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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Big Love, From Tyler

Julia James |
October 27, 2009 | 7:18 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

On a Saturday afternoon in early September, 26-year-old English teacher Tyler Hester finds himself in a familiar situation: building castles in the sky in outbuilding No. 2 at Blair International Baccalaureate Magnet School. The room is ordered, with tall windows stretching to a high ceiling -- the kind of space that invites a wandering gaze. But Hester fixates on a single item low to the ground, almost as a point of meditation: the long and vacant gray bookshelf skirting his Pasadena classroom.

Hester faces a numbers problem. He teaches 198 seventh and eighth grade students, around 40 per class, but his classroom library contains only 100 or so novels -- all purchased by him in his first year at Blair for around $500.

The second-year teacher rifles through his options. He could spend another chunk of his salary on more books. Or he could log onto a Web site called DonorsChoose, which matches teachers posting classroom needs with small-order philanthropists. The first option seems unrealistic, given that he is already spending his own money on supplies like binders and pencil cases for students who can't afford them. The second process seems frustratingly complex and inefficient.

He rules out asking administrators or parents for money; a sort of white flight from public schools has drained monetary resources from the Pasadena Unified School District. Private school enrollment in the district is three times the national average. Half of Hester's students are African-American and a third are Latino. Ninety-five percent of them live outside Blair's traditional attendance zone, in the less affluent neighborhoods of Pasadena north of Interstate 210.

The solution, he decides, will have to leverage the generosity of his friends.


Mr. Hester, as his students call him, is a rare breed -- the kind of person who can think big and act small. He holds two degrees from Stanford University -- a bachelor's in English and a master's in modern thought and literature -- as well as a master's of philosophy in education research from Cambridge. In 2007, he applied to Teach For America, a program that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the most promising recent graduates in two years of teaching in urban and rural public schools in low-income areas. Hester was accepted to the program and assigned in 2008 to his current post in Pasadena: a full-time teaching job supplemented by evening classes through Loyola Marymount University.

On a recent afternoon, Hester sat in his classroom and reflected on his educational philosophy, his students, and his own "career" arc (something of a misnomer for a member of Generation Y). Despite a respectable beard and eyes that speak of intellectual travel, he carries the appearance of someone younger than his 26 years -- in a classroom bustling with 12- and 13-year-olds. Even his manner of speech suggests an approach based on hard work and optimism. With total certainty, he poses questions like, "The system shouldn't change because people who have never been a part of it tell it to change, right?"

Like Cory Booker, the Newark mayor with whom he interned last summer, Hester blends a big-picture idealism with managerial precision. He likens classroom management to laying track on which the train of student achievement will run. "If you really set up systems in the room whereby students know exactly what they should be doing and when they should be doing it, then the train runs smoothly and it runs fast, and you're able to achieve a lot academically," he says.

Next to posters of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., a sign at the front of his classroom reads in large black letters: "Work hard. No Excuses."

The tracks in Mr. Hester's classroom are immaculately laid, and not only in the sense of physical cleanliness and organization. His teaching plans include minute-by-minute detail and feature frequent pauses to measure progress toward the achievement of established goals. He devotes week one of the school year to "perfect preparation," a goal that requires students to show up for class on time with binder, dividers, pencil, and pencil case -- no excuses. (He provides these items for students who can't afford them.)

Recently, he unveiled this year's BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal: class average of 70 percent or higher on all unit tests. By the last week of school, the Teach For America program expects Mr. Hester to pull into the proverbial station with students who have not merely stayed on track but jumped the curve -- progressed many grade levels in only one year.

Bringing students up to speed at Blair requires creativity on the part of teachers; the school scored three out of a possible 10 points in statewide ranking on the 2008 California Academic Performance Index. Hester's approach is a sort of benevolent tyranny. But he hopes that his students recognize the tough love he doles out in class -- and on weekend home visits, or "sneak attacks" -- for what it is.

On Friday of the first week of school and near the end of Hester's last class of the day,
about 60 seconds of controlled chaos yield a reshaping of the classroom furniture so
that only chairs circle the middle of the room, with students sitting quietly on them.

"Kids are brilliant," Hester says. "They know when you're being unfair, and they know when you're being unkind. And I think they're really good at parsing someone who has high expectations out of love and someone who's just being mean because he's lazy."

Reading, Hester believes, is at the core of academic performance and lifetime achievement -- a premise that is backed by a vast body of education research. "At the end of the day," he says, "being comfortable evaluating text, analyzing text, and synthesizing the information you get from text is the most important ability you can have in order to achieve in our society."

But while the importance of reading ability is almost universally acknowledged, 8.7 million fourth through 12th grade students in the U.S. struggle with it, according to a 2007 report from the National Institute for Literacy. And for many of these students, the report says, ongoing trouble with reading "figures prominently" in their decision to drop out of school.

Education research has conclusively established that the best way to get better at reading is to read more frequently. But igniting a love of literature in young adults is not always a simple task, and many chilling winds blow at the flame -- including family culture; temptations like television, video game and Internet activity; and lack of access to books.

Above all, as the National Institute for Literacy says, "self-determination is critical to motivation." Teachers are most effective as facilitators, using their judgment in assembling an appropriate and lively menu of reading materials over which students can exercise free choice.

