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

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