Winter Doldrums

I'm back in Chicago now. Luckily I got into town before 12 inches of snow have fallen in 4 days. Temperatures have been as low as 0, with wind chills bottoming out at -35. Coming from temperate  California, this is quite a shift in atmosphere. Air inside is dry, outside is only braved for very good reasons.

I braved the slushy roads today to get the last of my gifts for family. Its hectic, but for some reason I can't plan ahead to avoid the rush on stores. Pictured here is the snow I had to sweep off my rental car to get out and about.

Ah, now I remember why I've stayed on the Pacific coast for 5 years!


Visiting Rafe Esquith, Part III: Math & Science

**If you haven't read the first two installments of this series, scroll down and read those first.

10:24 Chemistry

Keeping in mind that some 5th grade classes may spend the whole day on English and Math, its remarkable that Rafe Esquith's class has already completed their lessons on both of them before the first recess! Here are some highlights from the lesson:

-As a continuation from the previous day, Rafe brings out pie tins which contain salt crystals leftover from a solution that has evaporated.

-Rafe points out to me that he doesn't use a textbook for science, everything is hands on. Students observe for themselves what is a homogeneous mixture and a heterogeneous mixture.

-Students are introduced to the Periodic Table of Elements with a story about Rafe's daughter, who has a double PhD and does cancer research using the Table. Another real-life application to the learning.

10:45 Recess

In most classes at the sound of the recess bell, students have a Pavlovian response to ignore the teacher and race out the door. In room 56, Rafe speaks through the bell and the lesson goes on. The clock in the room is broken at 12 midnight and the ceiling is leaking in 4 places. Rafe mentions that the roofs have been leaking for 25 years with nothing done about them. This year they did provide buckets!

Of course the students in room 56 still get recess, but they choose to stay inside and work on one of two projects: guitar lessons or their rug art project. (see similar rugs here).

Of the students doing guitar, 3/4 of them are strumming acoustic to one of the pop tunes for this year's Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice. The other 1/4 are playing keyboard, electric bass or guitar. They'll be performing, I assume, come June. That is, if they can keep up with the standard for performance. On more than one occasion, Esquith unequivocally tells a student, "_____, this is why I may have to replace you, because you're not focusing on your part." Esquith is strict. He has high demands on his students, but he still includes them in the family if they're not able to perform at the moment.

Meanwhile, in the other room, a group of boys and girls are working on their hook rug projects. Rafe mentions to me that this teaches them delayed gratification. At first the project was difficult for those students who were used to getting things right away. They complained to Rafe, "Its hard!" He replied, "I know. Keep at it, one hook at a time." Now 4 months into the school year, the students have completed maybe 10% of their rugs depicting various scenes and animals. Not directly in front of Rafe, the students show that they're still 10 years old instead of super children. They're chit-chatting, speaking in vernacular, but for the most part having something to do with their project. Still, Rafe comes in check in on the students and asks one of them what level are you on?

11:10 Back to Chemistry

Rafe introduces the project for the day after teaching students the basis of the atomic model of protons, neutrons, and electrons and electron configuration in order to make a model of Boron. Students select their own groups of 5, get a set of materials, and get to work using fishing line, translucent beads, and pipe cleaners to make the nucleus and orbits of electrons.

As we observe the students in various rates of progress, Rafe mentions to me that he allow his students to fail so that they can learn from their mistakes. In life, isn't that how we learn too? The School of Hard Knocks is based on that model. Students come up to Rafe to show him their work; each design is slightly different. Rafe compliments groups and individuals profusely though genuinely throughout the day to encourage good behavior and work habits.

11:50 History

Rafe transitions to this lesson with a recap of how the war started as students look at a year by year timeline. Today we watch two segments from Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. The first was an eloquent love letter written just before the battle of Shiloh. The second was a narrative of the battle itself, where more men lost there lives than in all previous wars in America combined.

