Published Online: December 22, 2006
Published in Print: January 1, 2007, as Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire!
Book Review

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire!

The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56

by Rafe Esquith
(Viking, 2007, 256 pages, $24.95)

The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56

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Despite its smokin’ hot title, this book by award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith makes for cold, soggy reading. “I’m only here,” Esquith announces at the outset, “to share some of the ideas I have found useful.” But most of the things he shares aren’t all that useful and barely qualify as ideas.

Esquith, who teaches 5th grade at Hobart Elementary in central Los Angeles, is best known for producing an annual Shakespeare play with his students, most of whom speak English as a second language.

He has been honored for his accomplishments by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Oprah. As he modestly points out, “I am … the only teacher in history to receive the National Medal of Arts.” He also can’t resist mentioning that actors Sir Ian McKellen and Michael York are his “dear friends.”

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith

No matter how good a teacher Esquith is—and, by his own account, he is a very good one—his self-congratulatory tone grows tiresome fast. Perhaps even more irritating is his habit of putting down other teachers as “apathetic or incompetent or both.” On pages where he isn’t busy promoting himself, he is usually busy criticizing his colleagues for not being him.

Esquith takes credit for the students from Room 56 who have gone on to attend the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern, and Notre Dame, as if he were the only one who ever taught them. He doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which teaching is a collaborative art. My successes with my college students, for example, aren’t mine alone. The credit for their being able to grasp an elusive concept or master a complex skill belongs in some measure to all the teachers who taught them before me—those who laid the foundation and raised the frame.

Unfortunately, Esquith is too impressed with himself to see that others might also have something to teach his students. It’s the kind of oversight that makes you doubt the value of whatever else he has to say.

“I try my best,” Esquith claims, “to battle ESPN and MTV, where posturing, trash talk, and ‘I’m king of the world’ is the norm.” But with his own ego, arrogance, and glib clichés (“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,”) he represents just another aspect of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed popular culture.

Vol. 18, Issue 04, Page 46

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