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Alan Sitomer, California Literacy's 2003 Teacher of the Year, talks about reluctant readers, student-teacher ratios, and dreaming big.
The new verse methodology took off with students, but growing an interest in long-form fiction was still a challenge, for the same reason: a musty canon of books that on the distracting, always moving surface appeared to have little relevance to at-risk urban teens in the 21st Century. With this obstacle in mind, Alan wrote and published his first Young Adult fiction novel, The Hoopster, about a high school student in inner-city Los Angeles, in 2003. All of these efforts, and the enthusiasm and test results they helped produce, netted him California Literacy's 2003 Teacher of the Year award.
In 2004, while working on a follow-up to The Hoopster, Alan put his successful, unorthodox lesson plan into Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics: for the Classroom, an instruction book which sang thematic and linguistic harmonies in hip-hop and classic poetry. Included were follow-up questions and answers for students, worksheets, writing exercises and classroom activities. Also in 2004, Alan began teaching Trends Teaching English in the Secondary Schools part-time at Loyola Marymount University to budding junior and high school English teachers, and won the Southland Council Teachers of English 2004 Award for Classroom Excellence.
The momentum from the awards and books continued when Hyperion-Disney signed Sitomer to a trilogy book deal in 2005. The Hoopster was re-published by Hyperion as the first in the series. The second book in the series, Hip Hop High School, was released in April 2006.
Currently Alan is nominated for the California State Department of Education's 2006 Teacher of the Year award. In between finishing his newest book, burping his baby daughter, and flying around the country to give instructional speeches to other teachers, Alan picked up his phone for the following chat.
Get Underground: I understand you're a California transplant. Where are you from originally, and what brought you out here?
Alan Sitomer: New York City. I came out here to go to USC. Have stayed in Cali ever since.
GU.: What do you think about California now that you've been out here a while?
A.S.: I love it. It's completely insane, but I think that's why we all stay here.
GU: I understand you originally came to L.A. with the intention of becoming a screenwriter?
A.S.: I tried my hand at greeting cards, plays for a hearing-impaired children's theatre group, Hollywood. A writer's path sometimes zigzags. And now look at where it has taken me.
GU.: How did you decide to go into teaching?
A.S.: I always was the kind of kid who liked helping other people. Books click for me. Even in college. A lot of people got jobs flipping burgers, but I got a job tutoring student athletes. It's always been something I've liked to do.
GU: Where do you teach?
A.S.: I'm a professor at Loyola Marymount University and a teacher at Lynwood High School in inner-city L.A.
GU: What are the demographics of your students in terms of race, economics and age?
A.S.: Economically we're classified as Title 1; over 70% of our students are entitled to free lunch. How can I put this delicately; we have pretty much no white students. There are a lot of teenagers at my school whose very existence is at risk due to a host of troubling issues in the community.
GU: What is your student-teacher ratio?
A.S.: My English classes are immense, roughly 38-1, five days a week. When I assign a paper I get a phone book to take home with me and read over the weekend.
GU: As someone from a different background, how do you gain the trust of your students?
A.S.: I actually ended up going to a high school that was racially mixed when my parents divorced, with many African-Americans in particular. I don't see the dividing line. We're all human beings. Before ethnicity are more basic needs: everyone wants to be healthy, happy, well-educated. All people view themselves as intelligent, and if you speak to their higher nature, you'll get a favorable response.
GU: At any given moment you're facing children living with poverty, single parents, drugs, gangs/violence, along with the usual host of teenage problems' how do you get someone struggling with so many immediate real world issues to warm to the learning process?
A.S.: We don't teach in a vacuum. However, high school students in the modern era have to appreciate education and the choices they make, even if the world is going to pot around them. I try to be the biggest cheerleader I can be. Kids who graduate high school and college almost always break the cycle of poverty - these teens themselves want to escape.
GU: How do you deal with disruptive students?
A.S.: I'm kind of the cool, easy-going teacher so I approach them like a regular person. If you don't want to learn, hey, there are 37 others who do. There's the door, feel free to leave. I'm not gonna come after you, karma will. No one ever leaves. The truth is, despite what the media portrays, I rarely have disciplinary problems. Yet I'm a taskmaster: we work hard in my class. Of course I'm not dealing with angels all day long either. I guess I just really like my students and I find a way for all of us to get along. Behavior problems are not anything I'm afraid to deal with, so in a way, I guess that's why they don't come up. Plus, we're really learning something in my class, and when kids realize what you're doing is for their benefit and not your own, they are usually pretty cool about things.
GU: What are the biggest misperceptions about public education?
A.S.: That most teachers are buffoons, most students are lazy and worthless and most administrators are either corrupt or incompetent. The truth is there are many, many people working extremely hard to make a difference in an arena that is just being ravaged by budget cuts, politicians and a general lack of public support. The way things are always negatively portrayedmakes for good tv, but if a kid makes it to Stanford, you'll be lucky to see a byline on page 18 of the local newspaper. But let there be a gang fight and the helicopters will start to swarm, praying that they can get some juicy footage to boost their ratings. The media is looking for the bad. And when you look for the bad anywhere, where won't you find it?
