Big Trouble in Little Room 56

I just finished reading Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire by Rafe Esquith. It was given to the entire staff of our school by my principal at the beginning of last year in the hopes that it would spur a book club. It didn't.

As a result, the book sat on my shelf for almost a year. I picked it up at one point and skimmed it, but I wasn't totally impressed. To be honest, I'm a bit leery of books that are written by rock star teachers.

About a month ago, I read a tweet by Kelly Hines asking if anyone had read the book and what they thought of it. It inspired me to finally pick it up. She had written a blog post reflecting on her experience reading the book, but I told myself I would wait to read it until I had finished the book myself. It was kind of like waiting until Christmas to open a present when you get one a week early. I didn't want her reflections to influence my reading of the book.

As I picked up the book and read the back cover, I was excited to read that this was a story from an urban school in L.A. As an urban teacher, I love to know what teachers have accomplished and how they have facilitated success with their students despite everything they're up against. The first chapter proved inspiring, as Esquith described his love for his students and his 'ah hah' moment, the inspiration for the book's title.

All the same, I was disappointed to find that the first few pages of Chapter 1 (Gimme Some Truth) were dedicated to a story about a 'bad' teacher. I don't disagree with him that there are teachers like this, who use fear, intimidation and embarrassment to control their classes. In an urban setting, this can become the norm in many schools. Esquith did not stop there. The book is brimming with jabs at other educators with whom he has come in contact. For instance, when describing his approach to teaching literature, he describes:

"A young teacher at the school attempted to do the right thing. Knowing that Anne Frank was an important work, he obtained a class set of books and told his students to read the book during their winter vacation and to be prepared for a test when they returned. The result was a disaster....When they later came to my class, they moaned when I told them Anne Frank was on our reading list....Fortunately, with patience I was able to undo the damage and show the students why Anne's story will live forever." (p. 38)

Esquith goes on, in the next chapter, to describe marvelous strategies for teaching literature to struggling readers. Overall, the book is full of some unique and useful resources for teaching math, reading (including Shakespeare!) engaging students and building relationships with your students. His use of Lawrence Kohlberg's Six Levels of Moral Development to teach his kids intrinsic motivation and metacognition as well as just plain old good citizenship is an inspiration for any teacher, veteran or novice. Sprinkled around these wonderful stories though, are messages that make for, at times, a troubling read.
Here are some things I found troubling about the book:

Esquith constantly refers to teachers doing horrible things or not teaching well and he uses those examples as comparisons to show how things are different in his glorious 'Room 56.' For instance, when describing his annual trip to Washington, D.C. with his students, he adds a side note about how a hostess tells him that many teachers hang out at the bar in the restaurant while the kids hang out and eat. Esquith then explains that unlike these teachers, he sits with his kids. Really? Our 6th graders went to D.C. this past year, and I can promise that our teachers and parent chaperones were no where near any kind of liquor. It is not, in my experience, extraordinary for a teacher to sit with his or her students, especially in a public place!

On the subject of Physical Education, according to Esquith, "The bad news is that most elementary-school teachers do not run effective physical education programs.....some teachers take their kids outside and simply let them run around on the theory that it calms them down and helps them focus back in class." (p. 125) Why not just state: "When teaching physical education, it is important that play is structured. It can be used to teach kids a skill while also teaching them self confidence and teamwork." Why is it necessary to start off by bashing teachers?

Esquith does a wonderful job teaching his students responsibility and skills like budgeting and planning that no doubt change their lives. Why ruin a wonderful story with a jab at other teachers? He also makes it seem that many of his successes are due to the fact that he has 'undone' the damage done by previous teachers students may have had. It makes me wonder---what was his real purpose for writing the book?

Esquith never disclosed what went on behind the scenes--
  • How did he get the building engineer to open the school at 6:30 am (mine won't even open it for just lil' old me for security reasons)?
  • How did he get the children home safely in a neighborhood so full of violence and dangerous streets? I can barely hold my after school Computer Club during the winter because it gets dark so early.
  • Kelly Hines brought up another good point: How do his students feel who don’t want to or can’t participate in all of these extra events?
  • He also fails to explain what his strategies are for those students who refuse to follow the code of the classroom. How does he handle violent students? Students with attendance issues? Students who come into his room halfway through the year? I'm sure his classroom is not void of the problems that all urban teachers deal with.
  • How was he able to keep teaching the same grade in the same classroom for so long? Many teachers in urban public schools get shuffled around from grade to grade, switching between grades from year to year. Most teachers are lucky if they get to keep the same room for 5 years, never mind decades!
Esquith does not seem to feel the need to work with others. While he mentions how he has gotten help from music stores, dancers, actors, art teachers and music teachers, he does not mention any collaborations he has done with teachers in his school. He has decided, effectively, to cut himself off from the rest of the adults in the building. Yes, Room 56 is a sanctuary, but by cutting himself off from the rest of the school, what is he, by example, teaching his students? Kids pick up very quickly on adult interactions. That is why I am careful to always be kind, considerate and polite to all the adults in the building, whether we like each other or not. Wouldn't it make the rest of the school a better place if more teachers were doing what he does? Why hog all the fun? I am constantly looking for colleagues to collaborate with. It makes teaching more fun, and it lowers the learning curve when you can bounce ideas off of someone who is teaching the same material and may have ideas or viewpoints that can improve your teaching.

