Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56by Rafe Esquith
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The fifth-graders inside are either immigrants or children of immigrants; most live in poverty and few speak English as their first language. They also play Vivaldi, perform unabridged plays by Shakespeare, and go on to attend the finest universities in the country. Rafe Esquith is the teacher who helps them achieve these accomplishments. And this extraordinary bestselling book is his gift to all those who care about our children's future: a detailed, unforgettable guide to turning kids on to the wonder of learning, the power of the imagination, and the wealth of finding oneself.
“Rafe Esquith is my only hero.”—Sir Ian McKellan
“Politicians, burbling over how to educate the underclass, would do well to stop by Rafe Esquith’s fifth grade class as it mounts its annual Shakespeare play. Sound like a grind? Listen to the peals of laughter bouncing off the classroom walls.”—Time
“Esquith is a modern-day Thoreau, preaching the value of good work, honest self-reflection, and the courage to go one’s own way.”—Newsday
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- 5.11(w) x 7.77(h) x 0.48(d)
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- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
TEACH LIKE YOUR
HAIR’S ON FIRE
ALSO BY RAFE ESQUITH
There Are No Shortcuts
TEACH LIKE YOUR
HAIR’S ON FIRE
Prologue: Fire in the Classroom
PART ONE: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
ONE:Gimme Some Truth
TWO:Searching for Level VI
PART TWO: THE METHOD
THREE:Reading for Life
FIVE:Add It Up
SIX:We Won’t Get Fooled Again
SEVEN:What a Wonderful World
TEN:Put Me In, Coach
PART THREE: THE MADNESS
TWELVE:Think for Yourself
FIFTEEN:It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (but I Like It)
SIXTEEN:Do They Know It’s Christmas?
EPILOGUE:Rest in Peace
Fire in the Classroom
It is a strange feeling to write this book. I am painfully aware that I am not superhuman. I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated teachers who try to make a difference. Like all real teachers, I fail constantly. I don’t get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach. Being a teacher can be painful.
For almost a quarter of a century, I have spent the majority of my time in a tiny, leaky classroom in central Los Angeles. Because of a little talent and a lot of luck, I have been fortunate to receive some recognition for my work. Not a day goes by when I do not feel overwhelmed by the attention.
I doubt that any book can truly capture the Hobart Shakespeareans. However, it is certainly possible to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me grow as a teacher, parent, and person. For almost twelve hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, my fifth-graders and I are crowded into our woefully insufficient space, immersed in a world of Shakespeare, algebra, and rock ’n’ roll. For the rest of the year, the kids and I are on the road. While my wife believes me to be eccentric, good friends of mine have not been so gentle, going as far as to label me quixotic at best and certifiable at worst.
I don’t claim to have all the answers; at times it doesn’t feel as if I’m reaching as many students as I succeed with. I’m here only to share some of the ideas I have found useful. Some of them are just plain common sense, and others touch on insanity. But there is a method to this madness. It is my hope that some parents and teachers out there will agree with me that our culture is a disaster. In a world that considers athletes and pop stars more important than research scientists and firefighters, it has become practically impossible to develop kind and brilliant individuals. And yet we’ve created a different world in Room 56. It’s a world where character matters, hard work is respected, humility is valued, and support for one another is unconditional. Perhaps when parents and teachers see this, and realize that my students and I are nothing special, they will get a few ideas and take heart.
I am sad when I see so many good teachers and parents surrender to forces that sap their potential excellence. The demons are everywhere. Those who care deeply often feel outgunned by apathetic or incompetent administrators and politicians. Expectations for children are often ridiculously low. Racism, poverty, and ignorance often reign supreme on campus. Add to this mix ungrateful students, and even mean-spirited people in the teaching profession itself, and the hardiest of souls can be crushed. Each defeat usually means that a child’s true potential will not be developed.
I was fortunate to have a ridiculous moment in the classroom that literally lit my way out of the darkness. Years ago, feeling tired and frustrated, I spent a few weeks searching my soul and did something I rarely do—I questioned whether teaching was worth it anymore. A combination of the aforementioned demons had beaten me down, and I was practically down for the count.
But for some reason, when I was guilty of feeling sorry for myself, I spent a day paying extra attention to a kid in class whom I liked very much. She was one of those kids who always seem to be the last one picked for the team, a quiet girl who appeared to have accepted the idea that she could never be special. I was determined to convince her that she was wrong.
I was teaching a chemistry lesson, and the students were excited about working with alcohol lamps. But the girl couldn’t get her wick to burn. The rest of the class wanted to move on with their projects, but I told everyone to wait. I was not going to leave her behind, even after she told me to continue with the others and not worry about her.
