Tracey Keim is partial to big, dangling earrings. She once ran a honky-tonk. She calls her classroom The Keimdom. Crickets are not supposed to chirp in The Keimdom, not the kind that pipe up when comedians bomb and teachers fail. But there they were.
The beginning of the school year. Tenth-grade English. A generic textbook. The first story was 1950s-era science fiction.
For 31 normal, average 10th-graders at St. Petersburg High, Keim, who just turned 40 this week, might as well have spun Lawrence Welk records on a phonograph. The kids didn't ask questions. They didn't offer answers.
Crick-et … Crick-et …
Finally, some of them asked: "Why can't we read that book about the Holocaust? The book you let your honors kids read?"
A light bulb flickered on.
• • •
Keim's normal, average English class just finished Night, by Elie Wiesel. It is 106 pages of apocalypse on paper, about Auschwitz and Buchenwald and soup that tastes like corpses. Next they'll read Black Like Me, by a white man who disguised himself as a black man to experience racism, and It Happened to Nancy, about a 14-year-old who is raped and contracts AIDS.
Heavy? Yes. Compelling? That too. Even for 15-year-olds who reportedly have attention spans shorter than text messages, and who are too often bored out of their gourds.
Daniel Abbott, 15, says he brags to his friends about what he gets to read in Keim's class. "They're like, 'Oh, whatever.' "
But he knows what they're really thinking: Man, that's cool.
In class, Keim pivots from Germany to Rwanda to the Congo. She shows images of a severed foot and the shoes of concentration camp victims. She asks her students whether they'd be more likely to vote for Barack Obama or John McCain if either man promised to stop genocide.
Along the way: questions about imagery, conflict, main ideas. This is still an English class. The FCAT still lurks.
Keim reads from a newspaper clipping about Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who hunted down Nazi war criminals. The article says he was not a warm man.
"How many of you would want revenge?" Keim asks.
Then she does something her students love. She lets them talk.
"I'm not evil. I'd just want them to feel what I feel."
"I wouldn't want revenge myself. I'd want God to do it."
"I wanted to do the same to the Nazis," one student answers in writing. "Then I realized I'd be as bad as they were."
During the writing exercise, all 31 heads bow, all 31 pens move.
Not crick-et, crick-et.
• • •
Relevance is a big buzzword in education. It's why some schools are offering classes in cooking and veterinary technology, and why some are scrambling to teach Chinese. It's why some school reform types sigh and stomp and gnash their teeth — because they don't see enough of it.
Many teachers offer average kids more rigorous material. But many don't.
"To say it's an exception more than the rule would be accurate," says Tim Ott, chief academic officer for the International Center for Leadership in Education, a big-name consulting firm that's big on relevance. Some teachers "have the mind-set that all kids can't handle challenging work."
Keim, who has been teaching four years, isn't sure why she didn't switch the reading material before. She's not sure why other teachers don't.
Like everything in education, it's complicated. What works for some students may not work for others. The same goes for the teachers. Maybe, Keim says, the other teachers are just doing what they always do. Maybe they're better at finding ways to make the textbook sing.
"I'm not good at faking enthusiasm," she says.
Keim says her students need more encouragement than honors kids, a little "extra babying." She doesn't grade them the same. Their writing needs more work. But if she can reel them in with something they want to read, she says, the rest gets easier.
"You can't let them get bored," she says. "Otherwise your class is borrrrrrrrringggggggg and that, my dear, is the kiss of death."
• • •
More than half of Keim's students are minorities. More than half failed the FCAT. Some are at risk of dropping out.
If you read that and jumped to conclusions, you're not alone.
"I think sometimes kids realize when they've been pigeonholed as being an average student. They're expected to only do average,' " Keim says. But now, "they're motivated by the opportunity to reach higher."
Keim's kids are brutally honest. She told them that's okay, as long as they back it up.
Ashley Mills, 15, says she used to hate English. In other classrooms, it was the same routine. "We'd do vocabulary, answer the same questions. What's the main idea? Where is the setting?" she says. "That wasn't something we needed to spend the whole year on."
Ashley wants to be an engineer. But she never signed up for honors classes before. She admits it: She was afraid to fail.
But when Keim said she could handle advanced material, she didn't flinch. Now she wishes other teachers did the same thing.
"I don't think they think we can handle it," she says.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.