Recommended Reading: Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire

I first read about Rafe Esquith in an article in National Review.  After that, I read and enjoyed his book, There Are No Shortcuts.  Esquith espouses a teaching ethic that is heavy on emotion and personality, but that is more than balanced out by incredibly high academic standards and a work ethic that would make your average Marine cry. 

I don’t think everything in Esquith’s methods would work for me, but I can’t help but respect someone who gives 150% of himself to teaching, not to make kids feel good, but to guide them into becoming truly intellectual giants.  (Esquith is most famous for putting his students through a full professional production of a Shakespearean play each year, a task that, especially considering his many other ambitious units, has him running his classroom about twelve hours a day, six days a week.  And these are fifth graders.)

As I’ve been gearing up for the new year, I wanted to read something that was inspirational, practical, and not a bunch of warm fuzzy gobbledygook.  So I checked out Esquith’s more recent book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.  Where There Are No Shortcuts focused on Esquith’s philosophy and anecdotes, this newer volume is a nuts and bolts how-to of teaching like he does.

Like I said, a lot of this stuff really wouldn’t transfer to my high school English class, but after reading the first two chapters–one about reading and the other about writing–I did go back and take some notes.  For someone whose language is often so reminiscent of PC nonsense (Esquith says the priority on the first day of school is to “establish trust”), his actual work routines are strenuous, and completely dedicated to independent achievement.  Rock on. 

Actually, I recommend this book for everybody, not just for teachers.  For one thing, even though we all went to school ourselves, unless you’ve spent time in the profession, you have no idea just how much corruption, stupidity, and heartbreak really exists behind the scenes of a school.  Esquith has great stories about these institutional failures, and isn’t afraid to name names.  Second, his class ranges the gamut of curriculum, from humanities to hard science to pop culture to character development, and his many specific examples are a joy to consider. 

Read the chapter where he describes, in painstaking detail, how to get the most out of a visit to Washington, D.C.  He bases this on decades of annual field trips there.  I’m going to copy it and use it as my official travel guide the next time I go.  And the chapter about his after-school classic film club…priceless.  My wife’s had a copy of Charadeon her shelf for years; I never thought I might like it until I read Esquith’s praise of it.  I think I might try to start something similar at my own school.  (Last year, during a discussion with a class, I made a passing reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The class came to a grinding halt as I faced thirty blank stares.  They had never seen it.  They had never even heard of it.  And this was an honors class.  Sad.)

One quibble, though.  Esquith makes a big deal out of how his success comes in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where most homes don’t have English as a first language.  The implication is that he’s teaching “disadvantaged” minorities, yet this book has lots of pictures of his students…and virtually all of them are Asian.  Most every picture looks just like the one you see on the cover here.  There are a few Hispanic kids in the book, but only a few, and not a single black kid.  I have to wonder if Esquith’s school population is really a tough to teach as he suggests; all of the kids in the pictures have nice, preppy clothes, are clearly well nourished and groomed, and show no physical sign of coming from lower class homes. 

This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it would be disingenuous of Esquith to sell himself as a master teacher of poverty-stricken youth if he’s really teaching primarily the children of hard working first or second generation Asian families with stable homes, a strong work ethic, and who place a high value on education.  I could be wrong, but the pictures make me wonder.

Still, it’s a great read, and it gave me exactly what I wanted: a boost of enthusiasm sprinkled with a few practical ideas.  It’d do the same for you, no matter what kind of teacher you are, or even if you aren’t a teacher at all.

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