Much of the teaching here is in narrative story. Still, students can recall specific vocabulary from previous lessons and fill in gaps of chronology as Rafe tells anecdotes of Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

12:20 Lunch

Suddenly we dismiss to lunch with children taking their lunch tickets in hand. I follow from a distance, just observing Rafe's students compared with others. In many ways, they're the same. Yet when waiting for their turn to get milk, Rafe's students manage to keep their hands to themselves while other shoulders of other kids are ebbing and flowing back in forth in play as they wait.

Not able to fit in the cafeteria with the students, I have my own lunch in the staff lounge. I over hear teachers banter about a girl caught stealing with the excuse that she's poor and how their own adolescent children won't listen to them even though they repeat the same expectations over and over again. This brief encounter gave me an opportunity to see how unique Rafe and his students are at the school. Rafe assures me that many strong teachers are at Hobart, but some leave with disillusionment from administration and the edutocracy governing/mandating equality of experience when some children's current behavior doesn't merit the privilege of an experience (for example requiring a child who cusses out a teacher to participate in a 5th grade promotion ceremony).

By the time I get back to the classroom, Rafe and the students have resumed their guitar and art projects. Rafe is finishing off his salad. "Is there a single down minute in his day?" I ask myself.


Science and History may be the gravy of lessons that some classes can't get to. With resources from his non-profit organization, The Hobart Shakespeareans, Rafe is able to organize trips and get supplies for these enriching projects.

With extra effort during vacation breaks, teachers can also apply for grants to get similar projects and resources for their classrooms. Many teachers just buy things out of their own pockets, which is totally fine. But with educational foundations ready to support teachers, schools, and districts that organize proposals, I learned that I could get better at either writing grants or finding someone to write them for me.


What steps have you taken to enhance your classroom with enrichment or after-hours community building activities?

With so much emphasis on "active engagement" and tasks, under what classroom conditions are lectures and narratives appropriate for learning to take place with them?

Have you ever used failure as the starting point for a lesson in your class? How did it go?

Next, Part IV: The Hobart Shakespeareans

Visiting Rafe Esquith, Part II

**Note: if you missed reading the first part of this series, scroll down and read it first for the context, then come back to read this entry.

7:59 - 9:35 Mathematics

Rafe begins class on this Monday gradually, with students getting their materials and desk areas ready for the day. He greets the remaining students as they come in the door, asking about the health and weekend social life of his 10 year olds. Rafe has a voluminous DVD library that students check out titles from on the weekends. I see one student take out "West Side Story," a laminated page of comprehension and reflection questions about the film and a one page response to them, which she gives to a class clerk to collect.

Rafe is reviewing fractions with the students. Many teachers see a dichotomy between their responsibilities to prepare students for real life and to prepare them for the standardized test. Rafe addresses both with the seeming ease of his 27 years of experience. Writing 3/4 along with .75 he asks, "When would we use this in real life?" Students respond that they'd use .75 with money, and Rafe volunteers that he'd ask in baseball, "3/4 of you go in the infield, the rest go to the outfield." Rafe emphasizes to me that the children need to grasp the why of what they're learning if they're going to buy into what you're telling them.

Test-taking Strategy

A few minutes later, Rafe is making a test item on the board to express ".040" as a fraction. He's got
lined up, and then asks a student to give him the correct answer AND WHY.
C 40/1000 (because it is in the thousands place)
Next he asks students to suggest alternative answers that could be on the test and why someone might incorrectly think its the right answer. One students offers "4/10, because someone might think that the 4 is in the tenths place" Another gives, "80/2000, because it isn't simplified yet". When you get test takers to think like test makers, then you're teaching decision making skills that will help students to master something that few teachers like, but all must admit is a reality we need to prepare them for.


As students do independent work, Rafe comes back to the corner to talk with me. He would do this several times during the day. [As my own mentor teacher Natalie Bernasconi tells me, the most valuable thing you can give someone is your undivided attention. I'm honored that Rafe gave me such a valuable gift.] We talk about the motivation factor, my focus for inquiry and reflection for the year. After 25 years at Hobart, Rafe has established a reputation that precedes him. I spoke with a students who'd entered Hobart as a first grader with the hope that she'd be in Rafe's class in 4 years. But there are other students who haven't "bought into the whole school thing" and become motivated by the constant stream of returning students who visit room 56. Finding themselves unchallenged in middle school when they leave Rafe's class, some of Rafe's past students come for Saturday sessions of enrichment. Before such a reputation and returning stream is established, teachers need to help their students grasp the thought that, "If I do/learn this, my life will get better."

