The Meaning of Life is That It Stops

So I’m thinking about changing the name of this blog to “Barry Smolin and other stuff.”  Why? Because the blog will go viral due to the million and one former students who love him. “I had him in 9th and 12th grade.  He is awesome,” tweeted one guy now in his mid-twenties after reading my last post.  “Barry is an amazing professor and most responsible for my decision to major in Literature in college. He is truly inspirational and I was so lucky to have him as a teacher,” another guy raves after seeing it on facebook.  All of a sudden, this blog has readers in Malaysia, India, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, among others.

I am going to write about Barry Smolin every single day.

Okay, I’m not.  I don’t care how much you love him, I am not going to be a slave to popularity, so go out and enjoy Thailand, for God’s sake!  Get some sun!

 But if one of my central questions here is “what is a great teacher?” I’m going to propose that one answer might be “someone who continues to inspire you long after you’ve left high school, so that years or even decades later, the mention of him will cause you to go totally crazy and start forwarding facebook posts about him to everyone you’ve ever met because he changed your life and you want everyone in the world to know it as you travel all over the world.”

I mean, I like that better than “he caused my test scores in 11th grade English to demonstrate a year and a half of growth.”  Right?

 So how does Barry do it?  Or is he right, is teaching magic, something that can’t be reduced to a set of techniques that I can learn?

 Well, maybe.  But I can tell you that on the day when I observe Barry teaching, I learn quite a bit, some of which I’m definitely going to try myself the next time I’m in the classroom.

 First of all, Barry is unique.  Nearly every inch of his walls is covered with posters, a mishmash of his interests: Shakespeare and the Beatles, “The Scream,” musicals, a poster of Kafka with the quote “The Meaning of Life is that it Stops.”  A tie-dyed tablecloth covers his desk.  A menagerie of plastic figurines sits out on a file cabinet, gifts from students in years’ past.  Students lounge on two small couches at the side of the room, some of them chatting and eating yogurt, one of them napping.  “I don’t do that thing where you have an objective on the board,” he says with a shrug, letting the kids settle into class while he gets a cup of coffee.

 The mood stays casual and warm even once class starts.  In a zigzag sweater and jeans, Barry swings out a rolling chair he sits in only for a moment before jumping to his feet to talk about the book they’re reading, Madame Bovary. Though the class is in fact a very close literary analysis of a few pages of the text, the discussion is free-wheeling and always links back to real life.

 He reads aloud, extremely dramatically, acting out every syllable, dropping to his knees as the lecherous Rodolphe woos Madame Bovary, whispering, pretending to race out of the room, pretending to feel faint.

 Every few words, he lowers the book, astonished by what he’s just read.  “Look at the language here!  ‘This was the first time Emma had ever heard something like that…’ Do you guys know that feeling?  What is that feeling?”

 The kids chime in, talking about flattery, Barry digresses freely about Rodolphe, claiming that Rodolphe is behaving “just like one of those male models, he’s like that Fabio guys with the torn shirt and the ripped abs”—here there are murmurs of agreement from the kids and laughter—“I swear, when I become a male model, and I do believe that the balding middle-aged look is trending, I believe that Flabio will be a good name.”  And then he goes right back to the text, stopping again in the middle of the next sentence to look up.  “You see what’s going on here? What an asshole!” he exclaims, genuinely outraged by Rodolphe’s smarminess.

 The kids chime in frequently and enthusiastically.  Almost every line is analyzed.  “What does ‘she gave herself to him’ mean?” he asks, after Madame Bovary and Rodolphe lie down in the woods.

 “They fucked,” says a girl with pink hair and a pierced lip.

 Barry is unfazed.  “Essentially.  To put it bluntly.”

 “Why does she cry afterwards?” asks another girl in the front.  “I just find that weird.”

“It’s complex,” says Barry.  “It’s a complex emotion.”  Throughout, he freely ties the characters’ feelings to his own experiences and encourages the class to do the same.  When Madame Bovary later looks at herself in the mirror and says to herself, I have a lover, Barry recounts a story of when had his first girlfriend at fourteen and stood in front of a mirror saying to himself I have a girlfriend, I have a girlfriend because giving words to something abstract makes it concrete.

 The class flies by.  In some ways, I see what Barry means when he says teaching is magic.  His absolute love for every single word of the book and for reading itself  cannot be faked.  And he is hilarious, something most of us can’t muster on a regular basis.  But still, what I learn from watching him teach is that bringing your own life, your own personality, your own experience and your own passion to the work really is inspirational to your students.  It’s inspirational for the obvious reason that passion is infectious, but also because, by bringing his own authentic self to every word and encouraging his students to do the same, he actually models true literary analysis, the process by which we make meaning of words.  It’s like a stepping-out, an enactment, of the inner process of reading at its most engaging.

 And even though in teaching this way, he breaks about a million rules, if his students learn to love reading and then carry that love with them for the rest of their lives, even if he does bring his own magic to it, isn’t that something we all should try?


9 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life is That It Stops”

  1. Yes, indeed, Mr. Smolin’s teaching is magic! Above all, it is powered by the intense love and passion that he feels for his students and for literature –and his students know it– which makes that love all the more powerful. I have been out of high school for 11 years now but still continue to recount stories about my amazing 9th and 12th grade English teacher whenever conversations arise that bring forth high school memories. Los Angeles and its youth is lucky to have a school where teachers like him, and others in the Humanities Magnet at Hamilton, are allowed to teach expressively and freely. They are a pedagogical gold mine!!! Smolin, we love you back!!!

