Voices From The Classroom: Digital Pioneer

Sep 26, 2013

Voices from the Classroom, a series presented by NolaVie and WWNO, explores local education through conversations with those on the front lines: the teachers.

While superintendents, experts, parents, politicians and pundits have weighed in extensively on what's right and wrong with the educational system in Louisiana, it's the people behind the desks who must deal, day in and day out, with students, evaluations, testing, behavior, curriculum and, ultimately, what works and what does not.

Meet Hasan Aquil, 33, digital media teacher at Algiers Technology Academy: The native New Orleanian is a product of public schools. Two years ago he left a lucrative music and recording career to teach high school, he says, because he wanted to change the direction of so many African-American youths.

On education and expectations:  I grew up Uptown in the Riverbend area. It’s one of those areas where you have million-dollar houses on one block and then, the next side over, pretty much the slums. I grew up in the slum side. It was an interesting transition to see life from one perspective and then the other perspective. I had friends who lived on my block, but also friends who were sons of judges or doctors. Early on I could tell, there’s a difference here.

I think I break the mold in some situations. People say, wow, you went to public school? I guess they base that on how I speak, how I carry myself, the education level I have, and then seeing some other products from the Orleans Parish school system not end up that way. To me, it’s a blessing I didn’t become a statistic. Back when I was in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, teachers had this statistic that if you were a black male in New Orleans you would probably not make it past 19. With that type of pressure, I wanted to do something different.

On why he changed careers: I was a lifelong career professional in the entertainment industry. I started when I was 13. I’ve been producing music videos and working my way up the ladder in that industry – modeling, acting, directing, producing – I learned every aspect of that industry from the ground up. So I’m in my career doing what I thought I needed to do. Making money, having fun, enjoying my life. Then my wife and I had my first son, Parker, 14 months old now.

I was sitting at home two weeks in and looking at his face and I realized, I can help other people who are in my situation -- young black guys coming up maybe in the rough neighborhoods, maybe on the street, not having direction and not having an example of what they can do. There are legitimate careers out there in fields they don’t see.

On first perceptions: It was a shock to me – to  see the level of not understanding, the kids not knowing the real world and not knowing the level of competition they will soon face when they get of out of high school. To me, that signaled that this is an arena where I can really make a difference.

On what's not working: A perfect (teacher/student) ratio would be 10 or 12 to one. My class as a first-year teacher started out as 38 to 1. And half that  population had ankle bracelets. I had one kid who was 13 who had been arrested for armed robbery – armed robbery! I made a difference with him. I worked with him; I let him know, I can get you through this maze.

To me as a black man, that’s where we’re losing. So I approached the 15 or 20 black underage men in my classes with that sort of thing -- here is how we need to make a difference: We need to learn vocabulary, to learn how to speak, learn how to read, how to understand there is something bigger out there than guys hanging on the corner.

On what is working: Technology as a platform has made an exceptional entrance into education. I cannot believe just in the last few years the advances there have been. Most of the work in my class is done on the computer, but also on cell phones. Everything is combined now. I can give a test that students can take right on their cell phones, or right on their iPads. It's an interactive technology that connects the school to the house to the bus ride home. The student is totally connected, not only to the lesson and the curriculum, but also to the teacher and the other students.

On access to technology: The last school I was at had a computer cart that came around from class to class, and you had to sign up for it. We're definitely a ways away from each child having a computer or a laptop or an iPad. That part hasn’t happened yet, but it’s getting there.

On how he teaches: The curriculum is totally up to me. There are no state standards for technology yet. It's really up to the teacher to come up with how to teach it. I love that freestyle flow, because I’m a left-brained, creative guy.

At some level you have to have a baseline on computer stuff – how to open a file, how to save a project. Other than that, it gets so creative that it's tough to have a structure. I don’t want to put my students into a box. I want them to free their minds. There's not necessarily a right or wrong area once you understand the basics.

On today's students: A lot of the kids today are lazy. They don’t want to do anything. They say, Aw, man, I have to read a paragraph? I have to write two paragraphs? I don’t want to do that. That’s boring.

To me, success is effort.  Failure is not doing anything. If you come into the class and don’t do any work today, that’s a failure.

On motivation: I offer incentive plans. Kids are really into these Jordan tennis shoes. Last year, I told them, for one exemplary student in each class – not one who gets straight A’s, but who shows the effort -- I will buy you a pair of Jordans. So three students got Jordans. I hate to be that dangle-carrot guy, but it worked. I wish I had enough money to buy them all tennis shoes. But to see them all fighting to get to that finish was great. Your college diploma should be that carrot, but they don’t see that.

On how he would spend a million dollars: On computer labs and on the actual human resources to train the students in technology. There’s a correlation between music and math, and there's a correlation between technology and math. To me, that’s where we want to be. I would want to have each student with a computer, not only at their desk but to take home.

We tested PARCC, and it was amazing to see how computer-based testing worked. You could click on a word to get a definition. If students had a tablet and saw a word they didn’t know, they could double click on the word and get a definition, and they could click on the definition and get pictures. Technology is where we need to go. Kids without it will be behind the starting line.

On what keeps him going: Seeing the incremental results. Last year was huge for me. There was a 16 point jump at the end of the year. To me, if I’m breaking my neck to teach this subject and they’re not getting it, that puts a dent in my confidence. What keeps me going is to see the results, see the changes.

You see a lot of African-American kids and they all look mad. Because life is tough for them. Life is a struggle. Just to see that scowl loosen, to see that other side, that’s an incremental change. You think, that’s enough for me. I’ll teach as long as I see the results.

There are evaluation systems to judge the teacher, but it really comes down to human beings being honest with themselves. Can I teach or can’t I teach? If they don’t buy into you or connect with you, you can hang it up.

Send your comments, thoughts and observations about the series and New Orleans teachers to voices@nolavie.com.