Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Climbing the Ladder of Success

Today, a good thing happened to a good man. Dr. Kevin Brown (with a first name like Kevin, you can understand why he's a "good man,") was named the new Superintendent of the Alamo Heights Independent School District. Actually, I stand corrected. I hate to put the cart in front of the horse: he was named the LONE finalist in the running for the new Superintendency.

Having met the other Kevin several years ago at Trinity University when he was the still just the "Personnel Director" of AHISD, I was immediately impressed with him. I was at the same function as he (Yes! it IS "he") because a math teacher from AH high school and I were both up for the prestigious "Trinity Award," which honors excellence in teacher by handing out one-thousand dollar checks. There were several "checkpoints" to receiving the cash, including several "mixers" where principals and superintendents can introduce the candidate from their school. On each of these occasions, NO ONE from my district or school came with me.

I remember having to take the podium in front of a room full of hundreds of people at the first mixer. All the previous candidates for the Trinity Award were accompanied by a slew of supportive individuals, which the thanked in kind. When it was my turn, I was downright embarrassed. I had no one to introduce except my BEAUTIFUL WIFE, which was fine with me. After thanking her for getting my shirt so white and pressed, I stepped down from the podium as I had entered it: alone.

At the two subsequent events, my wife and I were attending "stag," with no district or campus representative. The final event was a formal event in the chapel of Trinity University. The state teacher of the year spoke to us, as well as the president of the University. I sat in the front row as an honoree, while my wife and parents sat in the general congregation. I told my dad he could be my "principal," and my mom could be the "superintendent," or they could fight over the the honorary titles. But it would be entirely between them, since nobody legitimate would be their to fight them.

To make a short story long, outside after the program had ended (and we were presented our checks,) everyone met outside. I was celebrating with my small entourage of three others. After I decided that I would take my wife, mom, and dad out to dinner, a man I recognized came up to me and introduced himself. His name was Kevin Brown.

Kevin had been a successful elementary principal in our district a few year before, and I remember how saddened our district was to lose him to Alamo Heights, where he took the Personnel Directorship. Knowing that I was from New Braunfels ISD, his old district, he made it a point to come introduce himself and congratulate me on my recognition and award. He THEN invited me to HIS entourage and introduced me to the people who were there supporting the AH high school teacher. I turns out that the entire math department and administrative staff was their to support their colleague.

I knew that a man who goes by Paul Foerster was a teacher at their high school. He is a LEGEND in the math education community. Just "google" his name. He writes textbooks. In fact, he wrote the textbook that I and many others learned from in high school. The man is a star in my book. Well, he was their with his wife and all the other awesome faculty members. I shook his hand and told him about the picture of him on my wall. We laughed. He was very charming and encouraging. So were all the other people I met in that group. I was so thankful for Kevin Brown going out of his way to make that day extra special for me. Meeting so many supportive, gracious professionals helped assuage my disappointment of being unrepresented by anyone from by professional contingency, that is all the disappointment that the cool cash hadn't already assuaged.

Anyway, today that same man, Kevin Brown, was basically given the helm of the entire district of Alamo Heights Independent School District. I always enjoy seeing great people rewarded for their greatness, which is why I rejoice in this decision.

It's reassuring to see that good guys don't finish last, and that there are school districts out there that are so supportive, effective, and professional.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Drink like a Tiger

Tiger Woods gets thirsty. And there's nothing that quenches his thirst like a tasty beverage, especially when it is made especially for him. No, I'm not talking about a tall glass of fresh-brewed tea made by his butler, I'm talking about something off the shelf in the supermarket that says, "formulated for Tiger Woods." I'm talking about the latest recipes (or flavors) of Gatorade.

Yes, "Gatorade Tiger" is officially on the market, available to all people named Tiger Woods and NOT named Tiger Woods. To golfers and non-golfers alike. The three new flavors contain all the replenishing electrolytes that all the other Gatorade flavors currently do, except that these new flavors say "Tiger" on them . . . and have a cool lightning bolt for the "i" in Tiger. Dang, those marketing people know how to get me hooked.

Apparently Tiger himself helped picked out the flavors, which are very indistinguishable from the other Gatorade flavors. He decided on three new "blends:" Quiet Storm (purple), Red Drive (red) and Cool Fusion (green). If it weren't for the different colors and the creative descriptions of the names on the label, you wouldn't know what the actual flavor was, but you'd sure feel like playing golf, driving a Buick, and shaving with a Gillette razor afterwards (and you'd have plenty of energy to do it!)

One of the few differences from the other Gatorades (other than the sleek, redesigned bottle) is that the Tiger line has more sodium and potassium. This means they taste more salty and more potassiumier, although it is very hard to detect. After drinking a bottle of Red Drive, I feel no different than after I've had a bottle of cherry Powerade, except for the fact that in drinking the Red Drive, I think of Tiger on Sunday, wearing his trademark red shirt, driving down the fairway to the final green, where he taps in to win another grand-slam tournament. It makes me so sick with envy, especially since he's getting money from the tournament AND from me, that I feel as different from Tiger as I possibly can. I wonder if HE actually drinks the stuff.

But wait a minute. Gatorade is starving for new product lines. They've even developed G2, a drink to drink when you're NOT training, or thirsty. It's supposed to help you stay hydrated and thin. What if they made a specially formulated drink for the number-crunching mathematician? Can you imagine the recipe that would not only increase mental stamina, but alertness, focus, and insight as well? They'd have to include Omega-3 acids, and Ginsing, and lots and lots of caffeine. A little bit of tuna fish would REALLY get the brain cells going. It really wouldn't matter which combination of fruit flavors they mixed together, so long as it was random and carried a new name and bottle design.

What WOULD the names be? x factor? Red sine? Vertical Lime? Abelian Grape? I can't tell you how many math teachers and students would be lining up to purchase the trendy elixir if they thought it would make them more like Isaac Newton.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mathematical Musings: Part VIII

