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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56

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Read Rafe Esquith's posts on the Penguin Blog.

From one of America’s most celebrated educators, an inspiring guide to transforming every child’s education

In a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs, and drugs, there is an exceptional classroom known as Room 56. The fifth graders inside are first-generation immigrants who live in poverty and speak English as a second language. They also play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare, score in the top 1 percent on standardized tests, and go on to attend Ivy League universities. Rafe Esquith is the teacher responsible for these accomplishments. From the man whom The New York Times calls “a genius and a saint” comes a revelatory program for educating today’s youth. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! , Rafe Esquith reveals the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. The two mottoes in Esquith’s classroom are “Be Nice, Work Hard,” and “There Are No Shortcuts.” His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 in the morning and work until 5:00 in the afternoon. They learn to handle money responsibly, tackle algebra, and travel the country to study history. They pair Hamlet with rock and roll, and read the American classics. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! is a brilliant and inspiring road map for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about the future success of our nation’s children.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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Rafe Esquith

6 books100 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 806 reviews
Profile Image for Sarah.
233 reviews
September 9, 2007
I really wanted to like this book. At the roots, he means well, and does some amazing things with his kids. Things that should be applauded. However, his tone, shameless self-promotion, and absence of the humility he insists he imparts on his kids were hard for me to get past.
Profile Image for MsAprilVincent.
534 reviews73 followers
September 7, 2008
Though this is about an elementary school teacher, there are a few strategies that are applicable to high school teachers as well.

And now it's time for a rant.

I'm sure the author is a great teacher and his kids learn a lot from him.

But--and this is very important--this is yet another book which describes a teacher as a saint, with sanctified kids, who sacrifices his entire life for his students.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing, and certainly Rafe Esquith seems to have done something right in his school. However, I resent the implication (one so often used in both books and movies about inspirational teachers) that a teacher's life begins and ends in his classroom.

How about a little moderation?

Sure, I can be devoted to my students and teach them to the best of my ability and inspire them to be all they can be. But I shouldn't be made to feel guilty because I want to have a personal life too.

In addition, I don't actually live in a community in which every student is invested in his education. This is yet another book in which the kids JUST CAN'T WAIT for school to start, and they get there early and stay late and work beyond their grade level and blahblahblah.

That is not a brand of student I am familiar with. Where are MY industrious little bunnies who want to read Shakespeare or write ten page essays or diagram sentences JUST BECAUSE?? I could be the best teacher in the world, too, if I didn't have to spend half my class time waking kids up or telling them to pick up their social lives after class or repeating the page number of the book 547 times.

I guess what I'm saying is ... this is a book for pre-teachers and college professors who've never been in a real classroom. Teachers in the trenches will read this and question its practical application.

Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
April 25, 2019
I see Rafe has a new book out. Reading this one years ago was enough for me, thank you. Wildly unrealistic and self-promotional.

Actually, non-teachers might LOVE this book. The guy cares, he really does. But if you're in the trenches reading his neatly-titled book, you're left thinking something like this (my review when I first read it):

Rafe Esquith's Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire is aimed at teachers and parents, but the parent part is mostly lip service -- this is mainly a book for teachers. If you're interested in this "teacher of the year's" methods, this book may be worth a look. It is less so if you teach a particular subject, as the book is better suited to elementary teachers who are generalists and teach English, math, social studies, science, art, music, and gym (to name a few) because he devotes an entire chapter to each. High school and middle school teachers will find less of interest here.

OK, so what is it you're looking for from a book like this? If you're more in it for Rafe's STORY and for what goes on in his classroom, have a ball. If you're more in it for selfish reasons -- that is, methods you might emulate yourself in the classroom, proceed with care.

There's no denying the book contains some useful advice and methods, but it also devotes much attention to matters beyond the realm and finances of most teachers -- full-play productions of Shakespeare, field trips that involve airplane flights (not buses) cross country, film festivals and book clubs held after school or at 6:30 in the morning. Clearly this is a devoted man and, by comparison, some teachers may feel depressed by all he pulls off (while still maintaining a life of his own -- if he has one outside of the classroom).

Highlights for me were the Six Levels (in which Rafe explains wrong reasons and right reasons that kids obey their teachers), the well-thought out attack on standardized testing (the bane of any school), and the overall iconoclastic tone. Also, a few of his ideas were illuminating. True, there were not a lot of practical ideas for the classroom, but there were some and some are bound to be of use for teacher/readers.

If I taught elementary grades, I'd invest in this book and add it to my professional library (go ahead, set the bar high for yourself). If I taught junior or high school (or were simply a parent interested in education), I'd check it out at the library and pick the chapters that best suited my interests.

