As I drive over to Dennis Denziger’s class at Venice High, I keep comparing Jennifer’s class to my own experience. Most of my time as a teacher, I taught English electives. But in 2011-12, I taught one section of English 11, and it was a train wreck. The subject of “English” is a morass; even supposedly measurable areas like vocabulary and grammar are in fact very difficult to disentangle from much more intangible, emotion-laden things like meaning, thinking, imagining and believing. The unit I taught on The Great Gatsby was a perfect example. From the beginning, my 32 students were thrown by the impenetrable social references. Unlike Jennifer’s students, most of whom are middle or upper-middle class, almost 100% of mine lived in poverty. About a third of my students were classified as English Language Learners, including one boy who’d emigrated from Mexico only the year before.
Three of the kids in my class were in Special Ed, one of whom was extremely bright, angry and disruptive; another, with severe visual processing issues, could not understand anything he read despite the massive efforts of our Special Ed team to pull him out often. I also had one boy, a very smart, poetry-loving kid with a mop of curly hair, who slept on his desk every day because he’d worked all night in the warehouse of the American Apparel factory.
In addition, almost half the class were seniors but were taking the class again because they’d failed English 11 the first time around.
On the first day of the Great Gatsby unit, I projected the first few sentences of the book onto the whiteboard so we could all go over them together:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.
There were words in the passage that I knew many of my students might not know: “communicative,” “vulnerable,” “reserved,” so we defined them together. But the biggest stumbling block was something I hadn’t anticipated: the presence of words they thought they knew but which were used in a different, antiquated sense. “A habit that has opened up many curious natures,” for example, puzzled them because no one knew that the familiar word “curious” could also mean “strange.” They were perplexed by the expression “veteran bores,” which one super-bright kid thought might mean army veterans who victimized the narrator by boring into him with something.
Even though many of the kids were among the brightest I’ve ever taught, it took a good 20 minutes of discussion until the whole class understood the first page, which is littered with references to the Middle West, the East and New Haven in ways that require an understanding of what these locations connoted to upper middle class white people of the 1920’s.
The entire book was a minefield. If I led a class discussion in a way that would allow everyone to thoroughly understand the book, by the time we were done we’d all be several thousand years old. But how could I pick what to teach and what to skip? I did my best but I’m fairly certain that except for three or four highly diligent girls and the boy from Mexico who was one of the most dedicated students I’ve ever met, most of my students did not read The Great Gatsby outside of class.
Crazy as it sounds, though, the class loved Gatsby. We had terrific discussions about the American Dream, social mobility and romantic love. Was Daisy a manipulative bitch or was she just a realist? Was Gatsby a fool or the last true believer in America? The kids defined the American Dream as the belief that in this country, you could achieve anything you wanted if you worked hard enough. When I asked who among them believed that this was still true, almost all of them raised their hands.
I loved our long, free-wheeling arguments. But there was never enough time to cover everything: texts, vocabulary, grammar, literary terms and of course, analytic writing, a monster of a topic that could have occupied four years of class time all on its own. I finished every class nearly breathless, having covered only a tiny portion of everything I’d planned. At the end of the year, my students’ test scores sucked.
Okay, that’s not scientific. I don’t remember the actual scores at all, to tell the truth. But I do remember the searing disappointment I felt when I saw the bar on the chart that showed how little they’d improved. The same is true, by the way, for most teachers of 11th grade English in California because the 11th grade tests notoriously make a big jump in difficulty from English tests of 9th and 10th grades. One of the biggest issues with test score measurements is that some courses always tend to score high, while others always tend to score low. 9th grade anything tends to show dramatic improvement. 11th grade anything tends to show disappointing growth.
Still, if you go on test score improvement, the data will tell you that I was pretty much of dud.
What should I have done? A teacher committed to showing growth would have studied the test, raking it for clues about what to focus on and what to ignore next time. Some might call that “data-driven instruction.” Others might call it “teaching to the test.”
Whatever I should have done, I do think my students will always remember Gatsby. Maybe late at night years from now, middle-aged and thinking of some lost dream of youth, they’ll remember the book, consoled by the imaginary company of a long-dead writer who had also reached out for some brilliant thing he’d longed for and couldn’t grasp.
But how can you measure that?