Friday, August 29, 2008

A Quickie

I just got in from our school's first football game of the year, an away game that is the oldest rivalry in Texas: NB vs. Seguin.

We won . . . big time, by almost 50 points. Our defense scored almost as much as our offense.

It felt good to haul the mascot again and to be down on the field with the coaches, players, and student spirit groups.

I'm tired, though. After standing all week and not being used to it, standing again on the field from 6 to 11 pm really takes a toll on my back and feet.

I'm also hungry.

I'm going to wind down, see what's in the fridge, and see what's on Sportscenter.

Better yet, I see what the late-night pundits have to say about McCain's choice of Sarah Palin for Veep candidate.

Hasta manana.

Good Luck Mr. McCain.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Leaves be turned

I can't believe I've gone and done it. I never thought it could, much less would, happen. I'm still a little shocked that I did it. It feels so . . . . so . . . . dishonest, yet liberating at the same time. It's something I have always dreamed of doing in a perfect world, a world far apart from my reality. I'm even afraid to write about it, in case this IS just some dream I'm having and that what I did today actually hasn't take place in reality. I'm too excited, however, NOT to write about it, so I think I will. Besides, I think I might like to see how it looks in print, being able to read and re-read about my accomplishment over and over and over again, even if it DOES turn out to only be in the ephemeral, fantastical realms of my dreams.

So what did I do? Well I hope you don't think that what I did was insignificant in any sense of the word, or that my successful occurrence is any less remarkable for me, merely because you might do it on a daily basis. I am not you. You are not me. I dare you to throw a rock from your glass house. And by the way, turn out the lights when you change clothes, will ya? Don't judge me by YOUR standards of what is phenomenal or praiseworthy. I've got scruples and morals and very tender heart. How dare you claim that my attainment is anything less than a groundbreaking feat in my life. That it is anything less than me turning over a new leaf, turning a corner, getting a new lease on life, or reaching a new standard of living by which I can now live my life. Just because everyone else has been doing something for a long time, doesn't make it right, nor does it make it for everyone. I've chosen to "hold out" for some time now out of a sense of moral duty, primarily, but maybe out of weakness. Well, excuse me if it takes me a little bit longer to realize things for myself. That's only more reason for me to celebrate today.

So really, what did I do? Well I know you read this blog for entertainment, and I DO try to be as amusing as possible, and I don't really want to bore you with the details. Besides, it's not a "funny" or "dramatic" thing that I did today. It's not something that you'd ever see on a "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Grey's Anatomy." It's not even something you'd ever see on PBS! No, it's smaller and more boring than that. You won't ever see it on the Silver Screen, although I could see Christian Bale portraying me doing it quite well, for which he'd win the Oscar for "Lead Actor in the most boring, insignificant, anti-climactic film." It's a movie YOU wouldn't want to see, but I definitely would (especially after watching "The Dark Knight" twice in theaters.) It's not even a book-worthy effectuation, hardly worth a page of note. Essay you say? Only if it's an essay about how it could possibly change my life. Now a song . . . . hmmmm. It might make a good song . . . . an inspirational song, perhaps . . . . . sung by Josh Groban . . . . no! Christian Bale . . . . Ya! Christian Bale . . . . does he sing? . . . . . It doesn't matter . . . .I'd listen to it . . . . wait a minute . . . . . I could WRITE it!!!!! But I digest (I do! You do too!)

Anyway, I don't want to keep you in suspense any longer (but I do) at the risk of losing you as a reader of this blog (I'd be down to only two people) so I might as well share with you what I'm so darn proud of doing today, a day I'd never thought I live to see, something I never thought I've ever muster the courage to do. What DID I do today?

I said, "No!"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New Schedule

I feel like a car that just rolled out of a Michelin store: tired.

This year, our secondary schools all altered their bell schedules so that we start an hour later than we have been since Dewey practically wrote it into the public school code almost a hundred years ago. A direct consequence of this is that we also get out of school an hour later, well, not counting the extra 20 "phantom" minutes that were surreptitiously, though not so skillfully, sneaked into the contract day. As a result, I'm forcing myself to get to school later than I did last year, but it is not an easy task. As an natural early riser and morning person, I have long enjoyed the quiet, reflective solitude the mornings bring, using that time to catch the misspellings in the local paper, sip my pitch-black coffee, while seeing how badly my Astros lost on ESPN's Sportscenter. None of that has changed.

