I’m going to be honest: the first thing I notice about Jennifer Macon’s class is not how racially diverse her students are or how friendly everyone is to each other. The first thing I notice is that she lets them sit anywhere they want.
It’s especially unusual with 50 kids packed together at very small desks. As soon as teenagers are touching, or nearly touching, their natural tendency is to start chatting. That’s why a seating chart is usually essential. A seating chart goes: chatty kid, quiet kid, chatty kid, quiet kid. It also goes: high-proficiency kid, struggling kid, high-proficiency kid, struggling kid so that the brainiacs can help the slower kids. Anyone with serious behavior issues sits right near you, the teacher, so you can give him or her the stinkeye or stand so close that they fall silent because they’re so uncomfortable. Every so often, I’d have a class of extremely mature, composed older kids and I’d let them sit anywhere after a few weeks, if I found they had the self-control to stay focused. But many times, my classes never got there.
Which makes it all the more amazing that Jennifer’s students eagerly, happily, politely and promptly settle into self-appointed seats. As they come in, Jennifer circulates, saying individual hellos, finding out it’s the birthday of a girl with dozens of braids and a fedora. “You know I sing, right?” she asks the girl, who collapses in giggles. The class starts with a mass “Happy Birthday” song, though Jennifer’s “singing” turns out to be a screech that sets half the class laughing again.
And as soon as she starts teaching, I’m impressed to see that pretty much all 50 of them listen attentively. Is this her teaching? The school culture? The at-home influence and relentless social conditioning of smart, savvy, motivated, dedicated parents? Impossible to tell yet. But I’m dying to know. The kids are totally tracking her every move and every word. Now, Jennifer has asked me to tell you that most of the classes at Cleveland are half this size. Her team has decided to combine two classes here, “seemingly insane choice“ they made for reasons she’ll explain to me later. In fact, a class size norm of around 36 is, she says, an example of the many privileges a magnet school enjoys.
By choice, then, she stands in front of a room of 50 very attentive kids. Jennifer’s teaching style is traditional, meaning she stands in front of the room and gives a fairly structured talk from notes, asking questions of the students every few minutes, mostly inviting raised hands but sometimes calling on kids at random. Without exception, the kids answer fully—no shrugs or “idk”’s, the bane of my existence.
After a quick talk on how exactly to take notes, she shows a clip from “Good Will Hunting.” The clip is incredibly engaging and dramatic; in it, a half-naked Matt Damon (“oops, sorry, forgot to tell you there’s a little profanity,” Jennifer tells the class, who are then even more engaged) fights with Minnie Driver as she begs him to move with her to California. “Just tell me you don’t love me and I’ll leave you alone,” Minnie tells Matt. When he responds with the obviously untrue, “I don’t love you,” the entire class of fifty students gasps in unison. “Oh, my God,” whispers a devastated girl next to me.
By the time Jennifer turns on the lights, the kids are totally invested. A high-engagement beginning is what teachers call an “anticipatory set,” something to hook the kids’ interest, and this one definitely gets the job done. Now when Jennifer gets to the real lesson and asks them to write a summary of what just happened, fifty heads instantly bend down to notebooks, writing in silence for five minutes. Having the whole class write is a terrific technique, by the way, for working with a large class, because even though everyone doesn’t comment out loud, everyone responds to every question. I doubt Jennifer got it from the book, but it happens to be Technique #26 (“Everybody Writes”) in Doug Lemov’s teacher effectiveness bible, Teach Like a Champion.
At the end, she asks for raised hands, calling on three or four kids to read out their summaries. Some are filled with details. Others are terse. Which is the best summary? The one full of detail about Matt Damon’s character’s tragic backstory? (No.) Or the bare-bones description of the scene’s events? (Yes—to their surprise.)
In this way, getting the kids to help her define the terms based on the clip they just saw, she defines the terms “summary,” “context” and “analysis”—and how these are the elements of a successful argumentative paragraph. Throughout, the kids take notes eagerly. The time flies; in an hour, fifty kids are filing out, carrying in their notebooks the basic elements of a written argument.
I’m impressed. The next time I teach the ideas of summary, context and analysis, I’m definitely using the clip from “Good Will Hunting.”
I’m dying to break down her technique and analyze it. How did she get such terrific engagement from such a large group? But I don’t have time today. I’m off to meet Dennis Danziger at Venice High.