Watching Andrew Roth teach history to Ollivier Middle School students is like watching a show. He calls it "infotainment."
Take a recent class viewing of "Dances with Wolves" as part of its study of the Great Plains and Civil War. Roth, a veteran educator with the Greenfield Union School District, narrated throughout the film.
"The soldiers are wearing blue. Why?" he asked the students.
"They're on the North," they said.
Roth looked at one student talking to his neighbor.
"Quiet your giant boca (mouth)." The students laughed. The movie continued.
A student asked, "Is this the movie where he eats the heart of a buffalo?"
Roth fired back: "Yep. It's in the scene where they're chasing after Angie's family." The class laughed, including Angie.
As the movie played, Roth dropped historical nuggets with more jokes. The students laughed, sure, but they also will remember, he said.
"If you're boring, they don't care about you or junior high," Roth said.
What's amazing is how successful Roth has been in 20 years of teaching, using tactics educators rarely do in middle-school classrooms, colleagues say.
He interacts with students the way they interact with each other. He teases and is tough on them, calling them "stinky" and warning they'll end up working at McDonald's if they don't stay out of trouble.
Roth allows them to make fun of him, too. They joke he's poor and gets his clothes from the lost and found.
And they play history games in class -- ones where students run as fast as they can throughout the classroom.
But whether you agree with his methods, you can't argue with his results, said Ollivier Principal Sheila Johnson. The school's history test scores year after year compete with some of the best programs in the county. And year after year, Roth is nominated as students' favorite teacher. He often wins.
"He's a teaching machine," Johnson said. "Some are uncertain of his approach, but they grow to love him."
CONNECTING WITH KIDS
Roth started teaching English and history at McFarland High School, where he learned how to reach a largely minority student population.
Many of his students come from neighborhoods and households where parents struggle financially and few are around to support and mentor them outside class.
"These kids do not see any purpose to state testing," he said. "They're only motivation is to do good for their teacher."
Roth shows how historical figures are real people, like Ulysses S. Grant, who went from "a nobody to general to president."
And when students get into trouble, he calls them out in class to discourage the behavior. Those mistakes, Roth said, will shape students' future.
For Luke Hogue, who taught history at Ollivier beside Roth for six years, Roth's teaching style was inspiring.
"He connected with every kid in his classroom," said Hogue, now principal of Kendrick Elementary School in Greenfield. "It didn't matter the background. Everybody was equal."
TACTICS WITH RESULTS
Teachers have expressed concern about his "unorthodox" style throughout the years, Roth said, and so have parents of students. It's important, he said, to build a "rapport" early on. There's a line in student-teacher relationships he doesn't cross, and one that students know, too.
"My intent is not to hurt a kid's feelings," Roth said. "It's to help them to not be stupid."
The complaints seem to go away twice a year: when students annually nominate Roth the school's favorite teacher and when state test results are released.
According to the most recent STAR test results, nearly 30 percent of Ollivier students had at least a basic understanding of history, 28 percent scored proficient, and 15 percent scored advanced. Brandon Duncan, who also teaches history at Ollivier, uses a style similar to Roth's.
The combined percentages are better than any other middle school in the district. On top of that, they're better than the county average and beat out nearby district averages. The scores are not too far off from some of the highest-achieving test scorers in the county. More than 75 percent of students at Ollivier are Latino.
His principal is usually the first to hear complaints, but Johnson said she hears fewer of them when they see how much the students are learning.
A large part of testing success comes from students remembering material learned in class through games.
One game, "info-run," has teams of students come up with answers to questions, write the answer on a piece of paper and run the answer to him as fast as they can.
Roth allows students to name their teams. On a wall are point standings for teams like "What the French Toast," "Smelly," "Farteez," "Wedgeez" and "Hot Cheetos."
The team with the most points at the end gets an automatic "A" on the upcoming test. The team has proved it's learned the material, he said.
"These students struggle with notes," Roth said. "But they really like games."
Isaac Buentello took Roth's class more than 10 years ago but said he still remembers much of the American history learned.
"The structure of his class was great for learning," said Buentello, now a consultant for after-school programs. "I enjoyed the competition, and it also reinforced what we learned. He made learning fun."
Jessica McDonel remembers taking Roth's class more than a decade ago.
"It was the first time in eight years of school that I was excited about going into a teacher's class," McDonel said.
She said she was inspired by Roth, and now teaches history at Greenfield Middle School (where Roth once taught). She plays games in her class to help students review.
Hogue said Roth is one of those rare teachers that students are excited to be around, and praise about outside of school. That's especially rare among middle-school students, he said.
"You can't teach personality," Hogue said. "The personality allows him to pull off certain things in an affective manner. But he's using the core of what's important in a teacher."
Grecia Bustos, an eighth-grader, said she is getting an "A" in class because of Roth's style. She likes the review games, and the way he tells students to "take your head out of your butt."
"He helps us understand."