Only now, instead of loading my sleeping children into my car at 5:45am to have them at their grandmother's house at 5 of 6 in order to be in my classroom at 6:00am to begin my day, I get the chance to actually wake my kids up, get them dressed, and spend some time with them before they are energized by their breakfast and sunlight. It almost feels sinful and criminal to still be stirring around my own house at 6:15 in the morning on a school day. I KNOW that it's okay and that I'm still ahead of the modified schedule, but it's an uneasy feeling I definitely haven't gotten used to yet. But it only gets worse . . .

Once I arrive at school, now at 7 instead of 6, I stare out my classroom windows at the sun well above the horizon, and there is enough light spilling all around the exterior perimeter to drive my internal mechanism into full-fledged teaching mode. The only problem is . . . class doesn't start for another 90 minutes!!! I create lesson plans, check emails, and listen to my music to be industrious and to take my mind off the awkwardness of sitting in my classroom at 8am on a weekday and having no students. Heck, according to my circadian rhythms, it's already mid-morning. My this point in previous years, I was already more than halfway into my first invigorating lesson of the day, preaching the math with a rabid fervor that always woke students up better than a 5 dollar energy drink.

To make matters worse, I have first period conference this year!! Great. Now the bell rings for school to start at 8:35, and my room is STILL empty. I'm shaking from the exhaustion of holding in my teaching tiger. Not teaching really wears me out. The sun rises higher in the sky. The clock continues to spin. Somewhere in the city, a Bridge club is preparing Brunch, and I still have yet to disperse a single drop of didactical data. I'm going crazy! Whose idea was it to start so late anyway?

Finally, the clock says 10:10am. The bell rings for first period to end, which means only 5 more minutes until the start of 2nd period. 10:15am. I FINALLY greet my first class. I'm expecting them to be much more alert and awake and receptive to learning than in previous years. After all, it was the conclusive results of someone's research, somewhere, that stated that older students learn better later in the morning that was cited as the reason for the schedule change. Disappointedly, I did not, nor have not seen any palpable change in students' behaviors. Instead, I hear talk among friends about how they got to "stay up later" and "sleep in later." For the most part, they have already adjusted their sleep-deprived schedules forward as if they were merely compensating for daylight savings time.

Perhaps the worst side-effect of the new change is that much more of my afternoons are now lost. With the contract day ending at 4:25, I'm picking up kids and getting home in the increased traffic around 5, which is still not bad if you consider how most of the commuters in the city function, but for someone who is used to packing in an entire separate day, almost into his afternoon, a lot is lost. Many students who work after school lose wages as well. Sports teams get off the practice field later, leaving less time for home work, quality family time, nutritious meals, and video games. Jon Stewart seems to come on sooner. I think the only good thing coming out of it is that my mother-in-law gets to sleep in an hour later before I bring the kids to her house each morning.

Combine all this adjusting to a brand new year and trying to get my teaching feet back under me, it has been one difficult week to deal with . . . and it's only Wednesday. At least this weekend is a three-day weekend, which should be just enough time to relapse to my old sleep schedule and undo any adjustment progress I might be making this week.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

1st Day Letter To Parents

Dear Parents and Students of upper-level mathematics,

Welcome to another new year filled with new possibilities, new challenges to conquer, and new expectations to rise above.

My name is Kevin Korpi, and I have the distinct pleasure of being your son or daughter’s math teacher this year. Some of you may already know me as your son/daughter’s UIL math coach or Math Club sponsor. For others of you, this year is our first opportunity to work together. In either case, I look forward to partnering with you throughout the year to help your child have a rich and enjoyable learning experience in PreAP/AP mathematics.

