Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Sunshine

Having really warm weather for Christmas makes me feel like a kid again, as though I had never left California. (In SoCal where I grew up, it was not unusual to have 90+ degrees of sunshine on Christmas Day.)

Anyway, thought I'd take this ample free time (now that we're mostly set for going away on Friday) to put up some updates of what we've been up to in San Salvador. :)


We recently climbed Santa Ana, which is the tallest (not steepest) volcano in El Salvador. It last erupted in 2005, which by nature's time frame is like a second ago! (So, I think that makes it tied for the second most active volcano we've climbed in Central America.)

Here is what the rim at the top looks like around the crater. Pretty steep when you try to look into the crater (left). Those little specks are people up ahead.

This particular crater has 3 strata, formed from 3 different eruptions over (a long period of) time. It's stunningly beautiful, and you can see all the layers even from afar. Down at the bottom there is a green boiling crater lake. Our friend Greg kicked a rock over to see how far down the crater is. For almost a full minute, you can still hear the rocks rolling/rumbling down below.


Sometime in November, we went to the Marine Ball (again). It was fun to play dress up (putting my $20 dress to good use), but I think I've officially gotten it out of my system. This year, the good thing is that we got a deal. Dinner + dancing + open bar for $40 ain't bad at all.


Lastly, some other time in November, the German embassy sponsored an Oktoberfest. It was pretty cool (especially because there were some social dancers there, tearing up the dance floor), but it was a teaser for the real thing we want to go to next year. :)

Here are pictures of us, with Will and Andrea, two of my favorite gringos:


That's (really) it for now. We're super excited about going to Argentina!! :) We leave on Friday, and will be gone until after New Year's. On our agenda are glaciers!! -- and maybe some dancing and some wine tours. And definitely lots of eating. Argentinian steaks are supposed to actually come from happy (free-range) cows. :)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jobs and How Funny Life is

I am always interested in finding out how people ended up where they are. I myself have always been surprised with the jobs I actually end up with.

After college, I thought I was for sure going to go work for Intuit (the guys that make your TurboTax software). I had had a successful internship with them the summer prior, and since I was pretty sure software was just a temporary gig until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, it made sense to stay in California.

But, you know, all of my other engineering friends were going to on-campus job fairs the spring of my senior year and looking at interviewing with big companies, so I figured why not. I sent in some resumes and got a first round of interviews with, followed by a second round of all-day interviews on campus. It was sort of... exciting. I did it because I had nothing to lose (since I already had a job offer from Intuit), and I kind of liked writing code on the spot and discussing data structures with strangers. (In a totally geeky way, interviewing was really fun.)

Once Amazon decided to give me an offer, they flew me and some other people out to Seattle to visit their company site. As it turned out (as it always turns out), it was love-at-first-sight with me and Seattle. My boyfriend at the time was clearly non-committal about staying with me for the long term, so I decided that moving was clearly the right move for myself.

Two years later, I was a pretty happy programming monkey at Amazon (I had an amazing boss, a great boss's boss, and my best friend sat 3 feet from me), but I decided I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life -- teaching. I was so excited actually, that I couldn't sleep at night.

And so began my research into teaching options. I pretty much figured right away that some things, such as going back to school full-time, just weren't for me. In my research, I encountered some programs like TFA and the New York City Teaching Fellows that offered you the opportunity to teach while getting certified. That seemed to me like the way to go. So, I went ahead and applied. Long story short, I ended up in NYC, looking for jobs during the first summer immersion training.

My former principal liked to tell the story about how I basically stalked him. It's more or less true. I had interviewed with only a handful of schools, but nothing really was working out. (My demo lessons pretty much sucked.) Eventually, somewhere on, I came across a review of a new small 6th-through-12th-grade school called MS 241. The principal called me once, and then I called him about 10 times. Never got through, so I went and found him at a job fair. Sort of a fluke sort of thing, but I knew he was the person I wanted to work for as soon as I sat down with him. The school he described to me sounded like a dream. Kids learned by playing, kids learned math and science that were real and active. And, miraculously, after a demo lesson, this amazing school still wanted to hire me.

In the three years that followed, I learned more about teaching than I probably ever will in any stretch of 3 years in my career. I have little doubt that that school has some of the most incredible staffers anywhere in New York. (And trust me, I know there are a lot of good teachers in NYC.)