More of what I've actually said in class. . .
  • Can anyone tell me what an algorithm is, and no, it’s not the former VP at a discoth√®que.
  • Polynomial is made up of two parts: Polynom and ial.
  • If you have two terms, you have a binomial. If you have only one term, you have mono . . . errrrr . . . not necessarily. If you have mono, you have something else altogether.
  • Can a monomial be considered a polynomial, since poly means many and mono means one? I guess that comes down to whether one can be many. Sure, it can. If you previously had none, then received one, and a big one at that, then one can be considered many. It’s relative. As in oral hygiene: one cavity is too many.
  • A corollary is a statement that almost automatically drops out of another statement. It is the immediate logical consequence of another conclusion. It is so obvious that it seldom needs proving, much less stating, but let’s do both here.
  • Student: “Why do we even have to study imaginary numbers? They aren’t even real!” Korpi: “Be quiet! They’ll hear you!”
  • Pardon my mistakes today on our first day back from a long winter break. If I botch a few numbers today, it’s because I wasn’t doing much math over the holidays like I know all of you did.
  • What method of factoring do you use when you can’t factor by factoring?
  • This will be the last problem I do because I’m running out of board, and because that’s what I’m getting.
  • Student: “If you say you don’t know what the cubic equation is, how do you know about it?” Korpi: There are lots of things I know about but don’t know: like the quartic equation and the Periodic Table.
  • Now if the chicken was actually a quintic function, and the x-axis was the road, the answer would be, of course, because he was an odd-degreed polynomial. (as an answer to ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’)
  • Korpi to his A day students on a Thursday: “See y’all Monday. Have a great weekend . . . but come to school tomorrow, too. So, have good Friday, first; but not a good Friday where you can’t eat meat. I guess, have a great Friday, a super weekend, and when I see y’all again on Monday, that’ll be great.”
  • Sometimes I feel like signing y’all in-class detention just so that I could have the opportunity to teach you more math.
  • If you’ve never seen the derivation of the quadratic formula, let me know some day when we are sitting around with nothing to do. If you remember to remind me, I will show it to you. It is kind of long, but man, is it beautiful.
  • Man, I am Pedantically, Didactically, and Pedagogically out of shape. That lesson exhausted me!
  • The set of integers is a proper subset of the set of rationals. This means that every integer is also an integer. Not every rational, though, is an integer. It's like each of us. We are all members of the Sapien species, but we are also all Homos as well. There are many members of the Homo genus that aren't Sapiens, like Homo Erectus. OK, I'm going to stop this analogy now.
  • Sure you can take the first two lunches, so long as the first one is taken in this room doing math. And don't take your food out, either. Heck, in that case, take all lunches today.
  • Why do you keep looking at the door? I need to go to the bathroom. Oh, that makes sense. I was thinking, "it isn't time to go, yet." But for you, I guess it is.
  • Tonight you are going to make a box. All you'll need is a sheet of paper, pencil, ruler, tape, and scissors. Be sure to get your parents assistance with the scissors, but don't run with them to ask them for help, and if you do it in front of the TV, don't sit too close. Be sure to floss before bedtime.
  • Tonight you are going to make a box, nothing fancy. You can make it from aluminum, with seamless welds at the joints, with calligraphy engravings, or you can just use notebook paper.
  • We are now at the point in calculus, since we have learned to take the derivative, where we are going to go backwards. Although we will be 'undoing' what we just did, we will not be losing ground, but rather making progress.
  • Integration is viewed by many to be more difficult than differentiation because it involves going backwards. Going backwards is usually more difficult, just try getting the toothpaste back in the tube.
  • Student coming in from outside: “OOOOh! It’s pretty chilly. Korpi: That’s the same thing I said the last time I opened a can of Hormel.
  • Fellow teacher at an inservice: "Since we're starting 30 minutes late, I hope that doesn't mean we are going to end 30 minutes late." Korpi: "Don't worry. These types of things always have a few extra hours built into them."
  • Although giving partial credit in math education is highly prized by administrators, parents, and especially students, the fact remains that in the real world, there is no partial credit: the bridge either supports us or collapses.
  • Overheard in a conversation: "I don't think I could ever start drinking coffee. I've seen people who depend on it, are addicted to the caffeine, people who can't function or begin their day without it. I don't think I ever want to let something have that much control over me." Korpi: "Tell me about it. I wish I would have known what you know before I ever first tasted ketchup."
  • A superior once told me, "Here are your options . . ." then she told me which one to pick. Luckily, I was married, so this was not difficult for me.
  • When I'm stuck in traffic, I like to look at a place on the side of the road and analyze it very carefully, then say to myself, " I am so thankful for this traffic jam. Without it, I would have probably never seen that tiny blade of grass next to that empty beer can, nor would I probably even want to."
  • The efforts that got you in here won't be enough to get you out of here.
  • The test will definitely not be a "cookie cutter" test from the review. It's more of a "hunt your prey, then kill and gut it with your bare hands" kind of test.
  • When speaking ubiquitously, I like to use, have used, and will use, all the tenses.
  • One of my pet peeves is when someone misuses a superlative case modifier or a reflexive pronoun. They, themselves, hurt my ears the mostest.
  • Beware of Negative numbers! They'll bring you down. Gravity too!
  • Is that a new haircut? You look more hairo-dynamic.
  • Is that a new haircut, or did you just comb it shorter today?
  • I have a photographic memory. I recall looking at some photos a few years ago.
  • Happy Monday, everyone . . . and before anybody asks, the answer is, "Yes: I missed all of y'all as much as y'all missed me."
  • So you were absent yesterday, huh? What was it? A bad case of the heebie jebbies? Or was it the Whillie Nillies?
  • Checking your answer is a good habit to get into. So is the convent.
  • So at x equals 3, we have a Vertical As . . . I mean a . . . I guess Asymptote is a word I need to finish once I start it.
  • The idea of looking at the limit at a removable discontinuity, or a hole, is like getting as close as we can to the edge of the Grand Canyon. We climb over the guard railing and tiptoe to the edge to see what's going on at the hole. Once we get there, we say, "Oh look, a whole hole!"
  • Today, each of you got up out of bed, brushed your teeth, got dressed, ate breakfast, and decided to come on in to school. You are here today because you wanted to. I'm here to tell you that with today's lesson you will not be disappointed. If I did give you a free day like y'all are asking, I would have made your waking up and coming to school today pointless.
  • I want each of you to start buckling down and get ready for the AP exam. I want each of your names to get on my "wall of fame" back there before the end of the year. . . . I mean by the end of the start of next year, seeing as how I would make the name tags during the summer after I got your score, but you get the motivational gist of this speech . . .
  • I want each of you to "think 5," that's AP 5. Heck, I be happy if each of you thought AP 3. Actually, think 5, that way if you fall short, you still have a shot at a 3. You know what they say about aiming for the stars . . . that's why they invented restraining orders, but I digest . . . hey, is it lunchtime yet?
  • I say, aim for outer space, that way if you come up short, you're still in outer space. Hopefully, it's not in the asteroid belt or the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Let's hope you have a space suit and are tethered to a mothership. Maybe it's better to aim for something on the safety of the ground. Aim low, no wait . . . I should have more unspoke thoughts.
  • I realize the objective percentages add up to 120%. That's all part of "raising the standards."
  • What do I see here? Is that an imaginary number, or are my eyes just deceiving me?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Marathon Saga: Part IV

Shortly after mile 21, the race takes a psychologically defeating turn away from the finish line. Even though it's only for a few blocks, it is up a steady grade. To be so close to the finish line, one would expect to be making a b-line to the end, but this minor detour proved to be one of the most difficult stretches of the race.

Different people hit "the wall" at different points in a race. I've always heard about the infamous point at which the marathon becomes mentally and physically challenging, but never could really appreciate the difficulty in fighting through it. Although at this point in the race, I was still moving steadily, it was the first sign of mental struggle. Perhaps it was because I had read about this point in the race or perhaps it was here where I saw a young overweight couple sitting cross-legged in their driveway eating greasy burritos, the male wiping up the last bit of cheesy sauce on his fork, but I had a difficult time staying mentally focused. I looked behind me: still no sign of the 4:30 group.

I decided to walk for a minute, taking long strides to stretch my calves and hamstrings. I grabbed a few pretzels from a nearby child's tray, giving him a "high-five" and a wink. "Too bad he wasn't giving out chimichangas and queso," I thought, "I might have been weak enough at that point to eat a few." In fact, the thought of a Mexican food feast after the race helped me make it up the final steep grade to the turn. My internal compass now acknowledged that we were back on track toward the finish line--it was all downhill from here. I was at mile 23. The end was nearly in sight, and that's when my body began betraying me.

