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Educator Lights Up Kids' Lives

As a teacher, Rafe Esquith works with poverty-stricken students in an overcrowded Los Angeles school. His students excel and many attend top universities. He speaks about teaching with passion.
Marylhurst University
As a teacher, Rafe Esquith works with poverty-stricken students in an overcrowded Los Angeles school. His students excel and many attend top universities. He speaks about teaching with passion.

Educator Lights Up Kids Lives
How do you get kids to success in school and life? One way is to send them to Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles and let 5th grade teacher Rafe Esquith, the only teacher to be awarded the president's National Medal of Arts, work his magic on them

Rafe Esquith will speak, and a group of his students will perform, at a special Warwick's event at The Gillispie School in La Jolla on Tuesday, August 25, 2009, at 6 p.m.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Do you remember a special teacher? Someone who opened up new worlds, a teacher who inspired you to be better and do better than you thought you could? There is now a whole generation of former students at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles who can remember such a teacher. And his name is Rafe Esquith. By encouraging students to develop good personal habits, by stimulating their curiosity, engaging their minds, and making all of it fun, Esquith has gained the admiration of his peers and the honor of his nation. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the president's National Medal of the Arts. His new book is called "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World." And it's a pleasure to welcome Rafe Esquith to These Days. Good morning, Rafe, how are you?

RAFE ESQUITH (Teacher, Author): Good morning. I'm fine. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And we want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have questions about how to inspire your own children to do their best in the new school year? Do you have a comment on teaching kids to surpass expectations? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Rafe, why don't you start out by telling us about the school where you teach 5th grade? It's – Describe Hobart Elementary School and its students.

ESQUITH: Well, sure. I'm a public school teacher. There's nothing special about the school except it's overcrowded. It's grades K through 5, close to 2000 children, and 92% of them are below the poverty level. Nobody speaks English as a first language. And, Maureen, what kills me is only 32% of the children finish high school.


ESQUITH: And I got there a quarter of a century ago and have worked real hard to try and figure out how to beat that cycle and, fortunately, the kids who I work with all go on to top universities.

CAVANAUGH: Now how many kids do you have in a class at Hobart?

ESQUITH: I have a self-contained class of about 32 children but I open up special activities before and after school with my class to about 100 children from the other 5th grade and 4th grade classrooms.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Is your class size steadily going up along with everybody else's?

ESQUITH: It is. It's more and more and it's a problem, of course, but, you know, we can't blame the kids for that.


ESQUITH: And we can't let those – the bad things help us – you know, make us lose our focus.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Rafe, as you say, you've been teaching for 24 years. What do you like about teaching?

ESQUITH: What do I like about teaching is basically for me—and you're talking to a guy who gets honored by presidents and Queens of England—nothing is better than when I see a student has a better life than he used to have, and I opened a few of those doors. When I get those letters, and I get them all the time from kids at NYU or, you know, anywhere, that they're doing well and they want to thank me, that's all the pay I need.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now what is it that you think makes your students extraordinary? You told us that perhaps even though I imagine you think every child is extraordinary in a way, there's nothing on the outside necessarily that would make it appear so at Hobart Elementary.

ESQUITH: That's for sure. I think what I've written "Lighting Their Fires" for – because I wrote a book a couple of years ago called "Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire," which was an international bestseller and I got thousands of letters from parents all over the world asking me similar questions. Like me, they feel that we've kind of lost our focus on what really matters. Schools today have become all about test scores and what college you go to, and I'm trying to refocus the children – I'm building them an internal set of values which will help them get good test scores and go to college but also be happier in the process. Surely, every parent out there has dealt with the fact that the kids aren't paying attention the way they used to pay attention. Or they're not reading, they're spending all their time in front of a television set. And I'm trying to show them ways in which we can get kids to do that because they choose to, not because we're forcing them.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, and I – that's a good point because people almost feel they have to force kids to pay attention to learn anything.

ESQUITH: Right, it's called the 'because I said so'…


ESQUITH: …you know, form of parenting. And I just don't think, in the long run, that's effective.

CAVANAUGH: What is a way that you tap into a child's innate curiosity and willingness to learn?

