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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

A heart-felt and pragmatic call-to-arms, but one that might daunt even the most passionate teacher.

In Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, elementary school teacher Rafe Esquith immerses us in the goings on of Room 56, his fifth grade classroom in Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. The book is a powerful and accessible for teachers and parents alike, making it deservedly a New York Times bestseller.

Part One introduces us to Room 56, and explains the approach to citizenship and self discipline that is at the heart of Esquith's approach, Lawrence Kohlberg's Six Levels of Moral Development. From this ideological engine room, Part Two takes us through his thinking on nine different subjects - from maths to art, from literacy to economics. Finally, in Part Three - which he calls 'The Madness' - Esquith provides detailed and pragmatic advice on some of many ways that he goes beyond what we normally expect of a teacher to create powerful and engaging learning experiences for his students.

There is a lot to love about Teach Like Your Hair's on fire. There's the brutal honesty of its critique of the status quo - from deriding teachers playing films for their classes while they shop online to acknowledging that for the first few years new teachers will probably be focused on literacy and numeracy that they may not even get to subjects like science or art. But there is also the unflagging belief in the potential of young people, and the capacity of educators to help them discover the best in themselves, to help them become, as Esquith says "the kind of young people who make adults believe the future might be okay after all."

Underneath it all, though, is the realisation of how hard this man is pushing himself - year after year - to be the kind of teacher he believes his students need. Can we really expect this of teachers? And yet the results speak for themselves - it clearly works, as he shows through so many poignant anecdotes, and as can clearly be seen through his students themselves on the Hobart Shakespearean website and elsewhere.

This is without doubt a book worth reading. The final part is perhaps a little dry if you're not a practitioner looking for helpful tips - but it adds a credibility that is lacking in many inspiring but shallow educational manifestos. What we need to do having read Esquith's book is less clear - it is daunting indeed if we must all become superhuman in our stamina and dedication, to achieve similar success.



Brett Rolfe

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