The full title of Rafe Esquith’s latest inspiring book is Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!” There’s rarely any need for a three-tiered title, but in this case I think it’s worth it. (It’s unfortunate, however, that the publisher and/or the apparently nonexistent editor didn’t spot the ambiguity in the second tier: I initially parsed it as “advice from rookies to veterans,” but then I realized that it is meant to be interpreted as “teachers from rookies to veterans.”)
It wasn’t clear to me at first whether this book would have anything to offer a math teacher in an academically superior high school in a wealthy suburb. Esquith teaches fifth grade in the Los Angeles barrio: it’s elementary school, it’s all subjects, and it’s low-income kids. All of that makes his experience enormously different from mine. Furthermore, his heart is clearly with Shakespeare. Although he does teach math, it’s a minor part of the picture. Furthermore, he copes with 35 kids, whereas we complain if we get a class of 25.
Despite all these differences, Esquith does have a lot to offer me, and I encourage my colleagues to read this book. Let me just get the class size issue out of the way first: he has the same 35 kids all day long, so Weston High School teachers are actually worse off in terms of getting to know our students. Yes, our average class size may be 22, but that leaves us with 88 kids altogether — a far bigger load than 35. And we may have three different courses to deal with when teaching our four classes: Geometry, Algebra II, and Precalculus in my case. It’s all math, but there’s still some points of similarity here with the teaching of multiple subjects. The big differences, however, still remain: fifth grade vs. high school, and entirely low income vs. predominantly high. Esquith has his own classroom all day long, with the same kids. Most high-school teachers share a room with other teachers, and of course the kids move from room to room. So a reader in my situation has to pick and choose. I kept engaged in reading every paragraph in this captivating book, but only some pieces of it are likely to have a direct effect on what I do and how I teach.
Take a look at Esquith’s astonishing website: hobartshakespeareans.org. The site name, of course, illustrates his deep commitment to Shakespeare. Look at his college prep program: his fifth-graders from the L.A. barrio get into an astonishing range of top colleges seven years later. Esquith manages to take a group of kids to Washington each year, to get his former students to come back and help, and to enlist top-notch talent from the community as his teaching assistants. His astonishing typical day is tightly scripted from 5 AM to 9:15 PM (read the incredibly detailed Appendix A). Just thinking about it makes me exhausted! Despite his deep commitment to art and music (two of his major interests) and despite his clear contempt for standardized tests, Esquith manages to get his kids to do well on those tests. How? Not by gearing the bulk of his curriculum to the dreadful task of teaching to the test, but by devoting a small amount of time each time to explicit test preparation. That’s reality, and one can’t really fight it. Clearly it works, given his students’ results.
So what have I learned from the book? It’s impossible to summarize in a few words, so let me just focus on two points. One is the idea of having a year-long project. In my high-school courses even a month-long project is hard to achieve but Esquith convinces me that the level of student commitment required to carry out a year-long project is well worth the investment in time and effort. In his case he has the kids make hooked rugs that are works of art, and he has a majority of them involved in a major professional-type Shakespeare production each year. Wow! Can I learn something from that in high-school math? I think so.
A second idea is that slogans can work — if the teacher is truly committed to them and if the slogans can get instilled in the students to such an extent that they become reality. Esquith states his expectations as slogans, but they are in the form of expectations, not rules. Here are a few:
- Hobart Shakespeareans are honest.
- Hobart Shakespeareans make good use of time.
- Hobart Shakespeareans are aware of time and space
- Hobart Shakespeareans are never afraid to ask questions.
- Hobart Shakespeareans show initiative.
- Hobart Shakespeareans understand the importance of presentation.
(Note that the phrase “Hobart Shakespeareans” refers to the whole class, not just to the many students who actually participate in the Shakespeare productions.)
Esquith’s biggest slogan of all is simply “Be nice. Work hard.” Yes, it’s cliché, but it certainly captures the most important principles of being part of a school in four monosyllabic words. Combined with some of the slogans above, it all sounds unrealistic, but it’s not. Despite the book’s sub-sub-title —“No retreat, no surrender” — Esquith admits that “no child left behind” is just plain impossible. Unfortunately some children need to be left behind. But for the vast majority, it’s clear that his techniques work. Let me conclude by quoting a few of the bullet points with which he concludes each chapter:
- The kids will not grasp your program on Day 1. Introduce it and get to work.
- Begin a dialogue with the students to help them understand the why of your classroom structure instead of the what.
- Have fun. The kids will if you do.
- Every disaster that happens is an opportunity for you to get better. Nothing feels better than teaching a great lesson that failed the year before because of what you have learned.
- You are never finished. Things will go wrong in your twenty-fifth year that never went wrong before. Take solace in the fact that the job is never boring!
- Try not to talk too much. The goal is for the students to take charge of their own behavior. The more you remove yourself from the conversation, the more invested the students will be in their actions.
- Make sure your students know that the most important things they will learn both in and outside of school cannot be measured on a standardized test.
- Talk to your students about why you ask for help. It’s a wonderful chance to model behavior that will help the kids for the rest of their lives.