Normally I do not interfere with science projects, because failure can be part of the learning process. Yet this was simply a matter of faulty equipment; it had nothing to do with the chemical principle we were exploring that morning. I needed to step in. The girl had tears in her eyes, and I felt ashamed of myself for ever having felt like giving up. Suddenly her sadness was all that mattered.
Athletes often refer to getting “into the zone” when they forget about the crowd and the pressure and see only the ball. It can happen in other fields too. For that one moment, the only thing that mattered to me was that this girl should have a successful experiment. She was going to go home that day with a smile on her face. I bent closely over the wick of her alcohol lamp. For some reason the wick was not as long as it should have been—I could barely see it. I leaned as close as I could, and with a long kitchen match tried to reach it. I was so close to the match that I could feel the flame as I tried to ignite the lamp. I was determined to get the lamp working. And it started working! The wick caught fire, and I looked up triumphantly to see the smile I expected on the girl’s face.
Instead, she took one look at me and began screaming in fear. Other kids started yelling as well. I did not understand why they were all pointing at me, until I realized that while I was lighting the lamp, the flame had touched my hair; it was now smoldering and scaring the hell out of the children. Several of them ran to me and swiped at my head. Talk about a dream come true—they got to hit their teacher on the head and say they were trying to help him.
A few minutes later, all was well and the experiment proceeded. I felt (and looked) like an idiot. And yet for the first time in weeks, I felt great about being a teacher. I had been able to ignore the crap that all teachers on the front lines face. I had done everything I could to help someone. I didn’t do it particularly well, but the effort was there. I thought to myself that if I could care so much about teaching that I didn’t even realize my hair was burning, I was moving in the right direction. From that moment, I resolved to always teach like my hair was on fire.
There are so many charlatans in the world of education. They teach for a couple of years, come up with a few clever slogans, build their Web sites, and hit the lecture circuit. In this fast-food society, simple solutions to complex problems are embraced far too often. We can do better. I hope that people who read this book realize that true excellence takes sacrifice, mistakes, and enormous amounts of effort. After all, there are no shortcuts.
THERE’S NO PLACE
How Room 56 Creates a Safe Haven,
and Provides Children with
Shelter from the Storm
Gimme Some Truth
The parents want one of the teachers arrested. I have been summoned from my room by a mother who has known me for years. Some of the parents are demanding that the teacher be fired. I listen to their complaints and try to calm them down. I do the best I can to defend the teacher with whom they are furious, but it isn’t easy.
Alex is a third-grader with a messy backpack. In fact, it’s more than messy—it’s a virtual nuclear holocaust of crumpled-up papers, folders, and candy. Here’s an opportunity for his teacher to teach him something valuable. Instead, he began by yelling at Alex and dumping his backpack all over his desk in full view of his peers. Then he called on a student to go to his car and retrieve a camera. He took a picture of the mess and told Alex that he would hang it up during Back-to-School Night to show all the parents what a slob he was. Then the teacher added the final touch: He told Alex’s classmates that for the rest of the day, when they had trash to discard, it should be thrown on Alex’s desk instead of in the garbage can.
Now the boy’s parents are in my room demanding that the authorities be called.
After enormous effort, I calm them down and beg them to let our principal handle the situation. The teacher must be given the chance to explain his actions, although it’s clear that if his behavior was as cruel and humiliating as it sounds, no explanation can justify it.
Days later, after several meetings with the principal, the young teacher emerges from the office, face tear-stained and posture slumped with contrition. Yet he comes to me and bitterly defends himself. “But I’m right. It worked…Alex’s backpack is neater now.” And I realize the real tragedy here is that the teacher has missed a terrific opportunity. He had a chance to help Alex learn the value of organization and become a better student. Instead, he forever marked himself as a cruel ogre to Alex and his classmates. It would take months to undo the harm of such a moment, and the teacher did not even comprehend the damage he had done.
The larger problem here is that many teachers are so desperate to keep their classrooms in order that they will do anything to maintain it. This is understandable—an “End justifies the means” mentality is at the heart of many explanations of how children are handled these days. Given some of the practically impossible situations confronting teachers today, it seems reasonable.
But let’s be honest. It might be explicable. It might be effective. But it is not good teaching. We can do better.
I know this because I’ve been there. I’ve fallen into the same trap. The simple truth is that most classrooms today are managed by one thing and one thing only: fear.