Language Learning

As this is a language teaching blog, I'll mention some of the ways that Esquith works with some of his ELL students to comprehend material. He mentioned to me in our back-of-the-class conference that 6 of his students came to him with reputations as "unteachable" by their previous teachers. "I think I've turned three around, two not yet, and 1 I don't know about." Esquith emphasizes that the class culture he establishes is fundamental for why his group of 34 students can accomplish so much in a year.

-Error correction is an issue in second language teaching. I notice on several occasions that Rafe will give a direct "no" to a student's answer, but there's never any impatience in his voice.

-Rafe calls on one student to answer an item on the least common multiple (LCM) of two fractions from the text. The student remains silent. Rafe rephrases the question. No response. Rafe then uses a synonymous phrase and asks yes/no questions to find the LCM. Eventually the students speaks up to verify the correct answer.

-At times during independent work, Esquith will engage in side conversations not directly related to the work at hand, but having to do with something else learned previously (a DVD watched over the weekend) or coming up ("You guys are going to like Chemistry today").

-Just before the lesson concludes, Esquith delegates some students to tutor others who haven't grasped all the concepts of fractions yet. I notice that these tutors lean towards the tutee, ready to help.


All of these moments were possible because the anxiety level in the classroom was practically in the basement. Rafe emphasizes that teaching is about building relationships. You build background knowledge in your relationships by having on-going conversations about current events in/out-side of the classroom. Learners need to know right and wrong ways to do, say, and write what they will be assessed on in the future. In a low pressure, high support environment, receiving a direct "no" doesn't seem to discourage participation.

9:35 - 10:25 Literature

The students are 4 chapters away from finishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It will be the fourth novel they have read so far this year, after: Of Mice and Men, The Westing Game, and Lord of the Flies (I think). Can I remind you these students are in 5th grade? My 7th graders read two novels in the back half of the school year, The Red Pony and The Pearl, which are at least half as short as one of these novels. Needless to say, I was very interested in how Esquith led the guided reading. Here's what I noticed:

-Rafe strategically selects students to read passages that are appropriate for their level. He took over the reading on a few passages that contained colloquial phrases and vernacular that were difficult.

-Reading flows between the teacher summarizing what was read, comprehension check questions, students reading, and the teacher interjecting background knowledge and explanations.

-Students are used to being held accountable for following along in the text. When a student re-read a part already covered, Rafe said, "we've already read this, who wants to read?" and another student continued reading. BUT, then Esquith comes back to the same student for another opportunity to read at the right spot!

-Students read with prosody and fluency. Commas and sentences require pauses of different lengths that Esquith ensures students use when reading.

-He ends the 10-page reading segment with a speculating (Costa's Level III) question, "what do you think the family reaction is going to be?"

-Room 56 students still must pay the piper of standardized tests. He prefaced the multiple-choice benchmark test the students were to take by saying, "guys, this has zero effect on your future, but give me your best effort. If anyone gets 10 out of 10, I'll give them a 100 dollar bonus [in class money system]."


Again, the class culture allows many of the language learning features to take place. Direct, polite error correction; consistency in expecting students to follow along in the reading to be ready when called on randomly or by volunteering; and the ability to take and give up the floor for guided reading can happen when the teacher has established an environment of respect and free of fear.


At times, language classrooms need to have structure and predictability. How aware are you of your consistency as a teacher to maintain expectations that result in a rigorous curriculum?

When teaching other content through English, what scaffolds to you use to help your students in comprehension?

What would a system of introducing tutors and past students to your class do motivate your current students to achieve more?


