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Interview for Le Monde Newspaper, France

Math professor Sam Calavitta teaches calculus at a private institution in the suburbs of Los Angeles using a very unusual approach that mixes rigor, spirit of competition, and imagination...

By Mustapha Kessous, special correspondent of Le Monde, Anaheim (USA) 3 May 2009.
It is barely 7:30; Anaheim is waking up quietly on this April Saturday. This ordinary suburb of Los Angeles is still sleepy when 80 youngsters get out of their cars in the parking lot of their private school, some out of Porsches, and others out of BMWs. For these students of Fairmont Preparatory Academy, spring break can wait: it is soon going to be the hour of their course in calculus. Nothing mandatory though, merely a refresher course.

Barely arrived, the students aged 14 to 18 hurry to move the chairs and tables out of the classroom. With a black felt pen, a TA writes a number from one to 80 on each student’s hand. Those who have been marked chatter before the entrance door on which a large gold star is mounted. A star for the star of the school: the calculus professor Sam Calavitta is “Mr. Cal” to his students.

Past forty, with brush-cut hair, blue-green eyes, boxer face, this teacher with the imperturbable smile is a UFO of the instruction “made in USA.” It is 8 o’clock. After having greeted his students, he launches “It’s good to be the best in the world.” The students repeat the line in unison. “This technique is a motivation tool,” explains the professor. “It’s a metaphor, because I want my students to strive to be the best.”

As it happens often, this morning the class is about to start with a competition: the “Calcompetition.” “Even numbers to the left, odd to the right,” shouts the teacher. Lots of screaming and laughing ensues. “First are the numbers from one to 20, line up in two groups in front of me,” he yells. The rules are simple: two students have to solve an equation or answer a question. The winner goes to the back of the line; the loser leaves and sits down. Armed with a stack of paper in his hand, Sam strings together his questions: “Give me the three names of the derivatives?” One student proves to be the fastest to answer. “Yeahhh, you got it...” Everybody applauds.
Nth question. Utter silence. Neither of the two girls comes up with the answer. The tension rises, the brains heat up. “House,” yells the professor. This is a way of calling upon RobertShelton, 39. In charge of security, he likes to sit in on the competition “for the fun of it.” Robert holds a steel can (Note: without having seen it, it’s not clear how to translate the French expression.) filled with numbered tokens, reaches in, and shuffles. “45!” he thunders. “45?” Sam asks. A student, who shows him his hand on which the number 45 is inscribed, answers the question. The 45 has just saved his buddy who stays in the game. Everybody applauds again: it is mandatory by the way.

The Calcompetition runs through three rounds: solving a simple equation; the “flash” where the teacher shows a formula that must be completed; and more complicated equations. “This competition aims to confront the students,” explains the instructor. “If they want to win, they must become the best.” The winners of the competition receive “Calbucks” as a reward: a kind of fake dollars, red ones, green ones, and grey ones. In case of a bad grade, the students can use them to buy themselves an upgrade. The teacher smiles: “This is a good source for motivation. They are more engaged if one creates a situation where they can win.”

It is 9 o’ clock. The boys and girls have brought the chairs and tables back into the classroom. The writing kits appear. The task: the calculation of volumes. And for the sake of illustrating his lesson, the professor by way of a compass and a T-square uses sandwich bread, cheese and salami. “Yuk!” go the kids as a group when he sticks the salami on the board to demonstrate a formula. All are concentrating, hypnotized; they drink in the theorems like soda pop. Ten o’ clock, it is over. Normally. “I need about 15 minutes more, but we can stop, if you prefer,” tells Mr. Calavitta. “We’re all staying!” shouts the class. At the end of a quarter of an hour, before leaving the premises, all the teenagers shout with one voice: “What a great day, Mr. Cal!”

Peculiar method? At this school (which costs nearly €13,000 per year), the students of the Fairmont Preparatory Academy achieve one of the best scores in the nation in the mathematical exams of the Advanced Placement Test. In 2008, the 81 students of the school that passed these tests scored on average 4.79 out of 5.0. Sixty-nine scored the maximum, at a time when the national average was 3.08.

