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Keeping Score

written 8/5/2014

Today is the last day of summer vacation. Tomorrow the faculty returns to work at Lusher. Students return a week later. I haven’t updated my teacher journal in a while. Okay, lemme start rambling.

Blast from the Past

Allana, a friend from my Lockheed Martin days, visited New Orleans this summer with her husband and some friends. To roughly gage the salary I had left behind in CA, I took the tacky step of asking her how much money she makes now. She had earned an MBA in the meantime, but she also started about 4 years after I did, so it seemed like a fair comparison. Of course I knew the number would be significantly higher than my public schoolteacher pay, but I was admittedly disheartened by the whopping 3.3:1 ratio. Not even adjusting for inflation, my current wages still falls short of the engineering salary I received straight out of college.

Allana and I continued to catch up on each other’s professional lives. Naturally many of the people we had worked with on the AirBorne Laser program had gone onto different programs since the cancellation of ABL several years ago although all the ones we discussed remained with the company. I was genuinely happy for Allana’s successes and longevity at Lockheed Martin. She’s certainly bright and competent. I remember doubting years ago that her whimsical personality would allow her to ascend in the male-dominated defense industry. The irony that I was the one who grew weary of the industry and career altogether didn’t escape me.

As we traded stories, the dismay I initially felt over the salary disparity dissipated. I value the engineering experiences I had, but nothing Allana shared made me yearn to return to that career. In fact, by the end of her visit I had become even more assured of my decision to move to New Orleans in favor of teaching nine years ago. Even when my bicycle got stolen on the last day of her visit (Yes it was locked… some @$$hole in the Marigny cut through the chain), I still knew that present-day New Orleans is where I’m meant to be right now.

AP Scoring in Kansas City

About five years ago I applied to be an “AP Reader.” Since half of the 3.5 hour AP Calculus exam is “Free Response,” hundreds of high school and college teachers are gathered for a week every summer to score these questions for which computer scoring is impossible. More precisely, this year 896 Readers converged on Kansas City in early June to score 407,224 exams with 2.4 million Free Response questions.

Spending five years on the waitlist is typical for Calculus and in past summers I was never heartbroken to not be selected. After all, grading papers is the single most miserable task of my teaching duties. However, I’d often heard that being a Reader provides valuable insight that is useful for AP teachers and that the opportunity to confer with other like-minded professionals is rewarding.

For the first time I was selected to be a Reader this year. The logistics of organizing so many teachers to grade so many questions boggles the mind. All the AP subject exams are scored in various cities throughout the US, but Kansas City was host for Calculus as well as Biology and Statistics. In the KC Convention Center everyone was matched with a partner at tables of about a dozen Readers. We had earlier been briefed for about an hour on how to score a single question, and then we would score just that one question for hours on end. Partners would be consulted if there was any doubt on how to score a student’s work. If confusion remained, either of two Table Leaders at each table would be consulted. Issues could elevate further up the hierarchy if necessary. Typically it would take about 1.5 - 2 days to score that one question across all the exams. Then we would be briefed on a different question and repeat the process. By the end of the week, most teachers had graded a total of three questions hundreds of times over.

Table Leaders Ed (NE) and Chris (AZ) on ends, me and table partner Velvet (Dallas, TX) in middle.

People often assume grading Math is easy since “there’s only one right answer.” True that there is less subjectivity than in subjects such as Creative Writing, but there are almost always multiple valid ways of tackling a worthy Math problem. Quite often creativity comes into play. Those who develop the AP scoring standards have a daunting task in trying to find a way to fairly reward all valid approaches and appropriately penalize the countless big and small errors that students make along the way. It was fascinating to see the varied correct and incorrect ways that students chose to tackle these FRQ. Encouraging to see how many students had clearly mastered this challenging subject. Amusing at times to see some of the missteps and pictures/poems/jokes students left after submitting to defeat on a question. Sad to see the way-too-many questions left completely blank, leading me to wonder what circumstances must have led to a student enduring a semester or year in an AP class yet falling so short of the learning goals. (To be clear, I know many of my students over the years have also been reduced to leaving some FRQ blank). Consoling to see that the same ridiculous errors that I cannot seem to cure my students from repeatedly making are in fact the same ridiculous errors that students across the counter repeatedly make. Even though identities of the students are concealed from Readers, I found myself rooting for them as I scored. Perhaps the writing, whether impeccably neat or horrendously messy or in between, reminded me of one of my own students. I often imagined the frustration a student would undoubtedly have felt upon seeing how a careless error had cost them points. I sometimes muttered “Good job” under my breath when a student earned full credit on a question. Occasionally I would share a particularly well-presented solution with my partner. I envisioned the excitement that both an anxious student and hopeful teacher would feel upon learning of a favorable overall AP Score. During breaks, we teachers would often talk fondly of our own students. We knew that all their exams were present somewhere amongst the seemingly endless supply of boxes (The probability of a teacher scoring the exam of his/her own student is statistically miniscule. Even if that did occur, the teacher would most likely have no way of positively identifying the student). Upon completion of our week of scoring, we’d still have to wait a couple weeks until the scores would be published to all interested parties. I don’t think students realize that their teachers (or at least the ones I encountered in KC) would be every bit as anxious to receive those scores as they are.

