LAKEVIEW — Hawthorne Scholastic Academy literacy teacher Jonathan Ben-Isvy is cool. He's in a psychedelic rock band. He's also a goofball, doling out quirky nicknames to students and occasionally pulling little pranks during class.
But Ben-Isvy, 39, also teaches one of the toughest, most rigorous classes in the school — often pushing students beyond reading novels to apply critical thinking skills to their daily lives, according to parents, students and administrators.
Though it's only his second year at the school and seventh year teaching, he's already made an impact at Hawthorne, 3319 N. Clifton Ave.
"It's not so much individual things that stand out, it's the outstanding habits of every day," said assistant principal Beth Bazer. "He's never putting on a show. It's never anything special because it's always something special."
Ben-Isvy, a Logan Square resident, used to work in political campaigns and as a labor organizer in low-income communities, but "teaching was always in the back of my mind," he said.
Both his parents are teachers, and pursuing education was driven by the same the same social justice values that pushed him to organizing. Before Hawthorne, he worked at Gallistel Language Academy in South Deering.
Kids, he said, have the capacity to become great critical thinkers and to make sense of "really complex, really confusing work." Helping them develop that appealed to him.
"It's really about the process of wrestling with challenge," Ben-Isvy said. "I think that's where knowledge comes from — by them getting their hands dirty."
For example, he only writes a few questions per discussion. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders must write most of the discussion topics themselves by picking out passages they don't understand and asking questions about them.
"They're not allowed to say 'Whelp, I'm confused.' No, we're excited," Ben-Isvy said, throwing his fists in the air. "Now we have an opportunity to learn. Let's squeeze it out."
Students ultimately end up engaging on "a much deeper and more meaningful level than they're used to," said Julie Wilen, who's had two kids in his classes.
The discussions sometimes lead to how a character's struggles apply to the real world, Wilen said, pushing students think beyond the classroom walls.
"He trusts the kids to not just appreciate what the books were about but to discuss them and to understand them on a global level," she said.
And as far as the kids are concerned, the energetic Ben-Isvy makes the classroom fun. He jokes around. He gives out nicknames to students like "Big Tuna" or "WD-40," said parent Josh Walsman, whose seventh-grade daughter's name - Isabel Walsman-Diaz - inspired the latter name.
Seventh grader Jason Irias, 12, said Ben-Isvy makes learning interesting because he feels more like a friend than a teacher. "Mr. B" seems to know what middle schoolers are going through.
"The way he makes this class, it almost feels like home," Jason said.
The playfulness is just his personality, Ben-Isvy said. ("If I'm bored, God knows they're going to be bored," he said.) But the humor combined with high academic expectations works — and shows that learning is be cool and fun, Bazer said.
"He fosters the idea that he is intellectual and he's fun and he's in a rock band," Bazer said. "We're very lucky to have him."