Lore of the jungle

18th April 2008 at 01:00

Rafe Esquith, an elementary school teacher in a rundown part of Los Angeles, makes extraordinary efforts to give his pupils a fighting chance of success - and he expects them to do the same. His students, mostly from poor Hispanic and Korean families who speak English as a second language, if at all, go on to some of the finest universities in the US. Now he has written a book explaining his remarkable story. Geraldine Brennan introduces the first of two extracts.

Rafe Esquith has been teaching fifth grade (Year 5) at Hobart Boulevard elementary school in downtown Los Angeles for 17 years (Friday magazine, November 29, 2002). Since 1988, he's also been running Saturday sessions for 50 of his former pupils, whom he coaches through high school, seeing many of them into college.

He started his career in a 300-pupil school in a well-heeled middle-class suburb. He calls this school "Camelot" in his book, There Are No Shortcuts, while Hobart (2,300 pupils, mostly Hispanic, none speaking English at home, 92 per cent on free school meals) is called "the jungle".

Mr Esquith vowed in 1983 to help his "jungle" pupils, nine and 10-year-olds who live in the midst of LA gang culture, reach level pegging with the "Camelot" kids; There Are No Shortcuts, published in New York next week (April 23), tells how he did it and the title is his rallying cry, once displayed on a 50-ft banner across his classroom.

The formula is simple: extra teaching hours (his pupils can be in class from 6.30am to 6pm), high expectations and glimpses of the world that he maintains hard work makes accessible to all. He takes his class to Shakespeare festivals, baseball games and Hollywood Bowl symphony concerts, to Washington DC, Boston and Yosemite National Park. Later, when past pupils are applying to university, he accompanies them to campus tours and interviews. And the effort pays off - Mr Esquith's students go on to some of the United States' best universities including Northwestern, Cornell, Columbia and Berkeley. Of those who continue studying on the Saturday programme, 100 per cent go on to college.

The US is more lavish with high-profile acclaim for teachers than the UK: Mr Esquith has received accolades from the Disney Corporation, Parent magazine (both have named him teacher of the year), People (which gave him a "hero award") and Oprah Winfrey. Last year, he even received honours from the United Kingdom, an MBE for services to Anglo-American relations: his "Hobart Shakespeareans" - a troupe of past and present pupils - have appeared at Shakespeare's Globe thanks to their biggest fan, Sir Ian McKellen. Mr Esquith took his class to Sir Ian's one-man Shakespeare show in 1987; the actor invited them backstage and has been a friend of Hobart since.

Sir Ian says: "I keep in touch through the annual production of Shakespeare, when, every afternoon for a week, the computers and desks are cleared back so an audience of 30 parents and friends can squeeze in and marvel and cry with delight and amazement that against so many odds, familiar words and stories are re-told with passion and understanding by kids whose parents speak no English. I could never hope for a more clearly felt Henry V, Angelo and even Leontes and King Lear (all under 12 remember) than I have seen in that Koreatown classroom."

There have been no shortcuts, but Mr Esquith admits there have been some troublesome and painful detours. He is honest in the book about his own errors of judgment, such as making himself ill through overwork when he took on extra jobs as a courier or usher at rock concerts to pay for sports equipment, art materials and school trips (at one point he was working two overnight shifts a week delivering papers, then going to school), and about his distress when communication breaks down with former pupils or colleagues who do not share his approach. But in two extracts from his book, this week and next, he describes what works in his classroom and why he does it.

My father was a boxer. He fought almost 100 amateur bouts and two professional ones. My mother made him quit the ring, but he was always a boxer. In 1948, he was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. They couldn't knock him down - he told them nothing, and they never laid a glove on him, he always answered the bell. Even on his deathbed, heavily medicated to kill the pain from cancer, the 48-year-old social worker kept asking his nurses: "May I help you?"

My mother raised me to help others. That's why I teach. We teachers are all boxers. We get hit a lot. I've been knocked down so many times I'm often woozy.

But I've learned something in my first 19 years in the classroom: all teachers, even the best ones, get knocked down. The difference between the best ones and the others is that the best ones always get up to answer the bell.

May you always get up. It is a child ringing the bell, and he needs your help.

When parents of children who attend one of the private schools on the West Side of Los Angeles notice that their children are having trouble with a subject, they understand that studying with a paid tutor will improve the child's performance. Parents of poor children cannot hire tutors. They cannot afford after-school enrichment programs. To help students bring their academic performance up to the level of their wealthier contemporaries, I have extended the number of school days and lengthened the hours each day so that they have more time to practise the skills that bring academic success. There was nothing magic about Magic Johnson. He became a great basketball player not only because of his colossal talent, but also because he spent thousands of lonely hours perfecting his craft through discipline and enormously hard work.