Hester has become an expert curator of young adult fiction; with a quick eye, he can identify novels that will grab his students' attentions and imaginations. His most important lesson to date has been that kids spring for themes that reference their particular reality and at the same depart from it, into the fanciful and otherworldly.

While Hester's female students are quick to pick up novels like "The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things" and "The Skin I'm In," he struggles to hook his male students. But books like those from the Bluford series, with gritty cover illustrations and contemporary urban themes have some success. "Boys grab these and they grab them on the sly," he says. "These books are cool to pick up."

In fact, Hester says that 40 or so of the Bluford books checked out last year still haven't returned to his classroom. "Ultimately, I'm all right with that," he says. To a man who so meticulously quantifies classroom progress toward achievement of goals, the 40 missing books are a measure of success.

The question of what his students are reading is less important to Hester than the question of whether they have access to any book at all. The best novel, he believes, is the one that's there; all the better if it's glossy and colorful, capable of luring a seventh or eighth grade kid into a sensory experience with text.

"When kids can't reach out and grab a great book, or when they can't see these enticing shelves of novels," Hester says, "it's much harder to create a culture of reading and enthusiasm for books in the classroom."


On Friday of the first week of school and near the end of Hester's last class of the day, about 60 seconds of controlled chaos yield a reshaping of the classroom furniture so that only chairs circle the middle of the room, with students sitting quietly on them.

"There needs to be not a word spoken," Hester commands. "Would anyone like to share?" he asks, soliciting readers of "I am from" poems that students have been working on for class. Jonathan, sitting next to Hester, waves a hand persistently until it falls into his teacher's peripheral vision. He gets the go-ahead. "Eyes on the carpet. No talking. Listening to Jonathan," Hester says.

"I am from C-A the good, and L.A. the hood," Jonathan starts. "From loud haunting gunshots, and guys who are crackpots." The boy next to him smiles broadly and covers his mouth with his hand, shrugging shoulders.

"I am from West 85th Street, seeing things that you'd hate to. From L.A. the ghetto, something you think you relate to. I am from Georgia, Mayo, Florida and such. My father's new wound, sore to the touch. I am from joy, happiness, parents who are cool. Inglewood Christian, my old private school. I am from food, family, glee and love. Every day I thank the big man above. I am from good, bad, truth and bull. But all I see is a glass that's half full."

Smiling faces lift from the floor and the staccato of snapping punctures the silence. Poetry applause. Hester purses his lips and furrows his eyebrows, exhaling loudly in a gesture of obvious admiration.

Jonathan's fellow students scribble quietly for 20 seconds and then weigh in with feedback -- one girl gives him a simple and enthusiastic "Awesome!" -- and then class is nearly over. The students frantically reorder the room and stand fidgeting next to their desks in anticipation of the final bell. Most will leave immediately, bolting for late-summer sunshine, but a few students have a different agenda; they're eyeing a stack of boxes and a sign-out sheet, perched precariously on a desk in the back corner of the room.


Madian Turcios and her friends stay after the bell one Friday afternoon, talking
books -- most of their conversation revolves around the Twilight series by
Stephenie Meyer -- and crafting posters for an upcoming class poetry slam.

Tapping into the generosity of friends is easier today than it has ever been, thanks to electronic platforms that enable quick communication with a vast number of contacts. On that Saturday afternoon in early September, Hester posed a simple but powerful question to his Facebook friends: "Can you contribute to my classroom library?" With the click of a button, his appeal reached 1,295 people. It included a list of popular young-adult fiction along with the school's mailing address and was signed, "Big love, from Tyler."

"Mr. Hester, can we open them now?" asks Brianne Reyes, shortly after the bell rings. The boxes, which arrive almost daily through the online bookseller Amazon, hold a Christmas-present appeal to Hester's students. They pour into outbuilding No. 2 from as far away as Washington, D.C. and London and soon will more than double the class library of the previous year.

"To be able to say every day they arrive, 'Can you guys help me open these boxes of books?'" Hester says, "There is real enthusiasm. And as long as we get the right books in front of them, that enthusiasm just seems to grow."

On this particular Friday after school, small groups come and go from Hester's classroom like foraging herds, chatting, checking out books from the ever-growing library, making informal adolescent literary commentary. The room takes on a holiday-like atmosphere.

"The Skin I'm In," says one girl, turning over the newly arrived novel. "She would write a good poem."

"Do you guys know what chatting is?" another student asks her friends. "I think it's like texting," a girl replies.

Jonathan's friend, the one who was laughing during the poetry recitations, checks out "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Enrique Perez picks "Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A."

Brianne Reyes, Madian Turcios and Craciela Chico stay after the bell for more than an hour, talking books -- most of their conversation revolves around the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer -- and crafting posters for an upcoming class poetry slam.

Finally, around 5 p.m., Hester ushers a last group of girls into the weekend with high-fives and well wishes, though he will stay longer, pushing a 12-hour workday.

Sitting down at a student's desk to reflect on his classes, Hester is somewhat fatigued, but, in character, optimistic. "Reading expands our universe and our capacity to think and think critically. And so to the extent that I can inculcate a love of reading in my students, I've given something that is sustainable and empowering over the long term," he says.

His eyes light up as he glances at his bookshelf, still largely empty. He seems to see something more than meets the eye. "I want this classroom to be swimming in books."

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