It’s hard to get the full effect of what has been happening in Room 56 of the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles in the last 29 years just by reading about it. The 25-by-30-foot fifth-grade classroom in a school full of low-income Hispanic and Korean kids is the domain of Rafe Esquith, 59. I consider him the best classroom teacher at work in the United States, so I try to visit Room 56 as often as I can.
Understanding his methods is made somewhat easier by his fourth and best book, “Real Talk for Real Teachers,” coming out this month. It is almost as good as watching him make students’ actions and thoughts their keys to learning.
His kids, who all call him Rafe, put on a rock-and-roll Shakespeare play every year in that little room. They all memorize the words. They learn to play instruments. They travel the world. They run their own economy.
Next week, I’ll describe Esquith’s views on the hottest education issues. For now, let’s just sit in Room 56 and listen as he builds character by asking students questions. This first-day-of-school dialogue is straight from his book:
Student: May I go to the bathroom?
Rafe: Why would you ask me if you can go to the bathroom?
Student: In last year’s class we had to ask.
Rafe: Why are you leaving the room?
Student: I have to use the bathroom.
Rafe: Tell me about your trip there.
Rafe: Describe how you will get to the bathroom.
Rafe: Will you run? Will you slide down the railing on the stairway, which is a dangerous thing to do?
Student [starting to catch on]: I will walk.
Rafe: Why? Is running a bad thing? I love to run!
Rafe: There are wonderful places to run and make noise. Can anyone name some of them?
The class: The playground . . . the beach . . . the park . . .
Rafe: Exactly. So why are we walking quietly to the bathroom?
Student: You don’t want me to get hurt or disturb other classes.
Rafe: That is absolutely right. Tell me what will happen in the bathroom.
Rafe: Will you be fooling around in there?
Student: I’m just going to go to the bathroom and come back.
Rafe: What will you do after you have gone to the bathroom and before you come back?
Student [a pause, some thinking going on]: I’ll wash my hands.
Rafe: With what?
Student: With soap, if there is any there [the class laughs bitterly at the recognition that the school bathrooms are often out of supplies].
Rafe: That’s a good point. If there isn’t soap, we have some right here in Room 56. What will you do with the paper towel that you use to dry your hands?
Student: I’ll throw it in the garbage . . .
Rafe: . . . and not throw the wet towel up to the ceiling, right?
Student [impressed that the teacher knows what lots of kids do]: I won’t do that.
Rafe: I think you are ready to go. But what would happen if you do not do these things? What would happen if you were found running, disturbing the school or fooling around in the bathroom? In other words, what would happen if you broke my trust?
Student: I won’t be able to use the bathroom anymore.
Rafe: Nope. Of course you can go to the bathroom. But you will have to be accompanied by people to watch you, as you would not be ready to do things yourself yet. I think you are. Do you think you are?
Rafe: Then go to the bathroom! We have work to do!