Rafe Esquith is a trail-blazing, fast-talking, fifth-grade teacher who has racked up a slew of awards for his work at a public school in Los Angeles. Ninety-two percent of the children at the school live in households below the poverty level, but Esquith's students have reached the pinnacle of academic and artistic success. His fifth-graders are already tackling high-school fare: algebra, philosophy and Shakespeare.
Esquith's methods have been so successful that he has been encouraged to leave the classroom to help other instructors. But he has no interest in abandoning his kids. Instead, he wrote Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, which Esquith likens to a cookbook for teaching in an urban classroom. The title of the book comes from an incident that occurred while he was helping a student in class with a chemistry experiment.
"In trying to get her alcohol burner to light, I set my hair on fire and didn't even know it until the kids started screaming," he says. "But as ridiculous as that was, I actually thought, if I could care so much I didn't even know my hair was on fire, I was moving in the right direction as a teacher — when I realized that you have to ignore all the crap, and the children are the only thing that matter."
He says his teaching tactics, however incendiary, apply to both teachers and parents.