Late Author, Teacher Demystified Calculus for Thousands

Louis Leithold, who died April 29, wrote a number of books on calculus and taught at the university level. But his real passion was teaching high school students, as he did late in his life at Malibu High School. Robert Siegel talks with Amelia Zimmerman, head of the math department at Malibu High School about her colleague.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Louis Leithold, who died in late April, wrote a blockbuster best-seller. It was called simply "The Calculus." And Dr. Leithold evidently possessed a gift for making calculus relatively simple. We learned of Louis Leithold's death from the Los Angeles Times. But thousands of high school seniors and college students are familiar with his book. It was first published in 1968 and has gone through several editions. And calculus students at Malibu High School in Malibu, California, knew him as a classroom teacher as well. He started teaching high school in his 70s after many years of teaching college. Amelia Zimmerman(ph) is chair of the math department at Malibu High School and joins us from the school.

What kind of a teacher was Dr. Leithold?

Ms. AMELIA ZIMMERMAN (Malibu High School): He was an amazing teacher. He just had a way of explaining concepts so that every student could understand and understand at a very deep level.

SIEGEL: To give some statistical example here, we read in the Los Angeles Times yesterday that the average score on the calculus Advanced Placement test nationwide, out of a possible five, is 3.01, and at Malibu High it is 4.6. So even with my pre-calculus math, that means that the majority of students there get a top score of 5. He...

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Yes, that is correct. And I think that that just demonstrates how well the students learned the material.

SIEGEL: He was legendary, I gather, at The College Board.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: He absolutely was. It was one of those things where not very many students took his class because he was legendary in the amount of homework that he assigned. I mean, it was sometimes anywhere from two to three hours a night, and so not all students were able to make that commitment. But those who did just--it was one of those classes that they truly loved.

SIEGEL: Is there a particular moment in his version of teaching calculus that impressed you sufficiently that you would emulate it?

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Well, emulate but never, of course, meet his standard. I mean, any student who ever had him would know that his favorite day of the entire year was the day that he would present the fundamental theorem of calculus. And he had just an entire buildup. He would--for weeks prior to the actual day that he would teach the lesson, he would have a countdown on the board. And then on that particular day, he would wear a shirt covering a T-shirt underneath, which would have the fundamental theorem of calculus on it. And so right at the point where he was going to show the theorem, he would then say, `Is it getting hot in here?' At which point in time, you know, people would go to open the windows, and then he would take off the top shirt and then present his shirt, which had the theorem, and everyone loved it.

SIEGEL: This is his Superman moment in taking calculus?

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Exactly, it was.

SIEGEL: Now one reason that people who know nothing else about Dr. Leithold might connect a bit with him is that Jaime Escalante is the inner-city calculus teacher from Los Angeles, I believe...

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Right.

SIEGEL: ...who was the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver"...

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Right.

SIEGEL: ...counted Louis Leithold as a mentor and as a very strong influence on him.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Right. I know that they had an ongoing professional relationship for many years. I think even starting when Jaime Escalante started the program over at Garfield High School, he was using Louis' book.

SIEGEL: How important was calculus to Louis Leithold?

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: There was nothing but calculus for Louis. He loved it, and it was that passion that inspired others. In reflecting with the students, you know, this past week--you know, it's been such a loss for all of us--one of them said, `You know, I came into his class sort of debating whether or not it was going to be math or science. And after having Dr. Leithold,' he said, `there's not question that I'm going to study math.'

SIEGEL: Well, Ms. Zimmerman, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Well, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Amelia Zimmerman is the chair of the math department at Malibu High School, the school where Louis Leithold taught for the last several years.

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