Mimi Geier, a great math teacher

MimiGeierThe world lost a great math teacher this week. Mimi Geier not only loved math, she loved teaching math and delighted in watching kids discover solutions. If I had a picture to share here, it would be of Ms. Geier with a grin on her face, holding out a piece of chalk so that a student could teach.

My first day at BFIS, Ms. Geier asked me if I was in first or seventh period math. I wanted to ask which one was the advanced math class, but I didn’t. Instead I said I didn’t know. She told me to come to both and we’d figure it out.

I got worried during the first math class. I could solve any quadratic equation in the world with the quadratic formula but Ms. Geier didn’t think too much of that method. She wanted us to factor, to pull the problem apart and understand the pieces that solved it.

Walking up the stairs after lunch, a girl who later became my friend told me, “You don’t want to be in the seventh period math class.” So it was with trepidation that I entered seventh period. Is this where they sent the kids that had never learned to factor? To my surprise I found a much different class. It was a small classroom of relaxed students and a very different Ms. Geier. This was not the homeroom teacher Ms. Geier. This was not the Ms. Geier who could take forever to make a simple point. This was not the Ms. Geier who was always misplacing that paper that she’d just had. This Ms. Geier grinned a lot. She loved it when we came up with a hard problem. She delighted in solving problems with us. She was thrilled when we figured it out. Ecstatic when we could teach each other. This was Ms. Geier the math teacher. I got to stay in seventh period, advanced math.

One day, we were all having trouble with some calculus. We could solve all the problems but we were struggling with the why. We got the formulas but not how they worked. The next day, a kid in my class whose dad was an engineer at IBM came in and said, “I got it! My dad explained it to me.” Ms. Geier, who had probably spent hours figuring out how to teach it to us, just grinned, held out the chalk and said “Show us!”

Several years after that first day of school, Ms. Geier was out of town for a few weeks. Her substitute pulled me aside during break. Sitting at Ms. Geier’s desk, he asked me for help with a math problem and said Ms. Geier had told him that if he had any problems with the math, he should ask me. Me, the kid who was afraid to ask which class was advanced, now trusted to help the math teacher!

Unknown to me, Ms. Geier also intervened on our behalf in other areas. We were having trouble with our science teacher. Several of us were banned from asking questions. One of my classmates was banned from asking questions because her questions were too stupid (she’s now a food scientist) and I was banned because my questions were too ridiculous (too much science fiction?). In all fairness, she did explore my ridiculous questions outside of class, even consulting her college professor. Things eventually got better. Several years later she told me that Ms. Geier had helped her figure out how to cope with us.

Ms. Geier taught me many things. Among them were that it’s ok to love math just because it’s math, that it’s ok to be the expert and let somebody else teach you – not just ok but exciting, that it’s ok to be the expert and not know all the answers, that sometimes people learn best from peers, that solving problems together is fun, and much more. I owe a lot of who I’ve become in my career to Mimi.

I, and many generations of math students, will miss Mimi Geier.

Passion brings them together, the internet enables them and their diversity helps them succeed

Lots of corporations work really hard to increase diversity.

In the mean time, I think free and open source software projects have figured it out. They may not be diverse in every way possible (there's a notable lack of women and an over representation of developers – go figure) but they have succeeded in not only attracting a diverse set of people but creating a really well working diverse group of people.

I think a couple of factors have made that possible:

  1. Passion. A shared mission, passion and commitment to the project.
  2. Connectivity. The internet (email, IRC, IM, identica, etc) has enabled people to work together effectively.

Take the GNOME Board of Directors, one of the most effective and diverse teams I've had the pleasure of working with:

  • 7 people
  • that live in 7 different countries
  • on 4 different continents
  • in 6 time zones
  • and speak 5 different first languages

They are diverse in other ways too but these facts are most public.

They talk every day via email, IRC and IM, debate some pretty difficult issues and come to working agreements without a boss. (They hired me, not the other way around.) They run the GNOME Foundation.

How many other teams do you know that are that diverse and that successful?

Their passion for GNOME brings them together, the internet enables them to work together and their diversity helps them succeed.

Five Easy Ways to (Maybe) Discover What You Are Meant to Do With Your Life

Pamela from Escape from Cubicle Nation has these five questions she recommends answering to find out what you should do with your life.  I answered them for fun and then I debated posting them here as they could be a bit personal but I thought it would be fun to see if you guys can figure out what I’m passionate about by reading them.  Your ideas are welcome!

What is your favorite movie?  Pelican Brief – she solves a mystery, writes a brief, it gets noticed by important people, she’s in New Orleans – my second favorite city, trying to hide – I like the challenge of how you would hide, trying to right a wrong.   My next favorite would be an action movie – any of the Tom Clancy movies with Harrison Ford, or that one where Harrison Ford proves he’s innocent of murdering his wife because a one man arm did it or the Saint or that one where they track nuclear weapons to New York City.  Action all the way.  With a challenging mystery that the main character solves.

What are your favorite channels on television?  Channels?  Frank tapes all the shows with the DVR.  All I know are the names of my favorite shows – not even what day they come on!  ER and Gray’s Anatomy would be my favorites although they tend to get a bit soap opera-ish.  I also enjoy watching CSI with Frank.  If there’s anything else on … well, I’ll never know if I like it unless Frank tapes it and says I should watch it.

What kind of art museums are you attracted to?  Art.  Hmm.  I liked seeing all the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian.  Does that count as art?  If I had to pick an art form, it would be photography.  There’s a photographer here in Colorado who has studios at the airport and in Broomfield and he takes amazing pictures of wildlife.  But I like pictures of people best.  They don’t have to be people I know but those are the best ones.

What kind of music do you love? Country music.  Time Marches On and Any Man of Mine and the one about the girl (as the boy grows up) are probably my favorites.

What kind of outdoor environment makes you the most happy?  Summer.  Sitting outside at a restaurant in downtown Fort Collins.  Preferably with friends but alone is still fun as long as there’s lots of people around and lots going on.  Sitting on the Ramblas in Barcelona rates pretty high too.  As does the River Walk in New Orleans.  And parts of New York City and San Francisco.  Busy, hot cities in the summer.

So what do you think?  Do you know what I should do now?

Are you passionate about your ideas?

As this inventor of a toothpaste squeezer tube says in the NYT:

“If you’re not boring the pants off people,” Mr. Robertson said, “you don’t have enough passion.”

I’m not sure I’m boring the pants off people but I’ve definitely gotten some strange looks.