Visiting Rafe Esquith, Part I

On Monday, I had the privilege of visiting the classroom of Rafe Esquith, a 5th grade teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. If you haven't heard of this teacher, its about time that you have. I first learned about him from a 2006 LA Times article announcing his second book, "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: Lessons from Room 56." When I finally read the book a year later, I was immediately impressed with his compassion, work ethic, and 100% devotion to his students' learning.

As a teacher on the so-called "front lines" of public school education, I have sought out many books for inspiration, instruction, solace, and skills for working effectively in this intense environment. From theorists, Friere, Piaget , to the activist Kozol to practitioners like Montessori, Kohl, Wong, LB, and Clark, I've read them all. But all of them have ceased to (or never even) teach in a classroom. With the theorist/researcher-practitioner dichotomy aside, there's something to be said for staying in the classroom to adapt to current conditions. While some teachers with an effective method could reach more by rising to administration or higher education to train teachers. But the transfer of skill from professor to textbook to student teacher to classroom to student thins out at every level, what you intend to teach students may not be actually what they receive. The only way to ensure that what one wants to teach them will be taught is to stay in that classroom. And that is exactly what Rafe Esquith has done for the past 27 years.

Along the way, Rafe has earned numerous accolades and awards: The Disney "Teacher of the Year" award (in a tux and his white tennis shoes), National Medal of Arts, Member of the British Empire (for his Shakespeare performances), a mini-van and "Use Your Life" from Oprah Winfrey (he drove me back to my brother's house in the mini-van!), and Compassion in Action award from the Dalai Lama. Every year he takes his students on trips to Washington, DC, East Coast and Midwest college trips (for his past students who are on college-bound tracks), and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Needless to say, this man works tirelessly on weekends and vacation periods to make things happen for his students. As you may suspect, these amazing extra-curricular activities don't happen with out extra infusions of cash. A former student of Rafe's set up a 501c3 Non-Profit status for his classroom to receive tax-deductible donations from interested donors. Few public school teachers can say they have a 6-figure budget for the work they do, but Rafe has worked to establish the foundation to support every amazing thing the students do in and outside of the classroom. It is with this premise that I am drawn to see for myself how Rafe's class operates.

This observation opportunity happened after I hopefully sent my copy of "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" to him in May to sign. I received it a week later with the inside page signed by all the members of room 56 as well as a card saying, "Jeff, let's get you down here for a visit. Call me xxx-xxxx, Rafe". I was incredulous. Here is this mega-busy, mega-famous teacher giving me his personal cell phone number and inviting me in on the action? I called him up in early June, and after a brief discussion of both our teaching situations, we agree to correspond via email to setup a date to visit. We settled on December 15 because I would be on winter vacation and he would not. So for 6 months I prepared and waited for this rare opportunity.

December 15 turned out to be rare alright: it was raining in LA. I arrived with drenched pant legs and shoulders from my bus commute around 7:45. Rafe certainly does get a lot of visitors, 4/5 of the first page on the office sign-in sheet were for "Esquith/Room 56". He extends the opportunity for student teachers, professors, and others to visit his classroom. Wow.

Two of his students came down to the office with umbrellas to greet and escort me to room 56. Upon entering the classroom, I noticed that most of the desks were already filled even though school starts at 8. Students can arrive as early as 6:30 to get extra help on their math. Rafe gives me a warm handshake and invites me to sit anywhere to observe the class for the day. I look at a seat in the corner, next to the soundboard where cords for microphones, electric guitars and basses are plugged in for this afternoon's rehearsal of the Hobart Shakespeareans. Before I can sit down, a student asks me if I'd like a cup of water. Already, I notice that these students are considerate of others.

I won't dare to compile eight hours of observation into this one blog. Instead, I think I'll divide them up into a series: Math, Literature, Science, History, Art, Shakespeare, and a final summary. There's just too many fine points to note that a summary of the whole day won't do it justice.


How do you as a teacher benefit by observing a mentor or peer? Is there a difference in the benefits between mentor and peer?

How do relatively young teachers (<5 yrs) incorporate features from expert, experienced teachers (10 years <) who've reached a level of mastery and efficiency mostly due to refinement over time?

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA