Lesson Unplanned

In the first day of each semester, West High School teacher Alan Chimento hands his social studies students a twelve-page guide called "Activism 101." This is your world, it says. You can do something to change it. Now go out there and create your reality. The guide explains how to organize workshops, draft petitions, stage boycotts and launch letter-writing campaigns.

Some of Chimento's students are now putting these skills to work--to save their teacher's job.

Located off Speer Boulevard and 11th Avenue, West High has the lowest SAT scores and the one of the highest dropout rates in the city. Eight out of ten students are Hispanic; 61 percent qualify for the federal free-lunch program. But in the three years that he's taught there, Chimento has managed to bring more positive recognition to the school than it's had for decades.

In March 1998, four of his students flew to Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee on tobacco legislation. As a result, Good Morning America paid a visit to his classroom. And this spring, his students led a well-publicized campus cleanup and planted 21 trees around the school grounds.

A Denver native, Chimento earned a teaching certificate at the age of 29 after working for his family's music-store business. He was inspired by his own social studies teacher at Gateway High School in Aurora, Tom Lincoln. "I had always been one of those students getting in trouble," says Chimento. "This teacher made a connection with me."

Chimento spent the next five years teaching the mostly middle-class black students at Montbello High School. In February 1996, when a Nation of Islam minister held a controversial boys-only assembly at Montbello, Chimento and several other teachers tried to march in with a group of girls, causing a stir. At the end of the academic year, the principal showed Chimento and two other popular teachers the door.

It took only one day of teaching at West to convince Chimento that the students in his American history class needed something more than conventional lectures and reading assignments. For one thing, his classroom didn't come with any textbooks; for another, the kids were bored and reluctant to speak out. Chimento cites dismal statistics about Hispanic kids in Denver: Of the thousands who enter kindergarten each year, only a few dozen are expected to go on to college. When he looks down the roster in his gradebook, he sadly traces the names of many students who've never showed up from day one.

But others have been electrified by Chimento's teaching. The only teacher at West who is formally trained in state-mandated standards for social studies, Chimento uses a hands-on curriculum known as "project-based teaching" that links class lessons to current events.

Chimento has brought thousands of dollars in grant money to the school and raised the funds for a classroom TV, a VCR and a dozen shelves of books--history books, reference books and novels that give a sense of American history, like The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick. His students are required to read two novels each semester. They have to participate in five civic activities, such as attending a rally, showing up at a city council or school-board meeting or volunteering.

"There are students who want to drop out or ditch all their other classes, but they come to Chimento's class," says sophomore Elsa Banuelos, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and who aspires to someday be Denver's first Latina mayor. "There are not many teachers who make you want to learn. Now I'm learning about my culture on my own time. Usually after school, it's like, 'I want to go home and watch TV.' Now I want to go home and read books to learn about myself."

Annoyed by kids straggling in late to class after lunch period, Chimento started performing a different practical joke or silly gag each day in the first three minutes of classtime. Now hardly anyone comes in tardy, or they miss the shenanigan of the day.

Last fall Chimento's students published a polished voters' guide and registered 150 adults in their community to vote. When Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America, they raised $1,000 for the victims. After the shooting at Columbine High School, several students collected money for their far more affluent neighbors in Littleton.

During the 1997-98 school year, a project on the tobacco industry snowballed into a nine-month learning spree. Chimento loaned cameras to his students and told them to photograph cigarette billboards in their own neighborhoods. "When they realized how the youth market had been targeted, they were outraged," he says. Soon the students were researching tobacco laws, medical findings, the legislative process and how to lobby lawmakers. They visited elementary schools with a clever anti-smoking presentation and formed a group called T.A.K.E., or Tobacco Advertising Kills Everyday. By spring, several were on their way to the Denver City Council and the U.S. Congress to protest the glut of tobacco marketing aimed at kids.

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Gayle Worland