What makes a great teacher? Certainly competence can be achieved when a faithful teacher uses time-honored practices of pedagogy. But when a visionary transcends the rules and elevates teaching from technique to art, great teaching occurs. Such teachers yank students off the educational assembly line and launch them on the Quest.
Great teachers take chances and dare their students to succeed. Great teachers are often impatient; sometimes they are abrasive. Great teachers rock the boat, and because they do, they are not always welcome.
Boards and administrators are notorious for preferring straight rows of desks to lively debates, clearly plotted lesson plans to dynamic, interactive experiences. And if Jesus was history’s greatest teacher, the Pharisees were history’s quintessential school board.
Such tensions provide the basis for Stand and Deliver, the best recent teacher movie. As thousands of teachers and millions of students march off this month on another campaign, Stand and Deliver ought to be required viewing for everyone involved—students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
Turning On “Dim Bulbs”
Based on the true story of Jaime Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos of “Miami Vice”), a computer engineer who left a secure, well-paying job in industry, Stand and Deliver transports us to an East Los Angeles high school. There drugs, joblessness, and early pregnancy contribute to the despair of kids who believe school is but a way station on the road to a minimum-wage job, welfare, or prison. On the first day of school, the principal announces there are no computers for Escalante’s computer class, so he is “assigned to teach remedial math instead.
Clipped And Filed:
Going Nowhere Slowly
“New Age music is spreading like kudzu, and for good reason. It eliminates the most complex, time-consuming, mentally draining part of the musical experience: paying attention.
New Age albums are nothing if not unobtrusive. They ripple along, arpeggio after arpeggio, scale after scale; they go nowhere slowly, basking in their own resonance. Try to listen, and your mind invariably wanders; the stuff is strictly nonstick, audio Teflon.”
—John Pareles in the Chicago Tribune (Dec. 3, 1987), © New York Times News Service.
The reigning wisdom at Garfield High dictates that Hispanic kids are dim bulbs who might just master the times tables if they repeat them year after year.
But Escalante will have no part of it. In a moment of visionary clarity he announces, “No more remedial math; we’re going to do algebra.”
Thanks to his innovative, eccentric teaching, the students master algebra, and he ups the ante. “Now we’re going to do calculus,” he states—with the finality of Hitler mandating the invasion of Russia. Calculus has never been taught at Garfield, but Escalante tells his students they will take the Advanced Placement Exam at the end of the year. So begins a grueling campaign of after-school and Saturday assaults on the mysteries of higher math.
This is not To Sir With Love. Jaime Escalante is not Mr. Chips. He coaxes, threatens—even humiliates—his students. “You gonna mow people’s lawns? You gonna flip their tacos?” he jabs as a kid talks about dropping out. “Why do you want to fix cars for a living when you can design them?” But when a timid girl is pulled out of school to work in the family restaurant, Escalante visits the father and pleads for the girl’s future.
No Second String
Stand and Deliver could be accused of an amoral shallowness. After all, there is more to education than a high score on the Advanced Placement Exam. A cynic might say Escalante has merely created barrio yuppies.
But such criticism misses the more profound issues raised by this remarkable story. Most students will rise to the expectations held before them. Kids constantly confronted with the basics—times tables, verb conjugations, statistics such as the chief products of Peru—will rise only enough to meet those expectations. This is why socioeconomic class is the biggest predictor of academic success. Rich kids conform to high expectations; poor kids conform to low ones. Kids from Beverly Hills are not more intelligent or moral than those from East Los Angeles, but they get into less trouble, and fewer end up in jail.
Escalante understood that kids must see the Quest as an unending journey if they are to avoid the dead end of the underclass. Remedial classes simply reinforces the notion that these students are second-string players in the game of life. Escalante takes students off the bench and puts them in the game. Success in school can lead to self-sufficiency and a life full of possibilities.
Great teaching is more than calculus, physics, and English. It is about life. Thus, the secret of great teaching—and the challenge for Christian parents and educators—hinges on raising student expectations and launching them on the Quest. Checking out Stand and Deliver—available soon on videotape—might be a good place to start.
