Jaime Escalante: Excellence Means "Do it Right the First Time"

"Our kids are not motivated. They look for the easy way. They look for a job to buy a car and that's it. Nothing else. The opposite is true in places like South America. In those countries, education is a privilege. Education in this country, for most kids, is a punishment." -- Jaime Escalante

by / January 17, 2008 0

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

transformation to motivate them to go for mathematics. You become "gifted" from practicing. Practice assures success. I give you a simple equation and you do it and do it over and over and you store that information.

Try to make a comparison with something you relate to, so that's going to help you. If you say to the mechanic, "I want you to check the carburetor or change the tire," the first thing he is going to do is look for the tools. If he doesn't have his tools, he's not going to be able to do it. That's what mathematics is.

Any problem you have, you're going to find a formula, what equation you're going to use, and you're going to have to think. And that's what I'm teaching is how to use those tools.

Ganas is where the motivation begins. Ganas is where you get the energy to be able to play defense. I want you to get a big picture, a crystal picture. You get a good picture, you're going to be able to do it. If you don't get a good picture, then forget it, because you're not going to be able to do it.

GT: If ganas is all the student needs, then what does the teacher need?

Escalante: To be able to teach, you need three things. Number one is the knowledge of the subject. You have to have the domain of what you're going to teach. I'm not going to be able to teach biology. I'm not going to be able to do it, because I don't know too much about it. I have to have the blueprint in my head to follow.

The second thing is I have to motivate the concept I'm going to be teaching. For example, I introduce the concept of illegal defense -- that in mathematics you cannot divide by zero.

So I want this to be clear, and I put a zero denominator and the whole class they shout "Illegal defense!" And I ask them, you're going to have to help me out. If somebody comes and asks "what's illegal defense?" They going to say "You can't divide by zero." With each new concept I have to do exactly the same thing, I have to use some toy or something for the concept itself. So from that you start.

Third, you have to understand human relations. you have to look at the kid as a person. And you respect the kid. And that way, you motivate them. And you develop that gradually over a whole semester or two weeks or three weeks, that good relationship. And if you do that, when you have the feedback from the student, mathematically speaking, then the kid speaks back and you know he is learning.

I use basketball for every concept of mathematics. Three-point shot: parabola. Three-second violation: absolute value, more than, less then or equal to. Rebound, blocking shots: parenthesis, removing exponents, etc. [Story Continues After Sidebar]

 

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It Takes Hard Work to be Gifted

Jaime Escalante

When you separate kids, you discriminate. I do not agree with the "gifted" where you put kids together in a special program, what they call honor classes. I didn't know they had that. Accidentally I discovered that. One kid came to me and said "I don't want to sit next to him."

"Why"

"He's gifted"

"What do you mean by that?"

"He's better than me, I'm not gifted."

So I went to the principal and asked him "What's this deal with the gifted?" and I found out

that's what they do, and this teacher is teaching honors algebra. And so they classify this teacher as a gifted teacher. So I told the kids, "Look, this system it's wrong. Probably they call them gifted because they like math."

In Japan, for example, when the kid is only five years old, mom gets a private teacher, practices piano, violin or something, because their grandfather used to play, and the private teacher is going to practice two minutes, then five minutes, 30 minutes.

Then when the kid's seven years old, two, three hours -- and by that time, the kid develops the flexibility and reads the music. Mom controls what you practice. When the kid's seven years old, he takes his bow, he gives the concert, and the Americans they look and say "Oh, he's gifted."

The kid, he's not gifted, -- mom, she's the one that makes him gifted.

A kid came to me and said "how come I'm only getting a C in this class?"

I said, "why?"

He said, "I'm gifted."

"Oh, then I'm going to change the grade to A" I said (laughs).

 

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GT: I see you don't use computers in your classroom. Why is that?

Escalante: Americans like to find easy ways to do things. If anybody invented a device that if you just pushed a button and you'd know everything, everybody's going to buy that. They think that computers and calculators can be a substitute for their own understanding. I say no. Advanced technology is only useful to those who understand the basics without depending on a machine.

Some of our kids, they don't want to learn their times tables, because they have the calculator. And at the end, the student is the slave of the calculator. He depends on the calculator, he can't even estimate.

I said this in the classroom, "10 percent of $80 is less than 8, more than 8 or only 8?" Some of the kids didn't do anything, and I don't understand, "You can't do this?" [They say] "I don't have my calculator."

One kid came to class with a sophisticated calculator. He had the program and he was doing the correct answers. And I said "you have to show the steps to the end." And he said "I did it with the calculator, I programmed it."

And he don't know what the maximum minimum inflexion point is. So it's the answer but no understanding -- nothing. He does not have the basics, he doesn't have the knowledge.

In order to understand something, you have to assimilate some knowledge. Many people think computers are going to do everything for you. They don't realize the best calculator, the best computer is your brain, you're going to give commands to the computer. If you teach the kid the basics, he's going to develop, he may be an inventor or do something. But if he depends only from the tool, he's not going to be able to do it, because he has only the tool.

GT: So the teacher needs to get the concepts across to the students?

Escalante: That's right, If you don't have the concept you don't store enough information, you just did it mechanically. When you teach math, you don't have to make any science, anything, you don't have to make it really easy, and you don't have to make it real hard, you have to look at the balance, the kid's got to be able to absorb the concept. That's the key. The kid has to get the clear picture. If he gets the clear picture, he's

going to be able to cope, he's going to be able to do something.

GT: Many of your former students have done very well in life, is that because they got the concept?

Escalante: Yes, Manuel Campos, he's getting a Ph.D. in civil engineering, and he said "I got a lot of concepts from you." he realized that after going to college more than eight years. And five of my former students are working at the JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.]

