Classroom Conductor Has the Kids Upbeat

With winter vacation looming, teachers are scoring their first-semester progress. In Part 2 of a year-long series, the Monitor looks in on two urban educators to see how they have fared in motivating students and reaching goals.

At 12:10 p.m., the door to Gerardo Martinez's classroom bursts open, and 16 eighth-graders pour in. They've just finished lunch, and their energy level is high enough to fuel a rocket launch. But by 12:13 p.m., they're seated with their notebooks open, copying down their homework assignment from the blackboard.

It's a drill Mr. Martinez has rehearsed for the past three months - and even he is impressed with the results. "Usually it takes time for kids to get used to a routine," he explains, "but within a couple of weeks they were ready to work."

Martinez, an English teacher at William H. Taft School in Brighton, Mass., has worked hard this fall to instill discipline and organization in his students - skills he sees as crucial if they are going to meet academic goals for the year. The pace is rigorous, and the list includes everything from Ernest Hemingway to Richard Wright.

He is demanding. Despite his newcomer status - this is just his second year teaching - Martinez has a reputation as one of the school's toughest teachers. But he is also sensitive to his students' needs. He'll hang out with them at lunch. He calls parents and chats with them in their native Spanish or Portuguese. He throws a pizza party each semester for high achievers.

For Martinez, being a good teacher means blending the roles of educator and mentor. "Too many teachers want to exclude the kids and not get them to have a meaningful dialogue with the teacher about things besides education," he says. "When students realize a teacher is approachable, they work harder and they care more."

As his afternoon class arrives, most sporting the teen uniform of baggy jeans and Adidas sneakers, Martinez takes his place in front of his meticulously organized desk, watching earnestly but saying nothing. The hardest times to teach, he says, are before and after lunch, after gym, and Fridays (which happens to be today).

"If I come in and say, 'OK, sit down, let's go, get in your seats,' the students won't listen," Martinez says, and that means they're going to resist learning. With each class only 40 minutes long, he has to capitalize on every second.

Instead, he waits for the roar to fade and then begins to give instructions: "Jason, pass out books. Francis, pass out folders," he calls to two boys in the back row who jump to their feet.

He's pleased with his students' progress. Many, he says, are doing close to high-school-level work - one of Martinez's top priorities.

Primary objectives

His primary objectives for the year are threefold: Students must be able to discuss literature according to themes, write effectively, and define literary terms such as mood and foreshadowing.

Because of a lack of funds, he wasn't able to buy all the books he wants. He's had to cut his reading list in half from 10 novels to five.

But his motto - make the work relevant to students' lives - is evident in the books he's selected and the writing assignments he's created to engage the teenage mind. For example, he had his students read humorist Dave Barry's essay "Memories of Dating" and write a dating manual.

"It was almost as if the writing was coming freely from them," he says excitedly. "It wasn't forced." Such assignments, he adds, allow students who don't do well with one style to succeed in another.

"Many of the students I teach don't think very deeply about important issues," he says. "So I'm trying to get them to have realizations about themselves and the world. A lot of them are afraid to confront their own reality."

In another assignment, Martinez had his classes read the short story entitled "Dancing for Poppa," by Pat MacEnulty, in which a young woman has flashbacks about how her grandfather pressured her to become a ballerina. Martinez had his students write a script about what they would have her say to her grandfather. "Many of the kids had [her] fight back," he says. "So they are talking for the main character as well as for themselves."

In class, Martinez is like a conductor, always directing and moving. He rushes to the front of the room and points to a question on the board, then slides back to his original place and moves up and down the rows of desks.

He works hard to foster an open discussion by constantly questioning, joking, and sharing his own personal experiences. His ability to draw the words out of his students, he says, comes from his own spontaneity. "Even though I know what I'm going to say, I try to say it ... as if it just popped into my head," he says. "It's almost as if I'm thinking along with the students."

In today's class, the students - most of them African-American, Hispanic, and Asian - are reading "Children of the River" by Linda Crew. The book tells of a young Cambodian woman who comes to America and struggles to fit in.

After passing out the previous night's assignments, Martinez selects four students to read aloud from the story. As he doesn't have enough books for everyone to take home, most reading is done in class. It can take twice as long this way, but he says the students often absorb more.

"If your family lived in another country, would you send money home to them?" Martinez asks the class. Several hands go up.

"I would," says one boy, who's been relatively quiet, "because it's a way of giving back to them for all that they've done for you."

Martinez nods his head approvingly. "My grandfather came to the United States from Cuba to wash dishes, and he sent money home to his family," he says.

Too little time

Yet getting a lively discussion going when classes are so short is often difficult, he says. "I'm at the point where something wonderful is about to happen in class and you have to stop." The school is considering holding fewer classes each day for longer periods.

His enthusiasm seems to have rubbed off on his students. "He makes it exciting by making jokes," Francisco Depina says. "He deals with adult things," Jason Torres adds approvingly.

Ask him about the problems his students face, and he turns quiet. The biggest problems, he says, are gangs, domestic violence, and drugs. But he declines to discuss specifics to protect the privacy of his students. "I can say there are many students in the school who are going through problems that they shouldn't be experiencing at such a young age," he says softly.

Three-quarters of Martinez's students had him for seventh-grade English, so they know his demands. "I'm a very tough grader," he says with a grin. Last marking period, of his 76 students, only 11 earned A's. Most received B's and C's, some D's, and eight students failed.

Martinez believes in staying in close contact with parents. Every week, he calls two or three homes to report bad performance as well as good. Because he speaks Spanish and Portuguese, he will also call parents for other teachers. "I'm very well known around the school as the 'man who will translate for you,'" he jokes.

Discipline hasn't been a problem in his class, and the fighting that does occur, he says, stems from "a lack of socialization."

"Kids have learned to quickly ignite when something bothers them. I was like that. It's part of growing up in the city - showing everyone you're not afraid of anyone else," Martinez says. So he tries to help them differentiate between behavior that's appropriate on the streets and what's acceptable in the classroom.

So, who did the homework today?

Yet, while Martinez praises his students on many fronts, the year has its challenges, too. A schoolwide problem is homework. Students don't want to do it - and Martinez's students are no exception. The school has even brought in education majors from the nearby universities to work with students one on one.

"I find kids are rushing during homeroom to complete an assignment, or during lunch, or even during gym, and usually it's not top quality," he says. "It's an area where we could use more help from the parents."

Part of the problem is peer pressure - kids don't want to take their notebooks home because it's not cool, Martinez says. Others just don't care. The school's policy is 20 minutes of homework per subject per night. Martinez expects 30 minutes, but often only about a third of his students turn in their assignments on time.

Martinez invests an enormous amount of time preparing for classes. "24-seven," he quips - all day, every day. He estimates that he works 12- to 14-hour days after accounting for time spent grading papers, reading books, and preparing questions. He rarely uses a teacher's manual. "There are no magical worksheets, no magical questions," Martinez contends. "The teacher has to discover something for himself, the same way you want the students to discover something."

His daily schedule is an endurance test. Homeroom starts at 7:25 a.m., but Martinez usually arrives an hour earlier to prepare for the day. First period starts at 7:55 and from then on, he's in constant motion until dismissal at 1:35 p.m.

Martinez has three morning classes, a planning period, and two afternoon classes. Most teachers use the 25-minute lunch to decompress. But Martinez is back in his classroom - tutoring, giving makeup exams, and just hanging out.

Part 1 in this series ran Sept. 9.

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