Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rafe Esquith: Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire (review)

Author: Rafe Esquith. (“An Actual Classroom Teacher”)
Title: Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56. New Publication: York: Viking / Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-670-03815-2, 244 pages, hardbound, 17 Chapter, 3 Parts.

Well, helping a student with a chemistry experiment, his hair really did catch on fire once. He tells that story in the Prologue.

The Three parts of this book by an inner city male teacher with 22 years experience, in Los Angeles, apparently teaching mostly or all elementary school (fifth grade), convey a sense of its tone and message:

Part 1 is called “There’s No Place Like Home: How Room 56 Creates a Safe Haven and Provides Children with Shelter from the Storm:

Part 2 is called “The Method: A Few Simple Ideas to Enhance a Child’s Development”

Part 3 is called “The Madness: D___ the Torpedos: Full Speed Ahead.”

Mr. Esquith certainly experiences teaching as a Life, not just a “job.” With personal immersion in character mentoring and chaperoning kids, Esquith presents teaching as a complete life assuming that one is already personally socialized by marriage and being a parent oneself, or at least by strong social connections (perhaps through church) with family responsibility in general. What a contrast. In graduate school, one walks into class and watches the professor spending fifty minutes proving topology theorems from left to right on the board. That was once my concept of teaching. Actually, I taught two semesters “remedial” algebra in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and that was an experience. Others said I did not try to “sell” the material. And recently, in “retirement” I have been a substitute teacher in a couple of northern Virginia school districts, with extremely varied experiences. Some classes, like AP in high school, are essentially like college. Even, in say tenth grade, with Honors chemistry, one can set up the computer, opaque projector, and go into Google and let the students research classwork questions on atomic orbital levels and electronegativity with no fear of misuse. Once, to keep a physics class busy when lesson plans ran out, I found (with Google) a page with the derivation of the gas law equations from the standard hyperbola form with parametric equations in trigonometry! That’s a lot better than hip hop or Myspace, which is blocked at school.

The chaperoning caught my eye, indeed; it seems to be a significant expectation of teachers. I went on some major field trips in school (Williamsburg in 7th grade, and then as a senior when I took the chemistry placement test in April 1961 at William and Mary -- we visited a paper plant on the way down; the Science Honor Society trip to New Hampshire and Mount Washington, NH; a ninth grade trip to France that I passed up, and I regret that now; a football trip to Richmond (I don't remember why non football people were invited to go).

With a certain kind of student, for someone (like me, "retired") to come in from the “real world” of work and media and all kinds of political issues, and show students who are mature enough real stuff, is exciting. It can also be dangerous, given the politics and legal ambiguities in public school systems. The public school is a sheltered place, a sub-universe, and Mr. Esquith says so.

Instead, the author has spent his life as an educator, and of the young, those needing differentiated instruction, those needing constant role models in loco parentis for character development, which Esquith describes in graduated steps going from fear of punishment to being able to set your own standards to do the right thing. In high school, at least with AP / IB / honors etc. most students know pretty much what is expected and are eager to do it. After all, one can get college credit at public expense with no student loan debt later, so why not take advantage of it. Role modeling means something even here, but it is more relative to the expectations of the adult world and “personal responsibility” as libertarians know it. In the elementary world and disadvantaged environment, role modeling seems almost like being a substitute parent. That’s more than just a job.

Esquith apparently has worked in an extended program where kids are in school for long days, and have extensive supervised after-shool programs. Although many teachers sponsor field trips, Esquith arranges cross-country trips for his kids, where he arranges real-world experiences, supervised, but somewhat away from the sheltered environment of school. He also introduces real-world concepts into the classroom, with chores as jobs and artificial money, where students “rent” their desks but if they save enough money they can “buy” them as condominiums and rent them to other students. At the same time, Esquith is big on community service and getting the kids involved in activities for the homeless, trying to balance the individual initiative of capitalism with the need to help others.

Esquith is a jack of all trades (and reasonable master of some) in his teaching. . Here, remember that in grade school, kids have the same teacher all day. (In fact, World News Tonight on Sept. 6 covered a change in the Kansas City MO schools to eliminate middle school and make elementary K to 8, with kids keeping one teacher through eighth grade. I had grades 7, 8 and 9 as middle school, with some of it “general education” for two periods (English and social studies together).

He gives all kinds of practical tips with reading, writing, math (particularly word problems – he gives a lot of them in his book and algebra teachers could make up exams on word problems from examples that he gives – have at it!) He talks about teaching social studies and geography by using games – and what comes to mind for me is, yes, some board games when I was a boy did help me remember the globe (how many jigsaw puzzles do I see in school libraries?) and even games with fictitious geographical layouts (like Star Reporter) teach geographical concepts and skills. (How about the entire imaginary geography of Tolkien?) I also recall those stunningly colored topographical relief maps of every state and Canadian province in the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia, maps no longer available to day. I based many a project in grade school on these.

Esquith is a big promoter of physical education, and takes responsibility for it. He diverts and talks a lot about the virtues of baseball as a sport. (He particularly likes the idea that there is no clock to run out.) He also talks about art projects that he set up, although he denies that he is an artist. He recognizes that kids involved in performing arts often develop more quickly. (It’s worthy of note here that kids in the movies have studio teachers on set – often mentioned in film credits now – and most of these kids do very well, from all reports.) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) and his kids put in a Shakespeare play once a year.

He mentions a lot of novels, and especially film. One favorite he mentions early in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. He sometimes shows films, especially in after school periods when the films can be shown without interruption. He likes classic films with a literary basis, but is critical of cheap entertainment. He does like some high quality thrillers, like Wait Until Dark. When a kid rents a video he or she has to fill out a video worksheet showing that he or she really followed the movie (he shows his worksheet for the 1963 thriller Charade. I’ve seen a teacher give a worksheet for Hotel Rwanda – what is the significance of the ‘tall trees”?) After reading through his favorite film list, I had to add to my Netflix queue.

Since I don’t have a sports blog and Rafe talks about baseball, I put a couple of links here about the Washington Nationals ‘s new ballpark.

Ballpark comparisons

Comments on the ballpark dimensions.

Update: Sept. 7, 2007

There is an important business announcement about the merger of two companies in the supported self-publishing (print on demand) business, iUniverse and Author House (Author Solutions) on another blog today, here. Some examples: an iUniverse imprint book (Aphrodite Jones) was reviewed July 24; an Author House book was reviewed on June 21 here.

Update: Sept. 24, 2007: The Metropolitan Section of The Washington Times has a story by Jordan Bartel, "Author tests trilogy on his students," about Wayne Thomas Batson's trilogy "The Door Within" (published by Thomas Nelson) with the three books being: (Same title); "The Rise of the Wyrm Lord"; "The Final Storm". The book was written by a middle school English teacher (Batson) in Maryland with his students. Mr. Batson had previously tried to get a fantasy published (pre Harry Potter) and editors said it was too long with reading level set too high.

Update: Sept. 30. Check Andrew Ferguson, "No Child Left Alone An education reform run amok" in the Sept. 24, 2007 Weekly Standard, here.

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