Not every class at Heller High is oriented around Judaism. Students continue their general studies from back in the United States as well. I was most interested to see how an English course functioned in this unique environment, since I was a teacher of literature myself. So I sat in on an 11th grade class with one of the most revered teachers at the school – Barry.
Barry is quiet, and has the kind of soothing voice that can lull anyone immediately into a comfortable state of meditative calm and serenity. Students sit around a Harkness-style conference table, eye-to-eye with their teacher. There is no podium here, no blackboard, and no lecturing. The study of literature is a fluid conversation that puts students on even ground with their instructor – everyone’s ideas count here, and every personal interpretation of a text is not just legitimate, but also valuable.
As the class proceeded with a review of James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” it was obvious that this would be the most peaceful period of the day for these students. It was 5:25 pm, and by now most high schoolers would usually be home eating Oreos or playing Xbox (or maybe that’s just what I used to do). But, alas, there were no Oreos in sight, and no one seemed ready for a round of Halo. We were here to get down to the serious work of dissecting great literature, and nothing would stand in our way.
Barry does a funny thing when he looks at a story. At first he’s quiet, flipping the pages and checking his annotation. Then he slowly smiles, like he’s rediscovered something beautiful he’d misplaced. The students latch onto this curious mindset, and adapt it themselves. When Barry starts with his initial inquiry, “So, what did we think of this story?”, they all have ideas to share. “I didn’t understand this paragraph” or “I loved the imagery in this scene” are typical responses. Students build off their first impressions, finding evidence in the text to support their points, and work together to identify the themes at work in the writing.
For Barry, the study of literature is about empathy. It’s exploring other worlds and perspectives to widen awareness of humanity at large. The connections with characters are emotional, and every story is trying to get a reaction from its reader. Barry constantly encourages students to find evidence for their arguments within the text, which is one of the most important skills to take out of an English class – the ability to formulate a persuasive argument and support it with proof from the literature.
When one student expressed difficulty identifying the significance of a particular passage, Barry encouraged her to not get frustrated and wallow in defeat. Rather, he asked the class to work together to come to a conclusion. This is a continuation of a common Heller High approach to education – no student is ever alone and solitary, left to wilt in the dark. They are all in this together, and success depends on equal participation and teamwork from everyone.
Barry pairs Baldwin’s story, which is set in New York’s Harlem during the 1950’s, with John Cheever’s “Goodbye My Brother,” a very different kind of writing from a very different kind of author. Where Baldwin wants to describe the black urban experience of his time, Cheever focuses on what he was familiar with – affluent, white, Connecticut suburbia. I asked Barry why he chose to pick such contrasting stories and assign them side by side. He replied that the contrast was the point – the stories have more in common, on an emotional level, then difference. Both have to do with mourning the loss of a brother, and the toll it takes on survivors. In this way, Barry’s lesson is highly contemporary and modern, even if the writing is from 70 years ago.
I could tell this is a special classroom, with a special teacher. When families are considering sending their children to a high school abroad, they’re probably more focused on the Hebrew and Jewish History classes – because those are the fresh, new elements they’re unfamiliar with. But it should be made known that the general studies classes, like this 11th grade English period, hold up the same standard of quality with depth of study and individual care for each student and their ideas.