GT: Is there a place for information technology in education?

Well, I believe so, if the teacher knows how to use it. Some things in advanced technology are useful. For example, I'm looking at a triangle, and I'm looking for the unknown. You put the formula by the computer, you could do this, Take that and replace it, and you get colors to be able to visualize what they are doing. The kid could do it mathematically, and could visualize how this guy did it. But that's not all -- you still have to practice.

Today you have the sophisticated computers, and you could see the three dimensional pictures, Nice to visualize. But it's not effective until the kid solves the problems. Solving the problems using advanced technology isn't beneficial to the students. [Story Continues After Sidebar]

 

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Bilingual Education Isn't

By Jaime Escalante

If you immigrate to this country, you are part of the system. You have to integrate yourself into the system. And the integration path is the language. English is needed in the place of work. Instruction comes in only one language and you must master that language. Otherwise you are a dead fish.

Secondly, at every age, between five and 10 years old, it's the best age to be able to teach, because they assimilate. If you emphasize a language the kid already knows, he's not going to be able to get much English.

A kid coming from Europe, or South America, whatever, it takes about three years to become proficient in English. My son came when he was seven years old. No English. At home, no help. And he had to learn the language. In the classroom, the teacher had only one language. In three years, the kid was swimming.

Bilingual education is negative to the students. It holds back the language. For example, people coming from Korea are successful in business. Why? They master the language. And they're the ones still working. That's the situation.

At Garfield High School, we eliminated bilingual and that's why I had so many successes. We eliminated bilingual education and all the scores started going up. The kids were monolingual. Otherwise you have the right to be in that bilingual or ESL class forever.

A bilingual teacher should teach in two languages. For example, if I'm gong to teach division, I should teach in one language, then repeat the same thing in another language. But here, when the bilingual teacher speaks two languages, he only teaches in one language. That's the weak point.

 

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GT: I know that sometimes people accuse you of being too hard on your students, of not making allowances for cultural or language or learning problems. How do you respond to those people?

Escalante: I look for excellence in education. Let me define excellence. It's a stupid definition, but it works. Excellence means do the right thing the first time. You take the test the first time.

Bang. You stand and deliver. It's not excellence when you say "I'm going to give a make-up test." like teachers do.

The second thing I look for is anticipation. And anticipation means to be in the right place at the right moment. And when I do my homework I know what I'm going to do.

And the last one is innovation I innovate. Innovation is the light of competition. That's the only way. If these people tell me I'm not doing it the right way, and I'm against the bilingual, it all just motivates me to compete, to do better. This gives me the satisfaction to say "I don't care what you say, I'm doing my job."

All different ethnic groups I have in the class. I have blacks, I have whites, I have kids from Laos and Viet Nam, and I have one Chicano kid. So it's nice, I have to adjust myself to what integration is.

If a kid is a slow learner, let him be with the other kids, maybe it's going to help him. If you say "the kid has an IQ of 50 he belongs in special education" [then] sometimes the kid is going to be lazy, [if] he knows he doesn't have to do anything.

GT: How does the future look to you?

Escalante: As you know, one generation works to help the next generation. And this generation I don't think is doing too much to be able to help the next generation. Kids are looking for easy things to do in the class, and for easy ways to go out, they're not depending on themselves to challenge the 21st century. I would like to see we teach them how to think and how to communicate. If we could accomplish that, the year 2000 plus would be better.

But at this stage, I don't think high schools are preparing kids to stand and deliver. We face one of the biggest problems, teen pregnancy, and then drugs and AIDS. In LA they pass out thousands of condoms. No. You instigate the kids to use that. You've got to anticipate this. Not the way to operate. And that starts with education and that starts at home. You show this is teen pregnancy and this is AIDS, you stimulate the kids to do that.

GT: For a teacher who does such a wonderful job with kids, it looks like you're not very positive about their future.

Escalante: I'm not, no. With this new generation and these new teachers, I don't think they're going to change too much.

GT: Do you see hope? Are there things that are working?

Escalante: I know there are great teachers, I know there are great students, but in general today, our kids are not motivated. They look for the easy way. They look for a job to buy a car and that's it. Nothing else.

The opposite is true in places like South America. In those countries, education is a privilege. Education in this country, for most kids, is a punishment. They don't want to be in the classroom. Some kids come in from other countries and get contaminated. I have some kids from Russia, some kids from China, from Laos/ Viet Nam, and they work at Jack in the Box and they think they've made it, because where they come from they didn't have money.

At home, mom and dad, they don't care too much. There are some parents that are responsible, and some kids that also have that idea, but the majority of them, no. Looking for the easy way to live.

I tell the parents, "that kid belongs to you. He doesn't belong to the state or the school, he's your kid. So you have to help me out to raise this kid. To ask him what he has to do. We always have homework and assignments. It's your responsibility, otherwise I'm not going to be able to do anything with your kid, because school alone cannot educate."

GT: What can teachers do to help prepare their students for the future?

Terminology is the killer. You walk into the classroom and you say "ax+by is to c when x and y are variables and a, b and c are constants" that makes it difficult for those students to assimilate, especially when they are ninth or tenth graders. and the student says, "no, I don't want to do that." and the teacher does not introduce the concepts gradually, or use the words with which the kids are familiar.

That's why I use basketball. You cannot divide by zero that's illegal defense. "Facemask" means the kids has to start the problem again step by step. The ball has to go back 10 yards and begin again. And the kid gets familiar with that.

In biology, you should say this root, whether it's Greek or Latin, whatever. If you just ask him to memorize, that's not a word. Get the concept first, just like when you play basketball. I say, "focus, concentrate, get a picture, and you get a concept." That's what I'm trying to teach.

Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government