When I decided that I wanted to do the international teaching thing, Geoff and I agreed that for the first few years, we'd stay in relatively the same time zone. He needed a few more years to get his self-run company to a point where he wouldn't need to be available everyday from 9 to 5. So, I began contacting every Latin American school I could find. El Salvador was, funnily enough, the first school to show serious interest in hiring me, after receiving my cold email contact. They were willing to offer me a job even without having met me in person.

Like any sensible person who has already jumped through the hoops of registering for a recruitment fair, I postponed accepting their offer in order to check out other schools. In the end, however, after sifting through all the offers on the table and talking to each school administrator about the complication of having a non-teaching "spouse" who might bring about visa issues, the school in El Salvador still seemed to be the best fit. (Funny how life works.) :) And we're both very glad we had made that decision; this school has been very good to me, and more than accomodating about my situation with Geoff.

I can only hope that the next place will be a blessing the same way that every other employer has been. Job searching is so exciting! And so scary. I could be throwing my whole life away, or not.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Things useful to have in a job search

Since I've been looking for a job recently for 2011-2012, I thought I'd throw out there what I think is useful to have in a job search, at least if you are looking for job through cold email contacts. Some of this might be super common sense.

1. A nice cover letter with a photo. Everyone likes photos, and a compact, nicely written cover letter can immediately set you up as a purposeful applicant.

2. A CV instead of a resume. Why? To me, a CV is more comprehensive. My CV starts off with a one-paragraph summary of myself, to be followed up by my list of experiences and academic achievements underneath. Now that I am on my third job, I think a one-page resume isn't really sufficient to highlight my accomplishments, once you take away the space for my name and contact info. Besides, if a school can't even take the time to look through the second page of an already condensed CV, they're not likely going to make a great employer, right?

3. Open reference letters (with contact details). Nothing replaces confidential references, but open letters are nice to have, because if a school is not sure whether you are a viable candidate, these could tip the scale without them having to jump through the hoops of contacting each reference. Open letters are also nice to have because you get to keep and re-use them for later. So, if you get a couple of letters from each school you've worked at, you could easily have a bunch of letters on file after a while. Your reference letters should include some supervisor letters, obviously, but you may also include those of former professors, co-planning colleagues, and student parents. My portfolio contains all of the above, because they each highlight a very different strength.

4. A website. Mine is very simple (sorry, no links here because I don't want to mess up the stats I am tracking), but I think it's pretty straight-forward and effective. You link to your CV, provide an email link, provide a summary of yourself, a picture, and a list of "testimonials." It sounds mad cheesy, but it works. The point of a website is so that when you send unsolicited emails, the school heads aren't annoyed when you send unsolicited attachments as well. And the testimonials, as cheesy as they are, are supposed to make you sound more attractive at first glance.

Anyway, I've contacted a good number of schools, just sort of on a first-round basis. I've heard back from some of them, but few definitely-interested ones at this point. I'm not worried; I am going to that fair in London in January and I'm sure things will sort themselves out at the fair. But, my goal before that is to contact ~50 schools. (It seems like a very obtainable number, considering that I have amazingly already contacted about 30 schools.) So, here we go! :)

By the way, recruitment fairs are totally the way to go, if you ever want to go for an international teaching job. It's quite a bit of a hassle to collect all of the necessary confidential references by ~November, but you get invaluable face time with each school, and those schools can follow up on your file before and after the fair (if you choose the right recruitment agency to go with). A lot of schools won't even consider cold-email candidates, since it saves them a lot of work to go through a recruitment agency.

For me, I do the international teaching thing because I love to travel. And I love new languages. It doesn't preclude me from the possibility of settling down in the States in the future and/or working at a public school again, although these days there is definitely less tying me down to the States...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Salvadoran Customs and Math

There are two Salvadoran customs that amuse me greatly, and they make me think about the math involved in each case:

* Here in El Salvador, whenever people need to cut a round cake, they first cut a circle in the middle of the cake. And then they proceed to slice the outer rim of the cake into equal slices. When they serve, first they serve the slices on the rim, and then they serve the center piece last.

A natural math question that arises from this is: How big will the middle piece have to be, in order to ensure that all of the pieces served are of the same size?

The math is very easy, so I'll leave it to you to figure out. I'm going to give it to my Geometry kiddies at some point, as a warmup problem. (Of course, the kids will have to figure out for themselves that the answer will depend on N, the number of slices, and R, the radius of the cake.)