In mid stride, my left calf knotted up painfully, then almost as a way to compensate, my right hamstring went into spasm. As I limped to the nearest telephone pole to work it out, I saw a sign advertising "Finishing medals, $25 cash." "Good thing I didn't have my wallet with me," I thought. It was a tempting offer, but I wanted the medal AND the finisher's shirt that were already paid for and waiting for me just THREE MORE MILES DOWN THE ROAD!!

I began moving again, slowly, testing the starving muscles. "I wish I had another GU," I thought. "I sure could use one right now." My back also began to knot up. I stretched it several times on the tailgates of trucks in people's driveways. It felt like a fork was stuck in the small of my back, and I could do nothing to stop the pain. One step, then another, then another. As if they could see the anchors being dragged down the street, the supporters lining the street knew this was a difficult stretch of the race for everyone, and their cheers and encouragement were unrelenting. I ran about a quarter mile, stopped and stretched, ran another quarter mile, stopped and stretched, and repeated this pattern for a mile or so.

At mile 24, we headed down a steep grade that lead to the University of Texas campus, an area I know quite well from my time as an undergraduate there. The site of my old math building, the football stadium, and the State Capitol in the distance gave me a much needed boost. Then I saw a former Calculus student cheering on runners. As I ran by, I lifted my sunglasses and said, "Ms. Mechlar, Mr. Korpi appreciates your support." She quickly acknowledged me from 8 years previously and gave a big smile. I was no sooner passed her and at the bottom of the hill directly in front of the Longhorn football stadium, when I cramped up badly again. All my muscles in my legs were quivering. My back was killing me. I stretched for what seemed like several minutes, walking in between, determining if I could even run any more. I was 4 hours and 15 minutes into the race. To be official, I had to finish in 7 hours. At this point, I just wanted to finish the race. I thought about walking the rest of the way, knowing I could reach the finish line in 2 hours and 45 minutes even if I walked at a snails pace.

Then I saw it. It was a sign . . . LITERALLY! I was walking by the 25 mile marker sign. I was only 1.2 miles from the glorious end. I thought about how many times I've run that distance effortlessly. It was a brand new race for me, a short 1.2 mile race. A race against time. If I was to meet my goal, I had less about 12 minutes left to finish in under 4:30. And it was right then, as I was thoroughly stretching what I hoped would be one last time, that the 4:30 pace group ran right by me. I began to panic. They appeared to be moving pretty fast and effortlessly. "Could I catch them? Could I then keep up?" I wondered.

As I pondered these questions, by body unconsciously was set in motion. I was running, and running with renewed focus and determination. I was chasing a little yellow sign that was bobbing up and down about 50 yards in front of me. I didn't feel my legs to know if they were cramping, in spasm, or in pain. I was in control now. As we pulled off of San Jacinto Street to make the last one block run up 11th street before turning down the final stretch of the race on Congress Avenue, the 4:30 pace group was within spitting distance, if only my mouth wasn't so dry. As I turned onto Congress, I realized I was running on the same street on which the race started over 4 hours ago. The mile 26 marker! The scenery changed as white security fences now lined the streets. I could tell that the finish line was close. There was an official photographer to my left. The State Capital to my right, and the 4:30 group was just in front of me. I felt the cameraman's shutter click. He took a picture (see photo at top) that I knew would be the calm before the storm.
I looked far down the street. At the top of one final climb two-tenths of a mile away, I could see the giant arch with the official time that marked the end of the race. I began running as fast as I could. I was sprinting. I quickly and easily passed the 4:30 group. Fans lining the streets noticed my surge and were cheering for ME, yes ME! "Go Kevin, Go Kevin!" I was soon at the last hill, a steep climb that lead directly to the finish line. Many were walking up this hill, totally spent, trying, perhaps, to save what little they had left so that they could actually RUN across the finish line, but not me. I was passing people on my left and right, dashing up the hill like I had done so many times in my training. My heart was pounding, my head was tingling with sweat. I ran through the first series of mats that read the computer chip on my shoe that kept track of my time. I was only twenty feet from the end. It was so loud. I kept my sprint and went through the arches.
"Kevin Korpi," I heard my name over the loudspeaker "4 hours, 27 minutes, 44 seconds." Hearing my name, I knew it was official. I had run my first marathon. I pounded my fists, proud of myself, not just for finishing, but for finding the strength to push myself through the "wall" and finish in under 4:30. (Note: the time in the picture above is from the starting gun. My time did not start until I crossed the starting line almost 5 minutes later.)

My phone rang. I answered it. It was my family. I found them in the crowd. It was a very proud moment for me. I grabbed my finisher's shirt, my finisher's medal, four bananas, two bagels, a bag of Doritos, and 3 Powerade drinks and slowly made my way out of the runner's recovery area.

As I made my way to my family, I was thinking of two things: Mexican Food and my Chiropractor.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Marathon Saga: Part III

Mile 21 suddenly seemed endlessly far away. As I hit mile 17, my left knee, which is supposed to be my GOOD knee because it actually has an ACL, but which is actually my BAD knee because of severe arthritis?, began smarting painfully. I stopped and rewrapped it with the Ace bandage. After a few strides, I stopped again, this time leaving it unwrapped. And so it went for about a half mile, until I was in so much pain as my left foot pounded the pavement that I had to rewrap it again, this time very tightly (see picture above.) The numbness in my leg due to the restricted blood flow was a good compromise for the reduced pain. I tried to take my mind off it by focusing again on the scenery.

There was a misspelled sign, "Roger, your the best!" There was a guy dressed up like a giant order of French Fries (or was I just hallucinating?) Then the "4:15" pace group passed me. My pace was slowing. My knee was hurting. Another sign, "There's cold beer at the finish line" helped press me onward. I was still ahead of the 4:30 pace group. My goal of sub 4:30 was still alive. As I approached the next major intersection, I realized that I was back in the neighborhood I went to school in 24 years ago. St. Louis Catholic school was to my left. As I passed the church, I recalled all the "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys" I recited in 5th grade. I decided a few more at this time would help me to the finish line. As I quietly prayed, I could almost feel the nun slapping my knuckles again with her ruler.

At mile 19, I decided that my bladder finally needed to be emptied. Having stopped at each water station along the way, it was getting a bit uncomfortable having to remain continent, although it did provide a nice diversion to my knee problem. Lucky for me, I happened upon a port-o-potty that was unoccupied, my luck was turning. Prayer works! I welcomed the break from the running, took my time, then rehydrated outside with water and Powerade. I felt like a new man. Well actually, I felt like a slightly used man, but better than I did before the pit stop. My family waited just two miles up the road. Off I went.

As I approached mile 21 coming up a long, steady hill, I could see that mile 21 was a popular place for people to congregate. I tried to position myself in the wide open so that my family could clearly see me approaching and perhaps take a great "action" photo. After passing so many people, none of whom I recognized, I began to think I had missed them, but then ahead on the right, I saw my 4-year old "Pink and Purple Punky Princess" holding another sign for me. I stopped again giving sweaty hugs and stinky kisses to all that wanted them. I even read the personalized signs this time: "ACLs are for Wimps,"read my wife's sign. "E equals M C square[d], but My Dad equals Marathon Winner," wrote my 7-year old son. "Daddy. Jenna," wrote my Punky Princess. I didn't want to admit to them at that point, but I was beginning to struggle with pain. Not only was my knee bothering me, but my back showed the first signs of "knotting up," and my hamstrings and calve muscles were beginning to quiver along the hills. I took the apple wedges my mom had for me and proceeded down the road, running as gracefully and swiftly as I could, at least until I knew I was out of their sights.

