World Cultures, with a Touch of Color
Teacher’s Creative Methods Energize Students, Curriculum
June 20, 2004
By Vesna Jaksic
In Western Middle School’s classroom W-11, the teacher uses his booming radio announcer’s voice to grab teenagers’ attention, his acting experience to bring the point home, and his improvisation skills to spice up the lessons.
No homework is assigned on Fridays, but home-baked cookies are handed out daily. Both English and Spanish are spoken, and few parts of the globe go unexplored in this class. The teacher created the course, the students guide the curriculum, and maps and videos are used instead of books.
W-11 is the meeting place for Jonathan Guyot Smith’s World Cultures class, which, much like the teacher, is one-of-a-kind. Smith is an actor who has performed in stage shows; a radio personality who has recorded more than 150 dramatic stories; a fluent Spanish speaker who lived in Panama; a musician whose cowboy songs are sold on CDs; and an educator who has designed courses ranging from American Folklore to History of Country and Western Music.
The White Plains, N.Y., resident created the World Cultures class five years ago, after Western’s leadership saw the need for a course suited to eighth-graders who have not taken any foreign language classes but need to learn about other cultures.
Because he created about half a dozen courses while teaching at Mercy College in the 1970s, was fluent in Spanish and had taught social studies, Smith was the man for the job.
“He generally demonstrates to the kids that he cares about them,” Western’s Principal Don Strange said. “He reaches out to them and they genuinely respond to that.”
Five years ago, Smith founded Kindness Counts, a community service program in which students serve meals to the needy. This year, he won one of Greenwich Public Schools’ six Distinguished Teacher Awards and earned Superintendent Larry Leverett’s nomination for the Connecticut State Teacher of the Year Program.
“He models service to the community, he initiates, responds to student needs and is just a very exemplary educator,” Leverett said.
The World Cultures class meets daily with about 25 students, mostly teens who speak English as a second language, have transferred from other schools, or have learning disabilities.
Smith constructs the class around the countries his students want to learn about.
“I like children to take the lead in learning – to tell me where they want to go and what they have the readiness to learn,” said Smith, who also teaches Spanish and social studies at Western. “And then once I assess them, I can do that.”
When students wanted to learn about India, Smith logged on to eBay and purchased videos to play for the class. For a lesson on Germany, he brought his own books from the 1820s to tell the country’s folk tales. When Australia was the country of choice, he sang “Waltzing Matilda,” the Land Down Under’s unofficial anthem.
“If you let me create, you’ll get the best part of me,” said Smith, who declined to say how old he is because in “showbiz, you never reveal your age.” “So this is the jewel of my teaching day.”
Smith often speaks Spanish in class, which the half-dozen native speakers appreciate.
“It’s the only class where we get to speak Spanish,” said Cesar Pineda, 14, a native of Colombia.
Students get exams, quizzes and challenging homework assignments during the week, but Smith does not assign homework on Fridays because he encourages his
students to spend weekends with their families. He bakes them cookies on most days. On a recent Monday, he handed out “rascal cookies” – chocolate chip cookies with sugar – along with homemade brownies.
As he started a recent Thursday morning class, Smith took off his jacket in preparation for what turned out to be 50 minutes of teaching, acting and quick-pacing around the room.
He hardly looked at his notes as he spoke about the late President Ronald Reagan. While discussing “Reaganomics,” a term often used to refer to Reagan’s supply-side economics, he grabbed a handful of fake bills, which he later threw in the air to demonstrate inflation.
When Smith discussed communism during the same period, he turned off the lights – for “dramatic effect” – while telling a story about his grandmother, who
in 1955 won $100,000 on a television quiz show but was left with only $32,000 after the Italian government intervened.
He is a disciplinarian who demands courtesy, punctuality and attention, but also a quick-witted personality who recently sought his class’ input on which marker to use on the board.
“Pink we don’t have,” he said, before digging out a blue marker from his messy desk. “Sold out!”
Alex Clark, 13, said Smith makes schoolwork more interesting than most teachers.
“I think it’s fun,” said Clark, who Smith calls “Mr. Alex.” “He always brings stuff like fake money and acts things out.”
During one class, Smith sang and played the guitar as he performed century-old Scottish ballads during a lesson on Scotland, startling students as he increased his voice’s volume, kicked his leg and later nearly climbed a desk while acting out the lyrics.
“It’s fun,” Slater Dedekam, 14, said after the class, smiling. “Every once in a while I think everyone gets a little scared when he jumps but we have fun.”
Smith said he too has a lot of fun in W-11.
“This course is one-of-a-kind,” he said. “It’s perfect for me because I’m a one-of-a-kind person. . . There are hundreds of people who could do it, but I don’t think there’s anyone who can draw as much joy as I do from it.”