In any case, the bottom line is this: we should all be grateful for teachers like Rafe Esquith, but most teachers have no hope of emulating his methods because they lack the time, the finances, or the leeway....
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,700 reviews42 followers
July 26, 2013
You know those students who, when studying, highlight nearly every sentence in the textbook? Well, that's how I was with Rafe Esquith's outstanding teaching book. I set out to flag the pages containing suggestions I found particularly helpful and quickly ended up abandoning that idea when I realized I would do far better flagging the pages that weren't pertinent. Especially of interest to me was his method of discipline, the area I find most difficult. The discipline methods I have researched run the gamut from "Don't let them see you smile until December," to token economies to the touchy-feely "Let's draft up a classroom constitution together!" None of these has ever struck me as fitting my style or philosophy of teaching. Esquith instructs his students by employing Kohlberg's six stages of moral development. Eureka! Finally, something I can imagine myself using and, moreover, something that actually might work. Esquith is truly remarkable. His students learn not only the basics but art, drama, music, sports, and community service to boot. Every year he takes the class on several trips to places such as Washington D.C., the Ashland Shakespearean Festival, and Disneyland. All year long they delve into one of Shakespeare's plays culminating in a music and dance filled performance each April. Esquith is certainly a commendable teacher though I am not quite selfless enough to open my classroom doors at 6:30 a.m., stay until after 5:00 at night, and forgo my lunch periods and weekends. (I do not know how this man manages to have a family.) Unlike most teachers who have published novels (i.e. Ron Clark, Esme Raji Codell, LouAnne Johnson, etc.) Esquith has not abandoned his students for the speaking circuit. He remains in the classroom, in a very unglamorous crime and poverty stricken area of Los Angeles.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,136 reviews
April 2, 2015
This was pretty much a There Are No Shortcuts Part II...which I certainly welcomed, and Esquith goes into more detail about his unique and exhausting teaching methods. My only hesitation after reading the two books and watching The Hobart Shakespeareans is that he, at times, makes petty comments about his colleagues who fail where he succeeds. He seems to want to give his students this "I'm the only person who will care about you" mentality. Maybe it's just me (I'm often prone to conspiracy theory interpretations)--I can see where this may come from, but it seems like he could be a bit more diplomatic, rise above it a little better than the people he appears to put down. Looking past this, Esquith's efforts nevertheless prove as an example of how creative the classroom can be if we, as teachers, are willing to take it there.
Profile Image for mstan.
628 reviews10 followers
February 19, 2012
Rafe Esquith is obviously a wonderful teacher. He teaches his 10/11-year-olds ALL subjects (kind of like how primary school teachers do it in Singapore), including Physical Education, Art, Science, and even Shakespeare (a subject unto himself). While preparing them for standardised tests, he avoids 'teaching to the test' too much by integrating lesson objectives in an inter-disciplinary manner, and gets students to be exam-smart by anticipating which options would be set as distractors on multiple choice questions. He teaches his students to go up the scale of moral development by emphasising good manners, and keeping them to high standards all the time. He is dedicated, even going to the extent of forking out his own money for supplies and events.

Yet, something about him kind of feels... wrong. I don't know if it's because the U.S. school system is so messed up, but he distrusts school administration/administrators and even his colleagues so much that he strikes me as a pretty arrogant 'lone ranger'/martyr-type. E.g. he says he asks students' parents for donations, but stresses that this must be kept ABSOLUTELY secret because otherwise, the evil people up there would shut this practice down. These things also seem unforgivable to me:

1) Once, his colleague wrote him a nasty note. He took it to class and had the students dissect the grammar/construction of that note.

2) He puts down a teacher in his school he dubs 'Miss Popular' by transcribing a long conversation between him and Miss P's student, who doesn't seem to have absorbed what Miss P has taught.

What on earth?! Surely an advocate of ethical behaviour and humility should practise what he preaches and focus on the positive learning points he wants to impart to enthusiastic teachers, not put down others to make himself seem better.

Also, where is the mention of Esquith scaling up his wonderful methods to more classes in his school, or even the whole school, so that MORE children can benefit? The title of the book is telling - Room 56 has no doubt had a significant impact on hundreds, if not thousands of students. But has Esquith styled himself so much as a 'doorkeeper'/'guardian', building up a siege mentality in this room, so much that the keys to his success remain firmly in his hand? Yes, he has written a book, but direct mentorship of other teachers, collaboration with colleagues and the contribution to the fostering of a positive culture in school should come first. Indeed, Esquith described staff meetings as being worse than 'thumbscrews and the rack' - not once but twice - in his book. What kind of message would that send to educators who are trying to work together to benefit students? (Not to mention the message this would send to students who would grow up to go through some painful but necessary procedures in their workplace - is he trying to cultivate some 'holier-than-thou' attitude??)

I still gave this three stars because Esquith's methods are useful, and he offers a wide range of them across a variety of disciplines (though they are really more suited for elementary school teachers than those who teach high school). I give him props for his passion and commitment. But I don't appreciate being told that I should put down other teachers constantly to figure out what not to do in the classroom. Another concern I have with the level of dedication he advocates is, it will cause a teacher to burn out really quickly. I agree that we must be willing to give our students time, but it must be high-quality time, and leave room for the teacher to reflect on how to teach better. I don't like this "I come in earlier than anyone and leave later than anyone, so I am great" attitude... I don't think just putting in A LOT of time going through work with students is so straightforward or direct a way of assisting them. In fact, it may create over-dependency. But maybe I am speaking from the perspective of someone who comes from a hyper-competitive Asian society - if American students demonstrate willingness to come in earlier and leave later, that may be rarer and deserve encouragement.
Profile Image for Ryan Adams.
24 reviews
January 28, 2008
Teacher books are either, how to books that include lesson plans, methods, etc. or "inspirational" books about how a teacher succeeded in tough situations. This is a combination of both I feel. On the positive, it is not as dry as most methods books, and not as sappy as most inspirational books. The problem though is because it is a hybrid, I feel it doesn't cover nearly enough of either section. I love many of his concepts though, and to take this as a book that gives you a better idea of how to approach your class (i.e. fear is NOT your friend, excellent point) instead of a straight how to, then this is a great read. It is also quick, you can devour it in a day.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,317 reviews34 followers
November 3, 2011
2.5 stars. This book was really inspiring...for 3/4 of the book. But as Esquith continues to describe all of the areas in which his students excel and all of the things he does to help them, it started to sound much too good to be true. How can one man help his students to excel in so many areas; how does he have the time and energy and money to do it all?

He arrives early to teach problem solving lessons; teaches math, reading, science, art, music, physical education, and history pretty much every day; leads the students in year-long preparation to put on a work of Shakespeare; helps 10 year old students learn to read music, play a variety of instruments, and sound like professional musicians; stays after school to provide extra help; leads a film club during lunch; takes groups of students on trips all around the country; sets up community service projects during Christmas; and teaches special lessons on holidays.

I'm not saying I think he's a fraud, but I can't help but be a little incredulous as to how this is all possible!
Profile Image for Aimée.
177 reviews1 follower
January 3, 2010
Man. I wish we all had the monetary means to be as awesome a teacher as this guy is. Didn't anyone else find that this book was totally unreasonable, especially for Catholic school teachers? I barely make enough money to pay my mortgage and bills, so if I took on 4 extra jobs, it would not be to take my whole class across the country. It would be to pay off my car note or my credit card, or to go back to school to finish my master's, or to start a family.

I feel like this book was written to make me feel like an inadequate teacher. Nyah nyah, I buy my kids stuff and go in earlier and give give give of myself physically, monetarily, emotionally...

Didn't anyone catch that he has a wife and at least one kid? He doesn't address how he fits them into his 12-hour work-days. Yeah, it's good to help the less fortunate...but what about the ones you're possibly neglecting at home? I had to stay at school for that long yesterday, because I had morning duty, a full day of classes (including a spirit points kick-off assembly, a committee on which I serve and helped form, and to which I give tons of time), conduct play rehearsals, and have parent-teacher conferences after the rehearsals, and I have a husband but no children. I felt as though I neglected him, which was not fair, and that was only one night.

Also, as a high school teacher, I have either 50 minutes or 90 minutes each day to attempt anything with learning different children. Plan a lesson that takes 1 class in a regular classroom setting, and it will take them 3 days to finish the first part. All of his wonderful things (funded by his own money), can't really translate into my classroom. God I wish it could. But his things that take 6 weeks to do would take an entire semester with my students. I'm not complaining...just adding to why I didn't care for this book. I love my kids, my job, and the extra time I put in (including setting up fundraisers to help students pay for their trips either across the country or around the world, as opposed to working extra jobs to buy supplies).

I guess this book was his application for canonization. Hail Rafe, full of grace...
Profile Image for Kt..
150 reviews
February 28, 2008
This is an incredibly inspiring book for parents and teachers who want to bring out the best in their charges. I have to admit that my awe is tinged with just a bit of cynicism however. In "twenty-odd" years (times 30+ kids) of teaching, Rafe has "never" had a discipline problem? The implication is that someone who does have discipline problems is doing something wrong -- or more precisely isn't doing something right. That may be true in most cases but unless Rafe is Midas is a gravel pit, there have to be some kids who don't respond perfectly to even his admittedly top notch teaching style. Also, I'd like to know how many hours are in Rafe's (not to mention his students') day. He begins teaching an hour and a half before school starts and ends when the sun goes down -- and that's not when he's taking them to DisneyLand, New York, Chicago, or Oregon. His students practice music, poetry, and baseball in their "free" time. He is awe-inspiring but I guess I'd like a peek at the mechanics of how he fits it all in. But read it yourself and decide. It's DEFINITELY worth reading and thinking about.
Profile Image for MacK.
609 reviews200 followers
March 17, 2017
Let me be absolutely clear: Rafe Esquith clearly is a marvelous teacher. He seems to be a transformative, inspiring motivator of young minds who crafts lessons like an artists and expects his students to bring their best selves to every part of their day. The title isn't about passion, it's about dedication, shrugging off minor inconveniences (like a singed scalp) for the sake of students. There are many fine lessons to take from the book, and I'm glad to have read it.

