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Teacher Magazine_ Lighting ..

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Published by: TFT on Aug 27, 2009
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Lighting Fires With Rafe Esquith
 Rafe Esquith is one of the country’s most renowned urban educators, having received numerous prestigious awards for his work in “Room 56” of Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles.Known for his fiery and unconventional teaching style, Esquith has consistently turned his mostlylow-income, minority students into top academic performers. Esquith’s 2007 book,
Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire
 , introduced readers to his classroom and no-holds-barred teaching philosophy, and became a
New York Times
bestseller. This fall, he is publishing a new book,
Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up,Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World.Teacher
talked with Esquith about the book, his thoughts on helping students thrive, and hisadvice for teachers.
What made you decide to follow
Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire
with a new book?
 Well, it’s funny. I used to get all these questions after I wrote my first book,
There Are NoShortcuts
, so I thought
Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire
would be the end, an answer to thequestions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about writing anymore. I thought I was writing a littlecookbook. And instead, it not only became a
 New York Times
bestseller here in the country, itbecame an international bestseller. It got translated into languages all over the world and I was just besieged by thousands of letters from people
 ─ mostly teachers, also parents─ who were
fascinated by my class, and wanted to know what they could do for the children in their lives. Sothat’s the reason I followed up this way. I basically was answering their questions, and they werethe ones who gave me the prompts.
Who would you say that you’re trying to reach with your new book?
 Well, certainly parents, who are really frustrated right now with a school system that has lost itsfocus. I hope to show them skills that they can be working on as parents. I want them, as I wrotein the book, to
take off the bumper stickers that say “my kid is an honor student.” I hatethat stuff. I want them to start thinking about being humble and gracious and selfless.I’m also trying to teach new teachers by showing them things that they might want to consider asa value for their classroom. I’m also really trying to reach those fifth- and sixth-year teacherswho are starting to burn out. I hope they will think, “You know, these are good ideas, I’m goingto start doing this in my classroom and I’m going to have the best year I’ve ever had.” I talk to alot of teachers at those crossroads moments. They still have so much to give if they can just hangin there.
I don’t want to give away what’s in the the book, but what is your message on helpingstudents learn today?
 I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we arenow in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books nowlike
 Algebra Made Easy
Shakespeare Made Easy
. But I want teachers and parents toremember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousandsof hours of patient study, and I want people to know that when kids make mistakes or havesetbacks, we don’t need to jump all over them for every little thing. This is a long process. I’mhoping that from the lessons of 
 Lighting Their Fires
people will understand that I’m trying toteach things that kids will remember after they’ve left my classroom, not just for the test at theend of the year.
So you think teachers need to focus on the big picture?
 And be patient, patient, patient. I was guilty of impatience, too. When you’re a 24-year-oldteacher, you don’t have a lot of patience! And it’s not because you’re a bad teacher. You come inwith your lesson plan and you have everything set and then some kid jumps up and tells you togo [expletive] yourself, some other kids start fighting, and an administrator comes in the roomand yells at you—all your plans go out the window. It’s happened to me. And you become sofrustrated. But that doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Teachers and parents need to understand thatthis isn’t a Hollywood movie where the teacher just walks in and saves everyone. It’s a reallyhard job and we’ve gotta keep at it.
What do you say when a teacher comes up to you complaining of teacher burnout?
 Well, first of all, I ask them, “What are you doing in your life that you enjoy doing? Are you afisherman? Do you enjoy spending time with your wife or husband?” Because you’ve gotta havethose times too. The other thing I say is, “What do you like to do?” And then I ask them, “Areyou doing that with your kids?” What’s your favorite book? Have you thought about reading itwith your kids? If you’re just reading a boring school textbook, it’s not fun.
One thing I hear from a lot of those teachers is, “Rafe, thank you for reminding me to be me.Thank you for telling me it’s OK to be myself.” Because a lot of people are telling the teachernot to be yourself. That we’re all supposed to be exactly the same. We’re not. In a country thatsays it’s supposed to celebrate diversity, we’re not! And that’s what I want those burned-outteachers to remember. Be yourself. You’re valuable, you’re important, and you’re making adifference, even though maybe you’re in a school that doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’sa thankless job, it really is. But when you do it well, it’s a fun job. Sometimes you hit a home runand it’s great.
What would you say your essential theory behind teaching is?
 My essential theory is this: Number one, we’re role models. We have to be the people we wantthe kids to be. If I want my kids to be nice, which I do
 ─not to
nice, but to
nice – then I’vegot to be the nicest guy they’ve ever met. So my essential theory is, you gotta be the person thatyou want the kids to be. And as a parent, if you’re a parent watching television all day and tellingyour kid, “Go in your bedroom and read,” it’s not gonna happen. Now, I’ve raised four children,and they’re all voracious readers, but they were raised in a home where I read every night, all thetime. That’s why they read! You have to set that example.
Can you describe your classroom and what makes it such an effective learningenvironment?
One crucial aspect to the classroom
 ─and this is why I really encourage teachers to stay put, i
they can
 ─the absolute most important force in my classroom are my former students who come
back and visit all the time. I must have 10 to 20 former students visit every day. Every day! Andthose kids tell my current students, “You oughta listen to Rafe. He changed my life.” That’s anincredibly powerful force in my classroom, it’s incredible. The way I explain it is: If you everwatch a cooking channel, and they’re making chicken, they show you a wonderful chicken dishand they say, “Doesn’t that look good.” They show you the finished product. The effect issimilar when you have kids who come back to your room, kids who speak Spanish orVietnamese or Korean and who are now going to Berkeley. My 5th graders see that and feel sucha sense of hope and empowerment.Another thing I like to stress about the way my classroom works: The idea that kids don’t likeschool is a myth. Kids love school when it’s fun and interesting. They don’t like school when it’sboring. But you let them do things that are relevant, like play in a rock band, as we do in myclasses, and capture their imagination. I think that’s what people see in my classroom
 ─there’s a
great energy level, an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together.
So building experience is crucial for teachers?
Yes, and this is very important to me. I speak all over the country, and I meet so many greatyoung teachers, and I’m trying to show them that I’m a truly ordinary guy, but because I stuck with it and persevered, I got good at it. Not because of talent, but because of experience! AndI’m really trying to encourage a lot of young teachers to
and stick with it and get throughthose tough times because there are better times ahead if they can do so.

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