Rafe Esquith, who has taught at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles since 1984, inspires young students—all from a poor, immigrant community—to become extraordinary students and citizens. Esquith has won many national honors for his work, and a documentary salutes his young class' annual Shakespeare production, which takes them around the world to perform.
How does he do it? He believes that his children can learn and be the best. He teaches them life skills—from time management to how to communicate—and lures them away from television into a fascinating and engaged world of learning.
Esquith's book, "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World"(Viking Adult, 2009, $24.95) stoked my passion for teaching, even though I don't have children and the youngest student I usually have in our intern training program is 14.
Baseball makes for great metaphors, and Esquith uses it well in this book, which he divides into nine innings. He turns a field trip to a Dodgers baseball game, which the keys diligently score, as the compelling narrative thread through his lessons. Here are backpack tools he suggests in the first seven innings.
1. Teach them to respect time.
• It is essential to be on time. It means we believe we control our destiny and are responsible for our own actions.
• If left to their own devices, children will make poor choices.
• Parents and teachers should model good time management.
• Teach them to work hard, but with laughter and joy.
• Learn to respect history as well as the present and soak up wisdom from across the ages.
TIPS: Every Friday, have kids plan their own weekends, blocking in time to do things they want to do as well as homework, chores, etc. Show them the geologic clock.
FILM: John Sturges' film, "The Magnificent Seven," teaches that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
BOOKS: Thornton's Wilder's "Our Town"; Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" teach timeless lessons from other eras. Engage them in or studying and learning Shakespeare because "extraordinary children embrace arts and people and ideas from across the ages."
2. Teach them to focus.
• Extraordinary students concentrate for long periods.
• Lack of focus usually isn't a medical problem or ADHD. It's usually boredom and exacerbated for society distractions.
• Multitasking is usually a euphemism for being rude.
• Adults must model focus (do you constantly check phone?)
• Kids perform better on tests once they learn to focus and analyze all choices.
• To help a child learn to focus, get her a musical instrument, library card, sketchpad, paintbrush.
BOOKS: Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Wait Til Next Year" is about learning to score Brooklyn Dodgers' games with her dad.
TIP: Play board games like chess, checkers and backgammon where no luck is involved in winning or losing. The key is focus and strategy. Scrabble should be a weekly adventure in improving language skills.
FILM: "Searching for Bobby Fischer" will get your kid excited about playing chess.
3. TV rots their brains.
The TV Problem
"Have you noticed that the human race is divided into two distinct, irreconcilable groups? Those who walk into rooms and automatically turn television sets on, and those who walk into rooms and automatically turn them off?"
— Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate"
He didn't use that language, but he builds the case for it bluntly: "Parents, television is killing your child's potential." And: "Screens have become the common denominator for a child's failure to reach his considerable potential."
• Kids spend about seven hours a day watching TV or looking at a computer screen.
• About 70 percent of kids today have a TV in their room; those kids score seven to nine points lower on language and math tests than those who don't.
• When you choose TV, pick quality programming such as The History Channel and good dramas. Then talk about it.
TIPS: Set reasonable limits. Do not allow TV on school nights until homework is done. Be consistent with media plan. Schedule TV viewing in advance; no surfing. Keep TV, video and computer games out of the bedroom. Watch TV as a family activity, encouraging them to talk about its messages.
BOOKS: Chris Van Allsburg's "The Wretched Stones" teaches the dangers of TV. Older children will appreciate George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."
FILMS: Sidney Lumet's classic "Network" and Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" teach valuable media-literacy lessons for older kids.
4. Them to make good choices.
Children need to develop their own code of conduct, not just try to stay out of trouble. The secret of their success is learning to make good choices over and over again. Esquith suggests teaching children to consider these questions when making decisions:
- Will this choice help me achieve my goals?
- Will it hurt people I care about?
- Am I making this choice for myself (Level 6 thinking) or to please someone else? (Level 3)
- What must I sacrifice if I make this choice?
- Will my decision affect those I don't know?
- Are these financial issues to consider?
TIP: Don't sugarcoat realities of bad decisions. In fact, ensure that kids know them well.
FILM: Show kids the train scene early in "It's a Wonderful Life" where George reluctantly chooses a life of supporting his family—and then sticks to that choice through the story. High-schoolers can learn from Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" that bad decisions can precede brave ones.
READ: Esquith wants everyone to read or re-read Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" And Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" to learn about choices and the dangers of leaping before you look (or take poison in the latter case). "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" helps older students understand the need to sometimes make the right decision even if it means rejecting societal beliefs. "To Kill A Mockingbird" teaches that human must live with themselves and their own consciences.
5. Teach pride in hard work.
Esquith quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On how children should learn to approach any and all work:
If it falls your lot to sweep streets,
Sweep them like Michelangelo painted pictures,
Like Shakespeare wrote poetry,
Like Beethoven composed music.
• Don't accept poor or mediocre work as OK.
• All kids shouldn't get a trophy no matter what.
• Teach kids to observe and analyze others' work ethics.
• Teach that excellence is a way of life and expected.
• Kids should develop discriminating taste. Fine arts help.
• Take them to museums, concerts and plays.
• Don't give allowance for chores. Make the work the reward.
• Always have kids re-do poor work to higher standards.
FILMS: The 2002 film "The Rookie" and 1984's "The Karate Kid" are examples of grit and good work ethic. Older students can learn from "Saving Private Ryan"—especially Tom Hanks' advice to "earn this."
6. Teach them to reject selfishness.
Esquith: "Extraordinary children learn to see beyond themselves, but teaching empathy and selflessness is no easy task." You must teach that it's not all about them.
• Have kids work in teams with all in attendance.
• Make sure they watch each fail and sweat for excellence.
• Teach "with great power comes great responsibility."
• Model selflessness and generosity of spirit.
• Charity begins at home: Have kids help prepare dinner, set the table, clean up.
• Play the compliment game at dinner or in class: Each compliments someone else.
• Written thank-you cards are vital.
FILMS: Poitier in "Lilies of the Field" and Bogart in "Casablanca" teach selflessness.
BOOKS: Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" and Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" teaches generosity lessons.
7. Teach humility.
When you stop trying to impress, people are impressed. Thus:
• Lose the boastful "honor student" bumper students.
• Expose kids to extraordinary people who praise others.
MEDIA: Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" teaches giving with humility, as does the 1983 film "The Right Stuff," which also teaches a media-literacy lesson when Gordon Cooper tries to praise Chuck Yeager. Jewish folktale "Even Higher" by Richard Ungar is about a rabbi who gives anonymously.
Kohlberg's Levels of Moral Development
Teach kids to make decisions based on Level 6:
- I do not want to get in trouble.
- I want a reward.
- I want to please someone.
- I always follow the rules.
- I am considerate of other people.
- I have a personal code of behavior.