of different types of flexagons… and it brought to mind the Rubik’s Magic puzzles that fascinated me as a kid… and the two versions of Rubik’s Magic that I subsequently obtained via internet provided hours of amusement… and soon arose the old insecurity of never having learned to solve a Rubik’s cube without breaking it apart or replacing the stickers… and I spent a good portion of two days learning how to legitimately solve a Rubik’s cube without assistance… and upon doing so I for the first time I grabbed the cube by opposite corners between my thumb and forefinger and spun it around its diagonal… and I noticed that even though the cube comprised of flat surfaces and straight edges, spinning the cube at a high speed clearly traced out a curved volume in3D space… and I wondered if I could mathematically define this curved volume in space… and it turned out the very tools I would need to accomplish this were included amongst the topics that had failed to pique my interest at the beginning of the journey! Reinvigorated, I proceeded to find that a cube spinning about its own diagonal carves out a volume of a hyperboloid of one sheet sandwiched between two cones (because I know you were wondering).

This is the kind of math adventure that brings me the greatest joy. Formal education is rarely structured to encourage or even allow such pursuits, and it’s looking clearer to me that I am wise to keep wandering the mathematical landscape with leisure and recreation as top priority. Now, as for the students I’m tasked to teach with a mandated curriculum, therein lies my challenge to figure out how to provide them with such a positive encounters with math.

spinning cube model

My purchase of a couple Rubik's puzzles led to a brief spree of variuos nerdy toys that I recalled from my childhood (or in the case of the plasma ball, had always wanted to get)

Intersecting Trajectories

The majority of items on my summer to-do list can be accomplished within the walls of my apartment and I could keep myself perfectly entertained in such a modest setting. With conscious effort to get myself out into public though, biking to various locations in the sticky New Orleans heat became part of my near-daily routine. Each year I run into more past/present/future students around New Orleans (Makes sense since the list of students/victims grows longer, right?) In a few instances the get-togethers are planned. This summer I’ve arranged coffee shop meetings with former students to find out how college is treating them or sessions with present/future students to provide assistance on summer assignments. In most cases though, our paths intersect by chance. I recall in earlier years coming across teachers and students who found such encounters awkward and preferred to avoid them. In my experience they often provide a highlight to my day.

All of this summer’s interactions with students have been meaningful in their own ways, but the one I’ll mention here occurred in early June. A towering figure called out to me as I rode my bike through Uptown. Don, who graduated high school a couple years ago, was one of a very small number of students who I ever had to physically look up to. He stands 6’10” now with a slender but solid build, and I was a little startled by his excitedly friendly tone. I remember him as a mostly quiet kid, yet he could be surly at times. We butted heads occasionally during his year in my Algebra 2 class. In conversing with him and the couple other young men by his side, I was not surprised that he still lacks focused direction in his life course. Any harsh feelings Don may have ever had towards me were long gone. To the contrary, he was quite articulate and reflective in telling me how thankful he was in feeling that I was one of only two teachers that he admired and respected for pushing him (Maybe not fair to my colleagues, but I’ll take it). He felt optimistic that life was taking him on a productive path, and I thanked him for recognizing that even in my imperfect attempts to provide an education, my intentions were sincere.

MSI & ATL Trainings

I’m not always proactive in seeking out professional growth opportunities for myself. For this summer though, I sought out two week-long trainings. In mid-July I attended the Mathematical Sciences Institute at nearby Tulane. I had first gone to MSI last summer. I enjoyed it so much that this time around I convinced six of my middle- and high-school math colleagues to go as well. In retrospect I probably laid on the sales pitch too thickly, for as much as my colleagues are masterful of the math content they deliver in the classroom, many of the MSI presenters lean toward the ultra-math-nerd end of the spectrum. I indulged in the density of the content, not needing to be sold on its usefulness. Some of the Lusher contingency found it overwhelming, but I had a blast, attending sessions on the mathematics of astronomy, use of digital media in the classroom, and Geogebra software.

Three weeks earlier I had flown out to Atlanta for an AP Calculus BC training. Even though I’ve had four students take the BC exam over the past two years with great success, they had to sit in the back of other classes I was teaching and learn much of the content on their own with minimal direct interaction with me. This coming year I will be excited to have a dedicated BC class for the first time, and I figured it would be useful to pick up some pointers. The instructor, a Spanish man named Sergio who’s been teaching almost as long as I’ve been alive, was excellent. He had the accent and charisma of Jaime Escalante (at least, based on his portrayal in 1988’s Stand and Deliver movie). If anything, I was a little too much on the same page as Sergio. I had arrived at much of the same philosophy and style as Sergio over my years. I think I was expecting to pick up some techniques that would revolutionize my current approach… and the more I think about it, I’m not sure why I would feel any need for a total transformation. I did pick up some tricks to refine what I already do, and in the end I’ll appreciate the validation of finding so many commonalities between myself and a revered veteran teacher such as Sergio (Still working on the endearing Spanish accent).

The most interesting aspect of the trip was arriving four days early to meet a New Orleans friend of mine who had spent nine years living in ATL at one point in his life. He longs to reside there again someday. He also happens to be gay, or “same-gender-loving” (That was one of the new vocabulary terms I picked up). Growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve always considered myself socially liberal and even had a gay roommate in college for 1.5 years. However, I’d never gotten much of an “insider view” of gay culture. We visited several friends of my traveling companion during that first leg of the trip, staying with one couple for three nights. One of the men was in his late forties while the other was in his late fifties, but both were more muscular and toned than I could ever hope to be. I found it interesting to see a number of affirmations of gay stereotypes, in terms of personal mannerisms and the way “same-gender” themes tended to dominate the conversations (although I suppose that may be natural when a like-oriented friend comes to visit and such conversations are not readily available amongst the general public). On the other hand this couple adopted a 12-year-old son, four or five years ago I believe, and I couldn’t stop marveling over how well-adjusted the boy was and how normally and naturally their whole family unit operated. The kid has a strong interest in science and math and I spent a good deal of time nurturing his nerd cred with explorations of flexagons, number games, and origami. Meanwhile he candidly shared with me the troubled past of his birth family and his time in a foster home. Even in the face of some cruel treatment by peers, he doesn’t come across at all self-conscious about having a “Dad and Daddy.” Contrary to my assumption, Daddy tends to be the one who lays down the law while Dad isn’t quite as strict, yet both parents believe in providing him plenty of structure and expressing their love for him.

During the evenings my friend took me around to see his favorite locations of Atlanta. Considering that at one time I had strongly considered moving to Atlanta before New Orleans lured me in, I appreciated getting a sense of what I had passed up. I could see why some people are drawn in by Atlanta, but I now know I made the right choice. NOLA sure has its lavish mansions and snooty enclaves of exclusivity, but you typically don’t have to walk too far to escape any clouds of pretension. In contrast, the posh areas of ATL brought excess to a stifling level for me, and pretty soon the mere sight of grand castles and manicured lawns had me longing for some NOLA potholes.

As we toured some gay hotspots, I initially succumbed to that hetero male habit of asserting my orientation through verbal clues – y’know, casually dropping mention of ex-girlfriends or hot women. Eventually I convinced myself to stop caring. I didn’t realize that the Bulldogs nightclub I agreed to go to catered to a same-gender-lovin’ clientele (I guess I should’ve assumed). It sure didn’t take long to realize it though after walking in. My friend was enjoying himself quite a bit so I assured him we could stay as long as he wanted, but I did have to work down my anxiety level when he left me alone to go peruse the crowd. I had to thwart a couple advances, which thankfully were not overly aggressive. In the meantime I let my mind stray. Hmmm, looking back on my clumsy misadventures with women, is there even a remote chance that the cosmos are trying to tell me something? Getting a glimpse of a world I know little of, is it even conceivable that I could ever want any part of it? And what about that whole issue of choice in one’s orientation? I was astonished to hear my friend share his opinion that in the nature vs. nurture argument regarding homosexuality, he believed nurture (and childhood molestation in particular) was likely the greatest determining factor. I had never heard a gay person say this, and I wondered if this is a common belief amongst the LGBT that is just politically prohibitive to express publically. So in any case, I wondered if my life events had unfolded differently, could I have ended up pointing in a different orientation? And what about those people who come out later in life – Is it always the case that they’ve secretly known all along? Does it ever catch somebody completely by surprise at my age? My gaze drifted downward to the floor, and the flow of deep thought collided harshly with the hole in the ankle of my sock. Furthermore, the black lighting of the club highlighted the white sock fabric peeking through a previously-unnoticed hole in my dark shoes. And they accentuated the wrinkles of my tee shirt. And the blotchy stain on my left pec which I had deemed acceptably subtle back when we were in normal lighting conditions. Hmmm, would the LGBT community be so accepting of my lifestyle? I smiled and concluded that the cosmos are just having a little fun at my expense. I decided to lean back against the bar and continue soaking in the experience of stepping outside my normal realm of existence.

