Setting hair on fire to ignite young minds!

Sridivya Mukpalkar

profileRafe Esquith is a teacher who teaches fifth-grade students at Hobart Elementary school in Los Angeles, California, USA. He has taught fifth-graders at this school for 22 years. His exceptional and eccentric ways of teaching have won him many awards, including the National Medal of Arts, American Teacher Award, Parent magazine’s As You Grow Up award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life award, Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, a Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University and the Compassion in Action award given by the Dalai Lama. He has also been honoured with the UK’s Member of the British Empire.

He has authored three books There Are No Shortcuts, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 and Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World.

The Hobart Shakespeareans or Rafe Esquith’s fifth grade students have performed Shakespeare’s plays at Royal Shakespeare Company and Globe Theater in London.

I’m a fiction person through and through. I like a good dose of story each day before I sleep. Non-fiction is not my cup of tea. There are very few books in the non-fiction genre that have made me sit up through the night! Rafe Esquith’s Teach like your hair’s on fire: The method and madness inside room 56 is a book that not only made me sit up through the night but also made me want to talk about it to every teacher I came across.

Teach like your hair’s on fire documents Rafe Esquith’s 22-year effort to make his fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary school in Los Angeles, USA, a ‘Mecca of learning’, a place where children not only gained book knowledge but also skills for life.

The idea behind the book, says the author, is to show that with a little bit of talent, patience and the ability to say ‘I can do better than this’ each time you teach, teaching can be a fulfilling experience. In his career, Esquith has experimented with new techniques of teaching, failed plenty of times and won over hundreds of students with dedication and perseverance.

A slim volume, Teach like your hair’s on fire is divided into three parts, each dealing with difficulties that students face and how teachers can help them.

Six levels of moral development:
In the first part, the author emphasizes that attributes such as building one’s character, hard work, humility and support are as essential as learning math or science. He talks about how he applies Lawrence Kohlberg’s six levels of moral development in his class. The six levels are:

Level 1: I don’t want to get into trouble
Level 2: I want a reward
Level 3: I want to please somebody
Level 4: I follow rules
Level 5: I am considerate of other people
Level 6: I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it

In the second part, the author addresses issues in everyday teaching and suggests some unique approaches to teaching English, math, social studies, economics and science.

Math, science and more
Imagine writing a full-fledged book at the age of 10 or reading classics instead of watching TV and playing video games. That is what the students in Esquith’s Room 56 do. For parents and teachers who bemoan the loss of the reading habit in children, the author suggests books listed under the Newbery awards and Caldecott awards as good places to start.

For each subject the author has listed all the material he uses, the websites he and his students visit to supplement lessons and activities developed by him to get students completely involved.

Young author’s project
At the beginning of each year students in Room 56 are asked to write a book. This book takes about a year to finish. Students select topics of their choice and the author checks the grammar, spellings and style. Students are asked to edit their books and type them onto a computer and finally bind them. This helps them to be creative and take ownership of their work.

While the first two parts of the book deal with teaching necessary life skills and subjects, the last part is for teachers who are dedicated to their profession. Here the author takes us through activities that have fetched him laurels and made his students popular. One such activity that he teaches is problem solving and analytical thinking, a skill that equips students to negotiate ups and downs in their lives.

The Hobart Shakespeareans
The theatre club is another important activity. Students of Room 56 are also known as Hobart Shakespeareans. Hobart Shakespeareans are fifth-graders who perform unabridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays across the world. Each year these students perform at school, in various charities and different countries. Theatre, the author says, helps students hone language skills, music skills and also improve their team work.

Through the book, Rafe Esquith has not only taught others like him, but has also shown what dedicated teachers are made of. He points at various flaws in current education systems and suggests practical and replicable methods to teach well. Teach like your hair’s on fire is a good road map for teachers who want to be better and want the best for their students.

(See interview alongside)

A little ‘cookbook’

Tell us about your book‘Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire’? What led you to write the book?
I wrote Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire because I received thousands of questions from teachers all over the world. My work had become well known because I was lucky enough to be honoured both in the United States and England. Terrific teachers from many countries wanted to know how I ran my classroom, so I wrote what I considered to be a little “cookbook.” I never dreamed it would be an international bestseller.

