From what seemed to be a normal math class, came an experience that made me believe in the depth of the potential of our young people. I came to believe that it is students who are the true source of education reform.
Aman was a soft spoken freshman in my high school algebra 1 class. He had come to the US from Afghanistan just months before, during May of his 8th grade year, long before the Taliban was driven from power. I struggled to understand his broken English and he asked lots of questions.
I remember it being weeks before I learned why there were so many questions. It wasn’t the language barrier. That May was the first school experience for Aman. Aside from learning the Quran, he had no formal education. That May he had to learn his multiplication tables. Three months later was taking college prep algebra with 20 American students. These were students with a life time of speaking English; students with years of math and pre-algebra; students who had learned their multiplication tables probably ten years prior.
It was another few weeks before I discovered Aman didn’t spend all those years outside of school quietly living the simple farm life. His father was killed in the Soviet War. When his only brother, who was older, came of age at around 14 he was taken away by the Taliban and was never seen again. As Aman approached this same age, his mother feared the same fate awaited him and they went into hiding for two years. At times they stayed in a small house with 10 other families. Sometimes Aman sold plastic grocery bags on the street to make a little money.
Fortune finally smiled on them as they made contact with representatives of a local church in our city. The church managed to bring the desperate mother and son to the US. Aman and his mother settled in our city. The church helped them rent an apartment. She found a job washing clothes and towels at a hospital. He enrolled in our school.
This young man, with the traumatic experiences few high school students in the US could fathom; with the language barrier; and with the almost complete lack of education was now taking college prep algebra. He was not the smartest student, certainly not a genius. He was a worker. Every homework assignment was completed, even if it meant starting it after returning from his job at 11PM. Every day after class he would ask a question about the notes. Meanwhile, many of his classmates complained about the difficulty of the word problems or not understanding the homework. Aman quietly said to me one day in his soft broken English, “This is easy work. You look at notes and book. These students, they don’t do that.”
Aman made an A in the course. The next year he took Algebra 2 Honors and Geometry Honors, making an A and B respectively. He wasn’t given any leeway. He didn’t have a special support class to get help on his math work. He simply took responsibility for doing the work.
It wasn’t a new scheduling system, team-teaching, new technology, standardized testing, private school vouchers or any other new and improved educational reform that brought Aman success. It was a simple willingness to do the work and to take responsibility for the learning. I don’t hear about this type of reform. I hear adults talking about what they should do rather than what the students should and could do. The spirit of America, begotten from its colonial roots, is an industrious determination to succeed. I believe our young people have this same potential. I believe these students are the true source of public education reform.
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