Sunday, February 11, 2007

Review: Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire by Rafe Esquith

The No Child Left Behind act proposes a system of regulations that are supposed to ensure an effective and equitable education for all children. Coming from the top down, it has achieved at least one useful outcome -- it has forced us to look at education in our society. But at the same time it has diminished the joy in learning and teaching for many students and their classroom instructors.

As funding inequities continue, charter schools compete with unfair advantages, state boards of education call for stiffer standards and assessments, and districts turn to pacing guides -- the tangled weave of educational process (student - teacher - parents - administration - politicians) can depress the hell out of me. That's when I reach for a dose of Rafe Esquith, the teacher extraordinaire from one of the poorest public schools in LA, the man who created the Hobart Shakespeareans, and who shows us what it really takes to provide a high quality education for all.

Rafe's classroom operates on two basic principles -- work hard and be nice:

1. "There are no shortcuts." This applies to everything the students do in his classroom and for the rest of their lives. To learn is not to rush through something. It is to be mindful of the work at hand, to focus and to observe one's own progress.

2. "Be kind." Two short words that in conjunction exhort the best from each of us. For many, it is very difficult to carry this out consistently. It is a command for teachers as well as for students. Our emotions often take control of our rational minds and we find ourselves shouting from frustration or losing patience. We fling unkind words at our students, and yet expect them to act civilly at all times. Our growing cynicism may be revealed in the tone of our voices or the sharp glance from our eyes.

Some students' home lives consist of nothing but chaos and screaming. The classroom may be the only safe haven in their lives. Rafe has taken the concept of haven and turned it into an eclectic laboratory for the advancement of student learning through Shakespeare, rock and roll and a whole lot of innovative teaching.

If you've never come across Rafe and his work, the first thing to look at is the PBS Point of View documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans. Once you see the children in action, and are thrilled and amazed by their accomplishments, you will want to know more about Rafe's teaching theories and techniques.

Rafe's first book was called There Are No Shortcuts. It's a gripping tale of an extraordinary teacher and the students who have flourished in his classroom. It is still available and highly recommended.

The title of his latest book, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire, is a metaphor that sprang from an unforgettable science lesson. The book focuses on the work and travel of his class (Room 56) in far more detail than his first book. It provides tried and tested creative ideas for teaching reading, writing, science, social studies, math and the arts. Although Rafe teaches a self-contained 5th grade class (all are students who speak English as a second language, which makes their work on Shakespeare even more staggeringly amazing), the ideas and concepts presented in this book can be adapted for middle school and high school and even college.

Rafe gives us a clearer picture of how he approaches his unabridged Shakespeare play productions and lists the rock songs the students learn to play and sing to underscore and highlight their live production. Naturally I was thrilled to see a number of Kinks songs used, including:

The Taming of the Shrew:
"I'm Not Like Everybody Else" performed during the first meeting of Kate and Petruchio. "Tired of Waiting for You" when Kate is left standing at the altar

Love's Labour's Lost:
"The Village Green Preservation Society" as the Queen of France and her court arrive in Navarre to encounter the new rules. The students present the lyrics in sign language. Wow -- I'd love to see that!
"Days" -- a perfect wrap up and curtain call tune.

The productions are three hours long and are performed for two weeks at the end of the school year. Half of the classroom becomes a stage. They have professional stage lights mounted and great sound equipment. Rafe's hard work for the past 24 years has paid off. There are many sponsors of Room 56, which has become a non-profit corporation. Noted thespians such as Ian McKellan, Michael York, Hal Holbrook, Patrick Stewart, and Peter Hall visit and support his program. Ian McKellan comments that unlike many performers, the Holbart Shakespeareans always understand exactly what they are saying when they perform their parts. The documentary includes much great footage of a terrific young Hamlet and an utterly moving Ophelia.