  2. Many questions that pop into my brain:

    – What made Mr. Smolin be able to teach like this? Was it his teacher preparation program? Is there something that our education schools can do to promote teachers like this? Is it possible to learn how to be like this?
    – Are teacher evaluation systems being put into place across the nation stifling someone like Mr. Smolin? Are they discouraging future Mr. Smolin’s from becoming teachers?
    – How is Mr. Smolin’s view of teaching different from the view of teaching supported by a group like NCTQ?
    – What role does standardized testing, and especially high stakes standardized testing where people can get fired or get a bonus, whether CSTs, or the new Common Core tests, have in affecting a teacher like this, if any?
    – Given that not everyone can be like Mr. Smolin, what can be done to encourage more people to teach like him, assuming we want more teachers like him?
    – What were Mr. Smolin’s students’ test scores? How much do we care?
    – What’s better for society: More Mr. Smolin’s or more teachers with high value added scores? Can we have both? Is it either/or or both/and?
    – Given that not all teachers are equally effective, do policies that promote teacher standardization help or hurt more?
    – Everyone can agree that there are great and not so great teachers, like in any profession. Are policies that are trying to improve the quality of teaching having side effects?
    – There are students who go through a year with a teacher and they don’t learn so much. Some of this is based on standardized test results, but it’s also based on student feedback, parent feedback, observations, peer review, etc… Can there be a place where teachers like this get feedback and time to improve, and if not, exited from the profession? If so, how can this be implemented thoughtfully so that people like Mr. Smolin don’t have to become robots?
    – Is Mr. Smolin the exception and not the rule when it comes to teachers?
    – Should teachers be given total autonomy to do what they want in a classroom? This may encourage more people to be like Mr. Smolin, but it might also decrease accountability. What are the pros and cons of doing this?
    – Is Mr. Smolin’s teaching style art or science, somewhere in between? Something else?
    – What kind of instruction leads to a better society? Instruction like that of Mr. Smolin, or instruction that leads to more quantifiable, measurable results?

    I guess this is the point of this blog – to wrestle with these questions. I’m just getting more specific, I think.

    1. You raise so many interesting questions. Most I’m still trying to figure out. On a couple, I do have some thoughts:
      1. Obviously, some of what Barry does is talent. But I do think there are techniques an English teacher can learn from him. One is that bringing short bits of your own personal experience into a literary discussion and inviting students to do the same freely actually really helps with engagement in a text. This is not the same thing as long disquistions on your personal life–it’s one or two sentence, enthusiastic, authentic commentary. This could be learned by anyone; it’s really a form of the out-loud metacognition I learned to practice and which is extremely helpful to students, except that instead of just modelling your thinking process you’re modelling your personal experience of a text, which is relevant for a deep understanding of both fiction and non-fiction texts. Another is that setting a warm and personal classroom culture can help tremendously in encouraging students to engage and participate authentically. Which means it is science as well as art, I think.
      2. I’m pretty sure Barry told me he doesn’t care about scores, but one of the commenters below said his scores were generally high. I have no idea. What I can say,is that because he’s at a very well-known magnet, his students come from homes that have parents willing and able to play the complex magnet system game. In other words, it’s quite likely that they already came in advanced or proficient. Whether they did or did not make great gains, those gains would not have been essential to their survival in school–and may have come from other factors. Barry’s students have different needs right now than students who come in far below grade level and who are hesitant and resistant in school because of a history of bad experiences. Which is not to say that a teacher of struggling students could not use some of his techniques. But I’d need to modify them and use them judiciously if I were teaching students with low reading levels.

  3. Mr. Smolin is unique and fabulous. Not that it matters with such an amazing teacher, but over 90% of his students score at Advanced or Proficient on the CST’s every year.

  4. Just another Smolin disciple here. I only got to have him for my senior AP Lit class, but his impact was profound. Because of his encouragement I majored in English in college. I’m now a PhD, teaching English at the college level – and I still look to him for advice and ideas on how to engage my students and make them love reading and writing as much as Barry did for me. I don’t think it’s possible to teach what he does. It comes from a deep love of teaching and a deeper love of what you’re teaching.

  5. Sounds like Smolin creates a non rigid and comfortable culture in class….sounds like his students want to be there…sounds like he trusts them… and allows them the dignity to be real people. Sounds like there are few, if any, ideas that would be forbidden to discuss. I bet he doesn’t ponder the “technique” of differentiation. He just does it. Sounds like his students are literate and able to play with ideas and express these ideas to each other in a variety of ways, but it also sounds like it’s safe to take risks in his class. Sounds like he makes it exciting because he is excited-
    Sounds like he is breaking all or many LAUSD rules.
    I wonder how his classes would respond to the question of the difference between school and prison.

  6. Ellie, I would tend toward agreement with you about science and art being woven together into practice. Theory, practice, reflection, adjustment, theory practice theory. I happen to think that this is methodology we can embrace and what excellent teaching and learning is about. takes time for teachers to develop fluidity and balance in this kind of endeavor..and so teacher autonomy and freedom to practice are essential. With freedom comes a great deal of responsibility…and therein rests accountability.
    Teachers cannot do this in a vacuum. We need each other. We need time to think and share ideas with each other and then run out courageously to our students and try them out.
    High stakes testing cannot measure this kind of process unless they come up with some way to measure and quantify the qualitative.

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