Bringing innovation to the American education system is about like bringing reform to America’s health care system: It ain’t easy. There are so many compulsory tests and curriculum that even the most creative school teacher can’t get around, but Rafe Esquith is up for the challenge.
Mr. Esquith is the forward-thinking teacher of the so-called “Hobart Shakespeareans“, a group of bright, determined 5th graders who have the odds stacked against them: They come from poor immigrant families living in the tough inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Their school, Hobart Boulevard Elementary, is overcrowded and underfunded. Despite this, Esquith expects his kids to be extraordinary, by giving them a learning environment like none other.
Operating on the motto of, “Be nice, work hard. There are no shortcuts”, Esquith teaches his students to work diligently and have fun while doing it. There is a play version of the real world in the classroom, where the children get to take on the roles of jobs such as banker, police officer, clerk or janitor, and they earn pretend paychecks for their work and by getting good grades. They also have to pay “rent” for their desks!
All students are involved in music lessons, many becoming fluent in several instruments; they take field trips around the world (funded by generous donations), they are rigorously taught Shakespeare, which consequently helps to improve their english, and at the end of each school year perform one of Shakespeare’s plays with outstanding execution. They are taught to be thoughtful and kind, and every 24th of December current students and alumni gather to feed, perform for and sing to the homeless.
Sir Ian McKellen, a seasoned Shakespearean actor himself, has said of the young students, “You can’t watch the little actors without wanting to cry. Why do you cry? I suppose it’s happiness, really, and a regret that not all the children in the world could have a Rafe Esquith for a teacher.”
Esquith is indeed a rare individual, one who gives honestly and devotedly to his students year after year. He still takes home the meager teacher’s salary of $40,000/year, and has refused offers to transfer to other schools. His methods have been tested and true, with former students having been accepted to such universities as Princeton, Harvard and Yale.
For further information on this facinating, innovative man (who is also the author of several books) and his brilliant students, watch the documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans, and read this interview by filmmaker Mel Stuart.
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