Volunteer Spotlight: Dan Wheeler

By Mount Tamalpais College | April 1, 2016

In our volunteer spotlight, we’re sharing stories from the volunteers and community members that are making an impact.

Tell us about yourself.

Hi, friends! I’ve lived in San Francisco since 2010, Boston and Brooklyn before then, but I was born in the Bay and grew up in Oregon. My parents have a background in education and I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Professionally, I work as a programmer on the security team at Dropbox. We stop shadowy criminal organizations from stealing your bitcoins among other paranoid endeavors. I’m one of the elementary algebra lecturers and taught precalculus study group in the fall. In the past I TA’d computer science at MIT and worked as a summer lecturer at the University of Split in Croatia and Qinghai University in Western China.

What’s been the most surprising thing about teaching at San Quentin?

I went into San Quentin with many stereotypical preconceptions about inmates: the importance of conformity, that the tallest blade of grass gets cut down, that any visible weakness or deviation will be exploited by guards and fellow inmates. Going in with these memes, it was a surprise to encounter Jeff’s flower garden outside EDU on my first day. It helped me realize that the situation is more complex. Before being there, I expected much less class participation from students out of fear of giving incorrect answers. It’s been quite the opposite so far: my students are generally vocal, humorous, ask questions, and don’t sweat it when they make a mistake in front of the class (they also don’t hesitate to point out my mistakes).

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an instructor?

Elementary algebra has been harder to teach than precalculus. It’s been longer since I learned that material myself and I’ve internalized the concepts to the point where it’s sometimes hard to explain them from first principles with good examples and analogies. For example, why does x – (-y) = x + y? I’ve gotten better at jumping to the right visualizations, such as temperatures on a thermometer: “how much warmer is 5 degrees than -2 degrees”? The other big challenge in Elementary Algebra is the wider spectrum of prior math experience. I’m still learning how to set the right pace.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

In general, I love learning, and teaching is a great excuse to continue learning interesting subjects. What I enjoy most at San Quentin is the motivation level of the students. Compared to high school and college-aged students I’ve taught in the past, at San Quentin, I’ve never had students that were more eager to learn the material and put in the work.

Tell us about your favorite memory in the classroom.

As an elective, Fall Precalculus had about 6 students, with 2 showing up regularly to study group. At first I assumed they needed more help than the others, but it was the opposite: they were there to geek out on math. They’d want to do the hard problems at the back of the chapter that weren’t on the homework, or ask questions about the history of math, or learn how to prove the material they were learning, even though none of that was in the syllabus. My biggest success was getting them to a point where they could beat me at a rotating trigonometry game that got more advanced each week. It started with “who can draw a unit circle the fastest with all the 30/45 degree multiples labeled” and ended with “what’s the x of y”, where x is any trig function: “what’s the arctan of -root(3)?” –> “-pi/3 radians.”

Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.


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