At the Top of Her Class : Camarillo High honors students say Fran Berman, recipient of recent awards, is the school's toughest teacher. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first thing you need to know about English teacher Fran Berman is she has a reputation as the hardest instructor at Camarillo High School, said senior Gwyn Holm.

Tons of homework. Rigorous, by-your-wits analyses of literary works by long-petrified authors. And no gum in your mouth while you talk, please.

Said Todd Evans, another senior in Berman's honors English class: "You're allowed to argue, but you better hope you know what you're talking about or she'll launch on you."

Tough, maybe, but it works. Students who take Berman's honors English classes have a 90% average pass rate on advanced placement English exams. And after 16 years of teaching, Berman's methods have started getting a lot of attention.

She recently was named Teacher of the Year for a region that includes Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties by the California Assn. for the Gifted. And last week, she was honored by the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce as the Educator of the Month.

"She sets high expectations of students and is willing to put in extra time to help them," said Camarillo High Principal Terry Tackett. "She just never seems to run out of energy."

Berman teaches students in the school's Gifted and Talented Education program. She trains other English teachers and coordinates classes for GATE students in other classes.

She also teaches several mainstream English classes.

But Berman intentionally sets her standards higher for honors students because it's much harder to challenge them, she said.

"Some of my students are brilliant thinkers and brilliant writers. . . . I put the onus on the students to do the work and they can be pushed to respond," Berman said. "And I know they will be ready for any college or any jobs that await them when they leave this high school."

Should students have any doubt about whether they will work hard in Berman's English 4 class, one look at the course syllabus should set them straight.

Under a section on attendance, Berman writes: "Students who decide to be absent on 'vacations' and indulge in 'personal adventures' will find themselves in a colossal, Kafkaesque nightmare."

During a recent class spent dissecting a passage from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Berman told Todd he had interpreted the passage incorrectly. Responded Todd: "I disagree with that."

As he set out to explain why he disagreed, Berman listened. She interrupted to point out flaws in Todd's analysis and to compliment him on skillful insights.

In another class, discussion of the play became so animated that several students stayed after the bell rang to continue arguing their viewpoints. That happens a lot in her classes, Berman said proudly.

And it also explains why students seek out Berman's classes, said Gwyn: "You sign up if you really want to learn something."

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