A model or a superhero

Rafe Esquith demands a lot from the low-income fifth graders he teaches in Los Angeles. As this Washington Post profile explains, Esquith’s students read “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Crucible.” They perform “King Lear.” He doesn’t worry about state tests, but his students do well on them anyhow.

Esquith’s vigorous defense of high culture and classics is rare in a profession more worried about diversity than excellence, and a valuable antidote for students inculcated with an entertainment and celebrity culture.

Teaching, Esquith insists, is an evolving career. You experiment, make mistakes and self-correct. Esquith may be charismatic, but he is a careful planner. “I don’t have a desk in the classroom. I’m on my feet, like Henry V exhorting his soldiers to fight on St. Crispin’s Day. I have spent hours planning what chapter we will read. . . . Nothing is left to chance.”

It would be fair to call Esquith an elitist — an admittedly unusual description of a fifth-grade teacher. He has little use for the goal of self-esteem, insisting that skills come first. He believes in “multicultural sensitivity” but argues that this goal has eclipsed educational excellence. One night he took his students to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Lynn Harrell play Dvorak’s cello concerto. Afterward the students went backstage to meet the cellist, and one asked shyly, “Mr. Harrell, how can you make music that sounds that beautiful?” Harrell responded: “Well, there are no shortcuts.”

The key question is whether Esquith, the author of There Are No Shortcuts, is a superhero or a model that ordinary teachers can hope to emulate.

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  1. (Warning: Long comment)

    It sounds like Mr. Esquith has got it right about the tests mandated by NCLB. Teach well ABOVE them so students can pass them without trying that hard. But that actually means teaching students, instilling in them the skills and mental discipline necessary to excel in academics. This is what is not happening in most classrooms, and why many teachers say they have to spend so much time on test-prep.

    As to whether teachers can emulate Mr. Esquith’s results, I look only to the writings of Civil War soldiers, many of whom only had grade school education, yet write better than many college graduates today. It not only can be done, it WAS done. It can therefore be done again, only if we are willing to give up our fetish with the latest educational fads and really teach students they way they were a hundred years ago. Memorization, skills, drills, hours of practice. It’s what taught those Civil War soldiers to write, and it’s what allowed Lynn Harrell to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto so beautifully.

    He had that concerto memorized, and he’s probably spent hundreds of hours practicing it, along with tens of thousands of hours practicing his instrument in general. He’s probably worked out of method books, doing drill after drill to make sure then mechanics of his instrument come to him without thought, that the printed music is realized in his mind without thought.

    Only after the musician has mastered his craft can he go on to make art. Yet there are many who think any sort of tedious work will kill creativity, without seeing that in the long term creativity cannot flourish without it. These people derisively use the term “drill and kill” to refer to this. In fact, when it comes to creativity, it’s “don’t drill and kill.”

    I heard a great piece of spin on an overused cliche recently: “You can’t think outside of the box if you don’t know what the box is.” By putting skills first, Rafe Esquith is enabling his students to truly think creatively in the long run, and to bring that creativity to fruition. If only every student in the country got the chance to learn from someone like him.