What is at the heart of great teaching? Ellie Herman set out to find out and the following post explains what she learned. Herman took an unorthodox path to the world of education. For two decades she was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” She wrote fiction that appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. Then, in 2007, she decided “on an impulse” to become an English teacher. She got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She chronicled the lessons she learned on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. Herman, who gave me permission to publish this piece, was awarded first and third place prizes in the 2014 SoCal Journalist Awards given by the Los Angeles Press Club for pieces on her blog. Now she teaches reading and writing at an after-school enrichment program for students from low-income families, visits the classrooms of great teachers, and works with writers, artists and other creative people.
By Ellie Herman
I have a friend named Lauren Freeman Felder, an English teacher who a former student of mine named Gerardo said had turned his life around because she refused to give up on him.
In 2013, 16 of the 23 students in her AP English Literature class passed the AP exam. Four of them scored “4’s.” [The highest grade available is a 5.] This would be something in any class, but in the case of Lauren’s, we are talking about students from one of the highest-poverty communities in Los Angeles, who until high school had attended some of the most infamously terrible schools in Los Angeles, many of whom came into 9th grade reading well below grade level.
The AP English Lit exam, for those of you who haven’t taken it, relies heavily on a student’s knowledge of the entire body of English and American Literature. Of the many things I have learned visiting classrooms in Los Angeles, one of them is that students who live in very high-poverty communities like South L.A. or Watts live in a kind of isolation that segregates them from exposure to other socioeconomic groups, making tests like the AP Lit exam, which tests upper-middle-class cultural knowledge as much as writing skills, particularly difficult. I’ve actually never heard of such a large number of kids passing the AP Lit exam at a school in a high-poverty community.
I know, because Lauren is incredibly modest, that she is going to want to kill me for writing about her, but she’s going to have to deal with it, because what she did is amazing—and it helps me understand the most important lesson I have learned, which is that great teaching is much, much more than a set of techniques. I know that Lauren has incredible skills, honed after years of classroom experience. But when Gerardo talked about her years later, those skills are not what he talked about. What he talked about was how much she cared about him and believed in him.
In my year of talking to great teachers, no matter where they taught, whether at the wealthiest private school or in the most severely impoverished community, one word came up consistently. That word was “love.”