However, I'm not reviewing Esquith's teaching, I'm reviewing his writing in this book. And Esquith's writing suffers, terribly, from a martyr complex. Amongst his cheery, gung ho, rallying cry for great education for all, He offers snide slaps at well intentioned but ineffective teachers. By belittling colleagues without any sense of how to support others (and in doing so, MORE KIDS) he undercuts his own message to teachers. I think, no matter how much I want to grow, or sought his guidance, if we shared a building, he would ignore or dismiss me as a colleague. He bemoans staff meetings as though they were a grisly he'll rather than a part of structuring any organization.

He consistently hurls "Orwellian" at administrators and those offering professional development. While I've had my share of clunkers in both departments, I see no need to ascribe malice or machinations to their efforts. Worst of all, I'm at a loss to understand how any teacher, especially one as inspirational as Esquith, blithely dismiss an opportunity to learn (even from other adults, even in a staff meeting). If you believe you have nothing left to learn, maybe you don't need to be in a classroom.

I'm glad I read this book. I feel inspired to try, to strive, to be the best teacher I can be. I just wish the style lost some of the martyrdom and let me see it for what is being discussed, not who is discussing it.
33 reviews2 followers
March 17, 2017
"I trust my students. It's everyone else I don't trust." Over and over and over.
Profile Image for Julie Ruble.
69 reviews48 followers
August 22, 2008
Rafe Esquith is doing a great job and I appreciate his work. His teaching is effective, but this book isn't!

Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire is very, very lightweight. As in, there is very little useful content for me whatsoever. I guess I've been reading teaching books lately that are PACKED with impressive experience and wisdom, and this seems more like Esquith just trying to put out another book but not wanting to get too involved in the writing of one. Sometimes this book seems like it was tossed together as a context for a few carefully situated product placements! Seriously.

I strongly agree with the reviewer who notes that some teaching books are inspirational and some detail methodology, and this book tries to straddle the fence, failing to give enough of either side.

The book is loosely divided into sections of a primary classroom: English, Math, History, Science, Art, Phys Ed, etc. In each chapter Esquith will mention a couple of tricks or games he does with the students -- definitely nothing incredible, in my opinion -- and then throw in a website or product he uses that you should buy (so far, number tiles, a national parks booklet, a Science kit, a poster, etc.).

As I mentioned, his hints don't seem that groundbreaking: do hands-on things in Science. Play a math game (similar to Around the World) called Buzz. Show students films. Play historic speeches for students. Play audiobooks for students and add commentary. He describes a few of his art projects.

Redeeming features so far:
-He discusses of the six levels of morality, which I am excited to use with my students.
-He discusses during the Art chapter about how important and team-building / culture-enhancing it can be for students to embark on challenging, long-term projects together.
-He makes everything, even Phys Ed, purposeful: have well-prepared plans, keep track of student achievement, and do specific things to increase achievement (all teachers should be doing this, but surprisingly few in my experience are really data-driven).
-He teaches kids specific problem solving ideas.

If you ask me, the key to Rafe Esquith's success boils down to two things: creating a great classroom culture and HIGH EXPECTATIONS. I think this book tries to imply that his actual content and techniques are impressive, but so far they don't seem to be. And actually, the more I read this book the more I'm convinced his culture relies on an "Us vs. THE WORLD" mentality, asking his students for horrible teacher stories, talking about how lame other classes are, making fun of the way the school (and outside world) runs, making his students feel like they're on a special elite team together and everyone else is slacking off. Fine, but if that's how you manage your class, what may be the cost? The students' respect for all other teachers?

Apart from all of this, as other reviewers have noted, Esquith is QUITE self-congratulatory despite all the remarks he makes about being "ordinary." He doesn't hesitate to make snide remarks about his fellow teachers (who sometimes deserve it, admittedly). One example is how he criticizes others for not bringing their classes out to recess and posits unflattering reasons why they don't (maybe they're punishing their classes, maybe they're punishing classes for something only ONE student did! Gasp!). Another great example is when he literally makes a list of the things a "friend" of his (not anymore!) does wrong with his students when taking them to Disneyland and a corresponding list of ways he did an incredible job taking his own students there. I LOLed.

