Dennis’ students at Venice High grab seats fast. They have to; it turns out Dennis’ seating chart (yes, he has one, I was wrong) operates like musical chairs. If you’re late, you lose your seat and someone on the outside without a desk gets your place, leaving you perched on a chair by the wall. Packed together, the kids chat and flirt. Five are absent, bringing the total down to 45 today. How does the class fit when everyone is here?
Dennis circulates a little, not easy in such a full room, greeting kids personally, then calmly walks up to a small podium and starts making announcements. The hum of chatter does not stop. Hmm, I’m thinking as the skinny white guy with the diamond earring continues to chat away with the African-American kid with the spirals shaved into his hair. Jennifer’s class was quieter. But I’m wrong.
“Hello?” Dennis says quietly, looking at the chatting guys. They fall silent. Instantly. So does everyone else in the class.
He doesn’t yell or threaten consequences. He just utters a single word. You can tell from the way the kids look at him, full-on, listening: this is not compliance. This is respect. Though Dennis’ low-key vibe is completely different from Jennifer’s charismatic enthusiasm, the kids in the room clearly trust him. “Take out your philosophical bumper-stickers,” says Dennis, and the kids pull out their life philosophies, which Dennis will post on the walls. “It Doesn’t Matter How Slow You Go As Long As You Don’t Stop,” says one. “Don’t Touch My Nuts,” says another, making me laugh out loud.
All of his Composition classes are structured the same way. The students read silently for 10 minutes or so, strictly for pleasure. The room is lined with books under the whiteboards, a small library of high-interest books Dennis acquired through DonorsChoose donations: Cooked, about a guy who went from being a drug dealer in Long Beach to being a top chef in Vegas, Ball Don’t Lie, about a foster kid who became a basketball prodigy, Tribes of Palos Verdes, about a dysfunctional white family.
Within two minutes, every kid in the room is reading in 100% silence. The only sound in the room is the whir of the fan. Every so often, a cluster of guys will get a little restless and edge toward each other, clearly preparing to chat. Dennis gives them a look and they return to reading. Pretty much everyone in the room appears engaged. This is kind of amazing considering how hot the room is and how close the kids are to their friends.
Here’s where I see differences between his class and Jennifer’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet: while Jennifer’s teaching is a lesson on three specific concepts–summary, context and analysis–that the students will understand and be able to implement, Dennis’ class is focused on the practice of habits that will lead his students to enjoy reading and writing. (It’s worth mentioning that his Composition class and Jennifer’s American Lit class, though both English Language Arts, do not teach the exact same subject matter, which I think contributes to their differences in approach, but I also think is not the only source of these differences.)
After reading, they write. Dennis shows them an essay by a former student about being afraid to grow up. The kids read it, then list what they’re afraid of. Dennis asks for volunteers to read. Hands shoot up. “Making a poor first impression,” says the skinny white guy with diamond earrings. Other kids chime in. Losing my family. Spiders and rats. Snakes. Failure. “Being forgotten,” says the African-American guy with the spirals shaved into his hair. “Being a statistic,” says a Latino girl in sparkly jeans.
The kids listen to each other with full attention, then write some more, weaving their fears into an essay modeled on the one they just read. “Give it a title or I’ll read it last,” says Dennis. “I mean, would you go see a movie called ‘Movie’?”
While they’re writing, Dennis shows me a poem written by one of the students, a Latino boy who’s been silent throughout class. In it, the writer talks about his struggles to get himself out of trouble. He writes of his “crackhead mother who smoked all nine months of her pregnancy and took her last hit ten minutes before I was born.”
I’m stunned by the trust this student had in turning in this poem to Dennis and then reading it to the class, something they usually do at the end of class—“reading out loud boosts your confidence, you’re gonna need it in the real world,” Dennis reminds them—but today we’re out of time. The kids file out; many of them will return at lunch because they’re in a club called POPS for students with loved ones in the prison system. Dennis’ wife, writer Amy Friedman, will serve cream cheese sandwiches and brownies, and the kids will find, in Amy’s words, “support, friendship, camaraderie, wisdom.” Over fifty kids will show up, overflowing even the overflow chairs.
I’m fascinated by similarities and differences in Jennifer’s class and Dennis’. In both, the kids are fully engaged. In both, the kids cannot help being influenced by the teachers’ unfakeable, bone-deep love of the subject matter, combined with their evident fondness for the students.
The difference has to do in part with measurability. At the charter school where I taught, I was required to post a single measurable objective every day. If you asked me to measure what Jennifer’s students learned, I could find a way to assess their mastery of the concepts “summary,” “context” and “analysis.”
But what the kids learned today in Dennis’ class was less easy to define or measure. If I had to name it, I’d call it a very deep kind of listening. I’d call it practicing a way of living that includes honesty, respect, self-awareness, reading and writing. “All that matters is being alive in the moment,” Dennis said to me once, in answer to my question of how teaching should be measured. Which didn’t answer my question. Or maybe it did.
There are so many ways to be a great teacher, I’m thinking as I drive away.
And that’s before Robe Roberson at Campbell Hall Episcopal Day School practically makes my head explode. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.