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Monte Vista High School teacher, Kimberly Gilles, speaking in her women's lit class on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 in Danville, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

DANVILLE -- When Kimberley Gilles teaches the classic Victorian novel "Great Expectations" to her students, it's hardly a prim and stuffy affair.

In fact, you won't see students in her English class at Monte Vista High School at their desks hunched over pages of multiple choice and essay questions.

Rather, for their final exam, they get to attend a Mad Hatters' tea party where they sip English tea and sample student-prepared Victorian desserts and dishes. The walls are covered with black paper and pictures of cobwebs and clocks to resemble Miss Havisham's home in the book.

And you wouldn't believe the number of students -- required to design and wear their own Victorian top hats or come in full costume as one of the characters -- who "leave the class talking in British accents," Gilles said with a laugh.

But if it looks like all fun and games, don't be fooled, said Gilles, an Oakland resident: "It's a complete experience."

Gilles' teaching methods have caught attention nationwide. She has garnered $35,000 in awards, taking home two top honors in just the past year.

When Gilles' students reach the tea party stage, they have already put in lots of hard work. They have done extensive written character analyses and essays delving into the book, and they are being tested. And during the exam, they take turns answering essay questions aloud (that they pull out randomly from slips of paper in a fish bowl at each table). And often they will have to answer as the character they've dressed up as.


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In fact, Gilles transforms her classroom into another world of learning, not just during her traditional Mad Hatters' Tea Party final exam, but throughout the year, her students say. A graduate of UCLA and UC Berkeley, Gilles has been a teacher for 28 years, the past eight as an English teacher at Monte Vista.

Gilles says tapping into her and her students' rich inner lives and imaginations is essential because "literature is intimately about the imagination," she said.

"She has a really unique way of teaching," said Mackenzie Lynn, 18, a senior in Gilles' women's literature class. "She makes you use all of your senses and skills. In this class, you'll use everything. It's personal, it's logic-based, reason-based and spiritual within yourself."

Gilles' innovative methods of teaching recently have been celebrated on a national stage. In February, she took home a top national education award, the $25,000 National Education Association Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. In November, she also was one of five teachers nationwide named finalists for that top award, who each won $10,000 for the Horace Mann Award For Teaching Excellence.

She also won a California Teachers Association Human Rights Award in 2012 for her classroom curriculum focusing on bigotry and social justice issues.

Gilles won that 2012 human rights award for finding innovative ways to teach "The Laramie Project," a play by Moisés Kaufman about the murder of gay teenager Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.

"It's a play dealing with what may be the civil rights issue of this generation," she said.

Not only did she ask her kids to act it out, but she also asked them to create their own metric to rate each character, as they understood the text. She asked them to rate the characters and themselves to determine their level of bigotry on one side or celebration of homosexuality on the other side and how they each change by the end of the book.

"Empathy is an act of the imagination," Gilles said. "That is what literature has to teach us. It gives us practice using our imaginations to imagine another way of being in the world."

That's also why she started the Letters to Santa program for her class and the entire school, getting students to write letters and sending gifts to hundreds of kids, often who are needy, in answer to their holiday wishes.

"The kids really care about writing that letter right," she said. "And of course, I get to let them see the power of words."

Though fun in her teaching methods, she says she is first and foremost "a scholar," who uses art, music and history to give her students a fuller, more personal experience.

But one thing she never does is lecture. Rather, she asks her students to discuss books in small groups, and then in "the grand circle" of the whole class.

"Teenagers are not designed to hear me speak, take it all in and spit it out," she said. "It's supposed to be fun. Not fun like roller coasters are fun, but it's supposed to be stimulating and satisfying."

And that's why it's no surprise to her many admiring students that Gilles has won such a big teaching award.

"I knew she would get it," said her student Marina Velo, 18. "Mrs. G is the most inspirational, way-out teacher I've ever met in my life."

"She is amazing. She is crazy," agreed Lauren Dowling,¿ 18, beaming with enthusiasm. "Because she'll be so excited about things like 'Jane Eyre,' that it gets us to be excited, too."

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.