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?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, I've followed Rafe Esquith and his class for several years now. I would be interested in chatting with you more about your experiences visiting his classroom. Is there any way I can reach you?

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