Looking ahead

A week remains of my vacation before faculty returns to work. I’m actually anxious to return. I want to see if I can help my new crop of students repeat the successes of their predecessors and improve upon past shortcomings. As always, I question which changes deserve my focus most. For years I’ve been frustrated that by the time my classes get through homework discussion, the day’s lesson, and Q & A for the new content, there’s never as much time as I would like for in-class work. I’ve always insisted that students seek out-of-class help when they encounter difficulties on the assignment, but I know that approach will never work as well as I would like. And as much as I’ve tried to achieve the optimal pace in delivering my lessons, I know there are still too many students who really need more time to process the information. Accordingly, I’m planning to eliminate up to half of the examples I typically cover in class and instead provide them in the form of streaming Internet videos. This is not a completely new idea by any means (considering an emerging trend of “flipping”), and plenty of lesson content is already available on the Web. However, I believe there are enough compelling reasons for me to put forth the time and hassle to make my own videos. At least for the PreCalculus class as a trial run.

I still wrestle with the reputation of being a difficult teacher. I’ve been thinking of a line in Stand and Deliver where Jaime Escalante tells his students, “Calculus was not made to be easy. It already is.” Who am I to take issue with the the most famous Calculus teacher of modern times, but I just cannot bring myself to say such a thing. Besides, I can’t find any confirmation that the real Escalante ever really said this. I appreciate the concept of encouraging students not to be afraid of math, but I have no desire to understate the degree of attentiveness and persistence required to develop a thorough understanding of math. Plus, for the most interesting problems and investigations, sometimes the solution is anything but easy to find!

A problem involving fractions (above) that I encountered in a puzzle book this summer called on me to employ the qualities that led me to whatever level of success and pleasure I’ve reached in the subject. Like many of the best puzzles, the premise was very simple and I knew there must exist a short ‘n’ sweet “elegant” solution. Nonetheless, I spent about an hour attacking it one evening with almost no progress. Another hour or two the following day was equally fruitless. Over the next few days I kept revisiting this problem, hoping I could just let it marinate in the back of my mind throughout my waking hours until a solution suddenly emerged (Seriously non-math-nerds, it really does work this way sometimes.) Even though I knew that nothing beyond some basic algebra would be necessary, I tackled it with fancy stuff like logarithms and infinite series techniques and improper integrals. Still it wouldn’t budge. Only after expending a ridiculous amount of time and traveling a long winding road that I would be utterly unable to retrace, I finally felt that exhilarating sensation of success. I then allowed myself to see the book’s solution, which was indeed elegantly concise and clever. In other contexts the much shorter answer might have diminished the joy I felt at the time, but I maintained pride in my solution, which had a certain beauty of its own.

But how does a teacher instill this kind of persistence in students who have not yet been so captivated by math? This attitude of climbing a mountain just because it’s there can’t be forced upon anyone, yet to me this seems to me the only way to extract maximum enjoyment from math.

So the pondering continues.

Coming soon

Lady Logarithm poster

I wrote Lady Logarithm (words) two summers ago as a follow-up to Sinusoidal Curve (video). It was originally intended to be become a collaborative video project the following school year, but that timeline was not meant to be. So instead we expanded the scope to include Lusher media arts, jazz band, vocal arts, and visual arts, and it finally came together in May 2012! Due to its submission in local film festivals it has not yet been made available on the Web. However, I promise it will be posted here immediately after we are able to do so.

After writing/animating Love Triangle (animation) last summer, I decided that the math love poem series would end as a trilogy. However, an unexpected surge of creativity hit earlier this month, and Lonesome Limit (words) was born. With a little luck, another collaboration will be in the works for the 2012-13 school year.

Class of 2012 Graduation pics

A couple pics & a video that weren't integrated into the rambling text

Oh yeah, forgot to mention that I marched in three Mardi Gras parades alongside the Nola Cherry Bombs, a female dance group that debuted this year. I lost two toenails and my knees ached for two or three months after, but it's hard not to remember it fondly.

Got out of bed around 7:30am on July 22, 2012. Rode my bike to Mid City's St. Joseph's Church on Tulane Ave. Watched the Grand Palace Hotel, 40000 tons of concrete and steel, crumble to the ground. Biked back home. Back in bed by 8:30am.
Who says nothing ever operates efficiently in New Orleans?