I’ve just finished reading Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. He teaches fifth grade in Los Angeles at a huge inner city school with remarkable results; his students routinely test in the top 5-10% while the average third-grader in his school tests in the bottom 20%. Rafe claims the difference is simply lots of extra time doing hard work. He and his kids are in his classroom from 6:30 am to dinner time every day, in a year round school, on weekends and during vacations. Everything they do, from performing Shakespeare, to class trips, to life in the classroom, is a teachable moment. Rafe’s students are, for the most part, the children of immigrants and his classroom is their escape route from poverty to the American dream. If all teachers were as dedicated as Rafe Esquith, education in this country wouldn’t be in trouble. If only there were a way to capture his essence, bottle it, bring it up to scale so that it was accessible to all teachers. But unfortunately, according to Rafe, there are no shortcuts. He can impact only about 30 students a year.
Like many other nonfiction authors, I started out as a teacher who wanted to share my enthusiasm for my subject with my students. As a young junior high science teacher, I had 150 students, 5 classes and 3 preparations a day. Teaching was a whirlwind job. There was never any time to stop and think how to present material so that my students would be blown away by the audacity of the ideas and concepts that scientists had labored so long and hard to produce. In fact, stopping and thinking doesn’t seem to be a part of the job description for most active teachers, Rafe Esquith excepted. And that explains why I became a writer.
It is our job to stop and think. We dwell on the big ideas. Just as there are no shortcuts to good teaching, good writing takes insightfulness, craft, knowledge of one’s readers, and above all time. It always amazes me that even when I write in white heat, when the words pour forth effortlessly, cooler reflection the next day shows me how to restate things with more clarity and power. And when words come like blood from a stone, when I’m just going through the motions to get something, anything down, I’m just as amazed upon rereading my efforts the next day to find that my words don’t seem labored.
Communication depends on shared humanity—the single passionate voice—of the dedicated teacher or the accomplished author. Who Rafe Esquith is as a human being is as important as the skills he teaches. Connecting with other people depends on a subtext of human emotion, where it’s clear that the teacher/author cares about both the subject and the student/ reader. No textbook, written by a committee to fulfill specific curriculum objectives will excite students any more than a fearful, limited and repressed personality can inspire a class. In fact, I think textbooks kill two birds with one stone: the desire to read and the desire to learn.
So, my friends, let’s keep up the good work. Our books are the essence of good teaching already bottled and preserved, ready to be consumed.