Back at Lusher High School

Last summer at a Math teacher training I conversed with an AP Calculus teacher from Phillips Academy Andover, the prestigious boarding school in Maryland. He told me matter-of-factly that almost all of his students earn the top score of 5 on the AP Calculus exam. He wasn’t saying it in a boastful way, yet my immediate reaction was one of envy. I recalled that in my first year of teaching AP Calculus in ’08, only two of the twelve students even “passed” the exam with a score of 3 or higher. For whatever imperfections my students and school exhibited that year, the weight of those low scores rested primarily on my shoulders. In the seven years since then, my students’ AP Calc scores have risen slowly but steadily. Only one time did the class average decline since the previous year. Progress has been slower than I had hoped, yet I had reason to believe this past year would be a prosperous one. I’d restructured my PreCalculus course to launch early into Calculus territory before the end of the year. A moderate assignment would further the progress over the summer. In June I made over 60 instructional YouTube videos and developed an AP Calculus course website intended to assist students while tackling the tougher exercises outside of class. (This complements the PreCalculus course website and videos I had made during the prior school year). I devised specific plans intended to help students become more comfortable with the FRQ during the year. And most significantly of all, I knew I had an incoming group of students loaded with potential.

I had more fun with this year’s AP Calculus roster than any other group of students in my career thus far. Like any year we had plenty of hurdles and individual issues to attend to, yet a real sense of camaraderie helped us consistently press forward all year. Students routinely assisted each other in a way that teachers dream of. My AP students unsurprisingly tend to worry most about report card grades and earning college credit via a “passing” AP score. I was most concerned with providing positive memories of appreciating the wonder of Math and a proud sense of accomplishment in “conquering the Calculus beast.” In spite of our different motivations, most of the time it truly felt like we were striving collectively for a common goal.

Calculus 2014 class

2014 AP Calculus AB roster

When AP scores where released in early July, I almost felt guilty for not being more ecstatic. Whereas my previous highest-scoring class had earned a class average of 3.5, this year’s group earned an average score of 4.0. Out of the 27 students, 12 had earned 5s. By any quantitative measure they had demonstrated major progress for my AP course and our school’s Math program, but this did not surprise me. I knew they were capable of awesomeness. I was only relieved to see that most of the scores reflected this.

Thinking back to my conversation with the Philips Academy teacher, I looked at my current situation with renewed perspective. How anticlimactic (and potentially burdensome) must it be to face the foregone conclusion that a majority of your students will earn 5s any given year? I’m sure that dedicated teachers in such prestigious institutions find meaningful goals that transcend any silly standardized test, but that’s not necessarily the environment I want to work in.

At the other end of the spectrum, New Orleans is wrought with too many down-and-out urban schools facing epic struggles to uplift their students and communities. Lusher is often accused of using selective admissions policies to cherry-pick only the best students and rid ourselves of the burdensome ones. I acknowledge some merit to the more informed arguments. At times I do feel guilty for not exerting more effort to educate myself on relevant issues and figuring out exactly where I weigh in on the criticisms of my employer. However, within the confines of my classroom I see plenty of youth who need caring adults in their lives. Some have loving parents, some don’t. Some come from homes with adequate finances, some don’t. Some are on track to a comfortable middle-class existence, some definitely aren’t. I notice that many critics love to paint their image of an over-privileged Lusher with broad strokes, but a wide variety of worthy students come through our doors.

So back to my most recent group of AP Calc students, and even more generally, the hundreds of students I’ve taught at Lusher over the years: They make me proud in many ways. I see that their greatest successes don’t come easily. Math happens to be the vehicle by which I aim to help them grow. Sometimes I fall into the trap of glorifying or bemoaning standardized test scores as if they were the end goal when really they are just a small symbol of something more meaningful.

I’ve often wondered what kind of school and what kind of students would be the ideal match for what I have to offer. It’s worth continuing to reflect on this matter, but I will never regret the kinds of rewarding teaching experiences I’ve been having in recent years.

Students I was able to catch at graduation 2014
Andrew & Meryl
Bradford & Tia

The Hallidays

On my way out to visit mom, aunt, and uncle in AZ, I stopped first in Georgetown TX (outside Austin) to see my own 9th grade Geometry teacher, Mr. Otis Halliday. It had been four years since I last saw him and his wife Carol. I attempted to pinpoint in my mind what it was about him that had made him my favorite teacher over the course of all my schooling. As I shared some of my own teaching practices, at one point Mr. Halliday said something like, “I never did anything terribly creative.” I paused but didn’t protest, for he’s a rather understated man and I don’t recall anything gimmicky about his teaching style. In fact, specific details of his class have mostly faded from memory. What remains though is the certitude that he cared about me. His concern went beyond Math education for students in general, and I also greatly appreciated his compassion on an individual level.

Students sometimes find the novelties of my classes to be entertaining. At their best, some of my gimmicks will actually enhance the learning objective. My own experiences in school remind me that genuine care and compassion is the most valuable quality a teacher can offer. Demonstrating this in the course of a hectic school day wasn’t my greatest strength as I started my career in education. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and Mr. Halliday set a standard for me long ago that I still aspire to reach.