As this is an upper-level course, I will likely address most concerns about your child’s progress to him/her directly. This course is a fast-paced, rigorous course that requires sustained levels of quality effort and concentration, and mastery requires much practice. The concepts we learn are abstract and interwoven. The skills we encounter are entirely new and foreign. By this point, I expect students to manage their time effectively, seek out help when they need it, and be responsible for completing their assignments and turning them in on time. Since my goal is to challenge all students in the course, it is likely that every student will be confused, or feel slightly overwhelmed, at least once this year; I hope that by working through such moments together, we can better prepare these students for the challenges of AP and college-level math classes. If those moments are more than isolated occurrences, or if you have any concern about your child’s progress, please feel free to contact me at any time.

I expect the best from each and every student, and in return, the students can expect my best efforts, providing the instruction, support, and encouragement for any diligent student to meet those expectations. A student’s success in this course is a joint effort among me, you the parents, and of course, the student. I earnestly believe that students who are successful in mathematics can be successful in any subject or discipline. The habits of mind and the required daily discipline developed in learning math are skills that transcend math and the classroom. These are valuable skills that will stay with students the rest of their lives and will help them be successful in many of their future endeavors.

As Lewis Carroll (a mathematician!) wrote in “Through the Looking Glass,” it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that This year we want to get somewhere else, so we will run fast, we will work hard, but we will also have a lot of fun.

PreAP/AP math is challenging, but it’s not meant to be impossible. If you’re really struggling, see me to discuss what strategies you’re using and how to fine-tune your study habits. I may recommend you look for a tutor, but usually I find that PreAP/AP students who get a little help to get back on track don’t need regular meetings after that. Remember: math is supposed to be fun (really) even if part of the fun is surviving some of the hard parts.

Thank you for taking the time to review this letter and the attached materials and to fill out the section below. I look forward to seeing you during parent night.


Mr. Kevin Korpi
Mathematics Teacher

Monday, August 25, 2008

Holy Cow

Cubs Win . . . Cubs Win, the Cubs being the students.

Man am I exhausted after my first day. I really thought I had more academic stamina than that. Today at the first day back at school, we as a high school campus on the AB block schedule (meeting 4 classes each day for ninety minutes) met with all eight classes in one day. Add to that the fact we we started an hour later than usual and consequently ended and hour later, combined with the fact that I arose from slumber this morning at my usual time, made for a really long, exhausting day.

It was good, however, that I was able to get all of the first-day stuff out on the way for all classes, but that only guaranteed that I did most of the talking for seven hours while the students just sat there with that bewildered over-paperworked look on their faces. Considering I had four classes consisting of 120 new preAP precal students this year, my class-long speech on "new expectations," "new standards,"and "new work ethics" were greeted by the typical look of "oh my! what did I get myself into," followed by the hated look of "darn you, Mr. Korpi for being so evil," look. It's really hard to look into a class of 32 frightened, unstable students who only realize that in the relatively short 9 months that follow, you are going to do your very best to make them do things they don't want to do, like study and do lots of homework, and take challenging tests."

Which is why today was so vital. It is a day to let students know that they will not be comfortable this year, and if they were, I wasn't challenging them enough. It's a day that validates me as a professional, one who can see the distant horizon and the efforts and requirements needed to get each and everyone of my students there, even if all they can see is the painful road that lies immediately beneath their feet. It's about sacrificing the feel-good feeling of being the "cool, easy" teacher and risking being the "cool, hard" teacher that is only bestowed after much persistence and acclimation to new standards.

Yes, I HATE the first day of school. In fact I hate the first WEEK of school, because it requires me to be someone I'm not and everything I am at the same time. I means that the students who are weak in courage, lacking in self-discipline, or allergic to hard work get the wrong impression of me and bail my class for all the wrong reasons, while the valiant few who can weather my "first-day soapbox" (or who are giftedly too apathetic to submit a schedule change to the counselors) rise to the occasion and realize that I'm NOT evil, that I DO have their best interests in mind, and that I AM a professional.

Yes the students may have won the day, wearing me down. But I shall recover, and we shall all win by the end of the year.

I only wish I didn't take everything so personally, then I might be able to enjoy tonight as much as I'm going to enjoy tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A new academic year

This week means back to school for most educators around the nation. It's not, however, back to school for the students of those educators. No, they will arrive next week, after their teachers have spent an entire week getting ready for them. Theoretically, this week is supposed to be a time whereby we in the profession re-acclimate to the pedagogical halls that have laid dormant all summer, learn the latest and greatest educational acronym emerging from the vapid halls of academia, and most importantly, meet and greet all the new incoming teachers to the campus. In practice, only the last one comes close to being a reality.

