Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire
By M. Fontaine
Attached are excerpts of a book by a passionate and dedicated teacher who teaches in an inner-city school in Los Angeles. I think that parents and teachers alike will appreciate his observations and the lessons he shares.
Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire
The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
(New York: Viking. 2007)
In a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence, there is an exceptional public school classroom called Room 56. The fifth-graders inside are either immigrants or children of immigrants; most live in poverty and few speak English as a first language. They also play Vivaldi, perform unabridged plays by Shakespeare, and go on to attend the finest universities in the country. Rafe Esquith is the teacher who helps them achieve these accomplishments.
In this book, Esquith gives any teacher and parent the tips, techniques, exercises, innovations, and visions that have made him one of the most celebrated teachers in the world. Instead of ruling with an iron fist, Esquith asks his ten-year-old students to “be nice and work hard,” and encourages them to embrace personal codes of behavior. His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 A.M. and stay well after five; they come during vacations too. They learn to handle money with an in-class economic system. They read great literature, tackle algebra, take field trips all over the world, and play baseball and rock ‘n’ roll. Above all, the students in Room 56 are treated with respect and given license to engage in the world of ideas.
Mediocrity has no place in Room 56, and the children in it dare to defy society’s expectations. This is their story.
Prologue: Fire in the Classroom
It is a strange feeling to write this book. I am painfully aware that I am not superhuman. I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated teachers who try to make a difference. Like all real teachers, I fail constantly. I don’t get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach. Being a teacher can be painful.
For almost a quarter of a century, I have spent the majority of my time in a tiny, leaky classroom in central Los Angeles, at Hobart Elementary School. Because of a little talent and a lot of luck, I have been fortunate to receive some recognition for my work. Not a day goes by when I do not feel overwhelmed by the attention.
I doubt that any book can truly capture the Hobart Shakespeareans. However, it is certainly possible to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me grow as a teacher, parent, and person.
I don’t claim to have all the answers; at times it doesn’t feel as if I’m reaching as many students as I succeed with. I’m here only to share some of the ideas I have found useful. Some of them are just plain common sense, and others touch on insanity. But there is a method to this madness. It is my hope that some parents and teachers out there will agree with me that our culture is a disaster. In a world that considers athletes and pop stars more important than research scientists and firefighters, it has become practically impossible to develop kind and brilliant individuals. And yet we’ve created a different world in Room 56. It’s a world where character matters, hard work is respected, humility is valued, and support for one another is unconditional.
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. 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.
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. 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 proceeded. I felt (and looked) like an idiot. And yet for the first time in weeks, I felt great about being a teacher. 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.
Gimme Some Truth
Many teachers are so desperate to keep their classrooms in order that they will do anything to maintain it. This is understandable—an “end justifies the means” mentality is at the heart of many explanations of how children are handled these days. Given some of the practically impossible situations confronting teachers today, it seems reasonable.
But let’s be honest. It might be explicable. It might be effective. But it is not good teaching. We can do better.
I know this because I’ve been there. I’ve fallen into the same trap. The simple truth is that most classrooms today are managed by one thing and one thing only: fear.
The teacher is afraid: afraid of looking bad, of not being liked, of not being listened to, of losing control. The students are even more afraid: afraid of being scolded and humiliated, of looking foolish in front of peers, of getting bad grades, of facing their parents’ wrath.
This is the issue that overshadows all others in the world of education. It is the matter of classroom management.
If your class is not in order, nothing good will follow. There will be no learning. The kids will not read, write, or calculate better. Children will not improve their critical thinking. Character cannot be built. Good citizenship will not be fostered.
It’s not easy to create a classroom without fear. It can take years. But it’s worth it. Here are four things I do to ensure the class remains a place of academic excellence without resorting to fear to keep the kids in line.