Class Acts

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IN THE SAME WAY Makatche didn’t think she would wind up teaching inner-city fifth-graders, Macholz also had other plans, ones that had nothing to do with teaching 11th grade English at a magnet school in the Bronx.

As a creative writing major at Susquehanna, Macholz, 25, thought he was on track to pursue a master’s degree in poetry, a doctorate degree in creative writing and then, eventually, a college professorship. But he put all of that on hold to spend time in the “real world,” teaching high school English and film production at Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in New York City. He will eventually go back for his Master of Fine Arts degree, but for now his place is here.

“During my senior year, I suddenly had a desire to tackle social problems more directly. I always knew I had the gifts to have an academic career and teach at the collegiate level, but at the time it just wasn’t enough of a direct assault on the problems I was concerned with.”

Now in his fourth year of teaching, Macholz feels like he is making that direct assault, even if the rewards are not always immediately apparent.

His English classroom is high ceilinged and echoes with the sometimes rambunctious rebellion of this year’s group of students. It’s a daily choosing of battles here, and Macholz, who approaches his class with a mixture of irreverent humor and take-no-crap authority, has to stick with the flow of his lesson plans while also making sure the fragile hierarchy of his command doesn’t get off balance.

Today the class is discussing Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Macholz asks them to take out their homework from the night before, and soon realizes that only two students completed the assignment. He’s not happy. And that’s when the side conversations begin.

“OK,” he says, standing tall (he looks to be about 6 feet 4 inches) at the front of the room. Some laughter bubbles up. Loud flirtations. A note is tossed from one desk to another. “I’ll wait.” And he stands there in stoic silence, waiting.

“Why you gotta be like that, Mister?” someone shouts from the back of the room. “We get it.”

“Apparently not, because you’re still talking.” And he waits. And waits. Finally the class calms down and Macholz looks at his watch. “It took you three minutes to be quiet. That is way too long. You’re embarrassing yourselves.” Macholz is firm, but he’s not the enemy. There is a kind, empathetic nature to his discipline, and his students seem to respond. “I spent a lot of time designing a lesson plan today based on your homework from last night. How can I do my job if you don’t do yours?”

Like his peers, Macholz often emphasizes the positive. He talks about the film and sound production studios they have in the basement, the cutting edge technology he utilizes in his film classes, and the myriad students who really do want to get the most out of their education here.

“This building has been in the news twice this year—once for a student who was assaulted outside the building, and again for a teacher accused of sexually abusing a student,” he explains later. “People’s expectations for this campus and these kids are very low. I find it interesting that somehow when we sink below those expectations it’s newsworthy. When we rise above them it’s not always recognized.”

Macholz’s biggest challenge is the same as Beatty’s—it’s in trying to make his students realize why they should care enough to do well.

“It’s such a battle sometimes convincing students that there is a tangible benefit to the work they’re doing in class. A lot of them haven’t had that experience with education. They haven’t seen that benefit,” he says. “But I live and work in a place where if I don’t keep my toe to the line, then I am giving up everything. I refuse to do that. I refuse to concede my desire to see them succeed.”
 
Nick DiUlio is a contributing writer from Medford, N.J.

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