I actually weep when I watch this. Not to make you uncomfortable or anything:
It’s easily the best film on teaching that I’ve ever seen. Let’s break down what we see math teacher Jaime Escalante (JE, played by Edward James Olmos) doing in this clip from early on in the film.
- Garcia versus García (0:05): JE sets out to build esprit de corps as a key factor in student motivation. By insisting on the Spanish pronunciation of a student’s name, even over the objection of the student himself, he is sending an obvious signal to this motley group of eggheads and gangbangers, the talented and the not-so-talented. You and I are Hispanic. It’s us against the world of naysayers and doubters.
- El Ciclón from Bolivia (0:20): It may seem odd, but the best teachers play with different personae in their classrooms. It’s not just that teaching can be like acting, in which engaging and holding the audience’s attention is antecedent to everything else you want to achieve. No, it’s really that by adopting these different personae, you communicate to your students that who they are is not fixed. They can decide who they want to be, e.g., math whizzes.
- This is my domain (0:27): Crucial move here. Yes, a democratic classroom is a worthy goal, as a matter of both student learning and moral principle. But even more important is (forgive the language) never, never to bullshit your students. Obviously, very few classrooms are truly democratic. Students can see that. Only when they take responsibility for their own learning does that become possible. So JE is playing the long game here.
- Basic math is too easy for you burros (0:37): An affirmation and a challenge at the same time. I suspect that even the young actors here, despite themselves, are beginning to feel a little thrill. Olmos is channeling all the great teachers here: Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, et al. And note the affectionate slang, burros, that he uses to describe the students. See #1 above.
- You’ll only be prepared to do one thing, pump gas (0:47): Most but not all students have to know why they should learn any given thing. Otherwise, they can’t be taught. End of story. You address the question “why?” or you go home.
- Tough guys deep-fry chicken for a living (0:59): In every class, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s middle or graduate school or anything in-between, there is one student whose reason for being is to perform a service for the entire group of students. Is this guy the real deal or not? As my department chair at Lynnfield High School told me in 1986, you give your students a final grade at the end of the year, but they give you yours at the end of the first week. It’s hard, how he has to slap this young man down, but JE understands that at that moment, it all hangs in the balance. The front of a classroom is no place for a pacifist.
- You ever been to the beach? (1:18): This is the sort of thing that people tend to focus on when they’re talking about effective teaching. Little comment necessary: JE is a master of explaining a relatively complex idea in a simple, memorable way. But note, too, what he does not do: he does not give his math students mere tricks to solve problems. He makes an effort to give them a conceptual understanding through metaphor, imagery, etc.
- Nethead! (1:48): JE is using mild sarcasm and humor to address the lack of respect that the late-arriving students have shown him and their fellow students. “Respect” is a word that comes up again and again and again in student comments about their favorite and most influential teachers. Yes, sarcasm can end badly. You can lose a student and maybe another or others who are put off by it. So what happens next in this scene is critically important.
- Minus two plus two equals (2:14): JE whispers to Angel Guzman, played so well by Lou Diamond Phillips. Sheer genius, this. What began as a public humiliation of this “nethead,” whose finger tattoos JE ridicules, becomes a private moment of truth between two people: a paternal figure, stern and demanding but also obviously open to relationship, and a young man who is increasingly intrigued by him. Did JE notice this earlier in class? Did he intuit that if he could “turn” Angel, he and these students would be off and running? JE uses everything he has: “Are you going to let these burros laugh at you?” That is, you have to choose: your homies (and frying chicken for the rest of your life) or our math class. And, “I’ll break your neck like a toothpick-ck.” That is, yes, I am the real deal.
- It was your ancestors (2:49): This is where I start to tear up again.
- A negative times a negative equals a positive — say it! (3:16): He has them now. The chant is (a) an aid to memorization, obviously, but also (b) a vocal expression of the camaraderie that they now feel and (c) a kind of joyous release now that JE has succeeded in navigating the waters troubled by the arrival of the gang members.
- Why? (3:41): Look at JE’s face after he says this. The little smile, the tilt of the head. The question and the gestures say this: There is more, so much more, for us to learn. There are lands unexplored out there. Lands filled with wonders that you cannot yet imagine. Come, let’s go on a journey of discovery together.
Ultimately, what’s JE trying to create in these young people? Knowledge of math? Oh, sure. But far more important is this: ganas, desire.
Here’s another short scene from the movie. Just for fun. Back to JE and Angel: