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Yes, He Does Digress

Teacher Barry Smolin, the `soul' of Hamilton High's humanities magnet, favors robust inquiry over rote testing. His subject? Life itself.

June 09, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Smolin was born in Los Angeles, and his boyhood playground was the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, where his podiatrist father had an office. He went to Fairfax High, which in the mid-1970s teemed with bright, imaginative students. "Fairfax High at that time was the center of middle-class Jewish Los Angeles," he recalls, "and when you put a bunch of smart Jews together, something's going to happen."

He ran with a crowd that was artsy and iconoclastic (on his website he recounts how he and his friends once arranged for one of their number to run naked and screaming through a crowd of Hasidic Jews as the latter emerged from temple on the Sabbath).

Teachers at Fairfax fired his passion for literature and art. Although he hoped to be a writer and musician, as he grew older he began to sense that teaching was his real mission in life. Ultimately, he received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Cal State Northridge, and teacher certification from UCLA.

To Smolin's thinking, a good teacher has mastery over his subject, personal warmth and respect for students as individual human beings, and a keen sense of humor.

"What it takes these days to hold their attention is, you have to be entertaining," he says. "I'm careful to make sure they're not just watching me like a television show, though. My teaching can't be more important than the material."

Present-day students, he says, are awash in electronic visual and aural stimulation and have to be convinced of the benefits of immersing themselves in Joyce and Homer. "They don't know how to allow their imaginations to be elevated. What I'm trying to teach is, you read this stuff and it changes your life. It transports one like no other medium."

Nonetheless, young people have an affinity for great literature, he believes, and it can be coaxed out via references to the familiar in modern adolescent life. To his ninth-graders, who are reading "The Iliad," for example, he draws parallels between the fatalism and cascading language of ancient Greek epics and the Quentin Tarantino films "Kill Bill" and "Reservoir Dogs."

Of all his pursuits, classroom teaching is what he does best, he says. So long as what he calls "the trend to turn teachers into clerks who administer tests" remains at bay outside his classroom door, he'll continue doing it. "I'm still always excited to go teach school in the morning," he says. "I get to spend all day with these beautiful young people. I still definitely have the fire and the eagerness, and I'm one of the few people who's actually optimistic about this generation of kids."

Nonetheless, his teaching, he cautions, is not to be separated from his other pursuits. His insistence on being free to express himself on his website and before a microphone, he says, is a vital lesson for his students because those passions aren't mere digressions but part of a garment from which the extracting of one thread unravels the whole.

"My work is very public, and any parent can read or listen to what I put out there," he says. "But I make no apologies for it, and nobody could stop me. If being a teacher meant I couldn't put that stuff out there, I wouldn't teach anymore."

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