“Teaching is magic,” says Barry Smolin, as plainly if he’s asserting that the table in front of us is made of wood. “And teachers are artists.” At least five of my friends, including my rabbi, have told me I need to interview him. If there is such a thing as an English teacher rock star, Barry is it.
A warm, chatty guy in a Ulysses T-shirt, his long curly hair tucked under a fedora, Barry has the confidence of someone who’s spent his entire career in the classroom, teaching in a neighborhood very close to the Fairfax area where he grew up. Though he’s never met Cynthia Castillo and his gregarious personality is nothing like Cynthia’s calm presence, I’m startled to hear him describe his path to teaching in almost identical terms. “As a teenager, I had all these ideas and I thought I was the only one who had them,” he tells me. “Literature made me see that I wasn’t alone. It connected me to the universality of human experience.” (To compare this description to Cynthia’s, click here. Scary, right? Those of you who are skewing negative on the value of literary fiction in education may want to put “breaking through loneliness caused by existential pain of human condition” somewhere on a rubric.)His English classes inspired him to become a writer. After college, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to New York to become a writer, but the next year, his father died and he moved home to help his mother. When his fiancée (now his wife) asked him what he could do for a living that wouldn’t make him miserable, Barry got his credential and ended up teaching alongside his favorite teacher at Fairfax High.
He found he was a natural. “You can’t just be the teacher who connects with kids and you can’t just be the teacher who loves his subject. You have to be both,” he said—and he was. After five years, a job opened up at Hamilton Humanities Magnet, which is in the same building where Laura Press teaches, but draws students from all over the city; if you’re confused about how magnet school students generally differ from students in a neighborhood school even in the same building, click here. In any case, Barry’s students are an ethnically diverse, socioeconomically mixed group with one thing in common: they’re smart and motivated. “My kids are amazing,” he tells me.
With 26 years of teaching under his belt and a high-functioning class of kids, Barry can pretty much wing it in the classroom. “I start with a paragraph or a line in whatever we’re reading and use it as a jumping-off point” for a free-wheeling literary discussion, sometimes focusing classes on common mistakes in their papers. He is a firm believer that all written work needs to be read and returned right away with comments, and despite having about 180 students across his six classes, he reads and grades everything they write immediately. Like Dennis and Laura, he has no use for rubrics and grades everything with individual commentary.
If you are not an English teacher, you may not understand how exhausting this is. Grading papers is the monster under the bed of English teachers, the thing that grabs your ankle, pulls you under and then strangles you slowly. Rubrics may help to some degree by focusing your attention on skills you want to teach, but in fact, grading papers is extremely time-consuming if you want to do it even reasonably well. Aside from grammar and spelling errors, most of the mistakes students make are actually not on the page; they have to do with what the student doesn’t explain or explains inadequately. Identifying and then articulating what, exactly, your student has thought through wrong is extremely time consuming, like doing tiny, invisible, unique puzzles. For hours and hours and hours. (And though no one has said so, I personally believe it is why English teachers burn out faster than teachers of other subjects, though this has also not been proven or even suggested as a theory by anyone but me.)
Let’s say you have a class of 43 students, which is what Barry has in his AP Lit class. Each of them turns in a two-page paper. You decide to spend only five minutes on each paper because your family and friends have complained that you never talk to them any more but spend all your time grading or whining about grading. Therefore, you spend only…hmm, five minutes per kid…215 minutes of solid grading, or over three and a half hours, assuming you do not take time out to stretch, eat, drink, take a phone call from your mother or use the bathroom. Multiply that by five in the optimistic assumption that unlike Barry, you were only teaching five classes; if you were insane enough to assign the same paper to all your students and then grade them on the same school night, you would also need to break the time-space barrier because you would be looking at over 17 solid hours of grading which, even if you’re swilling Red Bull with one fist and popping Adderal with the other, would not be possible if you’d already spent seven hours teaching, met after school with struggling students, cleaned up your classroom, prepared the next day’s class and returned the emails of concerned parents, something Barry receives regularly.
To my amazement, unlike me and just about any other teacher at my former school, Barry appears to have a healthy, fun-filled life outside of his job during which he somehow finds time to write books of poetry, record music, maintain a website, perform at clubs and broadcast his radio program on KPFK, a roster of accomplishments made possible in part because he appears to function on about four hours of sleep a night.
I can easily see why the kids love him. His enthusiasm for literature is contagious, and despite his laid-back manner, he’s obviously an extraordinarily driven person who conveys both passion and work ethic to his classes. But he’s dismissive of the notion that his techniques could be taught to others. He never attends conferences or teaches at them. “Teaching can’t be reduced to a set of techniques,” he says. “They’re trying to turn teachers into clerks.”
As a high school teacher of mine used to say, I feel strongly both ways. I agree that teaching is more than technique, but I bet I can learn a ton from watching Barry in action. I’m visiting his class tomorrow. We’ll see who’s right.