By Stefan Ulstein, chairman of the English department, Bellevue (Wash.) Christian School.
Remembering The Man Who Forgot Nothing
“A man must dig very deep to bury his father,” says a Maori proverb, recognizing that our parents are deeply imbedded in our psyches as both cheerleaders and critics.
But Chicago poet Li-Young Lee digs deep in order to exhume and understand his father. Along the way, Lee hopes to understand God as well.
“When I was a child,” says Lee, “I prayed to God; but as a teen, I discovered I had been praying to my father.”
Sorting out who God is, and who his father was, is a major task for Lee. He wants to understand his forebears so he can know that of which he is a part (following his Chinese heritage, which places a high value on ancestors):
“… Last night / I found the red book the world lost, /the one which contains the address of the rain, /all the names of the beloved dead, and how/and where they can be reached.”
Lee’s ancestors were notable. His great-grandfather was Yuan-Shih Kai, the first president of the People’s Republic of China. His father was personal physician to Mao, then vice-president of an Indonesian medical college, philosopher and linguist, a political prisoner in a leper colony, and (following an apparently miraculous escape) a Presbyterian minister in a small Pennsylvania village.
In Rose, his first volume of poetry (BOA Editions, 1986), Lee struggles to know this “… serious man who devised complex systems of / numbers and rhymes / to aid him in remembering, a man who forgot / nothing …” The reverent son continues: “… my father / would be ashamed of me. / Not because I am forgetful, / but because there is no order/ to my memory, a heap / of details, uncatalogued, illogical.”
“My father was always the last to bed and the first to rise,” says Lee. “He was studying constantly. He wanted to be consumed by God, but he fought the impulse because he was afraid of emotionalism. He was a very emotional man, but he believed his task was to bring his mind to bear upon the issues.”
Can the poet understand the scholar? A major breakthrough came when Lee inherited his father’s library. The books by Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard—brought Lee pleasure. But he found particular joy in his father’s Bible. “When I opened his Bible and read the marginalia,” says Lee, “there was a part of him that opened up to me.
“Can you know a person by reading his Bible?”
Knowing The Outlaw Christ
Reading that Bible has not only helped Lee know his father, it has also shaped his poetry. The rhythms of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs have especially influenced him. And images from his own life, like the glossy, knee-length black hair of his mother and sister, for instance, intertwine in his mind with biblical images, like the hair of Absalom that was both his beauty and his doom.
Lee insists on approaching the Bible without the aid of commentary and criticism. Read that way, he says, “the Bible is incomprehensible—like life.” But he does not read primarily for comprehension: “Interpretation is not as important to me as intuiting my way through, letting the beauty and the mystery unfold.”
As a person of color, Lee has been suspicious of the white man’s religion. But reading Scripture has exposed Lee to Christ the outsider. When this outlaw Christ replaces the imperial Christ of the official church, Jesus can live in the poetic imagination with all the other beloved outcasts of literature.
A Dark Sweetness
Lee’s poetry is a vision of sadness, but it is not an oppressive weight. The darkness is tender and sweet: “… Memory is sweet. / Even when it’s painful, memory is sweet.”
Although frustrated in his search to know his ancestors and preoccupied with his own mortality (“It is moving toward me all my life”), Lee has a strong sense of the ongoing chain of life in which we are not only products of the past but givers to the future. Death pervades all; the ripe fruit falls and decays, but we compost the world for those who follow and spring from our seed. Lee’s vision of mortality is not tempered by transcendence, but it is a sweet darkness.
Li-Young Lee is not done exploring mortality, reading the Bible, or seeking his father and his father’s God. He plans to study Hebrew. He will write more poetry, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and occasional teaching appointments. Two publishers are negotiating for his next volume.
But all these things do not make him a poet. “I don’t consider myself a poet,” he says. “Donne is a poet; I hope to be a poet someday.”
If it is that hope that keeps him writing, let no one tell him what he has already achieved.
By David Neff.
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