I love Rafe Esquith

teachThis book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, should be on every teacher induction and teacher preparation booklist. I love this book. I love Rafe Esquith as a teacher and as a writer. So many of us thrive in life because of our sense of humor and because of our gut instincts to trust and nurture other human beings–and I don’t just mean teachers. I love the candor and the schtick and the passion:

It is 2:00 P.M. on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. NO, not thumbscrews and the rack–worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are… Like many other teachers, I have adopted various measures to ease the pain. My fellow teachers and I have mastered the art of seeming to pay attention while some administrator out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth announces the current misinformation. One day, I almost broke down and had a seizure… You see, the children at our school do not read well. They do not like to read. As of this writing, 78 percent of the Latino children on our campus are not proficient at reading, according to our state’s standardized tests. This means one of tho things: Either we have the stupidest kids on the planet, or we are failing these children. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of our students are perfectly capable of learning to read. No one wants to admit it, but a systemic conspiracy of mediocrity keeps these children on the treadmill of illiteracy (29-30).

Page after page, I’m there with him, slapping my knee at the corny, self-depricating jokes and knowingly nodding with the jabs aimed at hapless malice practiced by educators throughout our educational system. It as if with each page, I learn more about my own passion and practice as an educator. I am learning and remembering at the same time Rafe tells  his own story and passes along his own messages about how to teach truly, ruthlessly bucking at convention and futility.

I’m about a fifth of the way through the book, so I expect to write several more times about this topic before I finish and move onto his second book, but I did want to share a collection of powerful tips I learned in the first few chapters.

First, Rafe raves about the success of working toward teaching your kids to notice and practice a personal code of behavior (or ethics) to follow. He discusses just how difficult it is to explicitly teach. Modeling is one thing, but to get kids to really notice it in others, he had to start actively looking. Here is the list he shares:

  1. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, he names Phineas as a role model for living by a code.separatepeace
  2. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, he names Bernard as a role model.
  3. In High Noon by Gary Cooper, he names Sheriff Will Kane.high_noon
  4. In the film, Shawshank Redemption, he names Red played by Morgan Freeman as role model for living by a code.

I would, of course, add Omar from the television show The Wire.

omarlittleRafe also talks about the power of the right voices reading the right stories to kids, citing CDs of actor Joe Morton reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and actress Winona Ryder reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

And the last tip I’ll share is a website he discusses for great (and affordable!) supplemental resources for literature.

Both parents and teachers can go to a Web site called www.learninglinks.com. this company offers a series of study guides called Novel-ties, which I find to be excellent supplements to reading… As a parent and teacher, my time is incredibly limited. Given my schedule, I cannot possibly prepared dozens of comprehension questions for each chapter I read with students. Novel-ties solve the problem. They are well organized and, most important of all, reach for the highest levels of understanding. They never ‘dumb down’ the material. By using the workbooks, my students become better readers, writers, and thinkers (41).

As if you did need motivating on this point, but I love this quote about how and why adults are such powerful rolemodels when it come to literacy and young people. I love Rafe Esquith!

Children–even very bright ones–need guidance. Whether they are selecting food or literature, kids need our leadership to help them find the right path. I’m not smarter than my students. But I know more than they do because I am older than they are. I know about fabulous books that they might not yet have come across. It is my job as their mentor to put these books in their hands. Because the  kids trust me, they re more likely to try a book I suggest. If one of my students is a Harry Potter fan, it’s easy to introduce him to other wonderful fantasy books. The joy of hearing one of the children laugh out loud while reading The Phantom Tollbooth or ask if she can boor the next installment of The Chronicles of Narnia remains a thrill for me. I get chills watching their minds try to comprehend the layers upon layers of Alice in Wonderland. Sharing the joy of great literature can be a cornerstone of a relationship between an adult and a child. It is through literature that young people first begin to look at the world differently, to open their minds to new ideas, to journey down an avenue of excellence (34-35).

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