How did your colleagues and teachers across the world respond to the book?
The reaction was fantastic. It’s not that I am so special a teacher. I have just tried to add a little commonsense in a world where it is no longer common. Teachers are frustrated with the regimentation and bureaucracy that often hinders good teaching, and they appreciated my encouragement to be themselves and use their talents to reach children.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that teachers face today?
The biggest challenge is to teach kids to be honourable and decent in a world that is often dishonourable and indecent. We even praise people who are awful human beings! I want my students to admire heroes trying to cure cancer instead of pop stars and athletes.

Teachers always try to make a difference in every student’s life despite opposition from the management, colleagues, parents and regulations. What hurdles did you face and how does one keep working against so many odds?
There are always hurdles, and this is true for teachers in every country. My strategy has been to avoid confrontation. I do not fight the system. I try to quietly work around it. I also have beaten the system at its own game. When people are obsessed with test scores, my students score higher than everyone else. This gives me the opportunity to do other things without people trying to stop me. I also remember that Socrates was the best teacher who ever lived and they killed him! When there are days when some administrator or colleague is mean to me, I am always nice to them. I have to be the person I want my students to be.

You’ve mentioned in an interview that you should be nice to people who are mean to you? This was Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy. Was he one of your influences in life? Who have been your influences?
Gandhi is a huge influence in my life. My parents were great believers in social justice and raised me to help others. Atticus Finch, the great character from the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird is my greatest hero. Barbara, my wife, is my inspiration.

Like every profession, teaching can be both uplifting and disappointing? How should teachers deal with the highs and lows in their careers?
Teachers need to stop watching Hollywood movies where the teacher always saves everyone and is loved by all. That’s not true! I am pretty good at what I do and I fail all the time. Young teachers must be encouraged by others to realize that when they have bad days (we all have them!) that they are NOT bad teachers. It’s just a hard job. But we don’t want the kids to give up and we must not give up either.

With about 30 or 40 kids in a class and limited time to reach out to each of them, what should a teacher do to engage his/her students and keep them interested?
I think teachers need to remember to be themselves. We are constantly being asked to follow the school script. I think if a teacher is a great cook she should make that a part of her class activity. I have three great loves – baseball, rock music, and Shakespeare. All are an integral part of my teaching. When you invest yourself in the class, your passion converts to excitement among the kids.

You have included arts in your teaching. What role does art play in teaching? And why Shakespeare?
We do Shakespeare because my father read him to me when I was three. I know him well so I teach him with passion. But my Shakespeare classes, and the arts I use, have little to do with Shakespeare. When a child is in a play or playing a musical instrument, he is learning about things that have nothing to do with art. He is learning about discipline, and responsibility, and listening to others. These are skills that will be used for the rest of a person’s life.

A majority of classrooms in India lack even the most basic of resources, and children come from homes where they may be the first generation of learners. How can a teacher in such a situation develop an interest in learning and how can the students in turn stay motivated?
A key to my success are my former students. My young scholars receive hundreds of visits from former students who are in high school or college. They provide a vision of what is possible, and motivate the young students to try harder. So many great young teachers are giving up because they feel they are failing. I am proof that even an ordinary person (me) can build a special classroom by staying put. I have failed often, but stuck around. Success came slowly, but it has been worth it.

What inspired you to write ‘Lighting their fires’?
I have written Lighting Their Fires for parents, as I receive questions from parents all over the world. They want to raise kids of integrity but struggle given the current state of society. I am trying to get people to focus on skills that will help children for the rest of their lives, and not just the test at the end of the month. The response to this newest book (my most important one) has been incredibly rewarding.

Children these days are exposed to a wide range of influences, ranging from social media to entertainment. How can the classroom counter some of the negative influences from these?
As you will see in Lighting Their Fires, I want the kids to interact with the world, including the negativity. They must know what the world is, that they do not have to become a part of ignorance and boorishness. There are other ways to live a life.

If you had to pass on one piece of advice to teachers and school administrators, what would it be?
We must be the people we want the kids to be. They are watching us all the time. I want my students to be nice and to work hard. That means I must be the nicest person they have ever met and the hardest worker they have ever seen.

In your long teaching career have you interacted with teachers from India? What do you know about the education system in India?
I know little of the system in India, but have met many great teachers from there who have visited Room 56. And I have learned a truth: we are far more alike than different. We all want our children to be happy and healthy, and it is a very hard task given the state of the world. But if we continue to share our triumphs and failures, our world will be a better place.

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