On a random note: I like how they cut it this way. It actually makes sense to me, because it's much easier to serve the slices when they're not all long and skinny.

* Also, another amusing custom here is that when Salvadorans have a really big raffle prize (ie. Taca's round-trip tickets at today's staff luncheon at our school), they often will announce something like, "We're going to pick 3 names. The first and the second people we pick out of the hat do not win any prize; their names get discarded on the side. The third name we pick out is the sole winner."

It's funny because it's clear that this does not change the probability of winning. Each person still has the probability of winning = 1/n, whether you compute it as a one-time pick of a single name OR as the consecutive-picking-of-three-names-without-replacement method as described above: (n-1)/n * (n-2)/(n-1) * 1/(n-2) = 1/n. But the Salvadoran way is much funnier. The first two names picked out of the hat are the sorest losers (or they go around and brag about how close they had come to winning). How funny!!

...I love how there is math everywhere! :)

Anyhow, I am on vacation now, and will very likely be a useless lump until January. See you then.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How I Handle Midterms

My school institutes a semesterly cumulative exam in all classes. This "midterm" exam counts as 33.33% of the student's semester grade, averaged against the two quarter grades the student has earned. (Curiously enough, Q2 doesn't end until January, even though the fall midterm is in December. I actually prefer this setup, because it makes it possible for me to give the kids some extra-credit work, should they be on the border of passing/failing for the semester once the midterm grade has been computed and included. But, I only do that for the first semester, as I then tell the kids that they will need to earn their second-semester passing average on their own. It's a bit of a carrot-and-stick approach.)

I am pretty sure there are various people out there lobbying against midterms, and admittedly, these cumulative exams might not be something that works equally well in every subject, but I personally find them to be a valuable opportunity to spiral back to what we've learned and to do a cumulative assessment to see what the students have really retained. So, it's important to me that both my review and my exam reflect that philosophy.

This year, I structured my review as such:

* A few weeks in advance, I posted a list of topics and associated practice problems on the web. The kids could start doing those problems whenever they have free time, and the problems I assigned were either extra practice problems from the textbook that we didn't have time to do during the regular instruction, or they were problems from old exams they've taken. Each problem is aligned with a specific skill in the list of key skills that I think the kids should retain from the first semester. The kids know that if they show excellent math work (which includes verifying their answers with the back of the book) and they complete all assigned problems, they can gain up to 5% extra credit toward the midterm exam.

* During the allotted 3 days of review time in class (this is standard across all of the school), each day I would give the kids a short sheet of practice problems to jog their memory on older, dustier topics and terms. If they are sharp on that stuff and/or are aggressively asking me for help, they can get through those practice problems each day in about 30 minutes, and then use the remaining 30 minutes in class to work on the extra-credit study packet. (See above.) Or, if they're unmotivated and only idly working, they are kept busy reviewing pertinent material for 45 minutes to an hour (since in that case, the worksheet would take them longer to get through), so they're not bothering other people in class. (If they do start misbehaving instead of choosing to work on the extra-credit study packet, obviously you assign them a consequence. Another carrot-and-stick approach.)

* In the end, the midterms I gave were always a mixture of: problems similar to those on old exams; problems similar to those in the extra-credit study guide; and problems similar to those we practiced in class during the review days. I wasn't looking to surprise the kids for the midterm; I don't feel that's quite so fair for a test with so much weight. Plus, I wanted to make the entry point of each problem accessible for every student, so that a kid feels like they have some hope for getting every problem correct, using what they've learned. But, they were definitely asked to show, explain, and apply concepts, so the tests were by no means easy. One kid said, "Wow! We learned a lot of stuff this semester, and every single thing was on the midterm!" And others told me they thought the tests were not difficult, as long as you did your part in reviewing.

The result? Each class had a pretty nice distribution of scores, and in all cases, it was evident to me whether a kid had put in the extra effort to get through the entire study guide of practice problems. :)

I know that sometimes (...many times??) other teachers complain that midterms are a waste of time, but I don't think they have to be, if you see them as an opportunity to further the kids' familiarity with those older topics.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mandatory Christmas Bonus

Here in El Salvador, employers are required to give their employees a Christmas bonus. Geoff and I will be giving our maid an extra week's pay (plus she will get paid time off while we're on vacation in Argentina). But, for the full-time employees (such as myself), the mandatory Christmas bonus breaks down as follows:

Up to 1 year of employment: Proportional bonus of 10 days' pay. (ie. If you've been employed for 6 months, your bonus is equivalent to 5 days' pay.)

