Davis writer explores a teacher’s life in era of high-stakes testing

By From page A3 | November 16, 2016

 Longtime Davis resident and veteran high school English teacher Matt Biers-Ariel has published a new book — a novel titled “Light the Fire.” Biers-Ariel will hold a book-signing event at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in downtown Davis.

Author Matt Biers-Ariel lives in Davis and teaches in Winters. Courtesy photo

“The book has to do with high school,” Biers-Ariel told The Enterprise. “It took me 15 years of teaching in a high school to really understand the dynamics that I wanted to write about.

“The issues I wanted to look at are teacher-student relationships, test scores and how tests are ‘the tail that wags the dog.’ I wanted to show the different student groups … the group that’s college-bound, and those who just want to get a high school diploma, and how we treat them differently as teachers.

“And I also wanted to look at the whole notion of the Common Core academic standards, and who determines what should be taught.”

The main character is a teacher named Samson, who observes at one point that nothing in the Common Core academic standards “deals with the appreciation of literature, or building a creative mind. … Mr. Samson is fighting a rear-guard war against the (school district) administration, which is focused on test scores. Everyone’s job depends on it,” Biers-Ariel said.

“This is not just a ‘policy book,’ it is about a teacher who loses his bearings, and tries to ‘get with the program.’ And it takes a toll on him, it turns him toward alcohol,” the author said. “He’s a young teacher, and young teachers and students sometimes have special bonds.

“High school is a crucible where students really begin to explore themselves in the world, and the teachers become guides, friends, they take part in this journey with them, and sometimes those lines get blurred. Even though we morally know the right thing to do, Mr. Samson finds himself in territory that he doesn’t not want to be in, he did not choose to be there, but there he is. So how does he respond?”

The book follows two different classes — an Advanced Placement class, where the students want to get college credit, and a regular English class, Biers-Ariel said. Samson has a very different way of approaching these two classes. It’s a flaw of his that he doesn’t give the non-AP kids intellectual rigor.

“The plot is fiction,” he stressed. “The teacher — in the classroom — that’s pretty much based on me. The main character, Mo Samson, is not me at all. But if one of my students were to walk into this character’s classroom, they would recognize the teaching.”

Dean Vogel of Davis, former president of the California Teachers Association who taught for many years in Vacaville, says that “many books try to capture the dynamics between teachers and their students. Usually they miss the mark, but ‘Light the Fire hits the bull’s-eye. As an educator for over 45 years, I am thoroughly impressed by Biers-Ariel’s ability to translate the feel of a classroom into a novel. This book is real.”

Biers-Ariel has written six books, including a memoir and a book for children. This new novel is independently published.

“I like the control that I never got (before) with a publisher,” he said.

He grew up in Los Angeles — “a Valley boy,” as he puts it. He did his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, followed by graduate studies at Hebrew Union College in both Israel and Los Angeles.

He came to Davis 17 years ago, and teaches in Winters. He describes himself as an agnostic Jew who thinks the Bible is the root of western fiction. When he isn’t teaching or writing, he can often be found river kayaking.