When you imagine a book described as “passion-filled” you might picture something by the likes of Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts – not a measly little paperback that’s barely over 200 pages. You’d see a nice fat, juicy tome, glossy cover graced by a single rose blossom, or even the old standby image of a stud of a man gripping a busty frightened woman. You wouldn’t think of an average teacher surrounded by grinning kids of all ethnicities.
But here it is, this small unassuming book that found its way on the New York Times bestseller list, a story about Rafe Esquith’s 20-plus year tenure in a fifth grade classroom in central Los Angeles. During this time, he’s managed to teach not only teach the basics to his mostly ESL students, he has taught them to read and perform Shakespeare, play classical music, and to excel in school for the sheer joy of learning.
One way he managed to do this is by teaching Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development, a theory that is typically taught in high school and college psychology or philosophy classes. Sophisticated stuff for 11-year-old children. But he’s made it work.
At the start of the school year, Esquith tells his class what to strive for, to move beyond following classroom rules to avoid getting into trouble, and apply those rules across all aspects of their life because it’s the right thing to do. He uses examples from classics in literature and films like To Kill a Mockingbird, High Noon, A Separate Peace, Death of a Salesman, and The Shawshank Redemption to inspire his students.
But sometimes the best intentions of Esquith and other excellent teachers are compromised by the ‘best intentions’ of a state education bureaucracy. He cites an example using a timeline from 1982 to 2004 that chronicles the gradual deterioration of his school’s writing curriculum. It begins with a fantastic district-sanctioned Young Authors Program (each student writes and illustrates their own book during the course of a school year), and wonderful new grammar books – and ends with an abundance of standardized testing including:
“They will write about a topic that bores them silly. It will take two days to complete. The teacher in charge of distributing the tests has my exams delivered to our classroom. They come with the following note from the teacher: Hear our you’re exams, Rafe. Their due Friday.”
This would be funny if it werent' so darn pathetic.
I can only imagine that Esquith and his fellow teachers sustained some nasty bruises after banging their heads against the chalkboard in frustration. But despite these obstacles, he continually manages to be a significant influence on these children’s successes, both academic and personal. He does freely admit his countless mistakes though, which helps paint the picture of a man who, with all the humility in the world, spreads the important message to educators and parents – we can do better.