Over 1 year, up to 3 years of employment: 10 days' pay.

Over 3 years, up to 10 years of employment: 15 days' pay.

Over 10 years of employment: 18 days' pay.

That's a pretty real example of piecewise functions, besides progressive taxes and volume discounts on products. How do you feel about the government dictating when you get bonuses? I know (from having interviewed with schools in Brazil in the past) that Brazil has all kinds of funny salary-related laws. Among them is one that says that you must get paid 13 months of salary a year; half of your "extra" month gets distributed as a Christmas bonus, and the other half of it gets distributed at the beginning of summer, in time for your summer vacations. How funny!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Learning as I Teach

I was reflecting upon how you always learn while you teach. This is especially true the first time you teach something, but also true generally, if you keep working at it over the years.

During the last day of review week for midterms, a Precalc kid asked me for help with a problem from the textbook. The problem describes a worm that is 5 cm on Day 1 and grows 3 cm the next day, and grows 1.8 cm the next day, etc. Each subsequent day, the worm grows 60% from the day before. What's the total length after 2 weeks?

So, I showed the kid how to use the geometric series formula u1(1-r^k)/(1-r) to find the sum of this geometric series. Then, the kid asked me, "But why can't we just use 5(1.6)^(n-1) as our formula, since the worm is growing 60% each day?" Took me a few minutes to think through it, and in the end I felt really silly about it all, because the difference is obvious as daylight.

The worm is not growing 60% everyday. If it were, it'd be growing exponentially faster! Instead, its amount of daily/incremental growth is diminishing at a rate of 0.6 (losing 40%) each day.

It's always so fun teaching something for the first time, because when kids ask me questions, I still have to do a double take on some topics with which I am rusty. :) (And then in real time, try to think of the best way to break it down.) Does this happen to you??


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Kid-Friendly Analogy for Recursion

A kid I had taught last year came by after school the other day for some help with the concept of recursion. After a few minutes of looking at some simple examples, she still was kind of confused about why some values would depend on other values, where as some values (ie. the base case) don't need other values in order to be computed. I tried explaining it using the simple examples in the textbook and by looking at the recursive formula of the Fibonacci sequence. Still, she only half-understood, so I decided to throw out an off-the-wall analogy:
Let's say I tell you and a bunch of other kids to make a straight line, facing forward. Then, I tell every kid to smack the head of the kid in front of them. So, you smack the head of some kid, he smacks the head of another kid, etc. Until we get to the front. The kid in the very front, what does he do? He can't do anything; he doesn't have someone in front of him to smack. That sucker's sort of like the base case. The base case is the value you're given at the beginning of the problem because that's the one that you can't calculate.

The funny thing is, the kid totally got the crazy analogy! She said, "So basically, every number in the sequence depends on the one that comes before it, except for the base case. That's the number at the beginning, so it doesn't have any other numbers in front of it in order for you to calculate it, and so its value needs to be given to you by the problem." And then she proceeded to ask me smart questions like what happens if you're trying to calculate the 103rd element -- are you going to need to find all 102 elements before it? (And we got into a pretty good discussion about tradeoffs between different formula types.) ...I guess the moral of the story is that I should make kids smack each other more often in class, for the sole purpose of improving their grasp of confusing mathematical concepts. ;)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Life Matters

Brain dump. For me, mostly.

* The whole tax business in El Salvador is pretty funny to me. To start, we have a sidewalk tax. It's about $3.95 a year, and (I think) it means that you are allowed to use the sidewalk for the next 12 months. Then, when April comes around, you have to go in person to turn in your income tax forms. They don't accept it by mail or by internet. (But they do accept other people turning it in on your behalf. Strange.) And then, about 6 months later, you go pick up your refund -- in cash!! -- at any branch of Banco Agricola. At that point, the bank teller will tell you that they cannot issue you a check. So, if you're like me, you lug hundreds of dollars in cash while walking back from the bank -- an extra exciting experience in this country. It's strangeness all around.