"Just stay steady. Stop at the water stations. Stretch when you needed to, and most importantly . . . . Don't let the 4:30 pace group pass you!!" I kept repeating to myself.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marathon Saga: Part II

Once the course completed its 5 mile loop across the river, we all descended back towards the downtown area. Crossing the lake once again, we could see thousands more cheering fans holding signs that were sometimes difficult to read in the glare of the rising morning sun. This was my first indication that this marathon was a popular spectator event. The din of the roaring crowd easily drowned out the music that was being fed directly into my ears. I momentarily muted my music to soak up the euphoric experience. Although no spectator at this early point was friend or family of mine, I still heard several strangers yelling my name and shouting encouragement my way.

"How do they know my name?" I thought. "Have they seen my Math Shows on TV? Unlikely. Is there another Kevin running nearby? Am I merely usurping the verbal support?" Then I remembered . . . my name is printed in my bib number. Cool. For a brief moment, I imagined what it must be like to be a sports star, with thousands of cheering, adoring fans all around. I couldn't imagine topping that feeling, but I also knew that I had my own family waiting for me somewhere up the course. I increased my pace slightly, eager to get to them sooner.

As we left the downtown area, I knew we were heading far away from the starting line and that it would be several hours before we finished the giant loop. I tried not to look at my watch. The course winded along the Town Lake, which was now serving as a giant urinal for the many men stretched along its banks. I wondered if all these people just had bladder problems, if they just drank too much before the race, or if they just liked the attention. Just seeing them relieve themselves made me wonder if I should do it to. Was it part of the whole "experience" that I would otherwise be missing out on? I'd make the decision if I felt I needed to go, but that would hopefully come later when I'd be ready for a break.

Around mile 10, I got my first phone call. My family was waiting at the point where the marathoners and the "halfers" diverged. I was getting close to my fan club. Fumbling to put the cell phone back into the tight, neoprene sleeve on my right bicep in mid-stride, I saw the split ahead. I ran right past my family. I didn't see them, and they didn't see me. It wasn't until several strides later, over the music in my ears, did I hear my name being yelled in an all too familiar voice--it was my beautiful wife. I ran over, kissed the wife and kids, greeted my mom, dad, sister, and two nephews, then kissed the wife and kids again. They had made signs for me. Just for me. . . . . and my sister-in-law who was also running the race. I really didn't even read what they said at that point. I felt rushed, and my sunglasses were covered with haze and sweat. It was the thought that counted. I'd get a chance to read the signs again later, when I'd be needing a boost of confidence.

As I left them, knowing that they would be getting into a CAR and DRIVING to the next spot while I RAN there, I went straight along the course, following the half-marathon course, instead of going left along the full marathon course. Luckily, I realized this before descending down the long, steep hill (my sister in-law would not be so lucky.) With the proud smiles of my loved ones still fresh in my mind, I trudged along, feeling strong and rejuvenated. A steep hill now lay in front of me. I bound up it effortlessly, passing several bystanders and runners along the way. Onlookers began clapping and cheering. "Man, I could get used to this type of adoration," I thought.

Cleaning my glasses atop the hill, I could now read signs: "Pain is temporary, Pride is forever," "Each step brings you closer to the finish line," "Run, Paul, Run," "Keep Going (That's what she said)," and "Will kiss for support." "I really should read more signs," I thought. Another mile down the road, several small kids were holding their hands out for "high fives." They wanted to touch the "celebrities." Not wanting to crush the spirits of the adoring youths, I obliged, giving them all "double fives," thanking them, and reminding them to "do their homework!" I took some Gummy Bears from one of their trays.

I thought of how generous and supportive the general community was to the runners. Austin is a pretty health-conscious town, and it was evident in the multitudes of homeowners along the route who were offering pretzels, drinks, towels, music, and encouragement. My faith in the benevolence of mankind was now restored. I was inspired by the kindness of strangers, and my stride picked up a new spring.

I ran for a while more, interacting with the pedestrians and other runners, until my phone rang again at mile 15. Again fumbling to retrieve it in stride, I finally answered. It was my wife. "We just got to mile 14. Where are you?" "Um, I just passed the mile 15 marker." "Man, you're fast," she said. But what I heard was "Man, you're awesome." They decided to stay there until my sister-in-law passed, then they'd move ahead, trying their damnedest to keep up with me in their AUTOMOBILE!! They were heading to mile 21. That was still 50 minutes away for me. They would be safe, getting there in time . . . . they hoped.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Marathon Saga: Part I

Last Sunday, I ran, and finished, my first marathon. Needless to say, I have a new appreciation for motor vehicles and Advil.

Arriving at the race site at 6:00am, there was already a energetic buzz in the air as thousands of runners in a variety of outfits were going through their pre-race routine. Some were packing their running belts with their energy gel, chapstick, asthma inhalers, ipods, cell phones, etc. Others were stretching, restretching, and stretching again doing all they could to keep warm in the chilly air, trying to calm themselves of the nervous energy that comes from anticipating at a long run that was still an hour away. The most popular pre-race activity, however, was hitting the port-o-potty. I, myself, must have used the bathroom 4 times in the 45 minutes prior to the race. Anticipating long lines for the bathroom along the route, I didn't want to run the risk of not reaching my goal of 4 hours 30 minutes because of standing in a long line to pee.

About 15 minutes before the race, we took our place well back from the starting line where the elite runners line up. My training partner (if you can call what we did "training") and I lined up at the 4:45 group. Although we would not run the race together, we did want to start it together. I'd run up to the 4:30 group, he'd drop back if needed. At 6:55am, 5 minutes before the start, we were packed in like sardines all along the wide road. People were making their final adjustments: getting their wedgie undone, queuing their ipods, and getting one last good nervous puke in before the race.

At 7:00am, the race began with a canon firing in the light of dawn with fireworks filling up the sky. Me and my 13499 friends began cheering. The race was on. I could see far ahead the solid mass of runners moving up the course. I looked left, right, and behind me--people every where. My section moved up slowly, walking. We were still well back from the starting line, but we were pressing up and crowding in. I thought about getting trampled to death. I thought about lemmings marching to their own death. I started my ipod to take my mind off it.

Five minutes after the canon, I crossed the starting line. The computer chip on my shoe crossed the sensor, and my official time began. After a short descent, the course to an immediate climb up a decent grade over a 2.5 mile span. With the adrenalin flowing and fresh legs, I said goodbye to my running mate and zig-zagged my way up the hill, avoiding other runners and flying clothing that was already being shed. At times, I had to run on the sidewalk just to avoid stepping on the calves of people in front of me. Being my first marathon, I wondered as I zipped up the hill if I'd be regretting this act of hubris later in the race, if I'd be seeing the people I was now passing later in the race, as they past me. The tortoise and the hare entered my mind.

Once I passed the the 4:15 group, I fell back into my usual stride and cruised comfortably, taking in sounds, smells, and sights of Austin, Texas. The most unusual sight (and smell) was the numerous male runners who pulled off the course wherever it was convenient to drain their bladders. In a different time, on a different day, the sight of dozens of men peeing along the side of a road would cause quite a stare, and the whizzers might even be fined, if not arrested, but on this special morning, as thousands witnessed the symphony of splashes, these men barely caught the attention of the more focused runners. In fact, I think the idea was catching on, as I saw a couple of females squatting by a tree. I guess losing your modesty is a small price to pay for shaving a few minutes off your time, minutes otherwise wasted standing in a long port-o-potty line. I began wondering if the elite runners even took the time to peel off the main course to relieve themselves, or if they just did their thing in stride (the top three finishers were within seconds of each other.)

