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The teaching stuff
Tomorrow students return for their first day of this school year. This launches my twelfth year of teaching (!?!). Time to look back on the last one.
This past year’s AP Calculus AB roster had largely baffled me during their 2014-15 PreCalculus Honors year. A few immediately proved to be impressive academics during their first year with me, but I perceived the collective vibe of that roster to be unusually lackluster. Whether it be kids with great potential settling for good enough or kids with good potential settling for mediocrity, I didn’t feel compelled to hide my disappointment.
At the start of this AP Calc year, I shared my cluelessness in predicting what kind of year this would turn out to be. The potential was undoubtedly high, but previous performance had not filled me with optimism. I promised to continue offering a generous proportion of my time and energy, but ultimately it fell on their shoulders to determine what level of “success” we would achieve.
Throughout the course of the year I was pleased to watch them develop. They frequently rose to the challenges at hand and bounced back from setbacks in ways I hadn’t seen from many of them before. I saw “good-potential” kids strive to become great and “great-potential” kids strive to become top-notch. As year-end approached, I anticipated that this roster was heading towards a higher class average on the AP exam than any class that preceded them.
I was glad that I had kept this lofty expectation to myself. Scores on official AP practice tests throughout the fourth quarter of school had been very promising. However after taking the actual AP exam on May 5, an unsettling number of students indicated that it seemed tougher than what I had prepared them for.
In early June I traveled to Kansas City for my 3rd stint of scoring the free-response portions of the exam along with 900+ other Calc teachers/professors. I kept finding myself a bit confused as to why some of my students had found these questions troubling. For the most part they struck me as quite similar to ones we had practiced so many times.
I anxiously awaited the exact time on July 5 when I would be allowed to login and see the scores. The highest class average I had ever seen from my students before was 3.96 (out of 5 max) from a stellar group two years ago. I had known that class would set a new high mark. Just prior to this year's exam day I had predicted 4.2 for my latest roster, but after the exam I wasn't so sure anymore. Bracing myself for the ever-present possibility of unmet anticipations, the hour finally arrived when I was able to login.
I don’t typically emote much. I'm not the type to fist-pump or shriek "Whoooo!" or "Hell yeah!" Nonetheless, when I saw the class average for this year, I celebrated exuberantly in uncharacteristic fashion: 4.55!!! I couldn't contain my pride in these students. The ones who I believed should deliver did so, and almost all the wildcards whose scores fluctuated throughout the year stepped up in a major way. Out of 31 total students (25 in Calc AB, 6 in Calc BC), 29 passed with scores of either 4 or 5. Contrast this with the first time teaching this course about 8 years ago when I could only lead two out of twelve students to a passing score above 2.
I’ve finally reached a point in my AP teaching career when I can no longer continue to expect the class average to keep rising from year to year. I do pat myself on the back for the improvements I make as a teacher each year, and I look forward to seeing whether my next group will demonstrate the same level of commitment to reaching their potential.
Addressing an Achilles’ Heel
My summer plans are rarely of the type to incite envy, but they can be quite fulfilling to me.
For as long as I've been a teacher I've been self-conscious about my Mathematical Achilles' heel: Statistics. I don’t recall whether the course was even offered in my high school. It wasn’t required for my engineering studies in college. Its emphasis in high schools and colleges has rightfully skyrocketed in the years since. I’ve increasingly come to view it as a subject in which I should at least be conversational. About 5 years ago I brought home a Stats textbook from school for the purpose of learning it over the summer. I knew it wouldn't be my absolute favorite thing to study, so each summer I kept finding other intellectual distractions that usurped it on the priority list. Well I finally jumped into the 800+ page textbook this late June. I read and practiced like a madman. I had to take a few breaks to tend to some other Mathy puzzles that landed in my lap, but I'm pleased to say Statistics was at least more interesting than I thought it would be. In slightly over a month, I finished the textbook and all its practice tests. Of course the education is not over. Throughout the coming year I'll need to periodically practice for mastery and retention, but I'm proud of the milestone nonetheless. From a teacher perspective, it was also valuable to be reminded of the joys and frustrations involved in learning a skill-based subject that is mostly unlike anything in my existing skillset.