If you ask anyone in the education profession about required in-service, you're likely to get a grotesque look accompanied by a sound not unlike a dying man being forced to eat rotten meat while lying on a bed of nails in a dust storm while John Tesh plays in the background on an out of tune piano in 100 degree heat. It has been said, or at least written, that the only difference between death and in-service is the act of breathing, which means there is some dead guy some where still exchanging oxygen. In fact, there is so much pseudo-sensational, platitudinous inertia surrounding the start (and end) to any given school year that I would be willing to teach year-round just to circumvent the red-tape cutting, hoop-jumping histrionics.

It is times like this that I realize that public education is run as a business, albeit one with reactionary qualities, rather than a vocation, much less a profession. I know that the administrators on the local level are merely acting upon the trickle-down mandates of the highest, out-of-the-loop legislators in the land. We are required to teach x number of days, are required to get y hours of professional development each year, and must sit on our rears listening to highly-paid preachers of common sense and endure absurd team-building activities for z hours each year. I imagine there is a real sense of panic among administrators in the days and/or hours leading up to the return of the teachers as to how to spend the required time in such a way as to minimize any damage and depletion to the energy and enthusiasm we teachers regenerate over the summer break.

As a professional, I realize that meaningless, valueless in-service is just the price we pay for having time off during the summer, and it's one I'm willing to pay. Also, as a professional, I try as hard as my impatient mind will allow to squeeze as much juice from the presented pulp without giving the impression of being disinterested, much less disruptive (although I am in the minority on this.) For instance, when stumped on a nine-letter hyphenated word for drudgery in the crossword I am covertly working, I try not to make a scene when asking my neighbor for advice, opting instead to gently and quietly wake him, then whispering the clue to him. Nor do I shout out loud in acknowledgment when he whispers the words "in-service" to me. In other words, I refrain from the obstreperous, impatient, disrespectful behavior I disdain in my own students, but then again, I know that as their teacher, I thwart that disruptive, deviant behavior by delivering invigorating, enthusiastic, meaningful presentations laced with humor, wit, and cunning.

I know that if I can survive this week, I can survive another academic year with 250 adolescents . . and their parents.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's in a drink?

OK, so it was my first day back at school after the most exhilarating summer break since my children have been in the picture. Although the first day of mandatory in-service was anything but mentally taxing (perhaps "patience taxing"), I couldn't block the thoughts that pervaded my mind as I drove home this afternoon: alcohol.

Sure, I also thought about yielding and stopping and staying in my own lane, but I felt like I needed some sort of "cleansing" from the synthetic hullabaloo that the day had brought on. When I got home, I didn't deny myself the enjoyment of a good can of suds. As I savored the taste of the malt, barley, and hops upon my palette, I thought about WHY I had so desired to pop the top to begin with, and why I was unable to shake the thought from my consciousness.

Was it because of the taste? Was it because of the ceremony of it all? I put it down in verse.

We all love to sip a mojito
With the taste and rush so sublime.
Yes we all love to taste the mojito.
We willingly lay down our dimes
Yes we all love to drink a mojito
How they effortlessly help us go numb.
For that savory taste
Not a moment we waste
To purchase that savory Rum.

Yes we all love to take Jello shots
That gelatinous jiggle we crave
Yes we all love to slurp Jello shots
‘Cause we know that we’ll always behave.
Oh, we all love to gulp Jello shots
How they help us interpret Franz Kafka
As they go down they jiggle
They cause us to giggle
I think it’s because of the Vodka

We all love Long Island Iced Tea
With its soothing, thirst quenching taste
When drinking Long Island Iced Tea
Not an ounce if it must go to waste
Yes we all love Long Island Iced Tea
Though it has no tea, what a sin
The drink is our friend
‘cause of its delicious blend
Of Vodka, Tequila, and Gin.