ESQUITH: It's really all about setting a very large menu in front of them. We keep shrinking the menu in front of the kids as we eliminates sports and arts and music from children's education and only focus on test scores. There are fewer things for them to want to eat. So as a classroom teacher, I teach all subjects, you know, mathematics and literature and science and geography. But I really urge parents to get their kids involved with music. Music is a very important part of my classroom. When a child learns to play music, they are learning about things that have nothing to do with music. They're learning about discipline and rehearsal and listening to one another and making mistakes and then correcting those mistakes, and they feel great about doing it. And as a matter of fact, Einstein wrote a whole treatise that when children play music, their mathematic scores go up and it's absolutely true. Those are the kinds of suggestions I make in "Lighting Their Fires" that people can do with their kids that can help them become extraordinary.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith. He teachers (sic) at Hobart Elementary School. He has received the president's National Medal of the Arts, and he's out with a new book called "Lighting Their Fires." And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Rafe, one of the ways that you've managed to create classes of extraordinary kids is through Shakespeare. And let me remind everyone that it's – you're a 5th grade teacher but your kids are on fire for Shakespeare. Tell us how that happens.

ESQUITH: Well, basically, one thing I figured out early as a teacher is that the school systems often take the teacher out of the room, that the teacher is basically following a script that a publishing company hands you and the teachers stop being themselves. My philosophy has always been if you're a great cook then cook with your children, whether you're a parent or a teacher. I happen to like Shakespeare. I've liked him since I was a child. My father read him to me when I was three years old as a bedtime story. So since my children didn't speak English well, I thought it'd be a pretty cool way for them to learn to speak English by doing Shakespeare, and it's amazing because the entire World Shakespeare Company flies across the ocean every year to watch the kids perform. That's how good they are.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my goodness.

ESQUITH: But they have a lot of fun doing it. It's not the Shakespeare – I mean, we also have a full blown rock 'n roll band that accompanies the Shakespeare plays, and it's just great fun. But that doesn't mean everybody should do Shakespeare. It's just another thing that we can throw at a child that they might pick up and enjoy doing.

CAVANAUGH: I don't want to leave Shakespeare right away. I want you to tell us a little bit about the Hobart Shakespearians and what it is they do.

ESQUITH: Well, basically, we have a classroom with a culture of excellence. They volunteer. They don't have to but the kids come to school early in the morning. They show up at about 6:30 in the morning to do extra work with mathematics. But the math that we do is not 500 multiplication problems. I think the other part of raising our children these days is to make sure that they know that what they're learning is relevant to their lives. And the worksheets that we're giving children, they – they're doing them because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble if they don't. When you start giving them real life problems to solve and real life science to do, they're motivated not because I'm such a great teacher but if you ask them why are you doing this? The child will say to you, in my class if I learn this skill, my life just got better…


ESQUITH: …that I have more opportunities. That's the motivation. And too many Hollywood movies always make the teacher, oh, isn't he wonderful? Isn't he iconic? Believe me, Maureen, I'm the most ordinary guy in the world but my lessons are not ordinary. That's what motivates the children.

CAVANAUGH: One last question about the Shakespeare and that is, you know, even in high school when students start to take Shakespeare, it's I can't understand this.


CAVANAUGH: And, it's too hard. And, what – How do you counter that?

ESQUITH: That's a – it's a great question. Well, let's start – Before we start Shakespeare, I build up a relationship with my students. They trust me. They have enormous trust in me because I treat them with great respect. I never raise my voice to a kid and, believe me, I'm tough as nails. But I respect them and they respect me. So that when they don't understand and I can tell them, listen, I know you don't get it but if you'll stick with me for a few days, we're going to go through this line by line, you're going to start to understand. And when they do, it's – I mean, think back when you've accomplished something that you didn't think you could, it's such a fantastic high. Plus, the fact that because I've done it for a long, long time, a lot of the kids who come to me have been watching my class since the first grade. They've been waiting their whole lives to be in there. And they're told by former students, you might not get it now but if you stick with Rafe, you're going to have a better life. So my former students are a huge motivating force in that classroom.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Rafe Esquith and he has been teaching a generation of kids at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles to excel. His new book is called "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World." We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Martha is on the line from Chula Vista. Good morning, Martha, and welcome to These Days.

MARTHA (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

MARTHA: My question is, how early can we say we start – how early can we start lighting their fires and how?

ESQUITH: Well, fantastic. By the way, my wife grew up in Chula Vista, so it's nice to meet you.

MARTHA: Thank you.

