Notes from Room 56

Friday, August 30, 2013

This here post is going to consist of notes from the most favorite day of mine in recent weeks, a bright shining light in the midst of epic amounts of studying and self-created house arrest.

I watched the PBS documentary

I read all four of his books

I found all of the web articles I could on it

I packed my lunch

I made a list of questions

I screamed

Seriously, I screamed of happiness

I seriously couldn't believe this was happening...

{Disclaimer: If you are not familiar at all with the world of education and its state in this country, and those few educators who give us all hope, then you may not understand my giddiness about this here situation. And you should probably go observe any class for a day and thank a teacher anyway. But this will be worth the read, trust me}
I visited Room 56, and saw the Hobart Shakespeareans in action!
Who are the Hobart Shakespeareans you ask? What is Room 56 you ask? Why does this make me crazy, you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Room 56 is the classroom of Rafe Esquith, a 5th grade teacher in one of the roughest neighborhoods you'll ever cross in inner-city Los Angeles. His classroom consists of average 10-year olds, many of whom come from broken homes, or whose parents work 4 jobs just to provide, or who came to school not knowing a lick of English. It's all an unfortunate statistic that many Americans and educators even refuse to admit or acknowledge.

To many, you would just stop there. Nu uh, no way. I'm heading to the suburbs.

But, don't. You won't regret it.

I emailed Rafe during summer vacation about visiting his classroom. How did I hear about it? Books. He wrote four books, all of which are incredible, and if you care any about the state of education in our wondrous, free country, you have got to go buy them. An even better reason, every penny he sees from the book sales go right back to his classroom. So why not help a teacher out?

So I visited Room 56 this past Wednesday, on the 28th. I was blown away. These are ordinary kids, but they are achieving great things. Incredible things. They create beautiful latch hook rugs, put on a Shakespeare play, have guitar lessons, read literature (like true books, you know, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Westing Game...), and so much more. I mean, you just have to see it for yourself.

His classroom is a safe haven. Many students stay there for more than 12 hours a day studying, practicing their lines or music, or just hanging out. And it's all voluntary. The focus is on the kids, and they love it. It was only the second week of school when I visited a few days ago, and this classroom showed a level of learning and excitement that you don't even see in the last month of school in most classrooms.

Proactive, not reactive.

There is a reverse problem here - Students ditch home to be at school when they are sick!

They do the things they do and work as hard as they do so their lives will be better.

Notable things I learned:

Don't play a video game on baseball, play the game

Don't take a test on Hamlet, act the play

Don't play guitar hero, learn the guitar

Let the kids solve their own problems

Raise expectations

Don't drown them in homework

Kids want a challenge

Kids love singing, I mean, they absolutely LOVE singing "Mambo Italiano" (It's for the Shakespeare play/production they put on at the end of the year - Cymbeline 2014)

A teacher is a professional explainer

We're in this together! (Part of a team of teachers across the country!)

The kids actually WANT to be there for Shakespeare! (40 kids were in there singing and practicing their lines for Shakespeare, and one was a third grader! He was EIGHT! Memorizing Shakespeare, comprehending all of it, and enjoying it!)

For the Shakespeare plays they put on at the end of each year - professional instructors teach instruments/music, choreography, videographers, lighting, sound system. It's a professional-grade production on a high level. Of fifth graders who know and understand and best of all, enjoy Shakespeare.

The phrase "Work Hard Be Nice" of the KIPP schools was taken from Rafe after the founders visited his classroom in the planning stages of the project. They just reversed it.

Don't condone unfair punishment - Don't punish the whole class for what one student didn't do.

Give them suggestions as they write - and practice the "'dreaded rewrite," where instead of giving a bad grade, the student rewrites for a better grade. They will learn to see and correct their mistakes the first time - no one likes to do an assignment more than once!

Hobart Shakespeareans know the importance of presentation. I saw a paper one student wrote that literally looked like it was typed. This goes for all things - assignments, appearance..

Employ a class economic system  - If you can handle money, you'll be better off.

Everything done in this safe haven is so your life will be better.

You have to be able to work together

Wait time - Don't just cut the student off, wait for him or her to get it. This builds confidence and he'll work harder.

Start a large project you work on the entire year - they do latch hook rugs. Pick their designs, count the colored strings, follow a grid pattern. It is so cool. (I have a small one that's a pillow of a tiger I made with my grandma - omom - a while back, so this really made me want to go to the store and get materials to make a rug! They are beautiful!)

Large projects: focus, patience, concentration, organization...

One project leads to the next - the ticket to string art is a completed rug

These students have a respect and friendship for the teacher - as soon as he speaks, the chatting stops and they listen.

Levels of thinking/actions
Level 1: I don't want to get in trouble
Level 2: I want a reward
Level 3: I want to please others
Level 4: I just follow the lead
Level 5: I'm considerate of others
Level 6: I have my own set of rules and values
...Which one do you think Hobart Shakespeareans are on?

And I could go on and on and on and on and on and on.....

One of the coolest parts - I was there from around 945 to 3 or so when all the students and the teacher left. Many of the students are in the class at 6am, and many stay after everyone else is off the campus. At the end of the day, before dismissal, everyone gives compliments to each other - I really like how so and so helped me with my rug, or how so and so and so sang "Let It Be" so well, or how so and so helped me with my expanded form, etc.

I seriously was just over the moon, my heart was smiling the entire time I was there, and it was hard to contain! I know there are many wonderful teachers just like Rafe out there, and it was such and incredible experience to just meet one and see him in action. I want to meet more, I need to see more! To see his class structure, what a typical day looks like, his teaching methods, his calm demeanor, his love for the children. Or the little adults, I should say, because these kids have learned so much, and read so much, that many adults wouldn't dare be quizzed on today. Just absolutely wonderful!

Anyway. He incorporates things he really enjoys - baseball, guitar, and Shakespeare - into the regular curriculum, which makes teaching more enjoyable, and also makes learning more enjoyable for the kids because they see the passion. Rafe is a seasoned veteran, who's been teaching for decades, full of life, who is absolutely fantastic at what he does. So humble. Taught me how to transform a classroom into a safe haven, a place full of life and learning so fun that the kids don't even realize they're learning (perhaps).

After reading his books, I had to meet him. After emailing him, I couldn't believe it! I came, I saw, I loved it, I'm soaking it in. After contemplating my choice to study education for over two and a half years, those years starting right after high school, the two things that solidified my decision (last summer, 2012) to become a professional explainer, or a teacher, were: After reading Rafe's books, and after watching Matilda (and of course, Miss Honey). There is nothing else I would rather be studying or doing. This is it, ladies and gents.

The hour and a half drive that turned into over a three hour drive home was more than worth it (Thank you Los Angeles traffic)

Graduation, come faster, please? I'd really appreciate getting my own classroom like right now! Thanks.

There is so much more I can add. You just have to see it for yourself. First, take a look at his books, because if you buy a book, you're supplying a student a ticket to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or to the Pixar studios, or to the Salinas valley and the boyhood home of John Steinbeck, to DC, to Yosemite, to the Black Hills, to a Dodgers game. Everything he has is given right back to the kids. Isn't that how it should be?

There is hope for this country yet. It all starts in the classroom.



  2. I'm sharing this blog post on my Facebook for my teacher friends! I know they'll really enjoy this!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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