Posted May 07, 2019

Joe Diaz is a fifth grade teacher at 122nd Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles. He has led a Math Hoops site after school for the past two years and last year one of his students, Evelin Jimenez, attended the NBA Math Hoops National Championship in Detroit. The following is a condensed and edited conversation with Communications and Development Specialist, Sumner Becker.

Tell me a little bit about the school and community that you teach in.

It’s 122nd Street Elementary. We are located in South Los Angeles, just south of Watts, and our school demographics are about 75-80 percent Latin(x), and about 25 percent African American students. Working families, low-income families, a mix of that (demographic). We’re a school of about 700 students, we go from pre-K up to 5th grade. I teach fifth grade.

How did you first become involved with NBA Math Hoops?

In 2017, right around January or February, my principal sent me an email letting me know that the Clippers were hosting this training. She knew that I was a Clippers fan, so she brought it to my attention. Once I saw that it was a game where kids were using math, I said let’s do it. I jumped on and attended a training at the Clippers’ main offices in downtown, and we got the ball rolling on that.

I use Math Hoops after school. I have Math Hoops time after school for about an hour or two; I try to do it three days a week, most of the time it’s two days because other things come up. I have a group of about 18 that stay with me after school.

Tell me about the impact of the program on your students.

It’s been rewarding, it’s been fun. I enjoy watching kids compete, and the value of sportsmanship that comes out is amazing. The fact that they have to shake hands at the end of each game is almost funny to me at points because they’re hesitant, yet they still reach out to do it. So I like that aspect of it.

As far as stories go, there are a few. I took part in the National Championship last year with my student, Evelin Jimenez. We were in Detroit, Michigan for the weekend, and that was an amazing experience. It was her first time on an airplane, her first time leaving California.To go experience a different state, a different atmosphere, and meet a bunch of people from across the country was amazing for her. She was here maybe a week ago, and we were just talking about what she’s doing now, and Michigan always comes up.

This year I have a student who’s very quiet in class. He’s one of the gifted kids, super quiet. He just goes about his business, comes in, and does what he needs to do. Even when he wants to ask me a question, he’s hesitant, he doesn’t put himself out there. But when I see him in Math Hoops after school, he’s one of the loudest in the group! I’m looking around, wondering who is this guy?? I sat down yesterday just to watch him play, because I wanted to see his emotion, his reaction, his enjoyment of the game. It’s so funny that he’s just out there in Math Hoops, but in class and everything else he does, he’s super quiet. So I like that, that makes me feel good.

Tell me more about Evelin, what was her story?

Evelin was a great student, always came in and worked hard, was always prepared. She did what she had to do in school, and she was just kind of going with the flow. We got her into Math Hoops, and her basic facts just came out of nowhere. All of sudden she was doing these basic facts faster than I was. I’ll sit down and compete with some of the kids every now and then, and she was getting through the numbers before I was. I noticed that she was picking up on the math facts super fast, she was just awesome with it. [From the time] we started doing all the events with the Clippers, she really loved the competition aspect of it. She just wanted to compete. When I told the group—I had maybe 12 at that point who qualified for the National Championship, she was one of them—about the video [as part of the application], she came to school the next day ready to go. She had her speech ready; I never told them when we were going to shoot, she just came prepared. I think that what she liked about the video was that she gained a lot of confidence, she became more outspoken. She’d always been a good student, but she took it a step further with Math Hoops: She started being a leader, she started helping kids out—whatever she could do, she was doing it. I think that Math Hoops gave her the extra confidence she needed to help her turn that corner, help her get going.

Since you started using the program, have any other teachers in your school started using the program?

Yes! My partner teacher next door has started using the program, not full-on like I am, but he’s been working with a select group of kids who need extra help with their basic math facts. He started doing it as a tutoring session of some sort.

It’s been hard to get other teachers involved since it’s more of an after-school thing, and a lot of teachers prefer to do their regular tutoring—they’re interested, they like what’s going on—they’re always asking how it’s going, and I try to get them involved, but I can only do so much.

How has the program impacted you as a teacher? Have you noticed an effect on your teaching style or your mindset?

Definitely the mindset. Given that I work with the gifted group, most of the kids in here are on grade level or above grade level. So for me, it becomes more of a challenge to make the game more interesting, a little bit harder—some of the kids are quick with those facts, they don’t hesitate. So just the mindset of being able to challenge these kids and work more with these kids and do a little more for them is what gets me going. My mindset is to help them out in any way that I can.

Have you seen any development in the program across the city and with the Clippers’ involvement since you’ve been involved in the program?

Yeah definitely—there have been a lot more schools involved. Whenever we do any kind of training, there are definitely a lot of new faces that I hadn’t seen in the past year. So I’m hoping that it gets branched out to everybody. The director of my local district knows about the game and he’s inquiring more; I’m trying to push it out so that he can share it with other schools in the area as well.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I went to school at Cal State L.A. initially just to do two years to get my firefighters associates—I wanted to become a firefighter, to be honest with you. At the time—my junior year of college—I began working at an elementary school as a TA. I worked there for a couple years, and I met a gentleman named Tom Finkle, he was a teacher at the school. He eventually took a position here at 122nd, where I’m at now, as a coordinator. He came to me in December of ’93 and asked how far along I was with my studies—when was I going to get my degree? They had a position for me available at 122nd. I told them I was just waiting for my degree to post. He said to come and talk to the principal. I came and talked to the principal, we walked to the school, and he offered me the position right on the spot. And 27 school years later, I’m still here. I’ve been at the school 27 years—I’m the longest-tenured teacher here; there are four other teachers who have been teaching longer than me, but not for longer at this school.

How has the school changed in 27 years?

Size—we’ve gone down about 400 students. At that point, we were closer to 1100 students. Demographics have completely flip-flopped; we used to be roughly 90 percent African American and 10 percent Latin(x), but over that time it’s pretty much flip-flopped to where we are now—about 75-80 percent Latin(x). For the past 10-12 years, we’ve had a really strong core of teachers here at the school who have been here for that long, if not longer. We have two teachers in each grade level who have been here 10+ years and who are really strong teachers, and I think that just makes our school—in LAUSD south, if you look at our end of the year test scores, we’re the highest performing school on our side of the district.

Do you have a most memorable Math Hoops moment?

The one that pops up is the National Championship. It was just rewarding because I contributed to taking a student out of the Four Corners—that’s what I call her neighborhood. A lot of these kids don’t get to see much. They don’t get to go outside of the neighborhood—parents don’t have the resources, whatever it may be. So just to be a part of that, to give her an opportunity to go to the other side of the country, to me, was very rewarding. I tell the kids all the time: “I’m here to open the doors for you, and it’s up to you to walk through.” And I just want to give you as many opportunities as I possibly can to take you places. That’s what we do at our school—we have fundraisers to earn money and we try to take these kids on different field trips. The district only gives us one per year, which is really nothing, so we try to add at least six trips during the year. We take them to different experiences: we take them to the Japanese-American Museum, we’ll take them up to Griffith Observatory, we’ll take them to the Science Center down in Santa Ana. We try to expose them to as much as possible, and Math Hoops allowed me to do that on a grand scale—taking her to the National Championship, so that right there is rewarding.

For more information on Evelin’s selection, check out this link from LAUSD Daily: http://lausddaily.net/2018/05/122nd-street-elementary-student-qualifies-for-national-math-tournament/

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