ESQUITH: Well, I mean, I think it starts from the earliest years in the kind of environment you have at home. As a parent, for example, the average child watches television for seven hours a day, which is frightening to me. There are things you can do in your home right from the get-go. If you're a parent who's in front of the television set but then telling your child go read, that's not going to work. I've raised four children and they're all readers because they saw me reading every night. Little things in the book I talk about, and if there is television in your house it certainly shouldn't be in the child's bedroom. Studies have shown that when you have a television in your child's bedroom, their test scores are 15 points lower than the other kids in school. There are little suggestions like that. Another suggestion, of course, music education for maybe when they're three and four years old. And also having dinner every night as a family activity where the children themselves, even at the ages of three and four, are involved in the preparation of dinner or the setting of the table rather than getting a call out, hey, dinner's ready, where they just come in and eat without participating with their family.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Martha, for that call. This goes to one of the essential elements in your book, Rafe, and that is the way to make good students is to create good kids, good kids that have a certain set of values, a certain ability to discipline themselves, etcetera, etcetera. Is that correct?

ESQUITH: Absolutely. One of the things that I talk about is the concept of two marshmallows and if your listeners know the famous two marshmallows study at Stanford University back in the seventies, they took a group of four year old children and, one by one, brought them into a room and put a marshmallow in front of them and said, hey, you can eat this marshmallow but, you know what, I'm sorry, son, I've got to leave the room for a minute. If you wait and don't eat it, when I come back I'll give you two. And some of the kids, of course, when the guy left the room, ate the marshmallow right away.


ESQUITH: But some of the kids waited for as much as 20 minutes for the guy to come back and waited for their second marshmallow. And then they tracked those kids for 20 years and all of the kids who waited for a second marshmallow did better in everything.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's funny.

ESQUITH: It's amazing.

CAVANAUGH: No, I hadn't – I hadn't heard about that.

ESQUITH: It's fantastic. So I always – and I tell my kids that. We call them two-marshmallow kids, that they understand the concept of delayed gratification in this fast food society where we have instant math and instant Shakespeare. That's not true. To be good at anything, whatever your dream is, a football player or an architect, we develop a culture where we work at it real hard. And this is very important, Maureen, the work itself is the reward. Something I'm really proud of of the book that I've written is that there isn't a big game at the end or a big contest. The book takes place in one night when I take the kids to a ballgame at Dodger Stadium. And the point being is that as a parent, every day matters. When we're taking them to the supermarket or we're going to the movies or we're shopping, kids can learn about watching other people, who takes their work seriously, who's friendly, who's not friendly. And then talking about that, deciding what kind of person are you going to be? We have to have those conversations every day with our children, not just for the big event.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Chris is calling from San Diego, and good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So I'm right now a college student hoping to be a high school math teacher.

ESQUITH: Fantastic.

CHRIS: And I was wondering, so just earlier you were talking about how you teach your kids math and when you do it they say at the end of the day like, oh, I'm going to be a better person. But from my experience as even a high school student, like my peers and everyone, when – in every math class we were in, they would always be asking, oh, why are we learning this, you know.

ESQUITH: Of course.

CHRIS: I'm not going to need to learn this in the future. So, yes, like in I think elementary school it's very easy to like light that fire but in the high school, what happens when students get more jaded and they can kind of see that, yeah, you know, who knows, you might not need to know like algebra to survive in the world but…

ESQUITH: Chris, that's a terrific question and I think I have a terrific answer for you. First of all, you should know that I work with my former students all through high school so I know what it is to work with adolescents. Here's the answer to that with high school math. If you – It is absolutely possible that you may not have to know geometric corollaries and axioms, it is possible you might not have to know signs and co-signs and trigonometry in your job. But any time you are working with your brain—anytime—like a muscle, your brain gets stronger. Plus, the fact that when you work with math problems and you work with other people and you learn how to listen to them and come up with answers that other people may disagree with and share those answers and work those out, now you're working on skills that go far beyond mathematics. It's about trying things and experimenting and learning how to listen to other people. And by the way, Chris, another very important part of the motivation with highschoolers is when you teach high school, as often as you can, bring in people who are older than the high school students who either use math or enjoy math as part of their life, who are older and can show the kids what they're doing in their lives that make the lessons relevant. You are absolutely right that right in the setting of that classroom, it's hard to motivate them. My students are motivated often by outside forces of people who are older, wiser and more successful than they are.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, and thank you for that question. Let's go – Let's take another call. Denise is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Denise, and welcome to These Days.