I'll continue the saga tomorrow. Right now I'm going to go explore a great idea I have: a "runner's catheter" with an "ergonomically designed, form-fitting catch basin" that will have to be easily distinguishable from a water bottle.

Gotta run.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gearing Up

Tomorrow is the big race day, 26.2 miles through the beautiful rolling hills of Austin, Texas. Last night, I drove up to receive my running packet, which included my bib number (complete with my first name on it) and my chip, which electronically tracks my progress during the race.

It was rather comical as my two running companions and I pulled up to the Palmer Events Center in the pouring rain, watching the multitudes of marathoners racing to the facilities to escaped the downpour. It was very fitting to see, but I wondered if everyone would be running to the building even if the weather was perfectly sunny. Is that just what runners do? When in Austin, do as the Austinites. The three of us joined the soggy throngs and galloped to the dry sanctuary of the Events Center.

Once inside, it was almost impossible to find the actual registration booth amidst the rows and columns of never-ending vendors, selling every thing under the sun (or rain) that runners need, might need, or think they might need. I once thought that running required NOTHING special, then I learned how important good socks and shoes were. Later, I discovered "wicking" engineered fabrics were not only better than cotton t-shirts and old gym shorts, but also more expensive. Eventually, I realized that a good ergonomically designed belt that supports a water bottle comfortably against the small of my back was a good investment for long runs. Then there's the skull cap, the running sunglasses that stay off your brow, the gel packs, gummy packs, energy bars, and power drinks, and the "glide" stick that keeps your rubbing parts from chaffing, and of course, the all important .mp3 player. But these are things I already HAD before I hit the showroom floor. There were so many gadgets and gidgets and widgets that were marketed as running accessories that you would think one would need to run pulling a wagon just to carry everything. And to think there were so many peddlers at a running event!

I ended up buying an "Nike" bicep strap with a neoprene sleeve to carry my cell-phone in during the race tomorrow. I figured it was money well spent, because it would not only make my muscle look bigger, but it would allow me to communicate with all my adorning fans who will be there to cheer me on at various checkpoints. I also wanted to have it in case I need to call "911." Either way, I feel it was a wise investment.

There were also a plethora of freebies given away: sample granola bars of every variety, armbands that had the pacing times for a desired finish time, stickers, magazines, more granola bars, teeny-tiny chap stick tubes, magnets, decals, bandanas, "livestrong" bracelets, and "better than granola" bars. After stuffing my bag with the complimentary wares, knowing that half of them would eventually end up straight in the trash can, we wandered around a bit and just listened to breakout conversations about marathon strategies, course topography, and hypothetical ingredients in the "better than granola" bars.

Eventually, we found the registration tables in the very back of the auditorium, strategically placed beyond the gauntlet of salesmen. I walked up to the booth that posted the range of bib numbers into which mine fell. "'Kevin Korpi', you say . . . " the man asked. "I have that bib down as 'Roger Hankins.' Are you sure you registered?" As I began to panic, another lady behind the booth came over after spying something written on the email confirmation form I printed out. "Ooooooooooh, you're a fuuuuuuuull marathoner. This is for the half marathoners." I felt like I was just scorned as if I were a self-righteous, pompous aristocrat. Having finally reached the correct table and social class, I finally got what I really came for . . . the free t-shirt. It was such a cool moment I thought could not be topped, until the man at the booth said I'd get ANOTHER shirt once I finished the race WITH a handsome metal to hang around my neck. "Hurray!" I thought. "Another free t-shirt, albeit a cotton one." My motivation to finish the race was complete.

After roaming around a bit more, eluding the preying salesmen and bagging more free stuff, we finally left the building. The rain had stopped, so we WALKED back to the car. We could have used a wagon for all our stuff. Overall, it was exciting just to be around so many fit, trim, excited people. There was an unspoken camaraderie in the air, one that comes from the communal feeling of "yeah, I paid $110 to run 26.2 miles." I can't wait to see all my "friends" again dark and early tomorrow morning, as all 13,500 crowd up to the starting line on the narrow streets of downtown Austin, Texas.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Perfect Timing

Do you know the feeling of being in Vegas, walking up to a roulette wheel, putting a hundred-dollar bill on "black 13" on the roulette wheel, then being told that no cash can be placed as a bet, only chips, then as you're walking away to purchase you $100 chip, the wheel spins behind your back and lands on "black 13?"

You don't?! Well neither do I!! (I'm a mathematician, so I know the odds. I'd be at the Blackjack table counting cards, or in the bathroom flushing my money down the commode.)
How about this . . .

You've been waiting to audition for American Idol, then get laryngitis right before you're audition if front of "who cares," "whoever," and Simon Cowell.


You're in the job interview of a lifetime and sneeze all over the interviewer (while you "cut one" from the massive pressure release.)


You've been training for your first marathon, and you come down with a massive cold days before the big race.


Although I've never bet more than a nickel at a time in Vegas, I've never sang for Simon Cowell and two other insignificants, and I've never blown snot on a prospective employer, I HAVE experience with the last scenario. In fact, it describes my current situation.

As if my Asthma, no ACL in my right knee, deteriorating cartilage in my left knee, crooked spine, constant headache from a pinched nerve in my neck, flat feet, and high blood pressure weren't enough things to overcome in my first 26.2 mile race, now I've got to additionally fight through a stuffy head, clogged sinus, achy body, and my desire to nothing else but warm myself beneath multiple comforters on a soft bed. Combine that with the projected weather conditions of "mid 40's with 35% chance of showers," and you've got a situation that even a glutton for punishment would make the comment, "No thanks!"
Needless to say, I'm both looking forward to the big race on Sunday, and . . . . . . MONDAY!! (or even Sunday afternoon.)

With the race starting at 7:00am in Austin, Texas, I've got to drive 50 miles that morning just to get to the city in which the race (which I actually PAID $100 to run int) takes place. In the past, because of the gridlock caused by the thousands of crazy racers like me, racers have been know to run 2 to 3 miles from the closest parking space to the start of the race. Just what I need: a 5k race as a "warm up" for a full marathon. . . . in a city with LOTS of hills . . . when I feel like. . . . I'm not at my best.

Oh well, after spending they money, I'm too frugal (my wife would substitute "cheap") to NOT run the race. Besides . . . . you get a FREE T-shirt just for running, and who doesn't love a free t-shirt? So, if you want to wish me luck, I can use it. Just don't say "break a leg," 'cause that's not only the wrong context, but I'd run the damn race even WITH a broken leg, and with the mucous I'm currently spitting up, with only one good leg, I'd be likely to slip and break the other leg. That would be SOME accomplishment.

Excuse me now, while a go knock on wood (I hope I don't get a splinter.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pep Talk

In my homeroom class, I have 7 students who are struggling with their TAKS scores. I am expected to get them to pass the TAKS test in April. We've been working on various objectives the last few weeks, and I've been trying a variety of approaches to get through to them. I'd like to think we're making grounds, but the only way I can say that I am is that the class hasn't rebelled against me yet. They are not being disruptive, they are cooperative (though they are very quiet and timid,) and they do what I ask for the most part. In a class where no grade is taken and into which the students were not asked to be placed, the students have been ready, willing, but not so able.

