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Tuesday, January 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Instructor strives for lively dialogue

By Cara Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Newport High School teacher Rob Prufer, 36, greets freshman Andrew Smyth before checking his homework.
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One Monday morning, after his hand-shaking rounds were done, 36-year-old Rob Prufer put a question to his world-civilizations class: How good were you while I was gone?

Very good, one teenager said; no disruptions.

But that was not what Prufer meant by "good." He meant: Did you ask questions, did you offer opinions, were you engaged?

"I was a little concerned when you said you were silent," Prufer explained to the Newport High School freshman. "Because silent isn't always the best way to be."

For the past decade Prufer has taught everything from world religions to U.S. history. His main goal, he said, is to create a rich kind of patriotism in these teenagers — the kind where they look at the United States as an experiment that needs constructive criticism to succeed.

Independent Thinkers is an occasional series that spotlights innovative people in Eastside schools. If you'd like to suggest someone, contact staff reporter Cara Solomon at 206-464-2024 or at csolomon@seattle-times.com

"Teenagers and fundamentalists see the world in black and white," Prufer said. "As often as possible, I try to get them to see the gray areas."

Sometimes he gets at those gray areas through discussions. Other times, he does it by agitation.

In an e-mail the other day, he described the plan for a recent class: tell the students their school is considering switching the style of student government. In other words: lie.

"Ha!" Prufer said, before turning serious. "But it will get them into an animated discussion of the merits of the different styles of government."

For their part, the students say they love the challenge. Prufer has been invited by students three times to speak at Newport graduation. His Web page was designed by a former student.

A quote of his runs as a banner across the screen: "One of the things we do in this class is train in the art of being free people."

Twenty percent of a student's final grade in his class is based on how actively he or she attempts to stretch his or her mind. "Stretching" can be anything from asking for clarification to telling a classmate to speak more loudly to putting forward an untested theory that has been percolating in a student's mind. It is risk-taking, mind-shaking work that goes beyond what feels comfortable.

"Next year, we get to vote," said Phillip Brown, 17. "I think he's trying to get us to think on our own and be educated."

Other students said Prufer had taught them life skills — how to make decisions, how to stick up for yourself. A freshman, Tamir Lehrer, said his teacher was not interested in the simple recitation of right answers.

"He makes you think about them," Lehrer said.

There is plenty for students to ponder as they sit in Prufer's classroom. Words are posted everywhere, few of them said by familiar names.

The poet Mary Oliver: "We are, none of us, cute."

The Brazilian Catholic Bishop Dom Helder Câmara: "When I give food to the poor, I'm a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Sometimes, just for fun, Prufer will tape a newspaper article to his students' desks. "I think this is sort of interesting, just some homeless lady and what she was like," one student wrote on a photocopy of an obituary. "But another part of me says, 'who cares?' "

The classroom itself is dressed up like someone's bedroom, with personal souvenirs strewn everywhere. A Persian rug is laid out in the center of the room, with another wrapped up in the corner. A beaten-down suitcase from Prufer's travels in Sweden sits on top of a file cabinet, with toy animals packed inside. His biking sneakers dangle from the emergency medical kit on the wall.

Students file into the room to the sound of jazz from Prufer's tape recorder. And when they sit down, they are greeted by a Prufer handshake and some eye contact — a strategy he describes as a good way to spot students who need help.

There was no noble path Prufer followed to become a teacher. He fell into it on a trip to Sweden, where he said he sensed the power of history in some small, medieval town.

He had always been a careless, high-achieving student back in California, where he was raised. But his travels inspired him, and he moved from UCLA on to the University of Washington for graduate work in history.

He credits many of his colleagues and mentors with the creative ideas he uses in class, saying teaching is nothing if not a collaborative effort.

But Prufer's style is entirely his own. He leaps around the room in his sandals, throwing homework assignments to his students like Frisbees. He leans forward with his palms on his knees during discussions.

Sometimes, the lessons fall flat. There was the time, earlier in the year, when Prufer took the freshmen out onto the baseball field to explain evolution. He took the toy animals out of his suitcase, brought them outside, placed them along one of the white painted lines; the idea was to show the short span of human life in billions of years of evolution.

The kids had fun, they told him later. But Prufer saw in the end that they didn't understand the point. He started over, taking a more traditional approach.

One of Prufer's biggest 'Aha' experiments came a few months ago, when he handed out a typed paragraph that explained that it was the right of all Americans to dissolve their government if they felt it was continuously violating their rights.

"It was really fiery stuff," Prufer said.

The homework assignment was to gather signatures. It was a real challenge, the students said; no one wanted to sign. And that was when Prufer dropped the bomb: The words come straight from the Declaration of Independence.

"I put obstacles in front of them to trip over," Prufer said. "When they fall down, they see the world from a different place."

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com


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