In the first two weeks of September, many public-television stations will be airing a program called “The Hobart Shakespeareans” as part of the documentary series “P.O.V.” Since that title may not catch the attention of teachers and others who care deeply about education, I want to give the program the notice it deserves. I’d also like to extend a challenge to those who watch it: Take arms against doubt.
A public-television program offers an instructive look at the work of teacher Rafe Esquith.
The program follows Rafe Esquith, a much-honored 5th grade teacher at the Hobart Elementary School in central Los Angeles. His students come from poor, mostly Latino and Asian families in which English is not the first language. They live in an environment suffused with violence and all the other negative social forces that undermine the sense of stability and hope all children should have. Hobart Elementary is precisely the kind of school that the No Child Left Behind Act—with its prescribed reading programs, emphasis on testing and standards, and question-at-your-own-peril belief in a school day stripped of the arts, sports, and other aspects of human engagement that can’t be tied to a test score—was created to rescue.
Rafe Esquith would appear to be in complete noncompliance with this federal regimen. He asks much of his students, who immerse themselves in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and A Separate Peace. They can’t always read these books during school hours, because they aren’t in the approved curriculum. His students also play baseball, go as a class to performances at the Hollywood Bowl, travel to the nation’s capital, devote entire days to pure silliness, and spend their free periods learning to play musical instruments.
These young students come to school early and stay late, which is when we see them preparing their production of a full-length play by William Shakespeare. And it’s the real deal. We watch them performing “Hamlet,” helped by visits to the school from the British actors Sir Ian McKellen and Michael York, but mostly led by Rafe Esquith. Here are 50 10-year-olds, poor, with non-English-speaking parents, breathing life into literature that is hundreds of years old and miles from their own experience. Yet, as Sir Ian says: “The best thing about the Hobart Shakespeareans is that they know what they’re saying.”
In the case of this classroom, however, the play is not the thing. It’s just another part of a school year in which the lessons are always the same, whether on stage, on the playground, in class, at a restaurant, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, or bending over a washtub bobbing for apples.
This program is about great teaching. But it is not about a superstar teacher. Rafe Esquith is something special—there is no doubt about that—but he really shouldn’t be. Every teacher watching the program will be inspired, but that inspiration is likely to dissolve into sentiments such as: I can’t be like him. My school would never allow such a thing. My students couldn’t handle it. There have been other stirring teacher stories on television and in the movies—Jaime Escalante, as portrayed in the film “Stand and Deliver,” comes to mind—but these models get written off too easily as people endowed with rare gifts or inspiration beyond the reach of mere mortals.
And there’s the rub. Rafe Esquith might have more stamina than most, might be more willing to sacrifice his time and resources, but when it comes to how he runs his class and what he expects from his students, he engages in nothing that isn’t middle-of-the-road, common-sense stuff about teaching and learning.
Esquith holds certain things sacred—teamwork, patience, sacrifice, having fun, being responsible, understanding language—and he helps his students live by those principles and experience the results.
He wants his students to know what they are working for. He takes them to visit colleges, so they can see libraries that are quiet places where people aren’t bothering each other. It’s why his students stay in nice hotels and eat in good restaurants when they travel together. He lets them know that the Hollywood Bowl belongs to them as much as it does to everyone. But wherever they go, Rafe Esquith’s students are prepared for what they will see and for how they should behave.
He also gives them the best examples of literature. One of my favorite scenes from the show is when the young Latino boy playing Hamlet delivers the famous “Words, words, words” line while holding a copy of an Open Court reading manual. I’m more moved, however, when the camera captures children crying in class at the critical moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides, once and for all, not to turn in Jim and to suffer whatever damnation he has coming to him for his actions. These students clearly understand the power of that passage, yet there is no politically correct or standards-based connection between them and the material—except, of course, for the connection all great literature makes with its readers.
These students are not angels. They are 5th graders with all the maddening behavior we associate with children on the boundary of adolescence. Their mistakes warrant consequences, but the consequences are tied to what matters to them. A student who doesn’t do his homework doesn’t get “paid” for that day (based on an elaborate classroom economic system that teaches the value of money). A student who isn’t kind to others during a class activity doesn’t get to participate in that activity. Because these things are really valued, the lesson is well-learned.
The first principle of Rafe Esquith’s classroom is: There are no shortcuts. We see this written on a banner hung at the front of the classroom, and it’s a theme throughout the school year. It’s also the title of Esquith’s book (Pantheon, 2003). The principle first surfaced during a class trip to the Hollywood Bowl, when the teacher took his students backstage to meet the world renowned cellist Lynn Harrell. In response to a student’s question about how he could make such beautiful music, Harrell said, “Well, there are no shortcuts.” It stuck.
Rafe Esquith’s book gets across a point that barely makes it into the television program, yet reveals the essence of why he succeeds when so many other teachers don’t. He is a learner. He arrived at his first teaching job, as most of us did, idealistic and eager. He wasn’t going to let “the system” beat him down. It didn’t. What did beat him down—and nearly killed him—were his own mistakes, which he generously shares with readers. Over and again, he comes to crossroads in his own learning, and in every case his catalyst for growth—his guide—turns out to be a student. Rafe Esquith listens to students. In his classroom, he is unquestionably the boss, but that does not block his ability to learn from his students.
This program is about great teaching. But it is not about a superstar teacher.
For me, one of the saddest moments in “The Hobart Shakespeareans” comes during an interview with the school’s principal. She is describing the broader school culture, one in which other teachers do not always appreciate what Esquith does. With honest dismay, she tells a story of resentment and ostracism. There is also the implication that neither she nor the system can do much to help build a culture around the kind of teaching and learning that takes place in Esquith’s classroom. When we wonder why there is so much negative peer pressure brought to bear against students who are creative, bright, energetic, and committed to doing the right thing, we might first look at patterns of behavior among the adults. As Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer have written: The students are watching.
Rafe Esquith also lives and teaches by another principle. He knows that what happens in a single year of a child’s life, no matter how positive it might be, is not enough to ensure anything. The learning process, like the growing process, takes years. There is a sea of troubles out there for every child, and especially for those who start with so little. What difference does it make to have a great 5th grade year, if all that lies ahead is a downward spiral into mediocrity and despair? Kids could look back on Rafe Esquith’s class as a cruel hoax, a teasing glimpse of what might have been. He tries to forestall such disillusionment by helping his charges continue to grow after they’ve left his class, mostly by making himself available on Saturdays. A better solution would be to make his kind of class the rule, not the exception, in American education.
Parents who watch “The Hobart Shakespeareans” will want such a teacher for their children. Teachers who watch should want, not so much to be like Rafe Esquith, but to take from his classroom the simple principles that ensure good practice in their own. The majority of teachers can embrace these principles, and may be able to recall their power as they look back at the pivotal moments in their own lives and rediscover the catalysts that made them care so much about learning that they chose education as a career.
Those teachers inclined to dismiss such possibilities because they believe they’ll never have classrooms like Rafe Esquith’s would do well to remember what the Bard of Avon had to say on the topic: “Our doubts are traitors/ and make us lose the good we oft might win/ by fearing to attempt.”