Big Easy Summer

A few months ago I woke up with distorted vision. Turns out a bubble had formed in the back of my eyeball. Analogous to unevenly pushing a movie screen closer to the projector, images in my right eye appeared warped and smaller than usual. The ophthalmologist suggested that this was stress-induced and that those afflicted with this problem often have type-A personalities. I wanted to argue that characterization but realized that doing so would seem… well, type-A. I’d always thought of myself as “laid back,” but upon further thought I realize that the teacher persona I’ve developed over the years is more high-strung than who I thought I was.

New number-one objective for the summer: RELAX. That’s not to say just lounge around doing nothing. Rather, whatever I chose to do ought to be done with an easeful manner.

I acquired a few more Rubik’s-Cube-like puzzles. I toyed with photographing and editing “anaglyph” 3-D images on the computer (requiring red-cyan glasses). I read a book from time to time (Maybe not as often as I had hoped… but who cares… no need to stress over that). I re-taught myself some of the more advanced 3D Calculus content that I hadn’t seen since my early college days when I had already become disenchanted with Math. And this time I had fun with it. I hung out with New Orleans friends.

Some of toys and books that kept be occupied this summer, plus my attempts to create anaglyph 3D images. The cemetery is across the street from my apartment.

Aseel at Lusher graduation 2008.

Just within the past week I’ve spent many enjoyable lunch and dinner hours with former students. Some are heading to college soon: One about to begin freshman year, two returning for sophomore year, one heading into senior year . One graduated high school several years ago and is working while pondering future college options. One graduated college a year ago and is about to begin her first year as a full-time 4th grade teacher. One finished undergrad a year ago and will now begin his first year at Purdue for Veterinary school. And although I didn’t get to see her in person, my Jordanian student from Lusher’s very first high school graduating class in ‘08 just earned her undergraduate engineering degree from UCSI in Malaysia. Aseel is an incredible young woman who has persevered through some daunting hurdles and heartbreaking setbacks that threatened to derail her education too many times. I can't think of a better source of inspiration as I return to my classroom tomorrow.

These students invigorate me as I look ahead to my roster for 2014-15. Having extended an open offer to any incoming student who needed assistance with the summer assignments, I’ve already met with a half-dozen of them in recent weeks. During a coffee shop session that flowed on for four hours, I gained a lot of insight into the challenges faced by a student who suffered extremely inconsistent performances last year in my PreCalculus class. The opportunity to chat casually about life in and out of school was extremely informative for me and made me even more determined to see this student succeed in AP Calculus this year.

Another student is taking the unprecedented route of not only doubling-up this year in Algebra 2 and PreCalculus, but also switching from the non-honors to the honors track. Reminding me of Aseel’s ambition, she has interest in pursuing engineering, so she requested this route in order to be able to take AP Calculus next year as a senior. Switching schools from another state resulted in a Math demotion several years ago when she joined Lusher. Originally her double-up plan wasn’t going to be allowed, but I lobbied on her behalf on the condition that we address her skill gaps over the summer. We had not specified a time quota. We just happened to start out meeting every few days at a coffee shop. The specific intent of our sessions was to benefit her of course, but I also found ample benefit for myself. Amongst the dedicated teachers I know, the single thing we regrettably lack the most is time. There’s never enough of it during the school year, but for once I was finding it in reasonable supply. And with a student who proved very motivated to address old Math weaknesses and also layer on some new skills, I had encountered the kind of satisfying teaching experience that is frustratingly elusive when dealing with large groups. And we had TIME!!! If an unanticipated issue arose, we were able to address it right away. There was no need to worry if we didn’t get to discuss a particular topic on that day. No need to balance one student’s needs against another’s. I relished the joy of just showing up with a bare-bones agenda and then letting the sessions meander naturally as needed. I experimented with some teaching methods that I had never made occasion to try out during a school year. My composure was more relaxed than I’ve ever been able to achieve in a classroom. I’d estimate we put in 30-40 total hours meeting roughly twice weekly whenever we both were in town. This student will still have a very challenging road ahead of her, but at least she now finds herself in great position to start her new classes. In addition, I’ve enjoyed the kind of teaching experience that I idealistically envisioned upon starting this career. Win-win.

Looking ahead

The 2014-15 school year is upon us.

That objective of summer relaxation?: Mission accomplished.

I’m ready to go back to work. My most notable academic objective this year is to find constructive ways to increasingly put educational technology into the hands of my students (specifically, have them use Geogebra and Desmos in class). However, I shall seek ways to do so without placing undue demands on myself. Last year my colleague Mr. Wenstrup and I started the year pledging to cut off our work days at 12 hours. We honored that worthy challenge for a couple months but gradually found ourselves falling back into longer workdays. This year we (or at least I) shall try again with greater resolve. With an eye on longevity, I hope to have many more wonderful experiences for years to come. May they continue starting tomorrow.

A few random pics from the summer. The middle one mocks that time that a felon's "hot" mugshot garnered an abundance of attention through social media and "news" sources.