The Profile

Dan Kennedy ’68: Master of Mathematics

Written by Benjamin Gleisser

Dan Kennedy ’68 is a do-it-yourself high school math teacher. Need help with algebraic answers or calculus calculations? Do it yourself—or, better yet, ask your fellow students.

Walk into one of Kennedy’s math classes at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., and you’ll probably see students’ desks bunched in twos and threes, with youngsters chatting back and forth as they work together to solve the day’s math problem. Meantime, the white-haired Kennedy, like the sage Albus Dumbledore, strolls among the  learners and offers gentle suggestions.

“I encourage creativity and cleverness,” says Kennedy, who is in his 39th year at Baylor, a boarding school for grades six through 12. “Class doesn’t start with me showing students how to do something, and then asking them to imitate me. I give them problems that are a little beyond where they are, and then let them talk to each other so they figure it out on their own. When I walk around, kids stop me and ask, ‘Is this right?’ And all I’ll say is, ‘Talk to your partner.’”

The goal of the exercises is simple, Kennedy says: “Collaboration. You’ve got to talk to people to become a problem solver. When we work together—well, that’s how the world works!”

Innovative instruction methods, like peer-group teaching, have earned him a number of state and national kudos, including the 1995 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. Kennedy received his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Last October, the author of five high school calculus, algebra and geometry textbooks, visited Holy Cross as the featured speaker for the Teacher Education Program. Kennedy’s lecture, “A History of American High School Mathematics Education: Change We Could Sometimes Believe In,” provided plenty of thought-provoking ideas on improving high school education.

Two of his more intriguing proposals are: eliminating the government’s role in education and creating a national standard for the teaching of mathematics. Currently, each state formulates its own curriculum.

“The problem with government-mandated proficiency tests is that states are under pressure to have their students pass,” Kennedy explains. “But each state has its own standards, so when one state starts to look bad, it starts watering down its standards.

“This creates problems for us in the textbook business,” he continues, “because we have to cover each state’s standards. So, textbooks become thick because they have to include everything, and teachers are never able to cover it all. They start on page one, and, when June rolls around, that’s the amount of math the class gets.”

Kennedy is encouraged that 37 states have signed an informal agreement to establish a common core of guidelines for what students need to know by the time they leave school.

“Just because something was important in the 18th century doesn’t mean it still needs to be taught today,” he adds.

Lecturing at Holy Cross brought back many memories, including working as a disc jockey at the College radio station WCHC, where he was station manager during his last year. “WCHC was my fraternity, my social network,” he remembers with a smile. “Back in those days, you had real on-air personalities, not just someone who played music. The experience I had at the microphone enabled me to be able to get up and talk to large groups of people.”

Other fond memories: eating at the Miss Worcester Diner and watching Holy Cross beat Boston College in a football game.

When he’s not teaching, Kennedy has a number of hobbies—he writes poetry, bakes pastries and relaxes with Celtic music, a nod to his Irish ancestors. But when he’s teaching, he’s always figuring out new ways to keep his students—and himself—sharp. 

“I always try to think about how to make things better,” he says. “If I just did the same thing from the same yellowed lecture notes year after year, I’d probably go crazy.”

Q&A:

What is your favorite number?
Pi (3.1415…), because it pops up in some surprising places. It’s not just the ratio of a circle to its diameter. It also appears in several different sequences of numbers.

Do you play the lottery?
When the prize gets up to $40 million or so, if I happen to be going by a gas station or a convenience store, I’ll stop in and get a ticket. Did you know that the lottery provides the greatest exponential jump in statistical chances? A one-in-a-however-million chance of winning is definitely greater than a zero-in-a-million chance, which happens if you don’t buy a ticket. Calculating the probability of winning the lottery is a good in-class exercise.

Ancient mystics thought they could find God through mathematics. Do you believe that, too?
A: Every so often, I come across a piece of information that convinces me God has a sense of humor. There’s a wonderful order of things in the universe. I’m often struck by how creation itself appears to be so mathematical and orderly. The more math you know, the more you get insights into God.

The Kennedy File:
Birthplace: Rochester, N.Y.
Residence: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Birthday: July 19, 1946
Job Title: Cartter Lupton Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at
     the Baylor School
Fun fact: Only high school teacher to chair the AP Calculus test
     development committee

To read more about Kennedy’s hobbies, his famous sister and who he considers his hero, see this issue’s Web Exclusives at holycross.edu/magazine.