DENISE (Caller, Encinitas): Hi, good morning. Thank you. I'm also planning on being a high school teacher and I've got a friend who's a substitute teacher for the last two decades in an inner city school in northern California.


DENISE: Anyway, he's got me kind of scared to – He claims that his classroom has got a culture where it's not cool to learn so you can't be all gung-ho raising your hand in the classroom asking the teacher questions and being interested because you'll be not cool.

ESQUITH: That's right. And, well, that's – that's not a problem in northern California, that's a societal problem, there's no question. And of course you're going to be scared. And then they also tell you, especially when you start teaching, as I tell all young teachers, you're going to have bad days. You're going to have really bad days. You're going to have days where you do everything right and you still have a bad day, even though you know that what you're doing is helping the children, and they don't believe it and they don't buy into it. The question is, can you, on those bad days, go to more experienced teachers, talk about your bad days, observe experienced teachers, and see how they create, slowly, a classroom environment where being smart is cool. Now I've done this for 27 years now and people come to my classroom, young teachers, and they want what I have right now. Well, you can't have that. That's the whole point of what I'm trying to explain. But if you'll keep at it, you can slowly build a place whereas at Hobart School being in Shakespeare's considered cool but 27 years ago it certainly wasn't. But when those students started to become very successful and get scholarships and earn all kinds of opportunities, you can change the culture if you'll stick with it but you're absolutely right, your early days are going to be very difficult. This is a tough job, raising children.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Denise, for that question. I want to ask you, Rafe, you know, you've seen what's been happening, education budgets slashed…


CAVANAUGH: …across the state and California's education system is now ranked, you know, kind of near the bottom of the rankings of the U.S. states.


CAVANAUGH: How does that make you feel? How do teachers continue to teach well with less money?

ESQUITH: Well, they often don't and that's why we're losing a lot of great teachers, which is, you know, one of the reasons I talk to a lot of young teachers is trying to encourage them to stay put. I think what we have to do, what I'm trying to do in "Lighting Their Fires" is you say that, you know, California isn't doing well but by whose standard? You know, it's some testing service that puts out a test and your listeners this morning might like what I'm saying, they might not like what I'm saying but they certainly aren't basing it on my test scores.


ESQUITH: And we've made that the be-all and end-all of education. That's absurd. In "Lighting Their Fires" I'm trying to point out that the most important things we can give a child cannot be quantified. There's a story in the book of one of my students who, in middle school, cut off his hair voluntarily because a kid in school had cancer, and he gave him his hair. Maureen, how do you measure that?


ESQUITH: You know, and whether that gets him into Princeton or not, I don't really care. This is a kid who I want to work with one day, this is a kid who I want for a neighbor. And that's the point of "Lighting Their Fires," to get us refocused on the things that really matter. And right now, yes, I know California's ranked low. I'm more worried about helping that child develop a love of reading and I'm going to do the best I can even with budget cuts.

CAVANAUGH: You know, we had a caller on the line and I guess she had to take off but one of the things she wanted to ask is what do you do when, you know, you're trying so hard to motivate a child and you just can't do it?

ESQUITH: Oh, listen, it happens all the time. And here's my comment to her. It's not our job to save their soul but it is our job to give children opportunities to save their own soul. An emergency room does not save every patient. And, you know, believe me, Maureen, I'm pretty good at what I do and I fail all the time. But my job is to continue to create opportunities and when you do, you'll be amazed that some kids will walk through doors that you open. And that's what parents and teachers do, we create opportunities and we open doors. But it is up to the child to walk through that door.

CAVANAUGH: We're take – I'm speaking with Rafe Esquith. He is an award-winning teacher, teaches at Hobart Elementary School, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Vikas is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Vikas. Welcome to These Days.

VIKAS (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Great discussion. I'm a music teacher at Canyon Crest Academy.

ESQUITH: Hooray.

VIKAS: And I always tell my children music moves the world. I'm wondering what your thought is. Why is music, in contrast to other art forms, such a powerful tool. I'm not able to put my finger on it myself.