There’s nothing like a good Margarita
To go with a meal or without.
It’s hard to beat great Margaritas.
A favorite among us, no doubt
So blend me up one Margarita
And please do it quickly, sir will ya’?
‘cause now is the time
For the salt and the lime
And please don’t skimp on the tequila.

And then there’s the straight sippin’ whiskey
You don’t need no blender or ice
Just a mouth to enjoy straight sippin’ whiskey
Just a bottle and you will suffice
But there’s all kinds of great sippin’ whiskey
Call it bourbon, white lightning, or booze.
Like an old west cowboy
You’re sure to enjoy
Feeling so tall and so bulletproof.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rockie Mountain "Hi!"

Wow! Eleven days without a post. That a record of Olympic proportions that might stand for some time. So why all the time off? Laziness? Internet problems? Lack of ideas? Typographical amnesia? Xbox 360? None of the above?

The last one says it all (without saying anything, really.)

Call it wanderlust or call it active relaxation, but this summer has been one filled with great experiences traveling and being away from home and the computer. For someone who considers "traveling abroad" to be commensurate with leaving the city limits, I have logged almost 5000 miles driving and 2000 miles flying this summer to other states. With my Kansas City and Disney trips behind me, there was still one more bit of recreational business to deal with: my 2nd annual backpacking trip to the Colorado Wilderness, from which I have recently returned.

Now if tossing aside all the amenities and conveniences of our modern world, donning 60 pound backpacks, and trekking out among the cougars and black bears is not your idea of rest and relaxation, you're not alone. I, myself, wouldn't go so far as to say I had much R and R on this 6 day trip, but it was paradoxically backbreaking yet revitalizing, arduous yet rejuvenating. To be out in the middle of nowhere, having only the things with you that you decide to carry, free from the noise pollution of the civilized scene, among the majestic mountains, serene valleys, the towering pines, and the playful wildlife, inspires an awesome appreciation of mother nature and enables one's soul to reconnect with the spirit, leaving the ego far behind. This year, it also allowed me to appreciate dry weather and afforded me the opportunity to deal with constant cold, wet conditions.

Atop the mountain pass around 12000 feet in between the raindrops

With my trip planned well in advance of any reliable weather forecast, Mr. W, by backpacking bro, and I set out expecting the same magnificent weather we experienced last year on our inaugural trip: mild, dry weather. Instead, we were "treated" to a bit more variety than we expected. It rained every single day we were there, which not only brought down wet precipitate which quickly permeated our boots and socks as we trampled through the briers, but it also brought down the temperatures, usually into the low 40s. Despite our high quality "Gore-Tex" boots, the moisture still managed to saturate every aspect of our footwear the morning of our first day out, and there it stayed until we ultimately fled.

Attempting to dry out the boots and socks, even under the warming blanket of the temporary pockets of sunshine, were about as successful as trying to sweep the floors in a dirt-floor cabin. Slipping on a warm pair of "back up" socks the next morning only guaranteed that I'd have my choice of cold, wet socks to put on the following morning. Nonetheless, it didn't take but a few hours each morning to get used to the feeling of squishy wet feet and cold numb toes, at which point we could focus on other things, like psyching ourselves up for the 1500 foot ascents in the thin air with our heavy packs.

My wet clothes eagerly awaiting more rain

We each considered ourselves to be in pretty good shape, having run a marathon last February and staying active since, but the topography can be very misleading and unforgiving, which is exactly why we were out their to begin with, and even, perhaps, why we ran the marathon. The pain and the efforts that take us to the top of the mountain or get us across the finish line make us stronger physically and mentally, and in doing something that is deemed undesirable or even "crazy" by others who prefer other types of personal challenges, we share an invigorating sense of confidence and purpose. Luckily on this trip, this newly acquired sanguinity was not put to the test by an encounter with a bear.

Who knew they had Pi-ne cones up in the Rockies?

The experience this year, although very different than expected, was fully embraced, and we both enjoyed the unexpected demands the prevailing climate demanded of us. Emerging from the mountains on the last day, we knew we had a special spice to add to the stories we would share with our families and friends, and we felt we had earned the right to "cheerfully" extol about how "miserable" we were, when in fact, we thankful for the opportunity to adapt, adjust, and acclimate to the ceaselessly beautiful environment.