Sometime early in the school year I was alerted to a Math song contest being put on by the Museum of Mathematics in NYC. I submitted four of my works for consideration and was subsequently invited to perform one of them at MoMath in November. I was asked to choose from among my three works that had musical accompaniment. I ended up going with Lonesome Limit. This was the project that I felt least suited to perform myself, but the high level of student involvement made me want to share it. Former student Beau was able to deliver me an audio file with the instrumentals written by former student Sam and the powerful backing vocals of current student Samyra. For the MoMath performance, I made a slide show of stills from the video that former student Luca produced. I took over all the male vocals from the original lead Christian.
I enjoyed the evening at MoMath. There were about a dozen others who performed – some with genuine musical talent and others like myself with a creative spirit and a willingness to share whatever we had. I wasn’t ecstatic about my own performance and therefore did not regret my decision not to ask anyone to record it for me. Nonetheless, I’m glad to have participated and finally built up a reason to visit one of the world’s most famed cities for the first time.
My former New Orleans landlord Andy had moved to NYC and graciously provided me a place to stay for the few days of my visit. I spent quite a bit of time exploring sites and catching up with former student Karisma, about to enter her final year at Columbia. I got together with former student Piper who had recently graduated from Skidmore and also reunited with college friend Kara, a fellow Math educator.
State of the Union
Ohhhh lawdy… If I were even tempted to give my perspective here in detail about the formation of a teachers’ union at Lusher, it would easily ramble on for dozens of pages.
It would seem strange to leave out any mention of it in a summary of my most recent year of teaching experience, yet I sure don’t feel like elaborating here. Journalism couldn’t possibly capture all the perspectives on this series of events, but there is certainly plenty written about it in New Orleans news media (The Lens, The Times Picayune, The Advocate, Uptown Messenger).
In trying to think of just one thing I feel like saying about our unionization effort, this is what popped into my head: Many times throughout the emotional and extremely contentious process, I kept saying, “We all will have to live with ourselves at the end of the day.” Of course I can look back, ponder the countless decisions that were made in the process, and second-guess what could have been done differently. But in terms of critiquing how my speech and actions aligned with my own personal ethics, I have no trouble living with myself. I’ve gained some insights and learned about some qualities I didn’t know I had. The pursuit of continued growth as a classroom teacher and citizen of my school/city/country/world continues.
My Mathematical Inspiration
Epic educator Mr. Otis Halliday passed away on July 17 after battling cancer in recent years. He is survived by his loving wife Carol in Georgetown, TX. He had taught in several high schools and colleges including 27 years at Lynbrook High School in San Jose. I was fortunate to have a few fantastic and memorable teachers in my youth, and Mr. Halliday was undoubtedly the most influential for me. He somehow lured me into developing an interest and confidence in Math, a subject that I hadn't particularly liked prior to taking his Geometry class. The details of my memories have long faded, but left intact is the strong recollection of feeling invigorated and valued. Geometry became the class I eagerly anticipated every day. My experiences with Mr. Halliday were a major factor in my decision to quit engineering and become a HS teacher myself. In 2006, during my first of several visits with the Hallidays in Georgetown, we took these photos. I've kept the one of him and me posted in my classroom near my desk ever since. I love how his oft-gruff appearance in photos contrasted with his soft-spoken, gentle, and caring manner. Yet the legend at Lynbrook said he could rip phone books in half. Since he had never performed such a feat for my class, I questioned him about this during one of my visits a few years ago. I don't recall if he validated that rumor right then. However, on the day of my departure, he appeared from around the corner with a phone book in hand. At 80-something (?) years old, he tore that thing in half. Mr. Halliday – still and always "the man" in my eyes.