ESQUITH: Well, I do think there is something about the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts. It's extraordinary. And that's also true of theatre because we do Shakespeare. You know, I'm a Beatlemaniac and I always tell the kids I love the music that John, Paul and George made and Ringo made separately but nothing was like what they did together. And that's what I try and tell them when we put a band together, there is something uplifting and joyous and just plain fun and these days with computer technology and a lot of experts, you can get kids playing well pretty quickly. I mean, it doesn't take ten years. They can play well in a year or two, as my kids do. I didn't know this when I started teaching. I was really a math guy and then I noticed that students in my class who went to the orchestra, even when they were missing my class, were doing better than kids not in the orchestra. So I watched the orchestra and started to realize the skills they were learning, the concentration skills and the risk-taking and that's when I said, you know what, I have to learn about music. And I've worked real hard at it for 25 years. But what you're doing is unbelievably important and it's a tragedy that, sadly, music programs are being cut, which is why I'm begging parents as often as you can, find music lessons for your children. The average child in my class, by the end of the year, plays four or five instruments.


ESQUITH: Some of them play up to seven. And that was another mistake I made as a young teacher. I thought that you were a guitarist or a pianist and then I discovered, no, you are a musician. And just like an athlete can play more than one sport, musicians can play many instruments and they – what a wonderful way for a child to spend time.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Rafe Esquith. His new book is called "Lighting Their Fires." We have so many people who want to speak with you, Rafe, let's try to get in a couple more calls.


CAVANAUGH: Greg is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Greg, and welcome to These Days.

GREG (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I just wanted to share first that I did go to Hobart Elementary in L.A. I am 38 now and…



GREG: …a lot of the situations haven't changed from what you're describing. I was the type of student that just kind of fell in the hole. I was not succeeding in middle school or high school. But it took those teachers that not only had the academic skills to teach somebody but also the soft skills. I just wanted to – I'm wondering, if you think that's also key. You know, I kept failing just because teachers didn't believe in me.

ESQUITH: Not only is that – it's trag – Greg, it kills me. I can't tell you how many 5th grade kids I've had where I said, you know, you have a great voice or do you know you're a good writer? Has anybody ever told you that? And they look at me and they go, no.


ESQUITH: And I'm like, what're – and this kid's ten years old, they've had ten years of rejection already and they're just little kids. It's painful. I mean, look how you remember it. But you make…

GREG: You know…

ESQUITH: …another really good point that I'm trying to get across to parents. Sometimes when you're a teacher and, you know, there are a lot of teachers who think they're not making a difference. But they don't really know that. It's not a Hollywood movie where the kid looks up and goes, thank you, Rafe, for helping my life get better. It doesn't work that way. They're just little kids. But oftentimes the seeds we plant and the things we show them kick in years later. You can't imagine how much mail I get from people who are 25, 27, 30 years old who were in my class and they did well but I didn't think we had a special relationship. And then I get amazing letters from them as adults realizing it made a difference. And parents out there know it can be a thankless job but it's an important job to be a good parent.

CAVANAUGH: And let's take a final phone call now. Larry is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Larry, and welcome to These Days.

LARRY (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. I think your guest should be the next superintendent of San Diego…

ESQUITH: Oh, shame on you. Don't even say that, sir.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, we did have a discussion about that in the previous hour, who might head San Diego Unified School District. Any desire to go into administration, Rafe?

ESQUITH: Absolutely not, I never – I'm the luckiest teacher in the world. I'm having way too much fun with the kids.

CAVANAUGH: Now you're about to launch another tour with the Hobart Shakespearians and so forth. Tell – Just tell me, and final question, how much do the kids enjoy going on these tours and doing these plays?

ESQUITH: It's so much fun for them to meet the public and meet all these great parents because a lot of them, I mean, let's be honest, they're coming from really tough situations in a really tough neighborhood. And to get out there and meet people like your audience, people who care about them and love them and support them, it inspires them. The funny thing is, they're supposed to be inspiring the parents and the kids are really – they're the ones who get inspired, meeting so many great people around the country that you never hear about, you know, because all you hear about is bad news on the – and that's why I'm appreciative of shows like this one that are looking for some good things and praising it. The kids have a ball and it's just one long party. We're going to be on the road for about a month, all over the country. And we start tomorrow in the San Diego area.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, you do indeed. Let me tell everyone that Rafe Esquith will speak, a group of his students will perform at a special Warwick's event at The Gillispie School in La Jolla. That's tomorrow night at 6:00. And you can go to for more information. Rafe, thank you so much. The name of your book: "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World." Rafe, thanks for joining us today.

ESQUITH: Oh, thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to thank everybody who called. We couldn't get to everyone so, please, I want to remind you that you can post your comments at Stay with us as These Days continues.

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