GU: What classes do you teach? What's your area of focus?
A.S.: Last year I taught English 10, Creative Writing and AVID (a special course not yet available at all schools across the country, though I think we'd all be better off if it were). I've also been a Mock Trial coach, chaired the poetry club, done a bunch of things. It varies year to year. At its core I teach English Lit. every year. It's my bread and butter.
GU: What's AVID?
A.S.: Advancement Via Individual Determination. It involves taking middle-of-the-road achievers and pushing and challenging and really requiring them to reach down deep so they can get into college. Kind of like the tortoise and the hare. I make tortoises in AVID. And in the end, we all know it works out for those who are tenacious enough to take that road, don't we?
GU: One of the major criticisms of public education is the standard, one-size-fits-all curriculum. How do you draw up your curriculum?
A.S.: Students need to be internally motivated to succeed. You can't threaten kids to be successful. If you get them engaged and enthusiastic, and marry it to standards, you will succeed. Passion and theatrics are in the teacher's tool belt I carry. Marrying academically challenging, standards-based objectives to zest-filled, highly engaging and exciting lesson plans is my greatest challenge. However, I love it when my class is demanding but it's also fun. I feel students learn best that way. Ask them to reach deep but make it joyful to do so. Hard work gets a bad rap in this world. Giving a great effort and reaping the commensurate rewards is something which is incredibly personally satisfying. My students laugh, but they also reach and stretch. It's what makes being a teacher magic.
GU: What is your typical lesson in a reading class? How much time is given to reading aloud, sustained silent reading, phonics, grammar, journaling, etc?
A.S.: Essentially, as a teacher you have a full year to paint a canvas, so you're going to use a whole host of colors. My base paint is reading; we read all the time in my class. For example, we read 14 books in my class last year; many students hadn't read that many in their whole life. Like I said, we read, read, read. It's the number one way to enrich literacy skills. However, we also, write, we discuss, we think, we chat, argue, debate, joke around and challenge one another. Shakespeare, hip-hop, Powerpoint presentations; we cover a lot over the course of the year.
GU: In I Won't Read and You Can't Make Me, the experienced reading teacher Marilyn Reynolds repeatedly mentions that the key to reaching reluctant readers is to present them with books that are relevant to their experiences and interests. In addition to penning two urban high school novels, you have put this idea into action by pioneering the promotion of literacy among at-risk youth through comparisons of universal themes in hip hop lyrics and the classics. How did this method evolve?
A.S.: It evolved almost out of a desperate effort to reach my students where they were. When looking at the typical poetry curriculum students put up a defense mechanism, you know, Yuck!, I hate poetry. I realized that if I made the work relevant and accessible to their lives I could build a bridge to the classics and really turn on some light bulbs. It has worked better than I ever dreamed.
GU: The first lesson in your book, Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics: For the Classroom, shows how alliteration is used by first John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, and Emily Dickinson, then by LL Cool J and Run-DMC. When you first began using this technique, before it was successful, did this cross-cultural pedagogy cause friction with fellow teachers and administrators?
A.S.: Absolutely. First of all, it took me years to get across the message that this is not MTV that I'm doing here. The establishment looked down their nose at me for quite a while and thought I was merely entertaining the students -- until the students started learning the classics and my standardized test scores were smoking hot. I mean, I still get friction from the old guard at times. There's a segment of teachers who are all about the canon." And the truth is, I am fine with that. After all, I love the canon. Heck, I'm an English teacher. I'm a novelist. I have a Master's Degree in Cross-Cultural Language Arts. I laugh when people act as if I'm against the great books of society. What a joke. I love them. However, there are people who will fail 83% of [an English] class because they've raised the bar so high and then think it's the students' fault that the demands of the curriculum are not being met. I'm sorry, but if a teacher is failing 83% of their class, it's not the kids who are failing; it's the person at the front of the room who needs to take a look in the mirror. My feeling is that if the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad's gotta go to the mountain.
GU: Do you have any idea how many teachers around the country are using your book?
A.S.: Hip-Hop Poetry and The Classics has gotten so successful I have no idea. I speak to sold out teacher's conferences all the time. Every educator who takes five minutes to look at my book is sold; even if they don't think it's for them, they tip their hat and tell me that it's very original methodology which is excellently executed. Plus, it's standards-based. Nobody's done anything like this before. There's no profanity, no homophobia, no misogyny. What we've done is create a book that demystifies classic poetry for teens while at the same time demystifying hip-hop for many teachers and adults. The results and feedback have been nothing short of fantastic. From the Midwest to the East Coast, out to California and all across the nation, teachers everywhere with reluctant readers in their classes have reaped excellent results by using my book. It's been quite humbling really.
GU: Apart from the enthusiastic responses you've received from students and teachers who've used your books, how do you measure student progress? Has there been an improvement in test scores? Have these methods created more lifelong learning and/or interest in the classics than would have been the case with a standard curriculum?
