Pushing Points

I’m going to share with you a dirty little secret.*    I haven’t always been a teacher.   Once upon a time, I was a professional Tarot reader and Palmist.** ***   Aside from the technical aspects of the job (like knowing how to read Tarot cards well without freaking out your customer) was being able to read your customer.    Getting a feeling for how well the reading was going was a good indication.

That skill is invaluable as a teacher.   I think any performer can tell you when their audience is entertained, bored, or lost.   The same thing should apply to teachers, but anyone with experience as a student knows that this isn’t always the case.   This is one of the reasons that I say at least half of teaching is entertainment.   Once you know what to say, knowing how to say it in a way that it gets across is important.

There is another aspect of keeping a class engaged though, and that is keeping them challenged.   There is a balancing act in every class between keeping the material relevant to students who are struggling with the material as well as keeping the interest of those who are already past it.    If you can’t keep them interested, then no amount of entertainment can keep them studying.

  • Once you have given your general instructions, then you can give more and more difficult examples to show the utility.
  • You can preview future material for those who are already ahead (note:  definitely revisit the material later, because not everyone will be capable of keeping up).
  • Keep it real!     A lot of students get bored in a math class if there isn’t an obvious application.   If you can give them examples of how the math they learn can be used in the world, they will retain the information more and be more interested in other topics.
  • In order to be interesting, you need to be obviously interested.   If you can find the topics that energize the students, talk to those topics.   I find lecturing on zombies is a lot of fun, but I’ve talked on everything from lasers to video games will often keep the student’s attention.
  • One-on-one time.    For students who seem to be getting ahead, I like to ask them if they’re getting bored.   I have a file full of exercises I call “next level,” for students who are ready to work on more challenging topics.

Every class is different, and each class will have it’s own personality.    I have very obedient students this quarter****,  and they have worked faster than I had anticipated.   I’ve had to advance their lecture schedule, and advance it again….  But every class is different.   Keeping them in balance is one of the main challenges we teachers face.

It is important to know when to push them.

I love my job.


*   Get your mind out of the gutter.   This isn’t that kind of blog!

**   I quit doing that a long time ago.   Part of the reason is that I became an atheist.    And the tips kind of sucked.

***   Any student who asks me for a reading will immediately fail.   So don’t even try.

**** It is so weird!   And kind of cool too — they listen for the most part, and they do their work.


Whenever my students complain about the amount of work that I assign them, I remind them that while they have to do them once, I get to do them 35 times.    At which point they laugh and get to feel nominally better about the whole proposition.

So let me back up a bit.    Most quarters I get to use some online homework, but it looks like my (free) system deactivated my account after the site was hacked.   So I’m back to all paper homework for the quarter.   I scheduled myself some time to deal with it… and I’m still a little swamped.

I did a marathon grading session today.  I also watched a horror movie marathon at the same time.     I’m not sure whether the screen or student papers had more red on them.    I know for certain that I was more distressed by my quizzes than I was by zombies.

Mmmmm…. Headshots are pretty.

Soothing, soothing violence.


Zombie teaching

Zombie Math Teacher
Zombie Math Teacher

Halloween, 2012.
Mmmmmm… Tasty, tasty brains.

I just needed to announce to the world that I do exist.   See?   Here is a picture to prove it.

Since teaching with zombies is so much fun, I decided it was time to teachas a zombie.     I didn’t have any pithy comments, so I will leave the details of my teaching day to your imaginations.




More Zombie Mathematics

Aside from my penchant for loving horror, I have one other reason why I like zombies.   Brains.

I could really go for a nice big brain right now… or maybe I just want to chew on someone’s head.

(evil teacher, remember?)

So here are some of my favorite zombie story problems for the Halloween season:

An enterprising salesman, Bob,  decided he was going to open a brain selling business during the zombie apocalypse.   Canadian brains are priced at $4.89/lb and American brains are  priced at $2.89 lb.  Bob wants to offer a daily brain soup mixture with both types of brains.  How much of each type of brain will Bob have to use to make a 80 lb batch that sells for $4.19/lb.


ZombOlympics ™:    The zombie “Chef” runs at 5.6 miles per hour.   The zombie “Brittney” runs 1.45 miles every 15 minutes.   The zombie “Billy” runs 0.57 miles in 6 minutes.   Which zombie would win the gold, the silver and the bronze brain awards?


A hoard of torso zombie dogs are trying to chase cats.   There are a total of 36 heads and 120 legs.    How many dogs and how many cats are there?   (Note:  torso dogs only have front legs)


Z-cells can be harvested from zombies in order to create a zombie vaccine.    You have a strong solution of 85% Z-cells and weak solution of 50% Z-Cells.    How much of each solution will you need to mix to produce 20 mL of a 64% solution?


Nip that Bud

The first few days of a new class is critical to how the class will go for the entire term.   When you first walk in, you are outnumbered, and all eyes are on you.   With this in mind, I have a few items that I do in order to setup a good class culture for the rest of the quarter:

  1. During the first day, establish a way for extra credit.    This puts students in a frame of mind where they will be trying to achieve more, rather than doing less.
  2. Dress the part of an instructor.  For me this means suits and ties.    This establishes you as an authority in the classroom.   Dress more casually LATER in the quarter, when it is important for students to perceive you as approachable.
  3. QUIET DISRUPTIONS IMMEDIATELY.   If students start to be disruptive,  put a stop to it.  This is just setting a baseline for the rest of the quarter… but it is critical to establish early.   If you wait until later to quiet people, then it will appear capricious.
  4. Grade the hell out of your first assignments.   Even if it takes you twice as long as usual.
  5. At least half of teaching is entertainment, so start to establish your teaching style early.    It is okay to be yourself.


And now for a random zombie question.

“You have sprained your ankle running away from fast moving zombies!   You leave your house and limp away hoping to escape having your brain eaten at a rate of 2 ft per second.   5 seconds later the zombie leaves the house after you moving at 4 ft per second.   How long do you have to get your shotgun loaded while running before you are consumed?”

I use these types of question when I’m teaching problems of motion… and I’m feeling just sadistic enough to wait until next week to answer this question.

Nostalgia, Potted Plants, and Zombie Mathematics

So… another quarter is done.

I get a little  nostalgic at the end of the quarter.   All of the work is done and graded… all of the students are off to better things.   Or will be repeating things again.   Whatever.

No two classes are alike.     Every collection of students is unique, and has their own distinct personality.  Here is one deep dark secret of teachers:  none of us like teaching a class full of potted plants.

You know the classes I mean.  The slightly spooky quiet classes.   Classes that just look at you like you are an alien from another dimension.   The class that if it were at the beginning of a horror movie would have all of the students speaking in unison if they were to speak at all.

When students are too quiet, it is usually portentous of one of three things:   (1) you have completely lost all of your students, and no one is willing to admit their ignorance;  (2)   the students are so completely bored with the subject matter that they are wondering if getting up and leaving would actually hurt their grade; or (3)  they really have been taken over by aliens from another dimension and are wondering what your head would taste like.     In any case they all wonder whether the rumor was true that if the teacher dies during the quarter, everyone will be given an A.

Its not true, by the way.

If this happens a good instructor needs to change things up a little.   Start a different exercise.  Get students thinking in a new direction.

I frequently use zombies to get their attention.

Write a zombie application problem, and I can almost guarantee student attention.    If you aren’t feeling particularly imaginative,  I recommend the Zombolympics(tm).

I’m sure I’ll write more about the ins and outs of zombie mathematics later.