Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rafe Esquith: Real Teacher, Real Inspiration

Several years ago as I was browsing the education section at Barnes and Noble, I came across an intriguing book called Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by a guy named Rafe Esquith. I had no idea who he was but the title intrigued me, so I decided I had to have it. Little did I know that Rafe, as his students call him, would become one of my most inspirational teacher role models.

Rafe teaches in inner-city Los Angeles at a school with a poverty rate above 90%. Most of the students speak a language other than English at home and the area has earned the nickname "The Jungle." Yet none of these things have deterred him from working hard to help his students be successful. He is most known for his student group called the Hobart Shakespeareans. Each year this groups performs a full Shakespeare play and mixes the classic language of Shakespeare with contemporary rock and roll. The result is something truly remarkable and memorable. You can read more about them HERE

Rafe has had tremendous success- the kind of success every teacher dreams about-students who return years after leaving his classroom to thank him for making such an incredible difference in their lives. Despite his success, he is the first to say that his failures have been just as important to his career. He is humble and acknowledges that although he has done lots of things right, he has made mistakes and suffered heart-wrenching failure. 

Rafe is outspoken. He's a straight shooter. He's honest and real and doesn't beat around the bush about any issue. He has won many awards, been recognized all over the world, and could easily be a principal, instructional consultant, or anything else, but he still chooses to teach fifth grade at the same school, in the same room, that he has for the past 31 years. He has no plans of leaving his classroom anytime soon and has plays picked out for his students to perform for the next several years! That is so amazingly admirable to me.

He has written several books during the course of his career. In the books he describes what happens behind the doors of his classroom, room 56, and offers practical advice, tips, and techniques. In order for me to do the books justice, I've included reviews of each book that I found on Amazon. To see each book on Amazon, click the link listed above each book's image.

 Esquith might be the only public school teacher to be honored by both Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama; he is the only school teacher ever to receive the president's National Medal of the Arts. For the past 25 years, Esquith has taught fifth graders at Hobart Elementary in central Los Angeles. Like most progressive educators, Esquith is outraged by the tyranny of testing, the scripting of teaching under "No Child Left Behind" and the overwhelming bureaucratization of the education industry. Still, he's done wonders with the basic curriculum—developing a hands-on arts program, a money-management curriculum and a sports-based statistics unit. Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans are world famous for the rock opera they create every year. Throughout each school day, Esquith teaches life skills: how to think about problems, how to plan a strategy to solve them and, most important, how to work together and be nice to each other. While his goals are inspiring, he's also practical—most chapters include affordable, how-to directions for a variety of his most effective classroom activities; he's even got a few tips for revamping those inescapable "test prep" sessions. (from Publisher's Weekly)

What's a Los Angeles middle-school teacher to do when charged with a bunch of fifth and sixth graders, none of whom speak English at home and most of whom are eligible for free lunches? If you're Esquith, you have them read Twain, perform Shakespeare, play classical guitar and study algebra. You take them camping and to concerts and the theater. How do you manage to do that? If you're Esquith, your school day doesn't run from the usual 8 to 3, but from 6:30 to 5, and you're available on Saturdays and during recess, lunch and vacation time as well. You take on extra jobs and go into debt to pay for the supplements. "I have never claimed to be rational," says Esquith in this intimate, lively account of his 17-year career at an L.A. public school. Part memoir, part manual, but primarily a call for action, Esquith's book is explicitly directed to parents and "concerned citizens" as well as teachers. Esquith has known "anguish and disheartening failure," but hasn't given up. For him, education's "bad guys" often occupy the district, union or school offices and frequently the classrooms. Despite his struggles, Esquith's account is upbeat, witty and usually good-humored. There's rewarding professional success-college for his former students and honors bestowed on him-and refreshing personal achievement: his own development and transformation as he moves from saving the world to setting limits on himself, even though, of course, "there are no shortcuts. (from Publisher's Weekly)

In his follow-up to Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, elementary school teacher Esquith focuses on financially disadvantaged but scholastically ambitious fifth-graders from Hobart Elementary School, located in the middle of a critically poor Los Angeles neighborhood. Directed primarily at parents, educators and administrators, this volume offers anecdotes and suggestions for inspiring and encouraging each child to live up to his or her tremendous promise. Framed by the story of a Dodgers baseball game to which he brings a small group of students, Esquith notes the values of his students in contrast to many of the adult ticket-holders: punctuality, focus, confidence, selflessness, humility, and others. He then probes the meaning of each value, like the way being on time reflects a belief in control over one's destiny, as well as a sense of responsibility. Celebrating his young students' everyday accomplishments, Esquith outlines the struggles and stakes that face them all, while making teaching (and learning) look easy. (from Publisher's Weekly

This month his latest book, Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: No Retreat, No Surrender!, will be released. I am so excited to read it.

There’s no one teachers trust more to give them classroom advice than Rafe Esquith. After more than thirty years on the job, Esquith still puts in the countless classroom hours familiar to every dedicated educator. But where his New York Times bestseller Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire was food for a teacher’s mind, Real Talk for Real Teachers is food for a teacher’s soul.

Esquith candidly tackles the three stages of life for the career teacher and offers encouragement to see them through the difficult early years, advice on mid-career classroom building, and novel ideas for longtime educators. With his trademark mix of humor, practicality, and boundless compassion, Esquith proves the perfect companion for teachers who need a quick pick-me-up, a long heart-to-heart, or just a momentary reminder that they’re not alone. (from Amazon)

The other night I came across this interview on KPCC Radio's channel on YouTube. Even though it is just an interview, it's one of the most inspirational videos I have seen. Rafe talks openly and honestly about teaching in general and about his own successes and failures. This video a great introduction to him, but for me, it was a breath of fresh air and helped me to remember my purpose as a teacher. 

If you have time (it's a little over an hour long) I highly recommend finding yourself a yummy snack and a quiet comfy spot. You won't want to miss a minute of this interview. 

I often find myself asking, "What would Rafe do?" His passion and dedication inspire me to stay passionate and dedicated even on the most difficult days.

Who are your teacher idols? Who do you turn to for inspiration and guidance? I would love to hear from you!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Kelley! I had the awesome experience of seeing Rafe speak a few years ago. He is VERY inspirational. Most of all, I believe he is the perfect example of why teaching is not a certain mold for all to conform to. Thanks for sharing!

    Teaching With Moxie


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