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Take Five: Teacher and author Rafe Esquith

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2010 -When one googles teacher Rafe Esquith, the first thing that pops up is the Hobart Shakespearean website dedicated entirely to his now famous classroom No. 56, in which his students perform each year a Shakespearean play.

Nothing is mentioned in that website about his National Medal of Arts, Oprah Winfrey's $100,000 "Use Your Life Award," his honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire or any of his other awards -- on purpose.

With "a lot of the famous or so-called celebrity teachers, it becomes all about them," said Esquith. "And I really try to make it all about my students."

Esquith has been teaching 5th graders at Hobart Elementary school in Los Angeles for the past 29 years. Most of his students are from poor and immigrant families; many speak English as their second language. Nevertheless, Esquith's class consistently produces some of the most accomplished children in the Los Angeles area, with his students going on to schools like Princeton, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and more.

He recently wrote "Lighting Their Fires: How Parents and Teachers Can Raise Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-Up, Shook-up World." As Esquith says, "My contention in 'Lighting Their Fires' is we're really not getting (children) ready. You can't simply give them multiple choice tests. We've got to educate the whole child."

In anticipation of his July 30 reading at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters at 7 p.m., the St. Louis Beacon took five with Esquith.

Why did you decide to write a book geared more toward parents?

Esquith: Several years ago I wrote a book called "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire." I thought this book would just be a cookbook for teachers. It became an international bestseller. But the interesting thing was, I was getting letters from parents who said, "This is great, Rafe, but can you help us? We're trying to raise our children, we know what's at stake." I was amazed that there were so many parents around the world who see what I see."

Do you think this book applies to more than just parents and teachers?

Esquith: Of course, it's for all of us. It's something that should be a part of the national conversation... So, one of things I'm proud about "Lighting Their Fires" is that it takes place in one night at a baseball game and nothing magical happens. The kids don't get out of the car at the end of the evening, and say "Hey, Rafe, thanks for changing my life." It's not a Hollywood movie with a special ending. It's just one day. But if you are a parent or teacher or older brother -- anybody -- and you spend lots of days with children and when they see drunken fans at a baseball game, you say to them, "Well that's what they do, but that's not what you have to do." I think they need to hear that often and they need to see that modeled often. I want my kids to work hard, so I've got to be the hardest worker they've ever seen.

What made you decide to frame your book around a baseball game?

Esquith: First of all, I think it's the best game. ... I do think it's the most American game in terms of being democratic. In baseball every player gets a turn. It's really much more representative of what America's supposed to be.

We play the Cardinals in the book, and I've always thought that the Cardinals have one of the great organizations of baseball and the best fans in baseball. And sadly I'm a huge Dodgers fan, and I can't say that about Dodgers fans. ... And the reason I set it at a baseball game is I thought here is a simple event where you wouldn't think, "Hey, these are teachable moments," and yet at that Dodger game all the good and bad of what kids are facing is around them

You discuss how your teaching has evolved throughout this book. How have the children you are teaching changed?

Esquith: I think that the worst thing that's happened in schools -- it's funny because it's a good thing and a terrible thing -- is the technology. We are so excited about the technology in the classroom now that we think it is replacing the knowledge and learning. I've had parents come to me and say, "Rafe, my child's having trouble reading. What computer should I buy?" And I'll say back well, a library card is cheaper. ... You still have to have the right people showing children how to use that technology as a tool to help their lives but not to dominate their lives.

What are the most important lessons of your book?

Esquith: Raising a child is a marathon, not a sprint. We have this fast-paced society where we have instant everything -- and because of that a lot of people have forgotten that it takes a long time to be good at anything. The No. 1 lesson is to slow down. A huge underlying theme in the book is that we as adults have to tell the kids what it is what matters. And we aren't doing that; we're letting television dictate what's important.

Another crucial thing that I want the kids to understand is that what I'm asking of them is harder. Everybody's looking for that short cut, everyone's looking for that magic bullet. I want the kids to understand that to be good at anything, your job is to figure out what you want to do, then work very hard at it.

Also, I spend time with my students. I eat lunch with my students. I talk to them, I listen to them. I don't just want to know what the answer to number 23 is. I want to know their favorite color, I want to know what their dreams are. I want to know what's going on in their life. I'm really interested. I want parents to start spending more time with their children, just time.

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern at the Beacon.

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