There Are No Shortcuts is a better read, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Sara.
87 reviews3 followers
December 31, 2021
While I can admire his desire to reach his students and spend the time required to do so, I thought his tone was self congratulatory, smug, and condescending. I agree that teaching is definitely not an 8-4 Monday-Friday job; if that is all you are willing to put in as a teacher, you probably aren't getting everything done and reaching as many students as you could be. But, I also feel that teachers, as anyone else, have a right to a personal life and that having a balance between work and life is essential to be successful in any profession.

Esquith teaches in a school with a high poverty rate, many single parent homes, kids who come home to empty houses, etc. As I was reading, I kept feeling frustrated that he was, in my eyes, ignoring his own family to be at school. Of course, we don't hear his family's perspective, so I could be wrong, but spending 12 hours a day 6 days a week and then traveling the country with his students in his off time doesn't leave much time for his own family. He also writes about the fact that he takes his weekly essays and monthly book reports home to grade over the weekend with detailed comments and suggestions. Again, that is something that good teachers will have to do on occasion, but it takes more time from his family.

Throughout the book, I was waiting for him to mention some kind of discipline problems, issues with students who don't get with the program and jump on board to spending 72 hours a week at school, but they only get a cursory line here and there. I find it hard to believe that even with all of his amazing tactics, all students rise to Level XI and are constantly putting others first and thinking before they act so as not disturb others. His smug attitude also translated to his colleagues, most mentions of them seemed to be about how they were lazy and ineffectual. Even though he doesn't mention names, I would think that he isn't rising the Level XI in his own moral development by badmouthing the people he works with seemingly because they don't choose to sacrifice their whole lives to the classroom. Yes, there are poor teachers who use movies to babysit, teach to the test, help kids cheat on standardized tests, etc. but in my experience, they are few and far between.

Overall, I can see that he is clearly passionate about his career and I'm sure he has touched many lives and encouraged students to reach for the stars. I'm sure he has many success stories, but it might have been interesting to hear about some of the ones that weren't so successful. The fact is, even the best teachers have bad days, days when the plans don't go as planned, or times when life interferes and there are no plans and you have to wing it. Hearing some of that would have made all the 'I'm not a great teacher, but I work hard' rhetoric a little easier to swallow.
August 18, 2010
I read this book because I was required to by my school. So it's possible I may have started it with a slightly negative attitude. Additionally, I'm not 100% sure what I was intended (by my administration) to take away from this book. Am I supposed to be getting great ideas to use in the classroom? Because there really are some fun games and effective procedures to be found here. Or is it instead, as I more strongly suspect, meant to convey the message of, "See all the wonderful things you could accomplish if you were just more dedicated?"

So I admit I have issues that keep me from making this anything close to objective.

That said, I have some problems that I *think* are not motivated by my issues. Esquith's tone seems a bit self-aggrandizing and patronizing at times. I was completely turned off by the supposedly humorous story about how he took an irate note from a colleague and had his kids grade it for composition. Come on, that's not professional. Even if you don't use the name, you're still poking fun at a colleague. And then there are the little snippets of dialogue where he evidences the superiority of his program by sharing some other teacher or administrator's clueless questions, that we are presumably supposed to join him in chuckling over. ("Are you going to do the same play next year?" "Why, no, I think we'll do something else incredibly challenging." "But how will you match this year's music to your next mind-blowing endeavor?" "Oh ha ha ha! We will perform DIFFERENT music.")

But I'm sure it's really hard to write a book where people want you to talk about and explain your undeniably impressive accomplishments without sounding like you're blowing your own horn a bit. It is a catch-22 to be a humble person asked to perform a task intrinsically prideful.

This is not really a bad book. However, it is pretty much like any other teacher-as-hero book or movie, where the teacher succeeds against all odds through a combination of righteous fortitude, love, real caring, perseverance, and a willingness to give up any semblance of a personal life.
Profile Image for Adam Balshan.
539 reviews13 followers
April 26, 2019
5 stars [Education]
This is the best book on teaching a comprehensive curriculum that I have ever encountered. Every chapter is innovative, uncommon wisdom. There is something for teachers of almost every subject here.

Esquith appears to be one of the best teachers of our age; he vies for excellence in everything he does, to include increasingly diluted or ignored programs such as art, music, science and math.

I do not understand the criticisms of other reviewers when they point out things which the author has already accounted for, such as the students and teacher supposedly being saints (he says they're not), concerning humility (which he has, even though some of it is false modesty), of his methods not being universally applicable (he admits as much and encourages adaptation), and the story of their classroom being "too good to be true" (it is true, and his relationship with famous Shakespearean actors is proof of it).