On February 19th, Sam Calavitta received the Siemens award which is given each year to 50 professors (one per state) for “excellence in their work.” In his class, next to photos of his former students, his family, poems, a yellow T-shirt of the Tour de France (Sam is a big fan), and posters of motivational slogans (“Never, never give up!”), there is a 2006 letter from the president of the United States, George W. Bush, who congratulates him for his teaching method.

“In the other classes, you watch the clock, asserts Richal Asija, 17, but with him time passes too fast. You’re never bored!” “I am too eager for the math course,” swears Anar Bhansali, 18. “Mr. Cal never gets worked up; he does everything such that we can understand: with him, math is easy.” “He has changed my life,” whispers Stephen Whitlock, 22, a former student turned his assistant, who is getting ready to be a math teacher himself. Just like Elisabeth Thaï, 19, who is also a former student of Fairmont. “One day,” she remembers, “he put a chair on the table, and sat on it to give class: it was wild! You’re always asking yourself what he’ll come up with next.”

“Enthusiasm is contagious,” jokes their teacher. The key to his instruction? Chase boredom, prove respect for the students, and constantly keep their attention.

The trajectory of this math professor has not always been a straight line. At 25, this aerospace engineer was bored with inventing satellites. Offspring of a family of teachers, he too wanted to teach. “But this job has been so degraded by people who don’t give a damn about the students, and who are there simply to pass on information,” he laments bitterly. “There is no heart, no passion.” He notices it from the first day of his career in 1989 at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, a remote suburb of Los Angeles. When he asks for room 141, a colleague answers him with “You mean the wild kingdom?”

How about his very first class? Gang members, young girls engaging in prostitution, people with suicidal tendencies... A student will be killed a few weeks later; some will end up in prison... “The last thing that they had on their mind was to learn,” the teacher explains. “They wanted above all to stay alive.” He tries in vain to gain their respect, to get them to shut up... “I came to understand that my students were not going to change unless they had a reason for changing,” he remembers. Many of them come from broken homes, sometimes they live in abandoned houses... “It was necessary that I be capable of giving them this reason,” he argues.
Here is his solution: the first part is to make the course appealing and fun. “If that works, half of my battle is won,” he explains. The other part is to get the students to come to school and to his class. For that, he puts them in a “positive” environment, greets them one by one, and proves to them that they are important to him. “I wanted them to know that together we could move forward,” affirms the professor. “Because that is life. Then comes school, and thereafter comes math.” Thus the “Cal method” was born.

Since then, Sam Calavitta has written two books, Calgebra and CALculus, and he has finished writing his biography, Making the Difference. After having taught at other public institutions, he has been having a ball for five years at the private school of Fairmont (550 students), where its president Robertson Chandler is happy to have a teacher who brings in new enrollments. How many? They would not tell so as not to provoke too much envy among the other teachers.

Sam Calavitta is a devout Christian. “This is what explains why I love my students and that don’t judge them,” he tells. In his quiet house in Yorba Linda, the meals always start with saying grace. A picture of Christ hangs enthroned above the photos of his nine children. Aged from one to 18 years, they all have an Italian name to recall their father’s origin. “Many of our friends are envious,” grins Ciena, the oldest. This weapons enthusiast, who received a 9-mm when she had earned her diploma at the end of her schooling, loves to hunt for buffalo like the other members of the clan on their ranch in Montana.

Up there, Sam Calavitta, a former wrestler who participates regularly in the Ironman (a triathlon of 3.8 km swimming, 180 km on bicycle, and a 42.2 km foot race) organizes each summer the Eternal Warrior Wrestling camp. On the brochure, this wrestling camp reserved for teenagers aged 13 to 18 prides itself to be one of the toughest in the United States: 15 hours of training every day for two weeks for €900―the math teacher pays for those who do not have the means. “The youngsters must learn that life is tough,” he emphasizes because for him “the effort is the essence of existence.” “Judges send us young people who belong to gangs. At the end of the camp, I assure you, they will have learned humility and how to help each other.”

~~~~~~~~ By Mustapha Kessous, Anaheim (United States), special correspondent

Photos
Cover shot for Parenting OC Magazine
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