Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Orleans' teachers use ingenuity

Offbeat Lusher Charter School teacher sings the praises of math

Published: Monday, January 31, 2011, 7:30 AM
Cindy Chang, The Times-Picayune By Cindy Chang, The Times-Picayune 
Most drivers know the feeling of triumph that comes from turning the steering wheel at just the right time and the right angle, then backing into a tight spot between two parked cars so precisely that no further adjustment is needed.
lusher-teacher-students.jpgView full sizeLusher calculus teacher Jerome White did a mathematical computation for parallel parking that landed him in the 2010 Year in Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine. Here, White works with his students during class, Friday, January 14, 2011.
For the less skilled, for whom such satisfying moments can be few and far between, a Lusher Charter School calculus teacher has discovered a way to achieve parallel parking perfection every time -- if you understand sines, dependent variables and horizontal displacement.
There is still the challenge of translating Jerome White's mathematical equation into real-world action, leaving the parking-deficient in pretty much the same place as where they started. But White's complex derivations have earned him a certain amount of fame among brainiacs worldwide, including a mention in the New York Times Magazine's 2010 Year in Ideas issue.
On Lusher's Uptown campus, White is known for turning his intellectual prowess into entertainment through homemade music videos such as "Sinusoidal Curve," a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the shapely math function. "I solved for X and I liked it," he sang off-key to Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," prompting cheers and laughter at a recent school assembly.
Beyond showmanship, White is regarded by students and colleagues as a dedicated teacher who gave up a lucrative engineering job to transmit his love of math to young people. Aided by another series of self-produced "math music" videos, including "Super Geek" and "Mamma Said Do Some Math," he has made a national math competition so cool that more than half of this year's senior class has signed up to participate.
"He has a really rigorous curriculum and also raises the spirits of the kids. If he loves math the way that he loves math, I can too," said Lusher High School Principal Wiley Ates.
Hooked on math
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, White wasn't especially interested in math until ninth grade, when he encountered geometry teacher Otis Halliday. Halliday saw potential in the boy, tapping him for a spot in a math contest. White earned second place, and from then on, he was hooked.
In college at Stanford, White's passion for numbers was dampened by professors who cared more about their own research than motivating students. After graduating in 1996, White became a mechanical design engineer for Lockheed Martin in Silicon Valley. The pay was good, and he worked on sophisticated projects such as ballistic missiles, satellites and airborne lasers.
But something was missing. It was just a job, not a calling.
"It never quite matched the thrill of high school math," White said.
He decided to become a school teacher in a place "as different as I can think of."
In May 2005, he enrolled in the now-defunct Teach Greater New Orleans, landing an assignment that fall at Bonnabel High School in Kenner. The school year had barely started when Hurricane Katrina struck. Marooned in Houston, White considered giving up on New Orleans, even calling his boss in California to see if his old job was still available.
Because of a drastic drop in enrollment immediately after the storm, White and other junior teachers at Bonnabel were laid off. He taught briefly at West Jefferson High in Harvey before landing at the newly opened Lusher.
Teaching is a lot harder than engineering, White said. Only now, in his sixth year, does he believe he is finally getting the hang of it. If he didn't care enough about his old job, now he obsesses about his students so much that his personal life suffers.
"I'm still thinking about it, even when I want to leave it behind," said White, who is coy about his age, admitting only that he is in his 30s.
Calculus showman
On a recent Tuesday morning at Lusher, a sought-after, selective-admissions charter school Uptown, White launched into what would be a memorable lesson for his AP calculus students. To emphasize the importance of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, which defines the relationship between the differential and integral branches and provides a shortcut for many otherwise thorny problems, White switched on the stereo.
As a Mardi Gras tune played, White, who is a lanky 6-foot-6-inches, took on the tone of a circus ringmaster: "Ladies and gentlemen, your life is about to change!" he announced.
A raft of colorful balloons fell from the ceiling onto the students' desks. White walked around the room blowing soap bubbles through a ring. Then he made a promise: "If you can do well enough on the AP exam, I'll get a tattoo of the fundamental theorem because it is the coolest thing ever."
Later, as the students began to apply the theorem, White handed out noisemakers and party poppers for them to set off after they finished each problem.
"He really loves what he does. He's the only one who ever made math fun," said Kelsey Murry, a senior who also had White for Algebra 2. "He's really smart and brainy. He should get recognized for what he does. He's one of the unsung heroes."
The parallel-parking project originated during an exam period in December 2009, when White and some equally numerically inclined colleagues began discussing a formula derived by a British math professor.
The professor, Simon Blackburn of the University of London, used multiple applications of a simple, well-known rule -- the Pythagorean theorem -- to define the path a car needs to travel to achieve a perfect parallel-parking job.
To arrive at such an elegant derivation, Blackburn assumes that the car makes only one arc, instead of the sharp turn followed by a straightening-out that drivers typically use.
White wanted to mathematically define the more realistic two-step process, so that an ideal maneuver could be modeled for any parking space. His formula would also calculate whether the space was big enough for the car to squeeze into, or whether the driver should give up and head down the block.
A Christmas revelation
The Lusher math and science teachers didn't immediately come up with a solution. White continued to mull over the problem. On Christmas Day, while visiting his mother in Tuscon, Ariz., he had his eureka moment.
"It's pretty Mr. White-ish, to do math problems when you're home all day until you figure something out," noted AP calculus student Keyana Varnado.
White's equation is messier than Blackburn's because his parameters are more complex. He uses high school math, such as the "sine of differences" formula, but the derivation is so involved that he has not used it as a teaching tool, beyond a brief mention of how math can be applied to real-world problems such as parking.
"No," White said simply, when asked if knowing the math behind parallel parking has made him a better practitioner of the art.
But for Lusher physics teacher Stephen Collins, "White's Parking Theorem" proves what his father, an expert parallel parker, always said: Turn the wheel all the way before setting the car in motion.
"Never turn the wheel while you're moving," Collins advised.
White's parallel-parking web page and his music videos can be found at
Cindy Chang can be reached at or 504.826.3386.

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