Esquith's school is year-round. While this point is made clear throughout the book, it can make the experiences in the book misleading. The average newbie to teaching entering an urban public school will not have this timeframe. He or she will have to deal with many kids coming back after 2 months of doing God knows what over the summer, having forgotten half of what they learned the year before. (This is a huge generalization, but a truth nonetheless.) Esquith says the best time to visit D.C. is in late October or early November. His school is on break during that time. Most teachers will have had their students for only about 2 months--hardly long enough to feel comfortable taking them anywhere!

Esquith's daily schedule would never fly in most low-performing urban schools. In Philadelphia, which is pretty much your average huge, urban district, low-performing schools are under constant scrutiny. Here, I am speaking directly from personal experience.

You are told exactly how many minutes a day you have to spend on Literacy (an uninterrupted 90 minute block), Math (90 minutes, but can be broken up if needed), Science & Social Studies (2-3 45 minute periods a week depending on grade level) as well as how long/when you do Guided Reading and Intervention. Since we constantly have 'bigwigs' walking through our school writing reports on what's going on in each classroom, checking lesson plans, assessment folders, student work, you'd BETTER be doing what you're scheduled to be doing.

Recess and lunch are together and consist of a 45 minute period, not the separate 20 minutes and 1 hour. Most of our kids get about 15 minutes of recess a day--provided the weather is good and lunch runs smoothly (which, in a school of about 600 kids, rarely happens). During the winter, they sit in the auditorium. Remember, L.A. has no real 'winter!'

Esquith sends the wrong message about making a positive change in your school. After telling the Anne Frank story, Esquith says, "I would not advise young teachers to fight the powers that be....rather than waste energy on a fight that cannot be won, play the game and follow the school plan." (p. 38) What terrible advice! After reading that, new teachers coming into the profession will just bow their heads, nod and do what they're told. That kind of attitude never helps anyone! I am not advocating that teachers throw the Teacher's Guide out the window or ignore the Core Curriculum--that will never work to your advantage. But why give up before you've even tried? Go to your principal, go to your reading coach, explain to
them what you would like to do. Talk to your grade/subject partners and come up with a plan or a strategy that is aligned with the course of study and/or planning and scheduling timeline. (In the School District of Philadelphia that is the schedule that we follow so that every classroom in every school is doing the same thing at the same time--it helps our very transient students move from school to school without missing anything that's in the Core Curriculum.) The WORST thing we can do is tell teachers to not 'waste their energy' or give up on a cause. This comment seemed very out of character for someone so dedicated to what they do.

Esquith, despite my reservations about the book, is a talented, inspiring and excellent teacher. He has obviously learned from his teaching experiences over the years, modifying his approaches, methods and attitudes from year to year. This is a sign of excellence in any profession, and he makes it clear that his current successes are the product of years of failure and learning the hard way. He obviously has a lot to offer the teaching community, including those entering the profession for the first time.

I am, truth told, disheartened by the tone of the book. I fear that professors of education will offer this book to their students as a 'must read' before they enter the profession. In my opinion, this book is better read as an elective read or as a book read for discussion purposes only. I don't believe it to be a book to be used to teach educational politics, methodology or classroom management. For that, read some Jonathan Kozol or books from the Responsive Classroom series (my personal favorite: The Power of Our Words) or Discipline with Dignity. These books provide (for the most part) an in-depth description of specific methods and practices as well as, in the case of Kozol, a factual account of the state of education and society based on research and statistics.

This book is, obviously, a great discussion starter. It is an inspiring story that educators and non-educators can learn from. I think the self-centered, sometimes egotistical tone that Esquith gets when describing his classroom takes away from the successes and joys he and his students have experienced together and continue to experience as his students grow up. I think the message sometimes gets lost. Is this a book criticizing poor teaching and giving examples of good teaching, or is it a story about a teacher and his students succeeding together against all odds?

I may pick up his first book, There are No Shortcuts, to see what I find there. Interestingly enough, my school's temporary location at (the now empty) Turner Middle School in West Philadelphia also houses the first class of KIPP West, who has taped up signs that say 'No Shortcuts' in the cafeteria already. The KIPP founders were strongly influenced by the experiences of Room 56. Even their school day is as long as his, and their teachers work almost 24 hours/7 days a week.

I did go back and read Kelly Hines' post, and found that we both struggled with the same issues about the book. She, however, reflected on how she can teach to her best ability without being a total rock star, and without giving up her family life (and honestly, her life in general). I have not gotten to that point--yet.

Please visit her blog to read her reflections, and check out some other great posts she has there. Kelly has some great management techniques and organization in her classroom! : Keeping Kids First

For more information about Room 56, check out:

book cover photo from jilldoughtie on Flickr
hair on fire picture from annje on Flickr
Shakespeare picture from Wikimedia Commons


  • Esquith mentored the KIPP co-founders, too. I wonder frequently about how Esquith and KIPP deal with students who rebel against school.

  • Chad,

    I am sharing a building with a KIPP school this year, and I am dying to see how they run things. Lucky for them that if you screw up in a charter school or don't 'buy in' to their philosophy, they can kick you out!

    They definitely put in a lot of hours like he does, I must say. Their school day is 7:30am-5pm!

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