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.