WILKES-BARRE — The last bell has rung and the empty halls are hushed, save for the echoing of a few footsteps and that rapid-fire clackety-clack of chalk against blackboard in room 32.
Lessons may be over at 2:30 p.m. for most Coughlin High School students, but on any given weekday odds are good that a half-dozen or more of Gerald Gillis’ Advanced Placement (AP) calculus class has stayed behind for “eighth period,” standing with backs to the desks, scrawling complex equations on the boards.
“We’re very lucky to have that period,” Gillis said. “I couldn’t imagine doing all of this work without extra practice.”
For Gillis’ AP students, “all of that work” includes the daily AP classes of about 50 minutes and routine extra work in early-morning and late-afternoon sessions. A student once called getting into this class “a death sentence,” he admits.
But a funny thing happens on the way to the metaphoric gallows: His students have become chronic over-achievers, with entire classes nabbing the top AP test score — a five — year after year.
“Here’s the statistics,” Gillis said. “We had 73 students in five years, 70 scored five, two scored four, and one scored three.” The last three years have seen nothing but fives.
Yes, AP classes are self-selected, with students opting in and, in some cases, dropping out, so they typically start out pretty motivated to begin with.
And yes, there are plenty of solid teachers getting high scores out of their students.
But Gillis has becomes something of a gold standard in Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
“Other AP teachers compare themselves to him,” senior Valerie Davi said.
One AP teacher asked “how much homework does Mr. Gillis give over the holiday,” Alizabeth Ellsworth added.
“I don’t give that much homework, do I?” Gillis asked.
What motivates them to work so hard for the guy? Well, perhaps ironically, it’s the fact that he makes them work so hard.
“He’s way more challenging, but he’s way more helpful” than some teachers, Davi said.
“He doesn’t let us slack off,” Nima Patel said.
“He actually cares about us,” Davi added. “He’s critical, but it’s constructive.”
There’s the bonus incentive of prior classes scoring nothing but fives, they concede; who wants to be known as the “dumb” class” just because one person dropped to a four?
But Gillis insists repeatedly the perfect scores over the years are not the focus. “In the end, it’s not just about the score,” he said. “I want you to become good problem-solvers and to have a good work ethic.”
Gillis practices what he preaches. He said that when he first got the AP calculus gig he gave up his own free period to sit in the class of his predecessor. “They already had a lot of it figured out.”
He built on that prior success, helping rewrite the school’s trigonometry curriculum to better prepare students for the jarring transition to high-speed, college-leval math.
He also keeps up with changes in the field. He did a project study with the College Board, the organization that oversees AP courses, attended the AP annual conference, spent a week at the AP Institute and goes through online programs with the College Board.
“I feel if you have the responsibility to do homework,” he told the students, “I have a responsibility to keep current with trends and changes in the curriculum.’
Gillis is so immersed in the world of math education he has graded AP tests for the College Board (not those of his students, of course; graders don’t know the identities of test-takers) and helped in the development of the state’s new Keystone Exams, subject-specific tests given in high school at the end of a course.
District Math Coordinator Corinne Drost praised all her AP teachers but conceded Gillis seems to rise a step above.
“He’s been teaching for 18 years,” she said. “He’s dynamic in the classroom, always moving the kids forward, always trying new and different ways to get that same outcome with the students.”
After his students took a short break to discuss the reasons they put up with all that work, they did something that showed just how successful the intense but soft-spoken Gillis is at motivating them.
Even though “eighth period” was almost over, they asked for a few more problems.