I have only two criticisms of the book. First, he didn't have the courage to address the subject of comparative religion. He seemed to avoid the subject, when it made sense to at least mention it. He is a public school teacher, so his allowable opinions on controversial subjects (and the truth of them) are of course heavily restricted. Despite this restriction, Esquith does villify the existing bureaucracy. Ignoring a cursory exploration of the subject makes for an incomplete education, as is thoroughly explained in Hirsh's great work, Cultural Literacy. Second, there is no mention of foreign languages, which are arguably more essential to a complete education than the electric guitar Esquith is so fond of.
Profile Image for Eleanor.
126 reviews35 followers
August 24, 2014
I read this book because I recently began working with the kids in this program and I could not believe how polite, prepared, respectful and kind these children were. I was told repeatedly before I began that I would love the kids and that they would work very hard for me. Okay, I thought, I think I know what most urban public school kids are like, so it seems like a bit of an exaggeration. I don't think I would believe the kids described in this book were real unless I had seen them myself. After my first day of work with these kids I just kept thinking to myself "How?? How do you teach so that the kids turn out like this? HOW???" They are a teacher's dream. They're more respectful than most adults I know, focus with their undivided attention, they're kind and committed. HOW DO YOU TEACH LIKE THIS?!

After this first day of teaching I did a little research. Their program is, as it turns out, somewhat famous. They are the Hobart Shakespeareans and all students in the classroom and/or program of Rafe Esquith. Esquith, as it turns out, is world renowned as a teacher. He's written four critically-acclaimed books on the subject of teaching (this book being the most popular), is the only teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of the Arts, has been honored by Oprah, the Dali Lama, the Royal Shakespeare company, and on and on and on. What is his secret?!

It's all in here: his philosophy of teaching within an environment of trust rather than fear, teaching his students Lawrence Kohlberg's six stages of moral development and teaching each subject (math, history, grammar, problem solving, literature, economics, art, music and oh yeah SHAKESPEARE) with an enthusiasm that you would usually expect of one teacher of one subject to have, not one teacher of all subjects. He takes an enormous amount of pride in his students' ability to devour and absorb each subject with abandon. It's clear that he also cares intensely for all of his students and their development into knowledgeable, moral human beings.

I saw some criticism of his book before I had read it and was specifically tuned in to try to detect anything that seemed amiss. My impression of the things other readers criticized - the fact that he occasionally criticizes administrators and other teachers - was ultimately one of compassion for the reader who is probably a teacher or parent. It's compassionate to share stories of conflict with others in the field because it's helpful to hear that if that's something you're struggling with, hey, you're not alone! Other criticisms seemed similarly unfounded - I didn't find his tone unduly proud. He's good at what he does and pride in one's own work is not wrong. I noticed another trend among critics of this book: there seem to be teachers who read this and simply feel inadequate for not even coming close to what this amazing teacher does. I hardly think most teachers could live up to the standards set by Rafe Esquith. But rather than feel put down by this fact, why not feel inspired? It's not a competition!

I would recommend this to any teacher.
Profile Image for Rick Davis.
834 reviews105 followers
April 27, 2018
Rafe Esquith sounds like a great teacher. In ways he reminds me of all the great teachers I had when I was in school. (In fact one of the teachers who strongly influenced me in high school wrote an editorial some years back that I'm sure Esquith would like.) However, his book is more a book about Rafe Esquith than it is about education.

There are some helpful ideas and principles in this book, but on the whole the book is long on methods and short on principles. It's lacking a single, clear philosophy of education. Now, to be fair, the public schools lack a philosophy of education as well, which is why public school kids are continually subjected to the newest, shiniest educational novelties du jour. In this sense, Esquith's students are far better off than their peers, as he works hard to instill good work ethic and ideals in them.

The bottom line though is that Esquith's methods are his own. They aren't reasonably replicable by other teachers. At least they aren't replicable by teachers with families. As a teacher, my family can attest that it's not a 9 to 5 job. However in Esquith's case, he opens his classroom 2 hours before the beginning of the school day for his students to show up, he stays late many days for other extracurricular work, and he comes in on Saturdays with his students as well. Boundaries, man. You're their teacher, not their parent; you're in loco parentis not parentis. On an unrelated note, it also makes me cringe when a teacher asks his students to call him by his first name.

