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?

1 comment:

Jeanne Miller, junior high language arts said...

Thank you for this snapshot into Rafe's classroom. He's a great teacher of teachers, very modest, and epitomizes how teaching is an evolutionary experience. Amazing how his ELL can handle such high-level books! Thanks for the details you provided.

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