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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

I recently read a book I had meaning to get to for a long time. It is by a current 5th grade elementary school teacher named Rafe Equith who teaches in a L.A. school that is the second-largest elementary in the U.S. The book is Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. Mr. Esquith has taught for 24 years. I had been a little suspicious that this was a charter school but no, it's a regular (albeit year-round) school in L.A.

Here's a link to the school website and to Mr. Esquith's website. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post wrote about him and here's what he said:

"I think he is the most effective, energetic and creative working classroom teacher in the country. Other great teachers have come close to his level and won some of the same awards. But they have left their classrooms to write books that become movies, or testify before Congress, or teach at better-paying universities or start new school organizations."

Mr. Mathews explains it better than I could so here's what happens in Mr. Esquith's classroom:

Every year Esquith and his 10-year-olds, most from low-income Hispanic and Korean families, produce, rehearse and perform a Shakespearean drama, with rock music and modern jokes thrown in. They read books way above their grade level. They operate a working classroom economy, with salaries, rents and other financial intricacies. They study what they will be seeing in trips that take them all over the world (paid for by Esquith and generous supporters).

From Mr. Esquith's website:

"Year after year, The Hobart Shakespeareans excel. They read passionately, far above their grade level; tackle algebra, and stage Shakespeare so professionally that they often wow the great Shakespearean actor himself, Sir Ian McKellen.

Yet this takes place in Room 56, at a large urban public elementary school. All of the children at Hobart Elementary School qualify for free breakfast and lunch, and few speak English as a first language. Many are from poor or troubled families.

What's the winning recipe? A diet of intensive learning mixed with a lot of kindness and fun. These children come to school at 6:30 a.m. and often stay until it is dark. They come during vacation. They take field trips all over the world. They play rock and roll music. Mediocrity has no place in their classroom. And the results follow them for life, as they go on to outstanding colleges.

It is not easy, but these children dare to defy society's expectations. These kids are hungry, and they want out. They work their way out. After all, there are no shortcuts."

He opens the doors early and kids come. He stays late and they stay. (Frankly, I wonder how he has a home life at all.)

He breaks the book up in chapter devoted to subject matter; LA, math, etc. I'm not sure I agree with some of his book or film choices for 5th graders but he does choose challenging material. No Shrek for this class. And the kids eat it up. (I can't imagine the machinations parents must engage in to get in his class.)

There are two things he has special distain for and those would be low expectations and academic coaches. It seems like his district brings these people in and I think he largely ignores them. (I've heard the same from some teachers about the coaches here but according to staff at the Curriculum committee meeting, they've hired two more math coaches.)

From the book:

"The objectives [reading] always focus on fluency, comprehension, and other necessary but deadly dull goals. I have never seen district reading objectives in which the words joy, passion or excitement top the list. I think they should."

Agreed. Show kids the exciting and interesting worlds in books and they will want to keep reading and will gain all the objectives any district could want.

He talks about using trust in a classroom to replace fear, wanting to please and rewards to help children to become able learners.

I present this for two reasons. One, it's one teacher in one classroom succeeding beyond all expectations. I know he gets many donations now that really help his class but he sure didn't for a long time. How he teaches works and has worked for decades. Naturally, it didn't all come overnight and he blushes at some of his early errors.

Two, why isn't this duplicated? He tells the most low-cost ways to do what he does. He talks about writing grants for some materials. It can be done but I'll bet if you asked any superintendent about duplicating it, they'd come up with a million reasons why not. And, it's probably not duplicated in every classroom at Hobart either.

What is missing is his relationship with the students' parents and what influence that is. But he has a new book out, “Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World” that I might have to read.

17 comments:

Sahila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sahila said...

I did say (and then tried to edit the post to add a movie title, but lost the entire comment altogether!) that I saw this guy in action on a PBS documentary...

This is what alternative education is all about... the core academics contained in activities which feed off and on the passions of the kids...

This is what we should have for all our kids... and if we did, we would not have to split them up into sub categories of learners - there would be a place in one class for all of them - gifted, 'average', special ed...

Though I loved reading/writing and was ahead of my 'grade', I remember being pretty much bored to tears by Shakespeare in school, until a very special teacher in my first year of high school brought to life Macbeth (and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)...

and then in the early 1990s, I saw Australia's Baz Luhrman's film version of Romeo and Juliet - with all the archaic language kept intact but set in a modern Miami or LA or wherever... colourful, dramatic, passionate, loud(!) and very relevant to kids growing up in these times... what child wouldnt/couldnt relate to the world presented in this way, in this medium? And what a wonderful portal into teaching about language and history and music and sociology...

All kids deserve this and we could provide it for all of our kids, if only SPS would open its mind and let its teachers and our kids off the reins...

casey said...

