The theory of inspiration

068.JPGAdrian Holguin plays a carefully crafted role when he shows up for his job as math teacher and department chair at Smoky Hill High School.

That's really no stretch for Holguin, a graduate of Western State College and the University of Northern Colorado who started teaching in the Cherry Creek School District in the early 1990s. A self-styled "goofball," Holguin has had plenty of practice playing different characters and bringing fictional personas to life on the stage. From his early turns as a teenager performing in high school shows to roles in college productions of "Othello" and later formative work in local improv troupes, Holguin has always had a flair for selling a part.

But his work filling the role of an engaged, active and caring math teacher is much different from the roles he's played onstage. There's a big chunk of his own heart and soul that goes into this part. It's a character crafted from his own experience and his own reality.

"I do play a character when I'm here at school, but it's a fun character and it's a character that I like to be," Holguin said from his office in the Smoky Hill High School Math Resource Center. "It's a play of pulling kids into the moment."

Holguin is quick to insist that he's not feigning any of the concern or investment he shows for his students in class. In drawing on the myriad skills he's picked up in countless plays, improv sessions and acting workshops, he's able to transition full from "Adrian" to "Mr. Holguin." The transformation is clear whenever he's in front of students, whether it be a full algebra class or a lone kid with questions about a tricky equation.

 "I remember the first time he jumped into Einstein's theory of relativity. Our minds were blown – he had family stories to give the numbers and squiggles meaning."


That's when the goofball rears his head. Funny voices, exaggerated gestures, spot-on impressions – all of these tools are fair game in the demanding role of teacher.

"Characters, voices, stories; they're all very helpful. Reading emotion and showing genuine emotion has been helpful," he said, adding that the same talents are requisite tools in improv and theater. "It's knowing where the audience is," he said before correcting himself, "I mean the students. Improv has helped me to spot which students are responding well to a lesson and which aren't."

For about two decades, students at Smoky Hill have responded well to Holguin's blend of theater and mathematics in positive ways. His style in the classroom has proven effective enough to earn him the school's Teacher of the Year award, and his mastery of the subject has raised him to the level of department chair.

Holguin has also found avenues to share his love of the stage directly with his students. He's directed student stage productions and he's been one of the driving forces behind the school's improv troupe Spontaneous Combustion. Holguin, who also teaches through the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Education Department, has turned that troupe into a creative force to be reckoned with, leading yearly class trips to the storied Second City theater in Chicago. Last year, his students had the chance to chat with Keegan-Michael Key, half of the duo behind the Comedy Central's sketch television show "Key and Peele."

Whether it's through improv or algebra, Holguin uses his role as a teacher to refine his students' critical thinking skills and foster their creativity.

"I've never seen math taught so energetically. It was the first time I'd ever seen math supplemented with anecdotes and stories," said Robin Dickey, a Smoky Hill senior who was a student in one of Holguin's calculus classes as a junior. Dickey, who's already been accepted into Georgetown University, currently serves as the student president of Spontaneous Combustion. "I remember the first time he jumped into Einstein's theory of relativity. Our minds were blown – he had family stories to give the numbers and squiggles meaning."

In fusing high-minded concepts of physics, math and science with his own personal experiences, Holguin was simply playing the character he's spent more than 20 years refining. The role is one that depends just as much on artistry as on equations and formulas, one that prizes improvisation just as highly as logic.

"It helps me be completely emotionally invested in my students. Mr. Holguin doesn't take things personally. Somehow, being this character lets me be fully engaged with my students and give them all the chances I can.

"It's that play of pulling kids into that believable moment," he said. "That's very much me using my theater background."

That approach was very much in evidence when a pair of students dropped by his office to go over a set of challenging equations. As the duo went over formulas on the white board, Holguin watched their progress carefully, offering guidance when they took a wrong turn and heartfelt congratulations when they cracked a difficult code.

As he worked in the guise of Mr. Holguin, the phrase "Follow Your Art" printed on the back of his T-shirt seemed to sum up his approach. Part mathematician, part performer, part improv expert and part mad scientist, Holguin drew on all of those skills as he practiced his craft.

Posted 2/17/2015 8:37 AM
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