Overall, this is not a bad book per se, but it's going to take some work to find application from it. It's mostly about Esquith's personal methods that he has developed by trial and error over the years, and thus doesn't articulate a single, unifying vision for education.
Profile Image for Jillian.
1,120 reviews15 followers
January 17, 2009
Rafe Esqith is without question a phenomenal teacher. He also clearly _knows_ that he's a phenomenal teacher, but honestly if my students were amazing enough to get the attention of Sir Ian McKellan and Michael York I'd be tooting my horn and their horn all over the place too.
I'm not sure how much of Rafe's advice I'd be able to apply to my own teaching, first because he's an elementary school teacher (I've seen a lot of high school students that would be way too jaded for some of his projects and his environment of trust speeches) and second because what he suggests seems so idealistic and impossible. Yet apparently he does it, which is amazing. He helps mold his fifth graders into incredible human beings and commits a ton of time and money so that they can learn a great deal and also have incredible experiences: taking field trips, creating elaborate art projects, playing in a rock band, and putting on full length Shakespeare productions. I don't know how he does it all. I was shocked to discover that he has a wife - where on earth does he find any time for her? Or for a life outside school at all? It's not all sunshine and rainbows: Rafe does a good deal of railing against his administration, standardized testing, and the public school system. But he retains an optimistic outlook and incredible expectations for himself and his students. Even though his work is as baffling as it is inspiring I have to tip my hat to Rafe for setting the bar so high.
Profile Image for Elise Jensen.
180 reviews16 followers
July 15, 2009
At first I was incredibly ambivalent about this book. I was inspired by the brilliant ideas this man has about teaching and moved by his demonstration that it's possible dramatically change lives for the better. However, I was turned off by what seemed an excessively self-congratulatory tone to the writing. All the ideas seemed wrapped up in a "look-how-awesome-I-am" voice that I found hard to stomach.

However, a cursory web search on Mr. Esquith turned up videos of him in lectures and interviews and, on seeing him in motion, I found him to have none of the abrasive pomp that irritated me so much in the book. He's clearly proud of what he does, but not in a way that's offensive. Indeed, given the proven results of his work, he has every right to be proud.

I mention the irritation at the tone of the book, because if anyone else feels the same way as they read it, I would encourage them to look for some of the videos and see if that doesn't make them feel better.

As a college student currently on track to become a teacher, my hat's off to Mr. Esquith. Way to fight the good fight.
Profile Image for Kate.
125 reviews168 followers
November 26, 2008
Geez, I don't quite know what to say about this book. It was inspiring, interesting, and entertaining, but it made me feel kind of bad about myself. I wish that I could be as awesome as this teacher, but I think I might be too selfish. I just don't see myself getting to school at 6:30 a.m. and staying until well after dinner time. I like to think that when I start teaching I'll be dedicated to my students but it's hard to believe that I'll be as dedicated as this guy.

The book did make me think about ways to incorporate things that might not be in the curriculum into the classroom, though I know that I won't be able to do that as soon as I start teaching. Rafe Esquith has been teaching in the same school for over 20 years and is celebrated nationally as a great teacher, which he is, but that means that he has more freedom than a lot of teachers to to buck the system without being fired. But maybe there's a way to do some of these things more on the down low in smaller ways. Damn the man!
Profile Image for Carmel.
997 reviews15 followers
July 25, 2018
Meh. Another book written by a teacher who has won accolades from overwork. His classroom sounds AMAZING and I’m so glad that there’s a handful of kids in the LA area who get to benefit from his energy and experience.

But should we really be celebrating and awarding a teacher who spends 12+ hours in the classroom? Maybe. I understand that many urban kids don’t have a house, their own bed, three square meals, sober parents, loving adults in their lives. And Rafe provides a safe space, guidance from a loving adult, and healthy challenges. So it IS necessary, but really only because teachers have come to wear so many hats and our social system is failing our kids in so many ways.

I digress. Rafe’s book had a handful of nuggets that I could take away, including some
ice breaker/learning games. Overall, however, it is more beneficial for the elementary education teacher (dealing with teaching various areas, incorporating learning across subjects).

Definitely a must-read for fifth grade teachers. Everyone else... meh.
Profile Image for Lisa Muller.
37 reviews26 followers
September 14, 2007
Anyone who is involved in the education process or who wants to step into the world of truly excellent teaching should pick up Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire by Rafe Esquith. Mr. Esquith teaches in inner-city Los Angeles and is the leader of the famous Hobart Shakespeareans. I had heard a spot on them on NPR not too long ago, and I was pleased to receive this book for Valentine's Day from my husband. If anyone believes that one person cannot truly make a difference in this world, please read this book. It takes hard work and serious dedication, but teachers all across the country are daily making a difference in the lives of children. Mr. Esquith does not sugar coat the reality of the fact that there are bad teachers, and, oh yes, to my disappointment, bad administrators out there. He’s pretty blunt in his criticisms. But he shows what a difference high expectations, consistency, and trust can make in a classroom.
226 reviews44 followers
March 6, 2009
"We parents and teachers must remember that despite the state of our culture, it is still possible to develop lifelong readers." Rafe is a unique teacher with a unique approach to reaching students. His story about how he was in the "teaching zone" when his hair caught on fire while he was helping a student with a science experiment goes to show just how passionate he is about teaching. An important message I felt he got across was that the teaching "standards" teachers are forced to use in the classroom somehow left out the basic PASSION FOR READING AND LEARNING! And if our students aren't passionate about learning, then we've failed them no matter what their scores are on standardized tests! As Rafe says, "Reading is not a subject. It is a foundation for life!" Any teachers, no matter how motivated or disillusioned, will benefit from Rafe's commentary on the state of education and tips for teaching.
Profile Image for Alex Valencic.
156 reviews4 followers
December 28, 2014
Okay, so I finished reading "Teach Like Your Hair Is on Fire" and I was left feeling very dissatisfied with much of it. I know I have colleagues who love this book and who love Rafe Esquith's other books. I read an excerpt from Real Talk for Real Teachers and I really want to read it. I think my biggest issues with TLYHIoF, though, are first and foremost the complete and utter disdain Rafe has for administrators and his frequent suggestions to sneakily go behind their backs in order to do any "real" teaching and second of all the way he tosses out recommendations to buy things ALL. THE. TIME. as if having the nicest "stuff" in the classroom is all that is needed to keep kids engaged. Other major beefs include his condescending tone toward other educators who don't do things his way and the related tone of his way is the best way, even though he says it isn't.