The teacher is afraid: afraid of looking bad, of not being liked, of not being listened to, of losing control. The students are even more afraid: afraid of being scolded and humiliated, of looking foolish in front of peers, of getting bad grades, of facing their parents’ wrath. John Lennon got it right in “Working Class Hero” when he sang of being “tortured and scared…for twenty-odd years.”
This is the issue that overshadows all others in the world of education. It is the matter of classroom management.
If your class is not in order, nothing good will follow. There will be no learning. The kids will not read, write, or calculate better. Children will not improve their critical thinking. Character cannot be built. Good citizenship will not be fostered.
There is more than one way to run a successful classroom—from using the philosophy of Thoreau to the philosophy of Mussolini. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve tried practically everything to deal with the often maddening behavior of children in a school environment that accepts graffiti-covered walls and urine-soaked bathroom floors as normal.
Visitors to Room 56 never come away most impressed with the academic ability of the children, the style in which I present lessons, or the cleverness of the wall decorations. They come away shaking their heads over something else: the culture of the classroom. It’s calm. It is incredibly civil. It’s an oasis. But something is missing. Ironically, Room 56 is a special place not because of what it has, but because of what it is missing: fear.
In my early years, I actually planned to frighten the kids the first day of school. I wanted to make sure they knew I was boss. Some of my colleagues did the same, and we shared our supposed successes in getting the kids in order. Other classes were out of control, and we foolishly congratulated one another on our quiet classrooms, orderly children, and smooth-running days.
Then one day, many years ago, I watched a fantastic video featuring a first-rate special education teacher who told a story about his son and the Boston Red Sox. He had inherited a priceless baseball signed by all the players of the legendary 1967 Sox. When his young son asked to play catch with him, of course he warned the boy that they could never use that ball. Upon being asked why, the teacher realized that Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, and the rest of the 1967 Sox meant nothing to his son. Instead of taking the time to explain, however, he simply told the boy they could not use the ball “because it had writing all over it.”
A few days later, the boy once again asked his father to play catch. When his father reminded him that they could not use the ball with the writing, his little boy informed him that he had solved the problem: He had licked off all the writing!
Of course the father was ready to kill his own son. On second thought, however, he realized his boy had done nothing wrong. And from that day forward, the teacher carried the unsigned baseball with him everywhere he went. It reminded him that, when teaching or parenting, you must always try to see things from the child’s point of view and never use fear as a shortcut for education.
Painful though it was, I had to admit that many children in my class were behaving the way they were because they were afraid. Oh, lots of kids liked the class and quite a few learned all sorts of wonderful lessons. But I wanted more. We spend so much time trying to raise reading and math scores. We push our kids to run faster and jump higher. Shouldn’t we also try to help them become better human beings? In fact, all these years later, I’ve recognized that by improving the culture of my classroom, the ordinary challenges are navigated far more easily. It’s not easy to create a classroom without fear. It can take years. But it’s worth it. Here are four things I do to ensure the class remains a place of academic excellence without resorting to fear to keep the kids in line.
Replace Fear with Trust
On the first day of school, within the first two minutes, I discuss this issue with the children. While most classrooms are based on fear, our classroom is based on trust. The children hear the words and like them, but they are only words. It is deeds that will help the children see that I not only talk the talk but walk the walk.
I use the following example with the students on their first day. Most of us have participated in the trust exercise in which one person falls back and is caught by a peer. Even if the catch is made a hundred times in a row, the trust is broken forever if the friend lets you fall the next time as a joke. Even if he swears he is sorry and will never let you fall again, you can never fall back without a seed of doubt. My students learn the first day that a broken trust is irreparable. Everything else can be fixed. Miss your homework assignment? Just tell me, accept the fact that you messed up, and we move on. Did you break something? It happens; we can take care of it. But break my trust and the rules change. Our relationship will be okay, but it will never, ever be what it once was. Of course kids do break trust, and they should be given an opportunity to earn it back. But it takes a long time. The kids are proud of the trust I give them, and they do not want to lose it. They rarely do, and I make sure on a daily basis that I deserve the trust I ask of them.
What People are saying about this
"Esquith is a modern-day Thoreau, preaching the value of good work, honest self- reflection, and the courage to go one's own way."
"Politicians, burbling over how to educate the underclass, would do well to stop by Rafe Esquith's fifth-grade class."
"The most interesting and influential classroom teacher in the country."
-The Washington Post
Meet the Author
Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary School for twenty-two years. He is the only teacher in history to receive the National Medal of Arts. He has also been made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. His many other honors include the American Teacher Award, Parents magazine’s As You Grow Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and the Compassion in Action Award from the Dalai Lama. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Barbara Tong. Read CBS's news story on Rafe Esquith.
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