America should be the land of equal opportunity. Does any sane person believe that this is true for a child growing up in poverty? Many students are terrific kids with outstanding abilities, but they come from poor areas plagued with crime. Many of them are fatherless. Many live with people who have drug, alcohol or other emotional problems. Some kids don't have either parent at home and are being raised by relatives or friends. Their guardians often don't speak English. Older siblings may be involved with gangs and drugs. How can I, as their teacher, level the playing field for these kids? It becomes level when they understand there are no shortcuts.

I challenge them with what some would call a gruelling schedule of hard work and study from 6.30am until 5pm. They come to class during their vacations and often work with me at my house on Saturday afternoons. The regular school schedule provides approximately 16 weeks of vacation a year, based on the old farm calendar when children needed to help their families harvest crops. My students have no crops to harvest, nor do they have summer homes, summer camp, or private lessons to occupy them during vacations. Their choice is between my classroom, a tiny cell where they live, or the streets. My room is where they find a chance to catch up to their wealthy peers. No, I don't get paid for the extra work. Someone has to do something, and perhaps someday the politicians who claim an interest in education will recognise that the way to improve math and reading, without sacrificing science, history, art, and music, is to extend the amount of time students spend in school.

Meanwhile, based on my belief that there are no shortcuts and the knowledge that my students have been dealt a lousy hand, here is the daily schedule for my fifth grade (Year 5) students: 6.30am Students arrive: math team (problem solving, spatial relations, mental math, estimation); 8 written language (English grammar); 8.30 mathematics; 9.30 literature; 10.30 United States history; 11 break (students have the option to stay in and learn to play guitar); 11.20 science; 12 noon world geography and economics; 12.30pm lunch (optional guitar lessons continue); 1.20 fine arts and economics; 2.20 physical education; 2:58 regular school is dismissed; 3 Shakespeare; 4 study hall (students may stay or leave for home); 6 last students leave.

Teachers may choose not to follow this particular schedule, but extending class past the traditional time boundaries not only gives more teaching time, but also sends an important message to students. The teacher, by example, is telling the kids that school counts, that school is an important place, and that education is the key that will open the door to a better future. Yes, the work is hard, but if a compassionate and caring teacher with a sense of humour leads the lessons, the kids will work enthusiastically and amaze everyone with their accomplishments.

The rest of our school currently begins at 8am and ends at 3pm. My students are in class at least three hours a day more than the other students, and this doesn't include the vacation and Saturday hours they work. The average student at my school will spend approximately 150 hours each year receiving arithmetic instruction. The students in my class will receive over 400.

Students at the jungle will read with a teacher for 200 hours each year, at the most. My students will read for more than 500 hours with me. You don't have to be (Jean) Piaget to predict the results.

UCLA basketball coach John Wooden says: "The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition." The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created eight laws of learning: namely, explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition."

In 1992, I took my class, as I always do, on a trip to Disneyland. This trip is used as a teaching tool far beyond the joy of visiting the Magic Kingdom. The kids spend two days there, staying in a hotel. They learn to handle and budget money, pay bills and organise eating and sleeping arrangements in order to prepare for longer trips we'll be taking during the year. It's a valuable experience for them.

After two days and 60 rides, the kids were tired but happy as we boarded a van and several cars to make the 30-mile trip back to Los Angeles. When our caravan got off the Santa Monica freeway for the final few miles of the trip, our vehicles were attacked by mobs in the street. What the hell was going on?

Having been at Disneyland, we hadn't listened to any news for two days. Had we done so, we would have known that the verdicts had been rendered regarding the police beatings of Rodney King, and the shocking (but perhaps not surprising) not-guilty decisions had been declared. Many people's passions were inflamed, and Los Angeles was going to be as well. The van and cars made it through the crowds with the kids lying on the floor, and they managed to arrive home safely. Although our class was officially on vacation, all the kids were due at school the following day to work on problem-solving skills and continue reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I hadn't planned it that way, of course, but reading Malcolm X when the neighborhood was on fire did bring a rather extraordinary intensity to this already brilliant book.

At 7am my class showed up in the school library, as other students who were officially in session were using our classroom. The school was mostly empty; many parents were keeping their children at home that day. By 10am, the word was out that our block was going up in flames that night and everyone was clearing out of our school. I, however, had the students continue to work on solving problems. I have never claimed to be rational.

Finally, one student looked out the window of the library and mentioned to me that he could see buildings across the street on fire. He wanted to know if we were planning to leave soon, because the school was basically deserted.

"But Manuel," I told him, "math is very important. Remember, there are no shortcuts."

Manuel shot back, "That may be, Rafe, but let me tell you something. I'm taking a shortcut outta here!"

We left school, but I figured we were making progress. After all, if under siege the kids were using my motto to make a point, it's getting through, right?"

Extract from `There Are No Shortcuts' by Rafe Esquith. Copyright ) 2003 by Rafe Esquith. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. l Next week: How capitalism works in the classroom.

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