Stranger in a Strange Land (with apologies to Robert Heinlein)

I just returned from spending four days with approximately 18,000 reading teachers from around the world, who met in Atlanta, GA for the International Reading Association’s Annual Convention. There were many outstanding speakers throughout the conference, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Alice Walker, and David Baldacci. Yet perhaps the most inspirational speaker was not a famous actor or blockbuster author, but a teacher. That speaker would be Rafe Esquith, who, while not a household name, is considered a celebrity and a rock star in the world of elementary education. He has garnered a litany of awards, including the American Teacher Award, the President’s National Medal of the Arts, and recognition by the Dalai Lama. He’s been the subject of a PBS documentary, and has authored two books that describe his approach to teaching: “There Are No Shortcuts” and “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire”. Here’s an excerpt from the cover flap of the second book:

In a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs, and drugs, there is an exceptional classroom known as Room 56. The fifth graders inside are first-generation immigrants who live in poverty and speak English as a second language. They also play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare, score in the top 1 percent on standardized tests, and go on to attend Ivy League universities. Rafe Esquith is the teacher responsible for these accomplishments. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire!, Rafe Esquith reveals the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. The two mottoes in Esquith’s classroom are “Be Nice, Work Hard” and “There Are No Shortcuts.” His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 in the morning and work until 5:00 in the afternoon. They learn to handle money responsibly, tackle algebra, and travel the country to study history. They pair Hamlet with rock and roll, and read the American classics. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! is a brilliant and inspiring road map for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about the future success of our nation’s children.

Both books are available from Amazon, but only the second one is offered in a Kindle version.

In this brilliant treatise, (which should be standard issue to all new teachers) Esquith writes the following:

Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time. It is often exceedingly difficult to convince young people of this fact, given the world in which they are growing up. Esquith continues: Never as a child was I put through thousands of hours of testing to assess my reading progress. I spent those hours reading great books. Those books made me hungry for more books. My appetite for literature and trips to the library were a better assessment of my progress than any standardized test. My students made up their own reading test consisting of only three questions. According to them, it is a far more accurate test of reading proficiency than anything designed by some testing service:

1. Have you ever secretly read under your desk in school because the teacher was boring and you were dying to finish the book you were reading?

2. Have you ever been scolded for reading at the dinner table?

3. Have you ever read secretly under the covers after being told to go to bed?

My students agree that if a child answers yes to all three questions, he or she is destined to become a reader for life.

Esquith, along with many other presenters at the conference, had nothing but contempt for two current pillars of the American education system: Basal readers, and No Child Left Behind. [According to Wikipedia, “Basal readers are textbooks used to teach reading and associated skills to schoolchildren. Commonly called “reading books,” they are usually published as anthologies that combine previously published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works.] Or as Esquith puts it,

school districts have turned to monotonous shared reading texts and have ordered all teachers to teach the same material at the same pace to all students. The district’s list of reading objectives always focus on fluency, comprehension and other necessary but deadly dull goals. I have never seen district reading objectives in which the words joy, passion or excitement are on the list.

You can learn more about this heroic individual by visiting his website at:

As an outsider looking in on the field of education, I couldn’t help feel a liitle like Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 classic sci-fi novel, ” Stranger in a Strange Land” (I just couldn’t grok so much of it). Wandering around the massive exhibit hall, and sitting in on many of the seminars, I came away with a couple of admitedly simplistic observations:

1) School administrations and state education ministries are motivated by a paralytic fear of failure to deliver adequate test scores, resulting in a massive juxtaposition of education budgets, now reallocated to support the holy grail of acheiving and maintaining “Adequate Yearly Progress”. No mention of terms like “love of learning”.

2) The textbook publishing and test prep industries have capitalized on this fear and paranoia by creating, at great expense, vast amounts of “scientifically researched and designed materials” to help students master the tests. Using complex diagnostic and analytical approaches, along with prescriptive programs of intervention and remediation, (only to be administered by highly trained and highly paid experts) the industry offers desparate school districts lifelines that promise spectacular results in terms of student achievement. (If said results are not forthcoming, not to worry, there’s another program you can try. )

3) Lost among all the hysteria is the fact that the greatest influence on kids’ ability to learn is the quality of the teachers, and their discretion in choosing inspiring and exciting material to teach their students. For demonstrated proof of this “theory”, see above discussion of Rafe Esquith and his 5th grade “Hobart Shakespeareans”.

So instead of spending billions on achieving such vague and nebulous objectives as “Adequate Yearly Progress”, maybe we should simply reallocate some of that money to hire really good teachers, pay them a decent wage, and let them teach the way they want. (Oh yeah, and spend some of those billions on good books that the kids can take home and actually read. This convention simply reinforced the conviction I have that probably half of the expenditures on areas such as intervention and remediation of below-grade readers would be unnecessary if more parents simply read to their kids)

You can find Esquith’s second book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire here:


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