Thursday, November 17, 2011

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire:
The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
by Rafe Esquith

When one of my colleagues at the district shared this book recently I headed off to the library to check it out. I thought the author stole my title, I've been telling people that I feel like I'm "running with my hair on fire" since I moved to a new school and a new grade, but this author really DOES teach WITH his hair on fire!!

Rafe Esquith teaches in Los Angeles in an inner city school where poverty affects 95% of his school and class (me too!) He teaches immigrant children in 5th grade and has them performing Shakespeare, Vivaldi, and algebra - around the world! Mr Esquith has been the recipient of numerous awards and has been awarded the President's National Medal of Arts. Wow!!

Mr. Esquith pours himself into his job with passion. School instruction starts for him at 6:30 am when students arrive for extra-curricular work and help. The day doesn't end until late afternoon - Shakespeare class, history and civics account for after-school hours. Yet it's this passion for teaching that engaged me from the start. Every moment was a teaching moment and I was able to spark new ideas for my classroom as I read about his. Rafe Esquith seemed to be hoping for such a thing to happen as he refers to his book as "a cookbook for teaching in an urban classroom." Now that's the way I like to cook - read about it, change up the ingredients and personalize it a little!

This book is highly readable, full of practical ideas and even parenting skills, because teachers know that a good portion of teaching is parenting too!! (Or at least teaching the parents!)

I really enjoyed the preface where Mr. Esquith commented on how he came up with the title for his book...

"I was fortunate to have a ridiculous moment in the classroom that literally lit my way out of the darkness. Years ago, feeling tired and frustrated, I spent a few weeks searching my soul and did something I rarely do—I questioned whether teaching was worth it anymore. A combination of the aforementioned demons had beaten me down, and I was practically down for the count.

But for some reason, when I was guilty of feeling sorry for myself, I spent a day paying extra attention to a kid in class whom I liked very much. She was one of those kids who always seem to be the last one picked for the team, a quiet girl who appeared to have accepted the idea that she could never be special. I was determined to convince her that she was wrong.

I was teaching a chemistry lesson, and the students were excited about working with alcohol lamps. But the girl couldn't get her wick to burn. The rest of the class wanted to move on with their projects, but I told everyone to wait. I was not going to leave her behind, even after she told me to continue with the others and not worry about her.

Normally I do not interfere with science projects, because failure can be part of the learning process. Yet this was simply a matter of faulty equipment; it had nothing to do with the chemical principle we were exploring that morning. I needed to step in. The girl had tears in her eyes, and I felt ashamed of myself for ever having felt like giving up. Suddenly her sadness was all that mattered.

Athletes often refer to getting "into the zone" when they forget about the crowd and the pressure and see only the ball. It can happen in other fields too. For that one moment, the only thing that mattered to me was that this girl should have a successful experiment. She was going to go home that day with a smile on her face. I bent closely over the wick of her alcohol lamp. For some reason the wick was not as long as it should have been—I could barely see it. I leaned as close as I could, and with a long kitchen match tried to reach it. I was so close to the match that I could feel the flame as I tried to ignite the lamp. I was determined to get the lamp working. And it started working! The wick caught fire, and I looked up triumphantly to see the smile I expected on the girl's face.

Instead, she took one look at me and began screaming in fear. Other kids started yelling as well. I did not understand why they were all pointing at me, until I realized that while I was lighting the lamp, the flame had touched my hair; it was now smoldering and scaring the hell out of the children. Several of them ran to me and swiped at my head. Talk about a dream come true—they got to hit their teacher on the head and say they were trying to help him.

A few minutes later, all was well and the experiment pro-ceeded. I felt (and looked) like an idiot. And yet for the first time in weeks, I felt great about being a teacher. I had been able to ignore the crap that all teachers on the front lines face. I had done everything I could to help someone. I didn't do it particularly well, but the effort was there. I thought to myself that if I could care so much about teaching that I didn't even realize my hair was burning, I was moving in the right direction. From that moment, I resolved to always teach like my hair was on fire."

Inspiration. Ideas. Encouragement. I liked it so much I went out and bought my own copy!

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