This article -- written by Wayne Hanson and Bob Graves -- was originally published in Government Technology's Visions Magazine in December 1998
Jaime Escalante was born in Bolivia, became a teacher in 1952, and later came to the United States. It was at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles that he first attracted worldwide attention His students -- mostly from low-income Spanish-speaking neighborhoods -- tested so high in the prestigious advanced placement test for calculus that he was suspected of cheating. Under close scrutiny, however, observers discovered an exceptional teacher, so exceptional, in fact, that a movie -- "Stand and Deliver" starring Edward James Olmos as Escalante -- was filmed and released in 1988.
Documentary filmmakers have also attempted to capture the classroom magic that transforms kids into bright mathematicians. The 24-part series Futures With Jaime Escalante, helps students connect classroom studies with real-world careers. Futures -- produced by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), has received more than 50 awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award. In cooperation with the National School to Work Office and FASE, PBS re-released the series in 1998, with new teacher materials for use in school-to-work programs.
Escalante was interviewed in his final year of teaching in the U.S. at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, Calif..
GT: I've heard students say you changed their lives. Is there someone who influenced you as a child -- someone that changed your life?
Escalante: My mom. She was a teacher. When I was a kid she asked me to take a basket of oranges, she had me carry that basket to school. I didn't want to carry it. My mom started to explain with the oranges. She said "this is a sphere" and she peeled it and she said "this is the circumference." And she took a knife and cut, and said "this is symmetry." That impressed me. Later on, when I was in the classroom and the teacher was talking about that -- I pictured it.
I was so active, I couldn't stay still for more than two minutes. I was hyperactive, and my teachers used to complain about that. And I had a teacher that told me "I'm going to teach you something that you will remember all your life -- fractions." And he taught me fractions. Those are the ones that motivated me.
GT: At one time, you said you'd rather have students with disciplinary problems in your classes than gifted children. Is that because you were one of those kids with discipline problems?
Escalante: Yes. I understand those kids, because I was suspended more than five times from junior high.
To motivate the students you innovate. To be in the classroom and just take the textbook -- it gets monotonous, and students they don't like that. You have to relate with something the kids like to do. Something like basketball.
GT: You have said that ganas is all a student needs, and that it is up to the teacher to bring out the ganas. What is ganas and why is it so important?
Escalante: In my classroom I have a banner with "ganas." It means "desire." And you have to have that desire. Ganas is when the motivation begins. That word is a strong word in my original language.
Ganas replaces the word in America "gifted." I cannot accept "gifted." You're going to measure IQ -- and I say no. Any student, any [person] to me is gifted. They have something they can do, and I -- especially the students -- I hold them accountable for what they do. And that's where I make the