This is what good education is about - not "alternative" education - a smart, dedicated teacher who succeeds in spite of the huge obstacles presented by his district. I do not believe that he gets any special "curriculum exemptions" from his district. He teaches in a huge school - huge. He succeeds in spite of the school district. He is there for kids. And he gives up much of his personal life to do this. We surely have these heroes in our District, too. Ask around. You might be surprised. Not in every class, not every school, but there's good if you look for it.

FYI the link to the website for the Hobart Shakespereans is: http://www.hobartshakespeareans.org/

Sahila said...

I'm getting at the point that it ought not to be a case of succeeding DESPITE the obstacles the District puts in front of a teacher.... and, not incidentally, at the expense of a teacher's personal life...

We have many examples of what works - other pedagogies as well as individual teachers working (nominally) within the existing paradigm, but doing things their own way... why oh why cant we bring all of that into this District?

dan dempsey said...

"There are two things he has special distain for and those would be low expectations and academic coaches."

Academic coaches and low expectations imagine that .... these are products of centralized administrative control over the classroom. Think pacing plans. In Seattle math think large expenditures and little if any improvement.

mamashines said...

This man sounds like an outstanding teacher. I'd love for my children to have teachers like that, but is it realistic? Doors open at 6:30 and he's there past dark? I taught elementary school for 7 years and can't imagine that parents would have expectations that high. I want the best for my children, but I think we have to be more realistic. Teachers can't take the place of an enriching home life. It is our job to give the kids experiences that they can take into the classroom. It is my hope that teachers can creatively and enthusiastically use that prior knowledge in relevant and interesting ways for the students in their rooms. Kudos to this guy, but I don't think all teachers can live up to what he does.

Mommasnark said...

As a teacher of ten years, I both adore and loathe these kinds of stories.

The good part: teachers like Rafe Equith get people excited. They make parents and children alike believe in the transformative power of education. They demonstrate what CAN be done in public schools, instead of focusing on everything that's wrong with schools today.

But. They perpetuate the myth of the "superhero teacher." And by "myth," I don't mean something that doesn't exist, but a specific mythology people love to buy into. There are endless stories out there about teachers who pretty much dedicate their entire lives to the kids they teach. And these folks do remarkable things. But this kind of work is usually not sustainable, and definitely not replicable on a large scale. As Melissa put it in her original post, "Frankly, I wonder how [Equith] has a home life at all." Well, he may not. Or his personal life might be quite strained, given the time and energy he must devote to his students.

When I started teaching, I was still young and unmarried. I called my students in the morning to get them out of bed. I drove to their homes to personally get them out of dangerous situations. I stayed late after school to work one-on-one with them on their papers or to help them prepare for tests. I know I made a difference doing all of these things (in addition, of course, to the work I was doing in the classroom itself).

But as a mother of two, I cannot possibly be this kind of teacher anymore, or do what Equith does. Does that mean I'm not an outstanding teacher? Does it mean I don't care about my students? Of course not. But we typically only reward teachers with media attention, public recognition or awards if they have performed on a superhuman level.

While amazing teachers like Equith should be recognized (and obviously have much to teach all of us), they can not be set up as the standard for all public school teachers. Parents, communities, school systems and even the students themselves have a responsibility to make our schools into the supportive and effective learning environments they ought to be. And strong teachers deserve recognition for the outstanding work they do day in and day out, even when it isn't jaw-dropping in its scope or creativity.

Mommasnark said...

As a teacher of ten years, I both adore and loathe these kinds of stories.

The good part: teachers like Rafe Equith get people excited. They make parents and children alike believe in the transformative power of education. They demonstrate what CAN be done in public schools, instead of focusing on everything that's wrong with schools today.

But. They perpetuate the myth of the "superhero teacher." And by "myth," I don't mean something that doesn't exist, but a specific mythology people love to buy into. There are endless stories out there about teachers who pretty much dedicate their entire lives to the kids they teach. And these folks do remarkable things. But this kind of work is usually not sustainable, and definitely not replicable on a large scale. As Melissa put it in her original post, "Frankly, I wonder how [Equith] has a home life at all." Well, he may not. Or his personal life might be quite strained, given the time and energy he must devote to his students.

When I started teaching, I was still young and unmarried. I called my students in the morning to get them out of bed. I drove to their homes to personally get them out of dangerous situations. I stayed late after school to work one-on-one with them on their papers or to help them prepare for tests. I know I made a difference doing all of these things (in addition, of course, to the work I was doing in the classroom itself).

But as a mother of two, I cannot possibly be this kind of teacher anymore, or do what Equith does. Does that mean I'm not an outstanding teacher? Does it mean I don't care about my students? Of course not. But we typically only reward teachers with media attention, public recognition or awards if they have performed on a superhuman level.

While amazing teachers like Equith should be recognized (and obviously have much to teach all of us), they can not be set up as the standard for all public school teachers. Parents, communities, school systems and even the students themselves have a responsibility to make our schools into the supportive and effective learning environments they ought to be. And strong teachers deserve recognition for the outstanding work they do day in and day out, even when it isn't jaw-dropping in its scope or creativity.

ArchStanton said...

We all love to see these stories mythologized in the media, but it does set an impossible standard to expect all teachers to live up to.

It's not reasonable to expect. How many of us in our own daily lives see the equivalent in a barista, bank teller, doctor, mechanic, etc - let alone how many of us achieve such distinction ourselves in our chosen field. (As I type this it occurs to me that it is probably more about the person than the profession - or the good fit between the two)

It's not reasonable to hope that every teacher one has will be so wondrous. Sometimes one is lucky enough to have such a teacher (whether for a year or a week) who transmits their enthusiasm for learning and excellence to you. If that sticks, then the rest of the time, an adequate teacher may be good enough.

Melissa Westbrook said...

You need to read the book.

Most of what he does happens within a regular schoolday. It's not that he's a superhero but he has a great exciting way of reaching his students in all subjects. And he tells other teachers how he does it.

He's no superhero but someone who has found a great method that seems to work wonders.

Shannon said...

Melissa,
I was wondering I was wondering whether you or others know anything about the plan to introduce ALOs at all schools. Has this been confirmed... I thought it was just in the wind.

I am inferring this from our welcome letter from Lowell APP.
"SPS is requesting that all schools in the district have a formal plan related to advanced learners. This plan is to reflect the strategies and services used to challenge students who are identified as having APP or Spectrum Eligibility status. Lowell Elementary will be designing a new Advanced Learning Opportunity school plan during the 2009-10 school year. The new program and plan will be implemented in the fall of 2010."

I tried to email this via blogger but it limits messages to 300 characters.

Shannon

Chris S. said...

I also read a book recently I've been itching for a chance to talk about: Caught in the middle : nonstandard kids and a killing curriculum / Susan Ohanian c2001.

This is not a feel-good story, and she's not a superhero, although anyone who spends decades trying to get severely disadvantaged middle-schoolers interested in reading and writing is my hero.

Although her main theme is how standards really have a negative effect on the very children they are supposed to "improve" - to the point of absurdity, she also has a lot to say about engaging the most hard-to-reach children.

Read it. Especially you, Arne. You'll see that main person benefiting from your approach is ...you.

Megan Mc said...

I second Chris's recommendation of Caught in the Middle. As a middle and high school teacher who works with non-standard kids, I think she shares an important perspective.

Teachermom said...

I would love to read the book, and will, but I did read a Washington Post article about him that said he does indeed work from 6:30 am until dinner time, and is in his room working over breaks.

That doesn't necessarily make him superhuman, but I have two young children. At a certain point, I have to put the fire out and go home. My kids' teachers aren't at school all hours parenting them....

I worked like this before I had a family, but it is not sustainable.

In terms of technique, though, I am sure we could learn a lot from him and get it in whenever possible.

Part of it does involve fighting persistently against administration, which is also hard to sustain and teach and have a life and have emotional energy.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed his books--his passion, his dedication. I don't think he has much of a home life in terms of time spent there. His previous book, There are No Shortcuts, tells about his early life as a teacher and how he learned/developed many of his techniques.

Cara said...

There's a teacher like this in the Seattle School District and he's at Orca k-8. His name is Donte Felder and my son had him for his 4/5 grades. Donte is passionate and caring, writes a play every year that the kids perform, takes them on field trips to Washington D.C., NYC, Victoria and Disneyland, and does it with joy and humor. He is amazing and he spurred a love of writing that my son carries with him still (he is going into 8th grade). The students and parents fundraise by hosting parents night out babysitting at the school to raise money for the trip so that many students who could not otherwise afford to go can.

Charlie Mas said...

I have no doubt that there are individual teachers who make heroic efforts and deliver remarkable outcomes. There was a teacher at the AAA who got nearly every one of her students to pass all three parts of the 4th grade WASL.

I'm happy to see stories like these, but, as others have written, we cannot rely on this sort of effort by individual teachers, let alone all of the teachers, to make our district, our schools, or our students successful. It simply isn't a reasonable or sustainable model for large-scale efforts.

I'm much more interested in learning Mr. Equith's useful ideas for all teachers to engage students - without requiring the teachers to make heroic efforts like his. Those sound more like reproducible best practices.