There was one single section that I really, really, really loved, though, and will be working on implementing this semester: planning in advance for class trips. We are taking our fourth graders to Springfield once again this year and I really want them to be truly prepared. We will learn about the State Capitol before going, explore the exhibits in the museums online, and make plans for exhibits to view and questions to ask.

But overall? I don't think this one is going to find a permanent home on my shelf. But I DO want to read his other books, especially "Real Talk for Real Teachers" and "Lighting Their Fires."
Profile Image for Jamal Ahamad.
97 reviews4 followers
June 22, 2017
I'm beyond grateful that someone like Rafe Esquith exists. He is proof that teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students and enjoy themselves while doing so. By including the Six Levels of Moral Development alongside brief stories of his teaching experience, Esquith had me hooked by revealing that my approach to education needed some work. Yes, I enjoy learning. Yes, I enjoy working with kids. However, those two things won't be enough when, as Esquith's wife put it, "things go wrong." Reading this book confirmed for me what I already knew: you have to be in teaching for more than yourself-- you have to be dramatically committed to the kids you serve by being "the people we want our children to become" if you want them to fully embrace the power of education. Doing so takes work... a lot of work... especially if you want to be good at it, and, man, do I want to be good! Without giving too much away, this is just what I needed to amp myself up for the upcoming school year.

Favorite Line:

There will probably be students who do not meet the standard you have set. However, there are always young people who rise to levels you couldn't have imagined when you first met them.
Profile Image for Christine.
63 reviews
January 2, 2010
On the one hand, Rafe Esquith is clearly an utterly phenomenal teacher who intricately and cogently outlines a number of best practices that have helped him make his classroom what it is - a world unto itself.

On the other hand, it's hard to access and internalize the wisdom available in the book due to the fact that his tone is flowery at best and sanctimonious at worst. Lame sauce, as there's nothing that destroys my goodwill for a book more than a central figure that turns me off.

On the third hand, for readers who are non-teachers this is a charismatic, easy-to read version of any number of Hollywood narratives about optimistic white ladies who teach in urban schools. And this version is written by an actual teacher, which is nice. So, kudos! 2.5 stars if that were an option to represent my ambivalence.
86 reviews5 followers
February 4, 2009
This book was extremely inspirational. It contains many good ideas for teachers to bring their teaching to the next level. However, I later found out that his classroom was his school's Gifted/Talented program : he had no struggling students, behavioral issues, etc. Nowhere was this mentioned in the book, which I found very misleading!
Profile Image for Alex.
546 reviews21 followers
August 31, 2013
This is one dedicated teacher. He's a role model for anyone. He has my admiration. And this is an inspirational book.
Profile Image for Jenny.
666 reviews15 followers
February 25, 2023
2.5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book more, and there are definitely some useful advice and methods, but Rafe is a teacher than most (if not all) teachers could never aspire to be. It is not realistic for most (if not all) teachers to spend 12 hours or more a day at school, to spend recesses and lunch breaks with students, to spend Saturdays with children...Clearly this is a devoted man and kudos to him for being able to do all of this for his students. He is absolutely making a difference in the lives in his students and that is wonderful. But teachers can make a difference in meaningful ways without spending every possible minute focusing on their students.

There were a few highlights for me: the Six Levels of Moral Development ,in which Rafe explains wrong reasons and right reasons that kids obey and follow rules, the discussion of the standardized testing that *MUST* always be done, and some of the ideas for teaching specific subjects.

Probably not a book I would go back to often...partly because of his tone that made me (a 25 year veterann teacher) feel like I was not nearly committed enough.
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