AP Teacher Q&A: Virge Cornelius (Lafayette High School) and Mark Kiraly (Billy Ryan High School)

The AP Calculus AB teachers share what they have learned from teaching online and working as teachers through a pandemic

Since launching in early March, there have been nearly 18 million views of the Online AP Classes and Review Sessions that stream live daily and are archived on YouTube. More than 1.3 million of those eyeballs have been on AP Calculus AB classes. And when students tune in to prepare for their exam, the teachers they see are Virge Cornelius and Mark Kiraly.

Cornelius is a 30-year veteran of the classroom and normally teaches at Lafayette High School in Oxford, Miss.; Kiraly is a 28-year teaching veteran whose classroom is normally in Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas. But after the coronavirus pandemic closed schools across the country, their classrooms became Zoom and YouTube—and the number of students turning to them for instruction ballooned into the thousands. But they weren’t in it alone. Cornelius and Kiraly have known each other for years, collaborating as question leaders at AP Readings, moderating a Facebook group for calculus teachers, and even cooking up an idea for a Car Talk-like podcast called Calc Talk. So when it came to virtually teaching AP Calculus AB, they were perfectly positioned to make the most of the format.

Cornelius and Kiraly spoke with The Elective about the challenges of not interacting with students face to face, and the value of a creative Zoom background. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

split-screen screenshot featuring teachers Virge Cornelius on the left and Mark Kiraly on the right

AP Calculus AB teachers Virge Cornelius (left) and Mark Kiraly

How have things been for you through all this? How is your family? How are your students?

Virge Cornelius: I feel really fortunate that I'm not in a hot spot like New York. We live in Oxford, Mississippi, which is the home of the University of Mississippi, and they're pretty much shut down right now. Their classes are online, but our town seems very, very quiet. We are kind of sheltering in place. We just found out that none of us are going back to school for the remainder of the year. My own child is a senior. This is heartbreaking. No prom, no senior awards night, no band banquet, no graduation. The only thing that they're doing is their AP Exams, and my senior has a lot of APs. So that's really good because there is that distraction there and I feel lucky to be distracted by this initiative. Mark and I just found out we're going to be leadership for the online grading, so we'll have a little hiatus and then back at it for two weeks.

What has it been like for the two of you teaching together?

Mark Kiraly: The funny part is, last year was the first time they ever had co-QLs [question leaders] on a problem at the AP Reading, and Virge and I were co-QLs. So we've worked together before. And we collaborate a lot.

Cornelius: I've been reading AP Exams since 1999, and I've been a question leader since, I think, 2010. We're very good friends from that and we collaborate a lot during the year, sending each other stuff and everything like that.

Kiraly: I don't know if anyone knew that. It was always just, “You can do half and you can do the other half,” and we were like, “No, we're just going to do them together.”

Cornelius: And thank God. Because if we were alternating days like some other teachers, to me it would be more work. We help each other out. We find each other's mistakes. We get ideas from each other. He'll start talking about something, and I'll say, "Oh, yeah, that reminds me of this… " So the collaboration has been amazing. I wish we could collaborate like this as regular teachers. It's impossible, though.

How do you develop a gameplan for dividing the lesson—Who talks when, who does a problem?

Kiraly: We get together about 4 in the afternoon; sometimes it's after dinner. We take some time off after the live class, we come back, and we plan out what documents we're going to use the next day. And then at 9:30, 10, the next morning, we check our answers with each other and kind of divvy it up. Sometimes we follow that plan and sometimes we don't.

Cornelius: We're ready for anything because one of us could lose connectivity. That's happened to both of us before, so we’re both ready to do the whole thing by ourselves.

How is this work with the live AP courses factoring into the work with your own students?

Cornelius: Luckily, Mark and I are kind of about the same in that we don't have AP all day long; we have some other students. But our other students don't have as much responsibility. In my school, our other students—we're not taking grades. At Mark's school, they just opened up taking grades on other students.

Kiraly: And it's just pass/fail right now. I spend a lot of time on the weekends. I'm allowed to contact my non-AP kids once a week. Thursdays is our math day. But I can do optional stuff, so I'll do a Zoom on Saturday morning and one Sunday afternoon for my Algebra 2 kids. Fortunately, my Calc kids have their own real tight-knit study groups. I've done some impromptu Zooms with them after we went off-air, where a couple kids were like, "Hey, can we meet?" and we'll just get together. I have them watching us. I mean, that's part of what we're building, content for our own kids.

Cornelius: And I think that's another thing that's really important. This whole initiative was for students who were severed from their classroom experience. But really, for me, I'm thinking of teachers. I'm thinking, "What can I do to make their teacher's job easier?" You don’t want to be out somewhere in your little house with not-great internet, trying to upload a video for your kids to watch about L'Hospital's Rule? It can't happen. I tried. My internet won't upload videos the way, on the back end, College Board is able to upload these videos. Regular people can't do that, really, unless they have really great connections.

