Monday, November 30, 2009

Now that is a very long list of rules.

I picked up this book from my local library after my Rafe Esquith kick, because I had a suspicion that this is the guy Esquith upbraided for leaving his classroom for a book tour and a motivational speaker tour.

Turns out that hunch was right--this is the teacher. While I certainly don't agree with all Esquith's personal opinions on his fellow educators, I have to agree with him here.

The word that comes to mind: manipulative. In this list of 55 classroom rules, many interesting stories arise, and many are good ideas. But an equal number made me cringe for their deception, manipulation, and showboating.

For example, he tells a story about calling a student's parent and "lying through his teeth." He tells the parent that the kid is terrific, both behaving and performing well in school, in order to have a positive first contact with the parent. But the opposite is true. Then, after three days, he calls back and tells what's really going on, and this time the parent is on his side and disciplines the child. Starting out positively with a parent sounds like a great idea to me, but with lying? There's got to be a better way.

In another story, he tells us about his "famous Dorito rule." No student is ever allowed Doritos, ever. He relates how a student brought Doritos and noisily began to munch them, just so she could see Clark's theatrical confiscation. He is proud of this. It made me wonder what could have been accomplished in the time all this showboating took.

One more: Due to his great ideas and the huge scale of his projects, several years ago Clark was short-listed for the Disney Teacher of the Year award. He lands an anonymous donation to take the whole class with him to the award ceremony. But he doesn't tell them that. Instead, he gathers the students and their parents in the library for a big show of drawing three lucky students' names from a bowl. Just as he's about the draw them...he announces they're all going! Hurray! I felt bad enough for the children who were strung along like this, but to manipulate parents like that? Fellow adults who are your partners in the children's education? I would have been steamed if I were one of those parents, just so Clark could have his big Santa Claus moment.

To summarize: he's obviously got energy and ideas to spare, and I appreciate his enthusiasm. (55 class rules! Some of them are about how to clap or where to place your napkin at a restaurant!) But I am not drawn to this particular teacher's style.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A bit more on Rafe

So, I decided to go backwards and read There are no Shortcuts, the first book by Rafe Esquith, the fifth grade teacher who is parting seas and turning water into wine in downtown LA. Well, okay, he's turning 10-year-olds who speak English as a second language into Shakespearean actors on world-reknowned stages, and taking his math team to state competitions--which they win against private school competition. I'm deeply impressed by not only his level of commitment, but his skill. He's a master, and just by reading his books I am learning so much.

There is, as well, a disquieting egoism lurking in these pages--this book more so than his second. While I found this distasteful, I completely understand it. The teaching profession is so misunderstood and so maligned, that it's not surprising that one of its greatest practitioners must spend the bulk of his book explaining why he is so great. He has to tell us, because otherwise, we may not understand--or care--what it is exactly that he does that makes Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School a model for the rest of us. Far too many people would look at a fifth grade teacher and say, well, that couldn't be too hard. And a man, no less--so many would think, gee, if he's got any brains or talent, why isn't he using it to make some real money? So he has to explain it to us. His passion, his commitment to children's futures, his well-honed teaching skills. It made for an awkward read, but I get it and I'm glad I know some of what's happening in his classroom. It's inspiring, and I do intend to read his book that just came out this year, titled Lighting Their Fires.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I went to a square dance tonight with my daughter, my husband, and about 150 other young Girl Scouts and their parents. (My son is at a party of his own.) L. definitely enjoyed herself, pigtails swinging, and my husband was a wonderful dance partner who patiently taught her steps and do-si-do'ed for a long, long time.
I wish every girl there were so lucky. There were masses of parents around, but perhaps half were dancing with their daughters. The other girls were left to their own devices, which more often than not meant swinging madly around until one of them slid across the floor or running around--you know, just adding chaos to the event--while their parents either chatted or checked their blackberries. As an extra adult, I asked several girls if they would like a dance partner, but dancing with someone else's mom was not an offer many of them took up. So, I had some time to observe the scene and ponder.

This happened to come right after I finished Rafe Esquith's book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. So much fodder for thought, especially his emphasis on behavior, standards, and striving for excellence with every minute. According to this teaching veteran, his students would never have behaved like that. They would have remained attentive so that they would have learned the dance steps. They wouldn't be crazy, to make sure they weren't interfering with anyone else's efforts to dance. They would have participated, had fun, and left feeling like they really earned their Girl Scout square dance badge. I feel like my daughter can feel that way--not because she has perfect behavior--she doesn't--but because she had a loving adult attending to her and making sure she got something meaningful out of the evening. I found myself asking, how would Rafe Esquith handle this situation? Of course, they weren't students in tonight's context. They were daughters, and their parents were present. They just weren't present.

By the way, I highly recommend this book. It's a quick read and gave me much to chew on about the possibilities of a single classroom.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I'm taking Cultural Geography, too, because Viriginia requires a geography class on my transcript before I can be licensed. I can imagine many worse fates than having to take geography--fascinating material. I'm writing a paper about population growth in Ethiopia, and its effects on--among other things--education. Simply put, girls are not educated in rural Ethiopia, and few boys are.

When I dispair, pondering the problems with our education system in the United States, I think it's helpful for me to put it in reference to education in Ethiopia.