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America's Best Classroom Teacher

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007 9:44 AM

Rafe Esquith is the most interesting and influential classroom teacher in the country, but he is not getting nearly as much glory as he deserves. He won't SAY that, of course. Modesty is one of the big lessons taught to his fifth graders in room 56 at the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, and Esquith believes that role modeling is one of the most important things that teachers do.

But on the cover of his terrific new book, "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56," Esquith hints at what he is feeling when he, a film addict, sees the latest movie based on some other teacher's life. Underneath his name on the cover are these words: "An Actual Classroom Teacher."

What does he mean by that? Well, consider some recent films about educators. "Freedom Writers," with Hilary Swank playing Erin Gruwell, is in theaters right now. Other films about teachers like Esquith who help low-income students include "The Ron Clark Story" (Matthew Perry as Clark, 2006), "Dangerous Minds" (Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, 1995) and "Stand and Deliver" (Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante, 1988). Unlike Esquith, all of these fine teachers have left the classrooms that made them famous. According to their Web sites, Gruwell and Johnson are training teachers and Clark is starting his own school. Escalante, who does not have a Web site, has retired and moved back to his native Bolivia where, at age 76, he still does some teaching.

But Esquith is in the same classroom with the same sort of kids from the same Hispanic and Korean neighborhoods he first encountered 22 years ago. As he says, even the best teachers still have a lot to learn. This 244-page book, $17.22 on amazon.com, should be read by anyone interested in teachers, or teachers wanting, as Esquith always does, to get better.

He and I disagree on the necessity of the frequent and regular standardized testing that goes on in schools these days. And that makes me uncomfortable, since his understanding of education compared to mine is like Einstein's comprehension of the universe compared to that of my mixed terrier, Mickey. In my defense, if every teacher were as skilled and energetic as Esquith, we would no longer need standardized tests. (His kids score far above the Hobart average on reading and math tests.)

Here, for instance, is Esquith describing how he prepares students for a standardized math test by training them to be psychometricians:

He puts a simple addition problem on the board: 63 plus 28 equals ? Below the problem he writes the standard A., B., C. and D., leaving the possible answers blank for the moment.

"Rafe: All right, everybody. Let's pretend this is a question on your Stanford 9 test, which as we all know will determine your future happiness, success, and the amount of money you will have in the bank. (Giggling from the kids) Who can tell me the answer?

All: 91.

Rafe: Very good. Let's place that 91 by the letter C. Would someone like to tell me what will go by the letter A?

Isel: 35.

Rafe: Fantastic! Why 35, Isel?

Isel: That's for the kid who subtracts instead of adds.

Rafe: Exactly. Who has a wrong answer for B?

Kevin: 81. That's for the kids who forgets to carry the 1.

Rafe: Right again. Do I have a very sharp detective who can come up with an answer for D?

Paul: How about 811? That's for the kid who adds everything but doesn't carry anything."

Esquith arrives at Hobart, one of the largest and most crowded elementary schools in the country, each morning at 6:30 a.m. and often finds several students waiting for him and his early morning thinking skills class. School does not start officially until 8 a.m., but Esquith ignores official schedules. He often remains until dinner time, and is often in room 56 on weekends, vacations and holidays, frequently helping former students study for the SAT and prepare their college applications.

One year a Hobart principal tried to force him and his students out of room 56, and at least temporarily out of the school, by assigning another teacher to that room during Esquith's vacation time, as part of the school's multi-track calendar. Esquith simply invited his students to join him in outdoor classes on the playground. The turnout was so great that the principal gave up and he was soon back in room 56.

I spent a day last year in that very ordinary and rather small second-floor classroom. It is hard to believe what goes on there. Esquith is most famous for organizing the Hobart Shakespeareans, a troupe of fifth graders who perform the works of the Bard all over the country, and sometimes abroad. There were at least 40 students in the room that day, including several room 56 graduates who had come to visit. His fifth graders rehearsed Shakespeare on a Esquith designed stage, practiced the musical accompaniment, read and discussed parts of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and played a game called Buzz that Esquith describes in the book. The class counted to 100, with Esquith pointing to students in turn. If the next number was a prime number, the student had to say "buzz" instead.

He teaches his class how to play baseball, with step-by-step precision and practice as if he were teaching them how to defuse a bomb. He runs the Young Authors project, in which each student over the course of a year writes a book. He instructs on the world of money by having his students run an entire economic system in the class, with paychecks, rents and too many other complications to mention.

His students mostly love this, although in the book he points out several of his failures. His supervisors, I imagine, have the same affection for him they have for asbestos in the school basement. He recounts in detail his battles with the literacy coaches who tried to force him to drop the Steinbeck novels his students were reading in favor of simpler, less adult fare. He reprints a note left by the teacher supervising the district writing test: "Hear our you're exams, Rafe. Their due Friday."

As far as I know, he is the best teacher working full time in a classroom today. But he is also, as he freely admits, insane. He acknowledges that anyone working such hours must have something wrong with him. He has difficult relationships even with his closest disciples, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, whose high-performing KIPP schools for low-income students in 16 states and the District are based in large part on Esquithian ideas.

His strongest link to reality, he says, is his wife Barbara Tong, with whom he fell in love when she made fun of his messiah complex on their first date. There must be something in Tong's genes, since her daughter, Esquith's physician stepdaughter Caryn, tells him at one point in the book that a class he has just proudly demonstrated for her "may be the worst science lesson I have ever seen."

So Esquith found a way to get lab equipment suitable for 10-year-olds and brought the science class up to Caryn's standards. He always looks for ways to get better every year. It is maddening to many who have to deal with him, but it is also splendid teaching, and I think there will be a movie about him someday.

He is 52, so they probably won't cast Brad Pitt or Matt Damon. But if Russell Crowe grew a short beard like Esquith's, he would be perfect. Crowe played a boxer. Esquith says it will never happen, but I think it could.

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