Kiraly: Every time we hear, “Oh you have 2,500 live viewers,” it's, like, "Oh really?” If I thought about that, that'd be maddening.

Cornelius: So that's funny too, because—you know that show Car Talk? These two brothers talking, goofing off, and taking calls about cars. I said to Mark probably four or five years ago that we should have something called Calc Talk. And he said, "Yeah, no one would listen." And guess what? Now we’ve got a captive audience.

Kiraly: Someone's actually paying us to do it, finally.

Is this kind of remote learning experience new for both of you?

Cornelius: I've never done this before in my life.

Kiraly: I went to a two-day workshop in the fall; I played around with putting videos online for my kids when I wasn't there, just kind of flip the classroom for a day, but never like this. I mean, we're all in—it's immersion. I felt like I should be even better at Zoom right now, after this immersion. It's kind of like throwing yourself into, "I'm gonna learn Italian. Here we go."

Mark, let me ask you about how you use Zoom backgrounds because you seem really into them.

Kiraly: Once I discovered the background thing ... I haven't repeated one yet. And I always start in Virge’s kitchen. When I discovered video-based backgrounds, that was when I started having fun. I've got a Promethean board in my room, a 70-inch TV, and it's right by my desk. I can make that look transparent. I ran one to made it look like I was in my classroom when I ran my first Zoom with my kids and I thought that was pretty funny. And then I was like, “Yeah, have fun with that.” I started doing the sci-fi route because I was a nerd with that stuff. I think the first live class, when Virge crashed, I had the Millennium Falcon cockpit background and some people put it on Reddit. It was more to see who would notice because I know we're just that little box up in the corner. We both moderate a 4,700 or 4,800-member Facebook group of Calculus teachers, and one of them has incorporated my backgrounds into her quizzes, asking her students to answer, “What was Mark's background?”

a six image grid showing six different backgrounds teacher mark kiraly has used while teaching on zoom

A sampling of the many backgrounds Mark Kiraly has used while teaching AP Calculus AB on Zoom, from a recreation of his classroom (top left) to putting himself in the Millennium Falcon (middle left) to adding himself to popular memes (bottom row).

Have you heard from any students about your backgrounds?

Kiraly: I've had a couple mention that we make them laugh. I got one today from Tracy in California right after we went off air. That's what's neat, is that they're from all over. "After watching many of your videos, I want to thank you for helping us. I think your videos are entertaining and you guys definitely make me laugh." It's cool.

What have you both learned about teaching or about yourselves as teachers in doing class this way?

Cornelius: Well, I don't think I'm doing class necessarily. It's not class, And it's never going to be class in this format. It might be that's the way we go for the rest of our lives, but it's not like having a class with students in there. Those who are doing AP Live with just one teacher teaching without that give and take—Mark and I talk to each other while we're teaching. So if I'm taking the lead on a problem and I ask a question, which is going to be a natural pedagogical technique for me, then he's going to answer it or he may go "Hmm, I'm not sure. Do you mean blah, blah, blah." We're trying to emulate the classroom a little bit, but it's not the classroom.

Kiraly: Yeah, there's no formative assignments. We're not getting any kind of feedback from the kids, like, "Oh, yeah, that really clicked for me." We get an email every so often, but that's a small percentage of who's watching.

Cornelius: Teachers and students have reached out to both of us about different stuff, but mostly in appreciation.

Is that the primary way that there's some kind of community around these videos, through email?

Cornelius: There's no live chat for us because we just think that that's too much to manage. Mark mentioned that we have this Facebook community. That community of teachers is really, really good, and they have been very supportive of what we're doing.

Kiraly: They give us a lot of feedback from their kids. But, yeah, the students have primarily been reaching out via email. I'll be honest, I go lurk the Reddit boards.

Does not having a physical classroom of students to react to you, and for you to react to, make teaching these lessons challenging?

Kiraly: The first couple days, Virge and I would go, "If you want to see that, pause." Because there are natural points where kids would stand up and be like, "Hey, what about…?'' and we don't have that ability, so we kind of built it in. I guess that's where our experience pays off because we know where those natural stopping points and questions are. I think as a first-year teacher, you'd probably just rip through stuff and then not really know where the students are pausing and looking for more input.

Cornelius: I agree. I'm in my 30th year classroom teaching and Mark's in his 27th or 28th or something like that. As a classroom teacher, I've moved away from direct instruction 100% of the time to more, like, "Instead of eight problems, I'm going to show you four problems and then I'm going to give you these six carefully crafted examples that you guys are going to work on. And not just because you're going to mimic what I just did, but because you're going to practice this and need to connect it to another idea. And I'm going to walk around and facilitate and assist." That part of teaching, when you're watching kids figure stuff out, is gone. It doesn't exist in this format. Maybe if you could set up Zoom, where you have these different rooms and you can pop in on kids doing work. But my students, some of them are working, some of them can't come to Zoom sessions and go over stuff. Some of them are, you know, sleeping.