It was a great consolation, though, to walk through the front door of my home after the long, stinky, 18-hour drive back and smell the sweet fragrance of home . . . the home with a thermostat, clothes dryer, and big, soft, fluffy bath towels.

The sweet smell of home!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Singing A New Song

Here in the last few weeks of my summer break, I've been spending a lot of creative time, the time usually spent blogging, reading, or writing poetry, on a new passion: Songwriting. I used to think that all the songs that could be written HAD been written. I held this shallow belief back in high school, in 1991. At this time, most of the big hit songs were sampled, and in some cases STOLEN, from other hit songs, specifically "U Can't Touch This" and "Ice, Ice, Baby," respectively. I figured that all the catchy tunes had been taken, and that any new song would be nothing more than a slight respinning of a previous tune, something that previously had only been seen in the kids' nursery rhyme market (see: "The ABC song," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and "Baa Baa Black Sheep.")

But Lo and Behold, new songs DID come out, some with original melodies and lyrics to boot. Some were even so big at the time, they launched a future generation of original progeny rock, as was the case with Billy Ray Cyrus' huge hit "Achey Breaky Heart," and his daughter's current success as Hannah Montana. Even flipping through the digital dial on any radio these days, you'll hear all kinds of music, and most of it sounds different, which is good for those wanted to carve a niche for themselves in an otherwise flooded industry, but bad for copyright infringement lawyers.

Granted, some songs out there seem to draw melodic inspiration from other successful songs, but still manage to maintain a flair of originality. Songs that come to mind are the Offspring's "Why don't you get a job" and the Beatles "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da" (not a bad group to mimick) and Toby Keith's "A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action" and the Georgia Satellite's "Keep Your Hands to YOurself." Then their are bands like Nickelback, "3-chord" George Thorogood, and the Ramones who have several songs that sound sound similar to many of their OWN songs. Then there are entire genres than sound the same, such as Emo Music, classical music (can you tell it from Renaissance, True Classical, Romantic, or Baroque?) and old-time classic country (which typically had three chords and were all recorded in "mono" which meant that Hank Williams Sr. sounded pretty much like Bob Wills.)

But just because something sounds like something else, doesn't mean it's bad. If fact, I love classical music, and I could listen to classic country all day. Which brings me back to writing my songs. I am no accomplished musician. I can strum chords on a guitar, and I can play chords on the piano, I know a bit about music theory, key and time signatures, chord progressions, and I can play the trumpet by ear. Since I'm not interested in writing solo pieces for the trumpet (who IS besides Chuck Mangione? and he already wrote the only good one!) I've been trying my had I writing simple country songs.

So far I have managed to get two complete songs under my belt, and another with lyrics only. I've played them for some friends who enjoyed them, and also to my wife, who didn't run out holding her ears. Whether or not they'll ever make it as a "filler" track on some aspiring artists album I'm destined only to sing them in the shower the rest of my life, the songs are something that I will always have (even if one of them sounds a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy bit like Gary Stewart's "She's actin' Single, I'm drinkin' double.)

So how are most songs written? Does the songwriter first have an idea of a topic, then write the words around it, ultimately fitting a tune around the structure of the lyrics? OR does a song start with a catchy tune than one finds himself humming, that grows into something more, a chorus, a bridge, etc only to have the lyrics "dropped in" at the end? I think most songwriters will tell you there is no wrong way, only different ways to be inspired.

Surprisingly, each of the two complete songs were pretty easy to write. I completed each within one hour of sitting down to write them, starting with a key and some easy chords. I had an idea of the topic, but I definitely got the tune first. My first effort was one I have yet to complete: it's just a page of lyrics, a poem for now. I have found it difficult to fit a tune around the lyrics. I once read that it took Elton John only 7 minutes to write a song, 53 minutes faster than each of my two complete inaugural efforts. I guess he's one of the few that can do both lyrics and melody simultaneously, with little revision. That's why he rich and knighted and I'm not, but, at least for now, I'm going to keep writing, because the reward is in the process AND the product for me. Perhaps as I continue this pursuit, I get faster. Perhaps I'll get better. Or Perhaps I'll start wearing giant sunglasses.