Probing Questions Inspire Award-Winning Teacher

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Naoual Eljastimi

Naoual Eljastimi said it was not until she became a teacher that she realized how much she wanted to learn, thanks largely to probing questions from her own students. In her eighth year as a chemistry teacher at the Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences, she said her education is still in full swing.

Eljastimi is one of seven New York City math and science teachers to receive this year's Sloan Awards for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. The awards honor teachers who demonstrate creativity, enthusiasm and the ability to inspire students to pursue careers in science and math, according to the Fund for the City of New York which runs the awards program along with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"There is always a story behind any concept I am teaching," said Eljastimi, who uses flashy chemistry demonstrations -- one student called her "a wizard" -- videos and hands-on activities to enliven the material for students. She also prepares slides for her classes with either pictures or questions only, and it is up to the students to take their own notes, Eljastimi said. And she makes sure that they do.

"When I see some lazy person or somebody who's struggling, I pick those students and I ask them to go to the board," she said, smiling.

"They struggle a little bit over there, but they get something when they write stuff," she said, and added that she thinks it is important to call on students who do not raise their hands. "If you care about those kids and they feel that you care about them," she said, "even students who are struggling -- they want to stay in your classroom."

Eljastimi, who emigrated from Morocco as an adult, said her education in the classroom has included improving her English pronunciation. Arabic was her first language, she said, and French was her second, so speaking out chemistry terms in English shook her confidence at first. But this proved to be a bonding experience with her students.

"Sometimes they even finish the sentence for me," she said. "The concept is there, the information is there, they are getting it."

Eljastimi runs tutoring sessions after school for students who need it and, for those students who share her passion, she helps coach competitive teams for the school's Chemistry Bowl and a citywide Science Olympiad contest. Her students' scientific artwork, such as an illustrated version of the periodic table, adorn the hallways at Leon Goldstein. She gives homework every day, and school staff say that students ask to be put in her class. A former student ran up and hugged her between classes one recent morning.

Besides Eljastimi, this year's Sloan Award winners are Cameron Cassidy, Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Brooklyn; Anthony Finney, Flushing International High School in Queens; David Griffin, Collegiate Institute for Math and Science in the Bronx; Michelle Persaud, Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan; Neal Singh, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan; and Eyal Wallenberg, The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in downtown Brooklyn.

They were selected from about 100 nominees through a lengthy process that takes about eight months. They each receive between $5,000 and $7,500 in prize money, plus each winner's school gets $2,500 for their math and science programs.