Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56

by Rafe Esquith


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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith

Read Rafe Esquith's posts on the Penguin Blog.

The New York Times bestseller that is revolutionizing the way Americans educate their kids-"Rafe Esquith is a genius and a saint" (The New York Times)

Perhaps the most famous fifth-grade teacher in America, Rafe Esquith has won numerous awards and even honorary citizenship in the British Empire for his outstandingly successful methods. In his Los Angeles public school classroom, he helps impoverished immigrant children understand Shakespeare, play Vivaldi, and become happy, self-confident people. This bestseller gives any teacher or parent all the techniques, exercises, and innovations that have made its author an educational icon, from personal codes of behavior to tips on tackling literature and algebra. The result is a powerful book for anyone concerned about the future of our children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143112860
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 92,324
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.46(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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.





Table of Contents

Teach Like Your Hair's On FirePrologue: 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
Four: Writing
Five: Add It Up
Six: We Won't Get Fooled Again
Seven: What a Wonderful World
Eight: Rocket Man
Nine: Art Lover
Ten: Put Me In, Coach
Eleven: Taxman

Part Three: The Madness

Twelve: Think for Yourself
Thirteen: Celluloid Heroes
Fourteen: Goin' Mobile
Fifteen: It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (but I Like It)
Sixteen: Do They Know It's Christmas?
Seventeen: Will Power

Epilogue: Rest in Peace


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"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

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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 50 reviews.
Alexa19 More than 1 year ago
This is an inspiring book by Rafe Esquith that I would recommend it for any teacher; young or old, new or tenured, elementary or secondary. I would even recommend it for any parent or soon to be parent, because in a way, Rafe Esquith raises his students in room 56. I would also recommend it for any person who enjoys reading, just in general, about great and inspiring people. People who set their lives out in front of them, take it for all it is worth, and try to change the world in whatever way they can. The reason I decided to pick up this book and begin reading was because the college I attend had an opportunity for me to go and see him. I go to Illinois State University, where you will find that among the business majors, the engineering majors, and the pre-med majors, the majority of the students you will encounter here are education majors of all sorts. So having a teacher, who he himself has won the Oprah Winfrey Angel award, Oprah Winfrey's $100,000 "Use Your Life Award", Parents Magazine's "As You Grow Award", the Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, a Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from John Hopkins University, and was made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire, coming here was, I felt, quite the opportunity. While there, I heard one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever heard. Where he works, to give a quick summary of what you will quickly find out in the beginning of the novel anyway, is in a poor LA neighborhood, where for most of the students, English is a second language. His students willingly come to school, almost year round. The doors of his classroom, room 56, open at 6 AM for any student who wants to come (and several do) and has lots of after school activities in his room till 6 PM, where many students stay. He changes their lives, and in order to find out more, this is where I must leave you, to buy the book for yourself, and see how one man, can indeed, changes the world. As repeated, throughout the book as a saying in room 56 for the students to always remember to work hard to achieve their dreams, "After all, there are no shortcuts."~Rafe Esquith
gilbertteacher More than 1 year ago
I loved the book and what Rafe Esquith does with his students but found it to be very unrealistic. As a teacher myself, a wife, mother, daughter, friend of many, I could never devote the time and money to any job that claims to do. The field trips across the U. S. were great learning experiences but leaving students unsupervised in hotel rooms is a risk to student safety and personal liability I would not take with the most trusted of students. Through the minute details of his techniques and criticisms of other teachers, he has violated the creeds he has asked his students to live by. His derogatory nicknames for teachers he does not respect is especially disturbing. I am sure his students, past and present, would read his books and pick up on this unkindness. Even if he has altered some of the events and changed names, teachers from his school would surely figure out that he was talking about them. As much as I admire his love for students, I find many contradictions to his philosophy. If I tried to do as much as he claims to do, my marriage would dissolve and family life would dissolve for lack of time and attention. I spend lots of money on my teaching activities but would not want to give up my family life to take on extra jobs and recruit for funds. The book is well-written and enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When one is looking on a nonfiction book to read that has to deal with the field of education Rafe Esquith's book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 is an excellent choice! Being an Oklahoma State University Composition student for 2010 I was given the task of finding an nonfiction book dealing with my major or career related. Stubbling across several books of Rafe Esquith I found Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire to be the most interesting after reading the first few pages. Esquith does an excellent job at listing how-to instruction with a few of his projects/activities he has found to be very benefical, in the class room. Throughout Esquith book he discusses the important of instilling life long lesson along side of teaching the basic curriculum. Therefore, if you are looking for a book to gain knowledge of the insight of the daily operations of a class room or looking for a good book to read I highly suggest to read Rafe Esquith's Teach Like You Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56. Felica
haraSac More than 1 year ago
I happened to pick this book up while looking for a gift for a friend in her first year of teaching. I was riveted by the end of the first page and read the first few chapters before purchasing it for my friend. A year later, in the midst of my own first year of teaching, I remembered how inspired I was by just a few pages of Rafe's book, and bought a copy for myself. I have since given and lent this book to other teacher and tutor friends, and we all love it. Besides being chock-full of great practical teaching ideas and lesson plans, I am attracted to how he encourages his readers. He tells teachers, tutors, and mentors to not give up; yes, the education system in California is broken; yes, the cards are stacked against us; but do not give up. Our students - the future - are a worthwhile cause. This book (and this author) will be an inspiration to anyone who invests in others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author, Rafe Esquith, is a true hero. I have read all 3 of his books and would recommend them all, however, this is probably the best of the three. It just confirms that we, as parents and teachers simply need to do and expect more. It is very inspirational and will give you ideas on ways to do more with your own children. I also purchased a copy for my son's fourth grade teacher. The books are all easy reads and very enjoyable.
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This method of traching is a mix of faciliator and executive approaches. This teaches future teachers not to be afraid and everyone makes mistakes even the best, but you learn form them and become greater than before.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is very thoughtful and give great hints as to find information to utilize new ideas. It is an excellent book for new teachers, and a great refresher course for those who are old hats at the expansion of the mind job.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I definitely learned a lot an got a lot of ideas for my classroom from this book.
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Teachers of all experience levels can appreciate this book. Offers neat ideas (most easy to implement).
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MrTeacher More than 1 year ago
I appreciated the practical usefulness of this book. He's full of ideas, calls it like it is (ex: doesn't hesitate to call the lazy teachers out for using films as a replacement for learning), and encourages excellence. So, it's inspiring in a practical sort of way--he's got lots of ideas about how to use art and film in constructive ways. I've actually implemented some of his ideas, some to good end, some not. But it's fun to experiment. For deeper inspiration for teachers, I'd also recommend the classic, The Courage to Teach and the newer book, Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers.
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