The early signs show that their "post" tests are no better than their "pre" tests, but they ARE enjoying playing on the computer and the hand-held manipulatives. Can it be called progress if they are not miserable during the 21 minute period? I think so, albeit, it is very small progress. Many of these students have hit the wall mathematically and are deeply frustrated and lost in the entire game we call "school." The fact that I can see occasional grins on their faces tells me that the pain is slowly healing, and that, perhaps, the mastery of math skills will soon follow.

But today was also "progress report" day, whereby each student received their 3-weeks grades in each class. It was alarming, but not unexpected, that these students are needing more help than just on their math TAKS test. Most of them were failing multiple classes, and by failing, I mean "precociously" failing. The entire boat is sinking for these kids. There's major hull damage, and by focusing on math TAKS, we're just teaching them how to bail water with a bucket rather than repairing the structure itself.

Today, after discussing the "sinking ship" with another math teacher with similar kids, I decided to forgo the usual "math beating" today, opting instead to "dry dock" the ships and empower the students to repair and captain their own vessels. In essence, I gave one of the best 21 minute pep-talks I've ever given. I didn't use a coaches voice, nor did I work them into a frenzy with cliché analogies, platitudinous double-speak, or empty promises. What I did was speak to them frankly and candidly. I exposed myself a bit, giving stories from my personal life, sharing my weaknesses and my strengths, offering them a fresh perspective on their current situation.

Reminding them that they are young adults, excuses are no longer relevant nor amusing. They must take personal responsibility for their life. Blaming their parents or "bad" teachers was a convenient lie that they had to quick telling themselves. Four years of high school is going to go by with or without them--did they want to be left behind? The opportunity they currently have is a once in a lifetime chance to launch themselves into a successful future, however they defined success. The bad, negative habits are holding them back, keeping them in the comfortable safety of predictability, but new habits can be formed, that can put them on a different course, a bold and daring adventure into unchartered waters. Many complained of boring teachers, not realizing that their submission to their excuses or the temperament of others was assuring them that they would remain bored. I assured them that if they weren't making waves, they weren't kicking hard enough. If they were bored, they weren't trying hard enough.

My tone remained spirited but genuine, optimistic but not unreal. In addition to the heads nodding in periodic affirmation, and the smirking smiles of hope, I could swear I saw each student sitting up a little taller in their desks. I was even holding MY head up a little taller when the bell rang. Only time will tell if the pep talk worked. We'll get our first chance tomorrow, when it's back to math.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Gifted Exchange

I just returned from my first parent-teacher conference where I played the role of the parent. Having participated in many, many as a teacher, I have defended my curriculum, my standards, my expectations, and my grading scheme more times than I feel a professional should, but being a professional, I have always embraced the opportunity to assure parents that there is a method to my "madness," and that I really do have the best interests of their children in mind.

Which is why I called a conference with my 7 year-old's 2nd grade teacher. I finally got to the point where I felt my son was being misunderstood by his teacher, and that she was singling him out for his "misbehavior." My son is emotionally intense. He is very energetic and requires constant stimulation. He hums constantly and unconsciously. He can't sit still, even when he's concentrating on a task, such as reading or holding in his pee. He is a boy, he's my son, and he is classified as GT.

My purpose during the conference was to feel out the teacher's level of dedication to challenging him individually and to assess her overall assessment of my son. Recently, my son has come home frustrated, angry, upset, and sometimes in near tears. He's under the impression that his teacher is picking on him, being unfair to him, and being unnecessarily rude and punitive to him (my words, not his.) Bringing up specific allegations that were quickly, and adroitly subverted, I did my best during the conference to bite my tongue and smile, desperately trying to say something that successfully demonstrated my deepest concerns while hiding my true sentiment and feelings. I walked out of the conference resigned to the fact that my wife and I were just going to have to continue biting our tongue with a smile for the remaining 15 weeks of the year and focus, instead, on seeking out that elusive 3rd grade teacher that will recognize and best serve our child. Until then, I'll keep up supplementing at home, providing multiple learning opportunites and enriching experiences and savor those gifted moments between gifted father and gifted son.

Here's a poem I've written describing how my son and I see things. I hope you appreciate it, but if you don't, that's OK, I just hope you're not my son's future 3rd grade teacher.

Tate and his Daddy were two silly dudes.
They would drink silly drinks and eat silly foods.
Here's an example of how they were silly:
They'd put ketchup and milk all over their chili.
When enjoying a sip from their favorite soda,
They'd have it with ice cream and have soda a-la-moda.

And when they sang songs, they'd sing silly words.
If the song was about dogs, they'd sing about birds.
And every song, they would sing it ten times.
And each time they sang it, they would change up the lines.
If the song was a slow one, they'd sing it real fast.
If it was fast, they'd sing it real slow, just to make it last.

And putting on clothes was a silly affair.
They'd put shirts on their legs, and socks in their hair.
They'd wear silly shoes that were too big for their feet,
And colorful bow ties that were pretty and neat.
Their underwear would go on top of their jeans,
Then they'd hop up and down like two jumping beans.

They love to laugh and they love to laugh hard.
They like to mow the carpet and vacuum the yard.
They can always be found with a smile on their face.
They like to put weeds in a beautiful vase.
When riding a bike, they sit on the handles,
And to formal affairs, they like to wear sandals.

They like to complain when things are going their way,
And they carry umbrellas on bright, sunny days.
While taking a bath, they yearn for a shower,
And when they eat something sweet, they say it's "too sour."
They like to watch races with turtles and snails.
They like to use screws when they should have used nails.

They like to pay full price, never shopping for sales,
And the run 'round the house wagging their make-believe tails.
They like to have birthdays 12 times a year,
And stick big, long soda straws inside their ears.
They tell silly jokes that have no punch lines at all,
Like, "Why did Autumn hurt herself? Because she was Fall."

They like to wear coats in the middle of summer,
And when school's out for the winter, they think it's a bummer.
They like to write poems with lines that don't rhyme,
And when asked for the date, they tell them the time.
They like to take naps at two in the morning,
And when they're wide awake, they pretend that they're snoring.

They'll walk with their eyes closed and sleep with them open.
They soap 'stead of rinsin', and rinse 'stead of soapin'.
When driving a car, they like to go in reverse.
They store their wallets inside of their purse.
When swinging a bat, they go to four strikes.
They like all their hates, and hate all their likes.

When blowing their nose, they don't use a tissue,
And if you stay by their side, they'll certainly miss you.
They feel so much joy that they'll make you go numb,
From their incessant singing or their unpleasant hum.
Yes, misunderstood, they in fact sometimes are,
But in their own constellation, they're the brightest two stars.

Love you, Cowboy!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Here we are now . . .

Are students today different from students 5, 10, 20, 2400 years ago? Is the teaching profession any different? Well, calculus (the study of change) would confirm that "yes," both have changed (and I'm not just talking about falling calculus test scores.) In my 10 short years in the teaching profession, I have seen more change than a Texan observing the weather on any given day. Consequently, my own methods have been flexible, as I've had to accommodate new mandates, attitudes, and work ethics.