* New York State Department of Ed is also pretty funny. A while ago, I was trying to get a duplicate copy of my teaching certificate, for job-searching purposes and also in case my current school gets audited. I went online, logged into the TEACH system, paid my $25 dollars, and then only afterwards saw a fine print somewhere on a totally separate FAQ page that they have, in fact, stopped the service of printing paper certificates for "time-limited teaching certificates!" In fact, they have completely eliminated the job of the person who used to print the paper certificates! Well, at this point, my options were to A.) pay another 50 bucks to upgrade my certification, still 3 years before the current one is going to expire, or B.) forget the paper copy. My potential employers and the Salvadorean Ministry of Education are going to just have to make do with my print-screen version of the "teaching certificate."

I was pretty mad (and almost equally amused). But, I am pretty stingy as well, so I decided to wait it out. --What do you know? Two or three weeks later, I get my duplicate certificate in the mail. :)

* I am about 85% sure I will be going to London in January for a job fair. I was waiting for days on a confirmation from my recruiters that my application and recommendations and payment all checked out, before I made travel arrangements. I had to follow up with them, because I noticed that the airfare had dropped $140 over the weekend (from $1100 to about $950). So, finally, I heard back from them this morning, and I rushed to log in to Kayak to buy the tickets. --Guess what? They're back up to $1100. And that's not including paying the recruiters, or hotel or food. So, that's all very expensive, and I'm back to being in a limbo about whether this is the right move. There is a good chance I won't get a job at this fair (for various reasons, timing and my lack of IB experience being the key ones), but if I don't go, I know I will regret it when I am stuck still looking for a job in April........

* Incredibly (as though I don't already have enough to do in the middle of job-searching and preparing kids for midterms), I am also working on applying to a summer program. I've already written my personal statement, put in orders for my transcripts (both undergrad and grad), and given the recommendation forms to my supervisors. I am feeling like this is not going to all pan out, but I feel OK about it. In case you can't tell, I am practicing being more of a go-getter, and my backup plan for the summer is to go to Herrang (in Sweden) during their month-long swing dance camp, and to dance until my legs break into pieces.

So, that's it. All of the things floating around in my head!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

How the Allies Used Math Against German Tanks

A friend passed this article along. The story is super interesting, and might be relevant for those of you teaching statistics! (I tried to look up how they got all the formulas, but it ended up giving me a headache, because each link just led me to more formulas. Next summer, I really need to pick up a good book on statistics.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

About integrity

I have to say that it drives me absolutely nuts when a kid copies work off of another kid. That, and it breaks my heart that I have to give the kid a zero on the assignment, when the kid is already struggling (usually). Surprisingly (and thankfully), it doesn't happen much at my school.

Recently, after the resistors lab I did with my kids, I let the kids take the last problem home to finish up the trial-and-error calculation portion. Later, I found out while grading the labs that a handful of the boys copied the last problem off of this girl in the class. They actually didn't even use their own collected data values for the problem, but blindly copied the other group's values. So, obviously, I gave them all zeroes. But, I was feeling pretty crappy about this, because I supervised the groups doing the rest of the lab and I knew that all problems except for that one were actually their own work.

Well, before returning their lab, I thought for a long time about what to say to the kids, and every time I thought about it I just felt more upset about the whole thing. In the end, I didn't want to give them a drawn out speech and I just said two things when I returned the labs:

1.) You guys are a second away from college. In college, they're not going to be this generous when you get caught; you're not going to just get a zero on the assignment, but they will kick you out of the school.

2.) You're also about to be adults. If you're trying to grow up to be a lying and cheating adult, this is how you do it -- you cheat. But if that's not whom you want to be, then you need to start making different choices, because integrity isn't something that you just magically gain as an adult. You get it by practicing integrity everyday, now.

One of the boys came up to me after class and pleaded with me to give him some points back, if he would re-do the assignment. He said that he has never cheated before ("and Ms. Yang, you saw me do the rest of this myself!"), and the only reason why he copied off of someone else was because he really wanted to get full credit on the entire assignment, after all that work he had put in during class. It broke my heart, but I told him firmly that this is one issue I don't budge from; you can't cheat and gain back those lost points. It's a hard consequence, and 20 points lost on a lab is a very cheap lesson for learning that.

I've been in this situation before, and it never gets easier. When kids make mistakes, they need to learn the lesson. But it turns it into a me-versus-them sort of situation, instead of me-helping-them-do-the-best-they-can. After school, that same kid came back to me to get help to prepare for tomorrow's quiz. He wants to really do well on the next assignment, to make up for this one mistake. Did he learn his lesson? I hope so.