Making classrooms relevant and learning personal

Mar 25, 2014

Rafe EsquithExpectations of public school teachers change as quickly as Ohio’s weather, which is why Rafe Esquith’s proudest accomplishment is that he’s still in the profession after 30 years. One of the country’s most decorated, passionate and energetic teachers, Esquith delivered the keynote address Friday at the School of Education’s second annual Education Summit.

As he engaged pre-service and current teachers in an inspiring talk, “Voices from the Classroom: What Good Teachers Do to Enhance Student Learning,” Esquith said personal accolades are nice, but means little if teachers can’t make learning relevant. He shared the story of the creation of the Hobart Shakespeareans, a product of his Classroom 56 in inner-city Los Angeles in a school that “resembles the Shawshank Redemption.”

At Hobart Elementary, 92 percent of the students are below the poverty level and only 32 percent finish high school. Few speak English as their first language and most come from troubled families. Esquith’s fifth-graders, however, are the antithesis of the statistics. “A quarter century ago, I got to thinking, this is unacceptable. We can do better,” he said.

So he created the Hobart Shakespeareans, who are defying the odds and societal expectations on their way to extraordinary accomplishments. They learn standard English, mathematics, geography and literature, but the pinnacle of their achievement each year is the performance of a Shakespeare play, which they stage so professionally and passionately that they often wow the great Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian McKellen and other celebrities. Esquith has taken them around the world to perform.

Though highly successful, it’s been a journey. To the young teachers, he had this advice: “You’re going to have bad days … horrible days. You can do your best but nothing can prepare you for what you experience in the classroom…

“But remember this. I’m probably the most honored teacher on the planet, and I fail all the time.”

Teaching is a hard job and greatness comes with time, he added. “The best you can do is to try to teach people to be honorable, decent human beings in a world where they’re surrounded by indecency.”

Esquith shared three elements of his personal teaching philosophy:
• You are a role model, so be the person you want your students to be.
• Teach skills that will be useful for a lifetime, instead of teaching to tests.
• Personal behavior matters.

His students are highly motivated and work hard because he has trained them to have a personal code of behavior, the ultimate level of Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. “It’s a completely different mindset,” he said.

The author of four books, some of which are used in Heidelberg education courses, Esquith also emphasizes reading. “I believe reading is more important than all other subjects put together,” he said, adding that kids hate to read “because books are boring.”

“In my class, we take all the banned books and we read them. … I read with my students every single day and teach them that every book is about them.”

Esquith’s key to successful teaching is making the subjects relevant to the students and personalize the classroom. “Do what you have to do (to meet curriculum standards), but supplement it with you,” he encouraged. “Sometimes, your lessons won’t kick in until 20 years later.”

“Let us create a safe haven where children can flourish and become the wonderful people they can be,” Esquith said.

As part of the Education Summit, future teachers also heard presentations from Bellefontaine science teacher Spencer Reames and ‘Berg alum Chris Monsour, who teaches science at Columbian High School.

The School of Education hosts the summit to empower pre-service and in-service teachers with an opportunity to engage with leading educators to improve their own practices and to guide them to shape their own teaching practices.