MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Now, here's a book title that will catch your attention - "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire." And then in smaller print on the front cover - "The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56." The book is written by Rafe Esquith. He's the trail- blazing, fast-talking fifth grade teacher who has racked up a slew of awards for helping kids from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Esquith is no stranger to this program. A few years ago, we visited his classroom at Hobart Elementary.
RAFE ESQUITH: Everybody think of the number of justices that sit on the United States Supreme Court. Add to that the number of members of the United States Senate. Add one. Cut that number in half. Divide by 11 and show me an answer.
Anna(ph) was first with her five.
NORRIS: Rafe Esquith's school day stretches from 6:30 am to 5:00 pm. His fifth- graders are already tackling high school fare - algebra, physics, philosophy and Shakespeare. Esquith has been encouraged to leave the classroom to help other instructors adopt his methods. Not interested, he says, so he wrote what he calls a cookbook for success in an urban classroom. And that pithy title, he says it's based on a near disaster in his classroom.
ESQUITH: The story is I actually once set my hair on fire by accident in my classroom when helping a child with a chemistry experiment, and it was a day when I was really feeling discouraged about things. But this child was even feeling worse. And for some reason at that moment, all that mattered to me was the child's happiness.
And in trying to get her alcohol burner to light, I set my hair on fire and didn't even know it until the kids started screaming. But as ridiculous as that was, I actually thought if I could care so much that I didn't even know my hair was on fire, I was moving in the right direction as a teacher when I realized that you got to ignore all the crap, and it's the children that are the only thing that matter.
NORRIS: Now, you teach inside room 56 at Hobart Elementary School. Could you tell us a little bit about your students in Hobart?
ESQUITH: Sure. Hobart Elementary School is a large urban public school. We have 2,000 students there, and 92 percent of them are below the poverty level. Practically no one speaks English as a first language. But I've got a classroom at room 56 where the great majority of children go on to fabulous lives, top universities, and do very well. And they look to room 56 as the place where they turned the corner and found themselves.
NORRIS: You have an economic system that you use in your classroom, and it's fascinating. Each child in room 56 applies for a job, and then they get paid for doing that job. They can earn extra money, I guess overtime, if they join extracurricular groups, and they actually have to pay rent to sit at their desk.
ESQUITH: They sure do.
NORRIS: And what's the objective there?
ESQUITH: By the way, I should point out that if they sit closer to the front of the room, they have to pay more rent because it's a better neighborhood. The objective is this - one of the obsessions with schools these days is testing.
The economic system is giving the kids skills that they're going to be using for the rest of their lives. The real assessment of the teacher is what if have I given the child that he'll be using five years from now and 10 years from now. So learning how to take responsibility, learning how to plan a budget, learning how to save his money is something that kids are going to use forever.
As a matter of fact, you should point out that if the children save a lot of money, they can buy their seat and call it a condominium and then they never, ever have to pay rent again to teach them the principle of ownership. And the really clever kids buy other children's seats and charge them rent every month.
NORRIS: Who's the target audience? Are you writing this book for other educators so they might be inspired?
ESQUITH: It's three types of people. One are the young teachers because today, young teachers are not being mentored at all. And they're really good at it, but no one's mentoring them. People are just telling them that they're not following the district-guided rules. So I wanted to give them almost like a cookbook, some ideas that they could use to help them with their classes.
The second audience are the teachers who've been - they're really good, and they've been teaching seven or 10 years, but these days when they go to staff development, everything is geared to the first-year teacher because the turnover is so high. I can't tell you how many veteran teachers have told me, Rafe, I don't need to go to a workshop about high expectations. I have high expectations.
And the third audience, of course, are the parents, the foundation of everything. Because I know there are parents out there who are concerned with the culture of our country. And they would like their kids to be raised in a culture similar to room 56.
NORRIS: You know, but that second audience, the teachers, the way that you teach with total abandon, staying late, lying awake worrying about your kids and worrying whether or not you connected with them, is that actually a realistic model for all teachers in all schools?
ESQUITH: It isn't and your question is excellent. Now if you're a young teacher and you have to leave the campus at 3:00 because you have young children at home, you can't expect that teacher to give their arms and legs the way I do, and I don't expect them to.
But there are simple ideas in mathematics and problem solving and geography and history and baseball and art that anyone can do. That's the method section of the book. Now, the madness section of the book is for the certifiable teachers like me who want to give it all.
NORRIS: What about those students that despite your best efforts you still can't reach? They just don't seem to grasp what you're trying to teach them.
ESQUITH: It happens all the time, and it's not a painful question because it's a reality. The longer I've taught, I am able to open more doors and I am able to encourage more children and push the right button to encourage them to walk through those doors, but sometimes it doesn't happen.
And I always tell people that children are like cars in the parking lot. When you go out to the parking lot they all start with a key, but they require a different key. And the longer I teach, the more types of children I meet. Yes, I still fail all the time, but my batting average is higher than it was 10 years ago. And for every child that I fail with, it just makes me want to try harder the following year.
NORRIS: You know, your story does fit a mold that is fairly common in Hollywood cinema. We've seen a lot of stories about teachers who have done great things in urban environments. Many of those teachers have then moved on and started foundations or created Web sites. Do you feel any pull to follow that path? I mean, you could argue that you could actually teach teachers and help more students as a result.
ESQUITH: You can make the argument. And that's great for them, but it's not what I do. Actually, I do have a foundation, but the coolest part is, it was created by my former student who's now a law professor. And yes, I have a Web site for the class, but I'm not on the Web site, the students are. So, you know, great for the teachers who want Hollywood to make the movie. It's not what I do. I'm just in room 56 doing what all the other teachers do, which is the best I can everyday, and I'm more than happy staying there.
NORRIS: Rafe Esquith, it's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.
ESQUITH: I really appreciate this.
NORRIS: Rafe Esquith. His new book is called "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56." You can read an excerpt at our Web site, NPR.org.