Tuesday, April 6, 2010

We can all, in our own way, Stand and Deliver

We all have one- one romanticized Hollywood education movie that somehow brings us to tears- creates for us what we think good teaching is, or at least inspires us to look beyond daily life and see our students, our schools, and our role as an educator as part of the larger battle.

I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw Stand and Deliver, but I know when they showed it to my 7th grade class I was already familiar with the plot, the characters, and the message. While I tried to pretend, along with my classmates, that it was the most boring movie ever shown, I secretly was once again taking all of Jaime Escalante's work to heart.

As a young, naive child growing up in the country I was most struck by the social injustice of it all when his students were accused of cheating on the AP calculus exam. I'd always been taught if you worked hard you could achieve your goals, and that the world would be proud of you when you did. Perhaps Stand and Deliver was my first introduction into a world of hypocritical expectations and pre-determined roles set upon us by society.

I can't say that the movie made me want to be a teacher, but Escalante's story did give me a thread that I would continue to weave into meaning throughout my life- seeking a balance of social justice, looking beyond what is commonly accepted as social truths, and working hard with pure determination at all you do.

What Escalante did was teach the children in front of him. He saw what they needed to achieve their goal and made it possible. He didn't accept a given format for teaching, and didn't follow the expected path his administrators and peers expected of him. He knew his students and responded to their needs, never lowering his expectations, but instead allowed what he knew about his students to help him help them rise.

I read Jay Mathew's tribute to him in this past week's Outlook section in the post, and I suddenly saw where Mathews is coming from in his education theory. Through his education position at the Post he has encouraged schools to create more AP classes, and to encourage more students to take AP classes. Mathews has worked on changing the culture of only allowing certain students to take AP classes by creating an incentive for schools to encourage all their students to take these classes. Mathews praises schools like KIPP, with their Saturday classes, extended hours, and high expectations. All of Mathews' work, it seems, has been inspired by what he saw from Escalante.

I can't help but wonder if Mathews did what so many of our law makers and bureaucrats do to a good idea. Instead of seeing what is truly behind Escalante's work, he tried to recreate it, and in doing so took some of the good out of it. Although encouraging more students to take AP classes seems like a wonderful goal on the surface, a school will only achieve what Escalante did by truly knowing and embracing their students' needs. Escalante knew what was needed in his community and responded to it. That does not mean his method can be recreated. Instead, what needs to be replicated is his desire for achievement, his belief in his students, and his dedication to changing the set path to make it meet the needs of his students.
What Mathews has done, instead, is attempted to create a set path. It is a good path, and in many ways may be a better path than what was there. But we've lost the true meaning of Escalante's work. Instead of being encouraged to use our own teacher intuition and our creativity, and to know and respond to our students' needs, Mathews is merely encouraging us to follow a set way- asking us not to question whether or not it works for particular students. Once again assuming that teachers must be told by those above them how to do their jobs, because they cannot think for themselves.

One cannot set a curriculum that shows students we believe in them- the only way to do that is for the teachers themselves to believe in their students, and to be passionate enough to pass that belief on to their students through their teaching, dedication, and drive, just like Escalante did.


jb said...

Turns out the kids actually did cheat —although they would have passed anyway: http://betsyspage.blogspot.com/2009/09/students-did-cheat-in-stand-and-deliver.html

Jason Buell said...

The main point that I think Mathews et al. miss is that Jaime Escalante wasn't just a great teacher, he created a system. While he was driving force, he went all the way down to the middle schools to get the students to the point where they were ready for calculus by the time they got to him. All Saturday classes in the world aren't getting a kid from basic math to calculus AP in a single year. It took him over ten years to get to where he wanted to be.

luckeyfrog said...

I think what's important about the "system" is that there was collaboration. I would love for our high schools to say to the middle schools and elementary schools and say, "Kids come to us strong in these areas, but weak in these areas. Can we help you come up with some ways to better build the foundations they will need later?"

So many teachers like to blame where their students are on previous learning, but I don't see many with the passion and initiative to do something about it.

It was a slow solution, though- like most education fixes will have to be. Year by year.