12th grade English Composition, Venice High School
I lied. I said I was going to follow only teachers of 11th grade English, but I broke my promise because Dennis Danziger’s class sounds so amazing. I just have to remember not to call him an educator.
“If anyone calls me an ‘educator,” he says, “I’m gonna punch them in the face.” A tall, white-haired, incredibly funny 21-year veteran of the LAUSD, he spent years as a comedy writer and now teaches at Venice High. Dennis has no patience for current trends in edu-speak. “In America we now divide between the pro-data people and the what-the-fuck-is-that-bar-chart people. The people who scare me now are the people who are physically aroused by data. It’s like they haven’t had a relationship with anything other than a plant, so they have a relationship with data. They get into the bath at night with data. And they’re gonna start coming into my class and demanding outcomes? And talking about how I’m an ‘educator’ and I’m ‘delivering instruction’ and I’m supposed to be ‘effective’? Give me a break.”
His educational philosophy was forged in his first teaching job at Crenshaw High School, a public school in South Los Angeles, overcrowded and underfunded. “It was the best education I could have had,” he tells me. “The first thing I realized was that there weren’t any books to take home. That’s when I understood: this is how we’re perpetuating the class system in America. I’m struggling and struggling, I have a class of 36 students, mostly African-American, and nothing I do is working. I feel like a total failure. So one day in total frustration, I photocopy the first 20 pages of this book called Mama by Terry McMillan and I hand it to them. And then I sit there. And I watch them read it. And they loved it.”
For Dennis, it was a life-changing moment. “They were laughing. They were asking each other questions. They were teaching themselves.” An administrator advised him not to tell anyone he was teaching Terry McMillan; the profanity would be a problem, and the book wasn’t in the canon. Dennis ignored him. “I realized that if you give them literature that resonates for them, they’ll read it. And so here’s my philosophy in joke form. I realized that the less I talked, the more they learned. Therefore my goal as a teacher is not to talk at all. They read. They write. They read their work to each other. They listen.”
He spent five years at Crenshaw, then transferred to Pacific Palisades High School, or Pali High, a public school in a wealthy, mainly white suburb with its own school system, with students from other neighborhoods busing in. He loved Pali, but after thirteen years, under a new charter, busing was eliminated, leaving the school to the local kids. “Their unwritten mission statement was to create an all-white neighborhood school,” he says in disgust. After fighting the administration for a year or two, he came to Venice High, where he’s been for the last five years.
“Here’s the problem with charters and magnets,” he says. “There are all these great schools, gifted magnets, STEM pilots, charter schools, and they get all the kids with aggressive parents. So what I get at Venice is the kids who don’t have aggressive parents. If you’re a kid at the bottom, if you don’t have a structured family, you’re just in a melting pot of sadness and depression, of kids who fell off the national radar.”
Like Jennifer, Dennis has classes that often have 50 students or more. Last year, he had a class with 52; when a new student begged him for permission to take his class, an administrator refused. “I draw the line at 52,” the administrator said proudly. Dennis took the student anyway, telling her to bring her own chair.
Every third week, they have an 800-word writing assignment. The paper must be typed and double-spaced or he won’t read it. If it doesn’t have a title, he tells them he’ll read it last. He reads their work the day they turn it in. If you are an English teacher, you know that this is an incredible statement. Do the math: 50 students times five classes. (He emails me a correction to this. He “only” has 200 students; some of his classes are under 50. Again, do the math on reading 200 papers. Let’s say 5 minutes of reading each paper–times 200. That is one thousand minutes, also known as over sixteen hours. And that’s if you don’t do crazy self-indulgent stuff like go to the bathroom, sleep, or have a conversation with your spouse.) Dennis also doesn’t use a scoring rubric, preferring to make individual comments on each one.
He has no patience for standardized testing or externally imposed ideas about what his students should be learning. This is a relief to me after my lousy experience with tests. “I don’t care if they know the difference between a comma and a semi-colon because they’re not ready yet. I want them to love reading. Every year I have students who say they used to hate reading and now they love it. That’s why I’m here. Here’s what we do in my class: we read and write and listen,” he says.
And so I break my vow to focus only on 11th grade English classes. 50 kids reading their own writing out loud? And actually listening?