Kiraly: They have a family of five, right? They've got siblings...

Cornelius: ...and everybody's on the internet at the same time. So there's none of that walking around and seeing what they're doing, looking at their work.

Kiraly: Yeah, I alluded to that earlier. There's just no formative feedback at all.

Does knowing that there isn't that kind of feedback impact the way you structure your classes? In a normal situation you would adjust based on the needs of the class, right?

Cornelius: Oh, definitely, constantly. Just think about sports. Let's say that you're coaching and you plan to run this drill for 10 minutes, and then you get into it and three minutes in the kids can't even do the first part of the drill. You do one of two things: You either say, "OK, we're working on this drill for 30 minutes" or "We're not working on this drill today." You have to constantly make those adjustments when you're teaching.

Kiraly: Like music, too. You can't play that piece because we can't do this, so you have to back it up.

Cornelius: You can't teach anything to anyone if you don't have a relationship with them. And it’s very hard to have a relationship virtually with thousands of people that you don't know. But if Mark and I have that on-air relationship and if we do things that engage the students and feel like they are starting to like us or want to see what we're going to do next or whatever, that helps the learning as well.

It feels less like a lecture and more that you're sitting in on a conversation about calculus.

Cornelius: Yeah. I think it's fun, too, to see Mark and I enjoy it so much, and I think that's important because math is hard. And it's oftentimes taught with too much procedure and not enough creativity. But to have your own teacher who you probably like, in some way, and then have these other two teachers now that you can like to listen to, that's kind of a cool experience. But not all kids are going to get that.

Do you see these videos you’re creating as resources you can point to students next year, when, hopefully, things go back to normal?

Cornelius: AP teachers are thrilled with these videos, and they're wondering if College Board is going to leave them up. I know AP teachers who are buying external drives so they can download all this stuff.

Kiraly: My wife teaches AP Bio and she wants to save them. She coaches golf and cross country, and she's like, "These are great. I can leave one for a day, leave a 45-minute video, and then the quiz.” She's writing quizzes from them for her kids. So she wants that resource. But I also understand, like, Virge and I'll make a mistake that will probably need to get edited out if this is something that's going to live in perpetuity because the kids aren't necessarily going to watch the next day if they're watching segments of them.

How do you think this moment we’re in and the things we’re learning will resonate once we go back to something like normal?

Kiraly: I think this grade, whatever grade students are in right now, whatever level of education they're in, is going to have an asterisk on it for the rest of their lives. And we are definitely going to see gaps. There's no way, no matter how well intentioned we are, that my Algebra 2 kids going into Pre-Calc next year are at the same level that the kids were the year before. And the Pre-Calc teacher is going to have to keep that in mind. And when I get them back in two years in Calculus, there are going to be small gaps that aren't going to show up until they're needed. So, yeah, we've adapted. We're doing the best we can. We're offering a lot, and I think it's important. But hopefully there's some appreciation that the in-classroom experience can't be replaced with this completely. It's a valuable supplement. I think we're doing good work. I think Virge and I are offering something to kids that maybe they wouldn't have gotten otherwise. But it's not a replacement for being face to face with somebody.

Cornelius: There's definitely an asterisk on this year, and that's for college students, kindergarteners, high school students—for everybody. But everybody's going through the same thing. It's not the same as an isolated issue like a hurricane or some other disaster. I tend to be an optimist, and I think this can only help us in the long-run. We have figured out, by necessity, how to do all this video conferencing. I've learned so many technical things that I didn't know three, four weeks ago. That can only enhance teaching in the long-run. But Mark is absolutely right. Face-to-face teaching is not going to go the way of the dinosaur anytime soon. It can't. Will schools only send kids to school four days a week, and the teachers go the fifth day, but the kids do not and they're expected to be working on distance learning-type stuff or whatever? Maybe, because that would save money for schools.

I think the other thing is that some public schools were able to issue devices to their kids, some were not. Some public schools issued devices to their kids in August or September; we didn't. Some kids have good internet, some kids don't. Even kids who live in really nice houses in our county don't have internet because it doesn't go out that far. There's a lot of inequity. And that's nothing new in school. But I I'm hoping that C Spire, a big internet and phone company in Mississippi, will try and get more connectivity to these kids. If you're in school, you should have access to the internet. We don't need to issue textbooks to every kid anymore—we need to issue hotspots and other devices, like computers. We can issue textbooks if history teachers want to issue textbooks, but I don't teach from a textbook much anymore. But that'd be great if you had a K–12 child in your house and you automatically had a hot spot.

Kiraly: I disagree a little because those kids do need a textbook.

Cornelius: Oh yeah, I'm not saying to get rid of textbooks.

Kiraly: It's both—we don't have to replace, but supplement.

Cornelius: But if you're in a situation like this, where now the instruction is getting delivered virtually, then the textbook isn't ... I guess it could help somewhat, but how are they going to access anything that the teacher is trying to teach virtually?