Visiting Rafe Esquith, Part IV: The Hobart Shakespeareans

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

After lunch, things were rather open ended. The class received a package from a group of students and professor from Delta State University, somewhere in Mississippi. Once again, the class chorused with an "oohh!" of appreciation as Rafe extracted a bag of candy, an ornament, pennant, and okra mascot. "Well, we can't put up the banner because none of my students have gone to Delta State," Rafe quips as I study the placards under them. I've finally figured out that the dates under students' names mark when they were in Rafe's class, not when they graduated from university.

Rafe apologizes to his students from keeping them from lunch, he gets a little carried away with history, he says. Then he tells two more anecdotes about Grant and Sherman, Sherman and Johnstone, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. He goes on the say that elementary school is like a big restaurant, "you get to try a little bit of everything and then choose something you want to do for your whole life."

The students worked on their art projects for the rest of the day, a full hour, while I talked with Rafe about teaching philosophies and just plain observed.

At 2:10, Rafe gets up in front of the class again. At one student's request, Rafe tells a series of jokes. Then asks, "who has a compliment?" Two students chime in, complimenting one person for helping them, and another sweet students says, "I'd like to compliment our visitor for traveling so far to see us." [Isn't that nice?] There's no bell to dismiss the students so all just pack up and go, not like the students would have a Pavlovian response to it anyway. At several times during the day, Rafe would just teach right through the bell and students would answer through the bell. Room 56 obviously marches to a different drummer.

Students from other classes and grades start to file in, taking out their copy of "The Merchant of Venice" to browse or read. At 2:23, Rafe begins by announcing that Friday will be Casino Night, "A fun way to teach students not to gamble," he says asidedly to me. Rafe sets the ground rules for attending as far as parent pick ups and communication go.

Key Points for Holding a Shakespearean Practice

All students participate all the time. For two sick players, the entire cast and crew chorus their lines in their absence. While only a few players will perform with guitar, voice, piano, or drums, there are at least 10 students practicing to be ready if called up to replace a student. I asked one student what her part was and she said, "I used to be Jessica," and no more than that, implying that she had lost the role for some reason that didn't cut the mustard.
Its a rock opera. The students will perform 18 songs for the Merchant of Venice. 18 memorized lyrics, beats, and chords. Today I heard, "The Obvious Child," "Comfortably Numb," and "Heart of Gold." Songs are chosen for their lyrics to describe the plot or character in the play. It brings the Middle English down to a pleasant level and enhances the skills of the students to learn music.
Choreography is key. As I watch a "beach blanket bingo" looking scene of suitor boys and selector women, Rafe explains that he's added dance and moves in the last 5 years. The first choreographer was a diva and wanted the 10-year-olds to treat her as such. She didn't last long. The most recent one was a CSI actress who comes in her spare time and gets the fact that she must be low key, inclusive, and patient. Hardly a student was sitting down when it was time for this dance scene.

By 3:30, our rehearsal of the Shylock's defense scene was over and Rafe got out his roulette board, spinner, and chips to demonstrate a game for Casino Night. His message: like alcoholism, gambling too is a sickness. The House always wins. Giving the first turn at gaming to the 4th graders, Rafe explains each type of bet, give a chip to each student, and rolls the wheel. Then he collects the losers, gives out winnings, and then shows how much the house won. Another chorus of "ooohh!" Then to the 5th graders not in his own class, the same illustration. Then his own 5th graders. The students grasp the real life example: gambling with chips is fun, but with money is always a losing venture.

At 4pm, everyone is dismissed. Everyone says, "good-bye Rafe" as they leave. Rafe replies with a, "goodbye beautiful" or "goodbye ______". A core group of seeming main characters lingers and a visiting 6th grader interacts with them. Rafe leaves the room for a few minutes, and the kids start throwing a softball in his absence. They reveal that they're not robotic superkids: like most kids would act "when the cat's away, the mice will play." I ask if they're concerned that something could break if they continue playing and they stop, echoing that, "something could break." Wow, I'm still amazed.

Rafe knows that I took the bus to get here in the rain and he doesn't want me taking the bus now as the sun sets. So he drives me home in the Oprah van, given to his foundation from the Oprah grant. I ask him some more questions about how to prepare urban ESL students for a global marketplace with suburban and foreign students accelerating so much faster without making them feel like they're behind. We both agreed that the students need the cultural literacy and background knowledge to make connections and thus learn more. Building that literacy for our students means giving them the experiences that level the playing field: trips to site of significance in the USA, music and rigorous performance that builds individual voices, and the why-factor that motivates students to realize that what they're learning has real-life implications.

He drops me off and wishes me well. I walk to my brother's apartment with a smile of appreciation. Until I realize that I've forgotten my umbrella in Rafe's car. I call the cell phone number he gave me. He circles back to give it to me. "I knew we'd see each other again, but this is getting ridiculous!" That's the kind of person that one of America's most amazing teachers is. I've been privileged to spend the day with room 56 at Hobart Elementary.

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