Commentary: Rafe Esquith is an inspiring and controversial teacher

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

Rafe Esquith is a fifth grade teacher who’s spoken to 100,000 teachers in China, and on May 15 was keynote speaker for over 500 Rotarians and guests at the Rotary District Conference in Yakima.

According to what he said in Yakima and what appears in his biography on the American Program Bureau website (apbspeakers.com), he’s had results teaching at a public school in Los Angeles from 1984 to 2015 in a crime-plagued neighborhood where 80 percent of the students are Hispanic, 18 percent Asian and 2 percent African-American. Few speak English as their native language.

While he’s received numerous national awards and been featured in the PBS documentary film “The Hobart Shakespeareans” (pbs.org/pov/hobart/), the most impressive claim I heard him say and I confirmed in his biography, is his “students consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent on standardized tests and most go on to attend the most prestigious colleges and universities.”

He told us he succeeds because he teaches difficult reading and historical literature combined with his artistic passions, Shakespeare and classical music. There’s more to it than that, so I read more to understand more.

He excels with at least six methods, most of which we could incorporate into our roles with children.

* First, he convinces them they will be  better people for doing everything he has them do, never telling them, “Because it’s required.” I’ve violated that rule.

* He reads difficult classics out loud with emphasis, interpretations and explanations and has his students do the same. He believes reading instruction must continue past pronunciation and comprehension to include imagination and emotion. He’s inspired me to read to my lunch buddy even though he knows how to read.

* Esquith invigorates his immigrant students to understand U.S. history through trips to Washington D.C. every year, visiting such places as the Tomb of the Unknowns. He showed a video of a fifth-grader reading the memorable letter from Civil War Major Sullivan Ballou to his “very dear Sarah” before marching off to battle where he died a week later. A Congressional panel listened to the student display the feelings of love, patriotism and fear throughout the poignant love letter. (To read the letter go to tinyurl.com/nbz4n37.)

* He’s created the Esquith classroom economy module described in his book “There Are No Shortcuts.” He told us he uses it to teach economics and build incentives for students to earn classroom dollars for extra benefits. For example, he rents each student a seat for $2,000 per month and if they show up and perform they earn $1,800. In order to earn more money, they arrive early, do extra homework, clean up the classroom, take attendance, etc. You can read a discussion among teachers who are using his system at tinyurl.com/h456k2d.

* Students arrive at 6:30 a.m. and work until 5:30 to 6 p.m. Students benefit from increased “time-on-task,” a consistent predictor of better student performance. His student helpers allow him to spend more time teaching students, supporting them, correcting them and inspiring them.

* Finally, students spend the year practicing as Hobart Shakespeareans to put on a fundraising production with their own classical musicians. They perform with a depth of meaning, attracting professional Shakespearean actors to support the play.

Despite his excellent credentials, Esquith got into trouble for alleged misconduct in the classroom and was terminated in October of 2015. He later sued the Los Angeles Unified School District for $1 billion in a class-action suit. He claims the board is on a “witch-hunt” to rid the school of higher-cost teachers with seniority. Esquith has not been charged with any crime, according to an online story from “Education Week,” published Dec. 10. His case and lawsuit are pending and both sides are not commenting.

The Rotary district governor and the chair of the District Assembly interviewed Esquith two weeks before the conference. Duane Monick of Yakima, who is the chair, told me Esquith said no student or parent has ever filed a complaint against him and every student in this year’s class has followed him to a local private school.

Esquith has a lot to teach all of us.

Jim Russell is the incoming president of Wenatchee Rotary for 2016-17.