A.S.: Yes. The ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners. My students excel. To graduate high school in California one must pass an exit exam before they conclude their senior year. I have a phenomenal pass rate for my sophomores that runs circles around the state averages. And my scores have been consistently high for years. This is why I'm trying to empower other educators, so they can be successful as well. Teaching is not like capitalism in that if I win, I don't want someone else who is doing the same thing I am (by being an educator) to lose. That's what I'm aiming for, to help out as many other folks as I can.
GU: Currently some SAT preparation courses run to $1,000 and more, giving a big advantage to the well-off. To right this imbalance, you provide free SAT test preparation. What are your thoughts on standardized testing? What are the alternatives?
A.S.: Standard testing is a different barrel of monkeys altogether. Inequity is a pet peeve of mine. My own students can't afford ritzy prep classes. Does this mean they shouldn't be well-prepared? The testing industry polarizes student performance into rich and poor when materials to succeed are only offered to the wealthy and not everyone else. I'm not trying to bring the rich down, what I am trying to do is hoist some of the impoverished up by means of using education as a ladder whereby they can lift themselves. And the more folks like myself are successful in this regard, the more crime will rescind, society will improve and others will start to think of being of service instead of solely spending their days thinking about what they can get for themselves. Sure, it's David vs. Goliath in many ways, but then again, wasn't America built on underdogs?
GU: What do you see as the keys to improving public education?
A.S.: If I had to choose one thing it would be class size reduction. Student-teacher ratios are preposterous. The simple truth is teachers can be more effective with twenty students then they can when they are charged with teaching 40. You certainly don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out.
GU: In Hip-Hop High School, Theresa, the protagonist, goes to a good college while her friend, Cee-Saw, gets pregnant in high school. Behind these different trajectories is their differing family platforms: Theresa has an academically successful older brother and two supportive parents, while Cee Saw lives in a single parent household without much in the way of role models or positive reinforcement. Who were the nurturers and mentors who helped you to become the person you are today?
A.S.: I'm really fortunate. My parents were college-educated, and so were my grandparents. Education was always a part of my family; it's been passed down from the prior generation. I always knew I'd go to college. My sister and my brother both went to college. My daughter, who's only 2 months old now, we've already opened a college savings account for her. The value of education is already being cemented into her life as I am strongly aware that an education is something no one can ever take away from a person once they have it. People who are educated understand this; that's why they are so emphatic about making sure their own children become educated themselves. I would never presume to tell my daughter what to do for a career, what to study, where to live, etc., but no matter what she chooses, I am adamantly convinced that her being an educated woman will serve her best in whatever pursuit she chooses. Essentially, when it comes to schooling, I drank the kool-aid and still continue to gulp.
GU: In times of continually lean education budgets and an unfortunate indifference among too many voters to poverty, it's not surprising that self-empowerment runs through much of your work, from the inclusion of the Rudyard Kipling poem "If" in Hip-Hop and the Classics to Theresa's eureka moment in Hip-Hop High, when she becomes turned on to reading through the original self-help Bible, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What were the first books that woke you up as a human being and gave you inspiration to keep reading, thinking, and learning?
A.S.: That's a great question. The theme of self-empowerment kicks back to the core of what America was founded on. We're a can-do people; when we get lemons we make lemonade. When funding dries up as a teacher, are you gonna complain and moan or are you gonna do something about it? I've been educated in the school of hard knocks, and books have always been light posts which have shown me the way. Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Alchemist, books like these (and so many more) to me, that's what a real hero is - someone who picks themselves up, dusts themselves off, and creates a brighter future for themselves regardless of their setbacks and adversities. Self-empowerment is a major theme in my work I guess because it's a major theme in my life. As a writer and a teacher you quickly learn that no one really gives you any breaks. If you can't deliver, then it will be a cold hard world. You have to claw and work and hone your skills and give your best effort and be tenacious and suffer rejection and bounce back and work through adversity if you are going to make it. It's a quality in which I firmly believe.
GU: What do you read for pleasure these days?
A.S.: I try to read all the time. I read a lot of YA (Young Adult) novels to keep up with my students. I read magazines. I still haven't read nearly all the classics I would like. How much I would love to be a student once again and be told that my job is to read this or that. There are some true gems out there. Really, I can't keep up.
GU: What do you see in your future?
A.S.: My ambition right now is to publish a book a year for the next 20 years while still continuing to teach and speak. I get so many new opportunities, you don't know where it's going to go or where they will lead me. But I tremendously enjoy writing books and novels, I love teaching, and speaking is a third element to my professional life which I enjoy quite a lot. Doing things in which I find value, which I enjoy, is tremendously important to me. And even if I could financially afford to retire, I wouldn't. I just love it all too much. I'd probably take nicer vacations if I could, but the grass is not greener for me right now. I am incredibly fortunate to love what I do and my plan is to continue to do it. That's how it is when you put your focus on trying to use your own talents and abilities to serve the needs of others.
Stories that inspired Alan to read and write:
Copyright © 2006 Dan Benbow