Rafe's use of rock and roll is not limited to the classroom (which is equipped with electric and acoustic guitars as well as drum sets and microphone), it also can be found in chapter titles to Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire, including these Kinksian chapter headings:

"Celluloid Heroes" (how to inspire through use of classic films)
"Art Lover" (infusing arts into the curriculum)
"Add It Up" (learning math without tedium)

Rafe Esquith works his wonders from the ground up -- despite the never-ending dictates from politicians and boards of education. He succeeds because he has dedicated his life to his work and because he has learned that in order to teach well, he must model the kind of human being he wants his students to be. No matter what you teach, you will leave Rafe's books and video with a new hunger to do better and teach harder than ever before.

The hard truth of the matter is that the government can pass as many NCLB bills and amendments as it likes, but the real break-throughs in teaching take a great deal of time and commitment at the classroom level. Rafe is at school teaching from 6:30 AM until 6 PM and often longer than that. He holds Saturday sessions for his former students who are working toward success in middle school, high school and college. Every year he takes his former students on a college tour around the country. These kids who began as immigrant children, living in a crime-infested and destitute area of urban decay, are graduating from the best colleges into a wide variety of successful careers that all got their beginning in room 56.

I watch the Hobart Shakespearean video every year before school starts as a rev up exercise, and for a buck up whenever I feel myself getting frustrated and my patience evaporating. I think of Rafe and his students and their commitment to learning and realize I have a long way to go, but at least there is a light ahead of me revealing many wonderful possibilities if I just continue to work hard and be nice. As Rafe puts it in the introduction to his new book:
"There are so many charlatans in the world of education. They teach for a couple of years, come up with a few clever slogans, build their Web sites and hit the lecture circuit. In this fast-food society, simple solutions to complex problems are embraced far too often. We can do better. I hope that people who read this book realize that true excellence takes sacrifice, mistakes, and enormous amounts of effort. After all there are no shortcuts."
Thanks Rafe!


Joe said...

'There are no shortcuts' - ain't that the truth! Great read.

Jill said...

Thank you for this post! I have heard about him but hadn't thought of his work in a long time. Great remembrance and I will definitely try to KEEP him in my RAM. :)

Agent99 said...

Rafe Esquith teaches the gifted cluster at Hobart Elementary, a public school near Koreatown. I teach at a nearby school. There is no doubt that teacher accomplishes extraordinary things. However, Esquith does not go out of his way to mention that he has the luxury of teaching a special group of children. I'm curious, how many of his students are unable to read when the enter his class? How many don't yet speak more than a few words of English? His students are second language learners, but they aren't new at it -- they've been in school for five years. I'll reiterate that Esquith does a beautiful job with his students, but it is an insult to those of us who teach every child we are given to imply that if we worked more hours and had more heart, our students could rise to the same level. Where are Esquith's learning disabled students? Where are the mainstreamed students with autism? Where are the children who've been in the country 6 weeks? I'm willing to stick my neck out and venture that those kids aren't there. Some other teacher at the school, therefore, no doubt has more than his/her fair share.

When Mr. Esquith teaches a typical class and has this level of success with his students, I will be far more impressed. Meanwhile, I can't spend more time reading his book. I, too, spend hours preparing for my students. ALL of them.

Village Green said...

Agent99 --

I appreciate your taking the time to comment on Rafe and his teaching circumstances. However, I disagree that it matters a whole lot what types of kids are in your classroom in terms of what Rafe is trying to teach us:

Work Hard

Be Nice

And this to thine own teaching self apply -- have patience.

Anonymous said...

Village, you are deeply mistaken when you say it may not matter what kids are in his classroom. Granted, we can all learn from his lessons, but this is a man who has made a large income off peddling his teaching abilities. If what Agent said is true, this man is certainly guilty of sins of omission in his work. I teach both AP and sheltered English at my high school. The differences between the kids are extremely relevant to a discussion of methods and relevant to a book that presents the author as a genius.

Village Green said...

Anon -- I said that his overall philosophy could apply to any group of students of any age. Obviously methods change according to any particular student population. But what is wrong with the ideas behind "work hard" "be nice" and "there are no shortcuts" -- how can you disagree with those concepts?