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Parents: Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire

Parents: Teach Like Your Hair

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Updated on Mar 11, 2008

Can a ten-year-old analyze Shakespeare? Write a book? Play all three movements of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major?

Yes, says Rafe Esquith. And not just “gifted” students, all students.

If you’re a parent with a reluctant learner or a kid who’s just scraping by, listen up. Esquith knows what he’s talking about. He’s got a list of awards that would make your head spin—awards from luminaries as varied as Oprah Winfrey, Queen Elizabeth, and the Dalai Lama. He’s the only teacher in the country to be awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts. And for the past twenty-five years, he’s been teaching kids that much of America deems “unteachable”—inner city students from an L.A. neighborhood rife with gangs, drugs, and guns.

Most of Esquith’s students live below the poverty line and speak English as a second language. And yet, they score in the top 1 percent on national standardized tests and perform full-length Shakespearean dramas for the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Michael York, and Sir Peter Hall. Not only do they come ready to learn, but a good deal of his students arrive at 6:30 am and stay until 5—voluntarily.

So what gives? And how can you, as a parent, replicate the magic happening in Esquith’s classroom? Here are 7 cornerstone concepts from Hobart Elementary’s Room 56. Let the learning begin!

  • Hands Off! Kids in elementary school are developing reading and writing skills. They’re exploring social studies and math. But in addition to building a knowledge base, they’re also building a sense of self. And that takes space to stretch and grow. “Successful children show initiative. They become independent. This cannot happen if teachers and parents do everything for them. Parents often help too much with homework and teachers often guide to the point where work is not really the child’s,” Esquith says.
  • Encourage Mistakes. As parents and teachers, we have created a culture of fear. “Once a child is not afraid to play a wrong note or miss a math problem, the chances for eventual success grow enormously,” Esquith says. It’s incredibly tempting to help a child get something “right”, to cross out their errors, or rewrite their essays. “My students practice all the time on their own, not because something is due, but they take the initiative to become independent learners” Esquith says. “This is the best thing teachers and parents can do for a child: provide a safe environment where a child is exposed to all sorts of activities, works hard to master them, and knows that failure is an integral part of the learning process.”
  • Brush Up Your Shakespeare. The students in Room 56 are otherwise known as the Hobart Shakespeareans. That’s because every year they have the opportunity to produce and perform a full length, unabridged play by the great bard himself. It takes thousands of hours of work but Esquith says, “All I know for sure is that I have found no other project that allows me to teach the students everything I want them to learn in a single activity”. For parents with the will to tackle Will, Esquith says, put down the books, “Shakespeare was never meant to be read. He was meant to be heard.” Esquith’s students begin with a summary of the play from a collection such as Marchette Chute’s Stories from Shakespeare or Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.  Then they listen to a production on CD, pausing at certain points to talk about specific phrases.  “Listen to the play with your child and go over the meaning of the scenes,” Esquith says, “The themes in Shakespeare mirror the struggles your child goes through every day of his life. Show your child that Shakespeare is relevant because he talks about us!” Think Shakespeare is too hefty for your kid? Esquith begs to differ. Even a ten-year-old can appreciate Henry V’s suffering for the sins of his father or Prospero’s decision to forgive his enemies, he says. After you’ve listened to the play together, watch it on DVD or go and see a live production. You’ve laid the groundwork-- by listening first, kids will be prepared to get the most out of the play. “Hamlet said it best: the readiness is all,” Esquith says.
  • Don’t Teach to the Test. With much of school funding tied to standardized test scores, it’s inevitable that kids will feel pressure to perform. But Esquith urges parents to keep the long-term picture in mind. Tell your kids why they are in school. “We are not learning fractions because of the test next week. We are working on fractions because they help us live our lives…We study because knowledge will create opportunities to pursue our dreams—we do not study to pass a test or get into an Ivy League school.”
  • All the World’s a Classroom. Many kids think of holidays like Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Veterans Day as “No School Days”, but they have no concept of what the holidays are about. Bring social studies out of the backpack and into kids’ hearts by using the world around you. “When a child visits a military cemetery yearly to place flowers or honor our fallen countrymen, it helps them feel connected to the country. It improves their citizenship and motivates them to participate in the country. Malcolm X wrote that he felt he was in America but not of America. When families celebrate holidays, their children become more thoughtful and connected with our values,” Esquith says. Stretch your boundaries of “teachable moments” and use the calendar to your advantage. Tie your lessons to real-world events.
  • Hit the Road. Each year, Esquith takes his students on a trip to Washington D.C. Before they leave they watch documentaries, study the destinations they’ll be visiting, listen to recordings of presidential speeches, and read the inscription etched into the Lincoln memorial. They study JFK’s assassination and read the speech his brother made when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. And they discuss how to behave on an airplane, how to talk politely in a restaurant, how to locate an ice machine… “Whether you are going to an art museum, restaurant, or Crazy Horse Mountain in South Dakota, the song remains the same. The road can be a place where a child finds his voice. My students can check into hotels, order in restaurants with no chaperones. It doesn’t matter where we are—the road can be used to discover who we are,” Esquith says.
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