My first year of teaching came after 2.515 years as a successful residential construction manager. I was uncertified and without experience in a classroom (beyond my years as a student.) I swallowed hard that first day as the tardy bell rang for first period. I stared out at my incredibly young and immature-looking freshman class of Algebra I students. I don't know who was more nervous at that moment: them or me. As soon as I began to speak, I felt energized and comfortable. I knew in an instant that I was meant to be in a classroom. I still remember the very special relationships I made with those students that first year, many of who were low socio-economic and minority subgroups. Many students struggled to learn, but nearly ALL of them were willing, and they worked very hard. Because I truly cared for them, it showed, and they felt it. I joked around with them, and asked them about their interests, hobbies, and families. It wasn't long before we had developed a mutual respect, and MANY of these kids were starving for a positive role model. It was almost as if they WANTED to work for me, not wanting to let me down.

The very next year, I began teaching what I was hired to teach: PreAP Precalculus and AP Calculus. Still teaching on an "emergency permit," letters were sent home to my students' parents informing them that "an uncertified teacher is instructing their students." The letter mentioned nothing about my expertise in math obtained through my BS in Mathematics from UT (with distinction.) We all got a good laugh in class about my "uncertified-ness" every time I made a careless mistake, like adding 5 + 7 incorrectly (addition is actually something I've not very good at, but luckily, I'm NOT an accountant!)

This new batch of calculus students I was teaching was dramatically different than the Algebra students of just a year ago, with totally different needs and ambitions. I went from teaching students who struggled with the concept of a negative number, to students who were now contemplating what negative numbers raised to imaginary powers were. From students who wouldn't know the difference if I added 5 + 7 incorrectly, to students who were all too quick to point out if I left off a "dx" at the end of a definite integral.

I still taught Algebra I and II in summer school while teaching the precalculus and calculus during the regular academic years, so I always stayed grounded in the vast range of student abilities. One thing that both levels of students appreciated was free money (and my humorous style of teaching . . . .so that makes two things, I guess.) Actually, I realized that in any case, students will always be willing to work for teachers they like. So how can a teacher ingratiate himself to his students? Like them. Treat them with respect. Give them in the individual attention they crave. Humor them. Speak to them passionately, enthusiastically, and with conviction. Students, especially the ones who have struggled with math and school their whole lives, will turn away from a Dry, strict, taskmaster of a teacher faster than someone recoils after smelling a stinky sock.

Student motivation is ALWAYS an issue, and it's not always easy. In my 10 years of teaching, I have seen a steady decline in student motivation, curiosity, work ethic, and quality of work. Of course, there are always exceptions, but in an increasingly technologically advanced society, where every gratification is effortlessly at one’s fingertips, it is increasingly difficult to convince, coerce, or cajole students into putting forth the required, patient efforts needed to master math skills and concepts. The burden is definitely on the teacher to entertain while teaching, or at least to capture the short attention spans of the students prior to infusing them with knowledge. As Curt Cobain sang in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the teenage mantra embodies their collective attitudes towards learning: “Here we are, now entertain us!

As public schools typically acquire new technology many years after it is available to the general public, it will be a while before we have the “smartboards, data projectors, mobile laptops, java applets, and other gizmos” that might help capture students’ attentions. Of course, merely possessing the technology does not necessarily enable one to effectively use it. Many current teachers can be reluctant to learn something new, instead, staying in their comfortable, proven methods of years past. But these are issues that have been around for many, many years, and are not new. Socrates said about 2400 years ago that “children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannise their teachers.” I guess some things will never change. We teachers just have to keep reinventing ways to suppress students' tyrannical tendencies.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On Vacation for several days

Away from a computer.

Please read old blogs, and feel free to comment, or send comments attached to $20 bill to my home address.

I'll be back on Monday.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Curriculum in a Can

Can an educational course be successfully packaged so that it can be taught by anyone, anywhere? Those who are selling the curriculum would like you to believe so. But I'd be doubtful whether I could learn "Brain Surgery in just four short weeks," regardless of how many CD tutorials came with the package or how much I overpaid for them. Granted, some courses of less scope require less effort or practice to master. I think I could pass ace a course entitled "Tie a bow tie like a true Nerd," without having a live, professional Nerd standing next to me in a dressing room, and even if I couldn't I'd insist on trying (those circumstances make me uncomfortable just typing about them.) In fact, I DID learn to tie a bow tie from a detailed sequential diagram I downloaded from some nerdy website. Now I can tie them perfectly with my fashion sense tied behind my back.

So, yes, SOME things can be taught by anyone, anywhere, but it depends on what is being taught and the motivation of the person on the receiving end of the lesson. What would you say about the following scenario that has recently surfaced in our district: Freshman Core Subject (World Geography) taught (not from a can but) in a can (the locker room) during Freshman Athletics period, for half the period (45 of 90 minutes.) Something about this proposal stinks, other than the jock straps hanging on the globes.

The reasoning goes like this. Elective courses such as health and speech, which would normally be the first to be relocated to a mat room, are now being moved down to the middle school, the ideal place to discuss personal hygiene and puberty. Because many of the coaches who are out at the field house are social studies teachers, it would be convenient, no, it would make perfect sense for them to throw in a little World Geography lesson while the students are running bleachers. What better place to discuss the Coriolis Effect that in a locker room bath room, where each athlete/student has access to his own personal lab (i.e. toilet.)

All potty humor aside, having a core class in a field house is a wrong move in this case. To be fair and equitable, both academic level and PreAP (advanced) level classes would have to be taught out there. This means at least two "sections" that will likely be held concurrently. There is also the time issue. The courses in the main building are 90 minute classes. The courses in the field house are slated to be 45 minutes, splitting time with the athletics curriculum. This likely means that the 45 minutes of Geography time, will likely be less than that. All students taking the course, in either venue, will receive the same credit, AND the same rank points for the PreAP sections. This is a real issue that needs to be tackled before this can even remotely take place, otherwise, academically competitive students will be insisting on taking the class at the field house to earn the same credit for what could amount to less effort.

Aside from the equity and logistic issues, it just seems fundamentally wrong for a soon-to-be 5A premiere school district to offer ANY academic class in a mat room. What kind of message does that send about our commitment to academic excellence? What's next? Football practice in a lecture hall?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

To Whom It May Concern:

Each year I write thousands of original letters of recommendations for students applying to universities, for scholarships, and to boost their self-esteem. Actually, I write tens of letters. But most letters I write are done effortlessly and willingly, putting careful detail into each word, knowing that my words can make the difference between Harvard and settling on Yale. But every once in a while, I'm asked to write a recommendation by a student that has not been a shining star in my eyes. In fact, it's only happened once in my career.

This was a student I had in my AP Statistics course (the one year I taught it.) Having taken over the class from a the former Stats teacher who was now enjoying retirement, students enrolled in the course expecting it to have the same rigor-less, playful environment that so many previous students were raving about; they thought they could earn AP credit in an easy course. Unfortunately for them, they didn't expect that I'd be teaching it that year. Needless to say, there were some growing pains for everyone involved.

As is the case with some students when you demand the very best of them, they rise to the challenge. This accounted for about 50% of the students (of that, I'm 86% percent certain that that number lies within 5% of the actual statistic.) The rest of the students were showing their resistance by staging a silent revolution against the new standards, having a "sit-in," if you will, doing very little in terms of quantity or quality throughout the year. Undeterred, I still worked very hard at educating them, in spite of their ignorance. I think I succeeded at pulling another 15% to the industrious side, while another 15% decided to bail the course, only to stage another "sit in" in another class.

