Saturday, January 25, 2014

A week well worth its weight in kairego

And 2014 has arrived. Despite the rigors of the past five years of graduate school, I've had a certain sense of insulation from the real world in that I knew that I had a specific path to follow here in Athens. If all goes well, that certainty will soon be peeled away and we'll enter the next stage of our lives as I search for a faculty position somewhere (of course, that "somewhere" could be Athens for awhile longer...lots of possibilities!). 

Since I've started graduate school, every break has managed to be packed full of work/school-related stuff, and this break was no exception. That said, there was still some wonderful time with family. Joo's been in an extremely creative mood lately. Here are some shots from a felt book she made for our niece Anna.

Ellie's big gift was a cat piano from grandma and grandpa.

When she's not playing piano or dancing, she's been cooking up a storm (sometimes even with real food when Mommy's feeling extra-patient!)

Aside from working on my dissertation, the main professional event of my Winter Break was leading an intense Statistics enrichment program for six days out at the College of William and Mary's Center for Gifted Education in Williamsburg, Virginia. Every day, I taught a group of 14 Korean middle school students who had shown themselves to be exceptionally talented in mathematics.  

The first day was completely draining - probably the most exhausting day of teaching that I have ever done. It wasn't because the students were bad; on the contrary, the fact that they were so brilliant made my head spin as they flew through the material I had prepared and I had to constantly come up with extra adaptations on the spot. This was compounded by the poor sleep I had gotten the two nights previous (even though I've taught quite a bit, a totally new teaching environment always gets my nerves worked up).

But the students were amazing, as was my translator Ella, and I came in ready to go on the second day. From that point on, it was a blast! I had been specifically instructed to introduce the students to a more interactive learning style that would contrast what they had experienced in math lectures back in Korea. That's my preferred style anyway, and the kids were more than willing to try something different.

On one of the days, we took a field trip to the Virginia Aquarium. 

The experience was somewhat of a professional rite-of-passage for me. My original inspiration for entering graduate school in math was because I saw it as a meaningful way to pursue peace and social justice. This goal turned out to be much more complicated than I had anticipated. In research, it wasn't too bad, because I could choose whatever topic I wanted to research, but how does one teach Algebra or Calculus in a meaningful way that goes beyond students merely learning the content? My main answer to that question has been to respect the students, listen to them, and let them know I care for them regardless of their mathematical ability or performance (and of course to teach them well so that they can appreciate or use the math from our classes in whatever way they need to). But I've felt that there could be more, and I caught a glimpse of that "more" during the week in Williamsburg. The official name of the program was the Korean Nobel Project, with the idea being that these students had the potential to be future winners of a Nobel Prize. I built on that idea to focus not only on the "how" of statistics but also on the "why" of statistics. We engaged in intense content all the way through the Central Limit Theorem, but we also had several discussions about how people have used statistics to change the course of history, and how each of the students would have the choice to use it for selfish purposes or to help others in their career.

I was surprised at how close I felt to the students at the end of the week, and then it hit me that I had been with them in that one week as much as I am with a typical semester-long class that I would teach at university.

Halfway through the week, things got even more intense when I got a phone call from the little sister of a good friend, Alex. Alex had been having a rough time for awhile now, and he eventually took his life. It frustrated me almost as much as it saddened me. I had talked to Alex on the phone a couple weeks previous. He was in a time of limbo in his life, and so we had discussed several interesting possibilities that he could explore. By the time we hung up, I thought that the tone was full of hope and inspiration. Looking back, I probably only saw and heard what I wanted to. The whole situation reminds me of six years ago when a former student of mine had made the same choice as Alex. I think the part that frustrates me most was that these were two of the sincerest, most intelligent, guys I've known. Both of them had some obvious external problems, but (to me) these problems seemed much easier to address than the deeper internal issues related to one's heart (which I felt they were very strong in). But I was unable to get that point across. In some ways, it's not unlike teaching math. There are times when I think a particular relationship or concept is quite clear, but I can't seem to get the point across to a student who does not see it clearly. The breakthrough often comes when I have the student start to explain in detail his or her perception of the concept. Then, I can step into their shoes and journey with them until I understand where the misconception is. This is true in life, relationships, faith, beliefs, etc. just as much as it is in teaching math, but I have a long way to go in understanding how to "do it" in those other scenarios. 

Of course, more than all of that, my head was spinning with memories of Alex. Here are some pictures. The first one was from when I first met him. We were both engineering students at Drexel and this picture shows Alex submitting his homework at 11:59 p.m. on the day it was due. 

The second shows Alex and me on a camping trip we took, right before a polar bear swim in late Fall. We went on several camping trips over the years. Looking back, the late night talks we shared over campfires in the middle of the wilderness were not too different from the late night rollerblading chats we frequently took whenever I would visit him in Philly.

Right before I took my India trip, Alex and I embarked on a rather spontaneous journey through Eastern Europe. If I remember right, we were talking on the phone and I was telling him all about how Prague was my favorite city in Europe. He said, "Let's do it! What are you doing next week?" And soon afterwards, we were meeting up in O'Hare to catch a flight to Zurich. He was just as spontaneous on that trip. One evening in Vienna, we were waiting on a train to return to Switzerland, and he said, "Why don't we go down to Italy and get a pizza really quick?" So, we took an overnight train to Venice, spent the day there, ate a pizza and wandered the alleys, and then took a direct train back to Switzerland that evening. Throughout the trip, we rated coffeehouses on several factors. The grand winner, for both of us, was Szuflada in Krakow, Poland. Here's Alex sipping his tea at Szuflada. That night, we couldn't find any place with vacancies, so we ended up wandering the streets until we met a group of college guys who let us crash on their floor. 

The final picture is from just a couple years ago, when Alex paid a visit to us in Athens. Even in Athens, he made things exciting by thumbing down my only hitchhiked ride since I've lived here. As adventurous as he was, it's the heartfelt discussions with Alex that will continue to spin in my memory for years to come. He always had a way of looking at the most common things through a different perspective. For example, his favorite quote was this: "Man's self-awareness? Sheer local conceit; the upstate counties had not reported, for there was no way to prove that sperm whales or giant sequoias were not philosophers and poets far exceeding any human merit." - R.A. Heinlen (Stranger in a Strange Land). RIP, my friend.

 I was blessed during my week in Williamsburg to stay with my Cousin Scott, his wife Debbie, and their boys. In addition to delicious food that helped me recharge, it was great to spend more time with them than I ever had in my life despite always looking up to Scott (he had wrestled and played with me on countless occasions during our Showalter Family Christmases as I was growing up).

So, it was a powerful week with lots of memories, and the best part was coming home to my lovely ladies. :)