This left only the final 20% of students in the left-hand tail of the distribution who never learned what it meant to be in the left-hand tail of of a distribution. And of course, in any group, their is a standout, and this group was no exception. In fact, if you put this group in it's own distribution, this fellow would be as far to the left as you could go (that's negative infinity.) This individual routinely decided to blow bubbles in the middle of my lectures, yes, soap bubbles. I thought after I chewed him out in the hall after the first incident that it wouldn't happen again, but I suppose my sparkling lecture on the Central Limit Theorem was so effervescent, that he felt the need to augment it, once again, with bubbles. I wasn't amused by the special effect.

And so it went throughout the year. He'd resist, I'd persist. He'd insult, I'd consult. He'd distract, I'd instruct. He'd bubble, I'd boil. As the second semester got underway, I was surprised that, despite failing the first semester, he appeared on my roll. He was back to try to salvage his grade? Likely not. My suspicions were confirmed when he "celebrated" the first day of the second semester with . . . . what else??? bubbles. I had to laugh to avoid screaming. A couple of weeks later, the strangest thing happened. As students were asking their teachers for letters of recommendation for colleges and scholarships, he had the audacity, the nerve, the chutzpah to ask ME!! He was undeterred by my wide-eyed stare and astonished look of incredulity. I checked the date, it wasn't April 1st. He was serious.

I encouraged him to ask his former math teacher to write one for him, especially since he actually passed that class. I tried to be as polite as I could without laughing or sounding too satirical. But as fate would have it, when he went next door to ask the former teacher, the door was locked and the teacher had gone home for the day. Taking it as a propitious omen, the student insisted that I write the letter. I mentioned that I would do it, but given our relationship, I would have to be honest, and I might not be the letter he was hoping for. "No problem," he said.

It was the most difficult letter I've ever written. It took me almost three times as long as any other would take. Apparently, it's easy to say great things about someone . . . . when they're true, but it's very difficult to choose words that are vague, without being too incriminating, that hint at both a person's true nature but also their true potential. Rather than just "slamming" the student, I embrace the opportunity to write such a bland letter that implicitly conveyed, rather than explicitly stated, what I thought of the student. I didn't want to hurt him, but I didn't want to hurt the university to which he applying either.

Phrases such as "A student like this does not come along very often," "He sets his own standards," "Outside of class, he is involved in many endeavors," "No student is better qualified for university studies," "please waste no time in accepting this student's application," "I cannot say enough good things about this young man," littered the letter. Apparently, the letter worked, because, although he didn't pass my Statistics class, he DID make it to a local university. Somewhere, right now, in some large lecture hall on a university campus, bubbles are floating through the air.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Read All About It!

I usually don't like reading all the cute little emails that come through my Inbox. For one, it's too big a responsibility to have to forward the messages to 20 friends just to avoid some personal plague. Besides, I don't have 20 friends, so it's best just to delete them right along with the alluring offers for "discounted Vicodin" and a "larger phallus." But this morning, I read one that was actually thought provoking. It was a list of Headlines from the year 2029. I began thinking of current trends and what consequence they would have 21 years from now.
Here's the list I got:
  • Ozone created by electric cars now killing millions in the seventh largest country in the world, Mexifornia formerly known as California. White minorities still trying to have English recognized as Mexifornia's third language;
  • Spotted Owl plague threatens northwestern United States crops and livestock;
  • Baby conceived naturally. Scientists stumped;
  • Couple petitions court to reinstate heterosexual marriage;
  • Iran still closed off; physicists estimate it will take at least 10 more years before radioactivity decreases to safe levels;
  • France pleads for global help after being taken over by Jamaica;
  • Castro finally dies at age 112; Cuban cigars can now be imported legally, but President Chelsea Clinton has banned all smoking;
  • George Z. Bush says he will run for President in 2036;
  • Postal Service raises price of first class stamp to $17.89 and reduces mail delivery to Wednesdays only;
  • 85-year $75.8 billion study: Diet and Exercise is the key to weight loss;
  • Average weight of Americans drops to 250 lbs;
  • Japanese scientists have created a camera with such a fast shutter speed, they now can photograph a woman with her mouth shut;
  • Massachusetts executes last remaining conservative;
  • Supreme Court rules punishment of criminals violates their civil rights;
  • Average height of NBA players is now nine feet, seven inches;
  • New federal law requires that all nail clippers, screwdrivers, fly swatters and rolled-up newspapers must be registered by January 2036;
  • Congress authorizes direct deposit of formerly illegal political contributions to campaign accounts;
  • IRS sets lowest tax rate at 75 percent;
  • Florida voters still have trouble with voting machines.
Here are some of my own.
  • US ranks last in math in science scores, falling behind uninhabited Antarctica, but first in "Guitar Hero" levels won.
  • President reinterprets timeless "No Child Left Behind" law, signing new educational initiative into law: "No Child Moves Forward."
  • Sylvester Stallone writes, directs, and stars in "Rambo vs. Rocky"
  • "Something for Nothing" becomes 30th Amendment to the Constitution (thanks Slupik!)
  • Students win legal battle against teachers. Ruling states that teachers violating students' rights to be stupid
  • Rolling Stones tour Europe
  • US panics over apparent dearth of pencils, as millions of math students come to class without one. Federal Grant money now allocated to grow more trees so that "no child will be without one."
  • New algorithm discovered that does long division without a calculator. Public still skeptical
  • Geometry turned on its head as ALL right triangles now classified as "special"
  • Christmas season is in full swing, as millions of youth don "Santa Claus" costumes for Halloween
  • Boomerangs are making a comeback
  • After 10 consecutive World Series titles, New York Yankees fire Don Mattingly after losing game 7 in 2029 series to Honolulu Islanders.
  • Pluto reinstated as a planet after students worldwide prefer "Nine Pizzas" to a single order of "Nachos"
  • "Madden 2029" becomes best-selling football video game since "Madden 2028"
  • Math scores on par with golf scores
  • Corduroy Pillows are making headlines
  • Surveys show that American math students feel that their erasers surpass them in intelligence
  • High School Whiz Kid invents new, high-powered, lightweight, hand-held calculator for use in math classrooms across the nation. Apparently they play games much, much faster than those currently in misuse
  • In an effort to create more opportunities for students to be successful, the Texas Board of Education has mandated that math teachers no longer require three-decimal accuracy, but to encourage students to follow each numerical answer with the suffix "-ish"
  • After a high school student injured himself on an ordinary thumbtack on school grounds, thumbtacks used in an educational setting are now required by law to have smooth, blunt ends. Upset teachers argue, "What's the point?"
  • Newest fearsome, villainous member of the World Wrestling Federation adopts moniker of "Complex Fraction"
  • Educational software company makes millions selling improved "independent study" software to school districts across the nation. "Students no longer must randomly click on answer choices until they select the correct one," a software spokesperson said. "With the new software, the correct answer is automatically highlighted." The new software also has a "hint" feature, whereby students get a blinking icon to appear by the correct answer that reads "click here!!"
  • "Caffeine induced insomnia" is now classified as a medical disorder, so students who stay up all night drinking Cokes and energy drinks, must now be legally accommodated at school. In related news, studies show more students than ever sleeping through academic lessons, while in other related news, schools nationwide still embrace the "no drinks in the classroom"
I believe I could go on and on and on, but perhaps that's another blog. What do YOU see making headlines in the future?