Customer Reviews: Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
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on January 27, 2007
During our teaching careers, most of us have experienced a few "Ah-ha" moments. For Rafe Esquith, his wake-up call was literally when his hair caught on fire during a science experiment. Why was he the last one in the class to realize his head was ablaze - because he had inadvertently reached classroom nirvana.

I think of it as being in the zone, Esquith labels it "ignoring the crap," either way, this gifted teacher had a transcendental moment that altered his educational philosophy forever and his influence is rapidly spreading into classrooms across the globe. Part quixotic and possibly part "mad," he has transformed his 5th grade class, of mainly ESL students, into Shakespeare-quoting individuals who have learned how to take charge of their own learning.

Esquith's book challenges such issues as the obsession with high-stakes testing, unresponsive administrators, ineffective professional development opportunities, and the "demons" that take away our energy and spirit. At the heart of his "cookbook" is getting students to take responsibility for their actions and to value failure as an integral part of the learning process.

Check out this book because it explores the realities of teaching difficult students, as opposed to your typical educational log of impractical theories. Pick up this book if you agree with his classroom motto of, "Be nice, work hard. There are no shortcuts." Finally, purchase this book if the biggest fear for your students is that they become ordinary.

Lastly, what really motivated me to buy this book was that Esquith hasn't been lured out of the classroom. Instead, he continues to embrace his mission of finding the different keys it takes to ignite each of his students.

Michael James D'Amato, author of "The Classroom"
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on February 6, 2007
Rafe Esquith's latest book is aimed at teachers and parents, but the parent part is mostly lip service -- this is mainly a book for teachers. If you're interested in this "teacher of the year's" methods, this book may be worth a look. It is less so if you teach a particular subject, as the book is better suited to elementary teachers who are generalists and teach English, math, social studies, science, art, music, and gym (to name a few) because he devotes an entire chapter to each. High school and middle school teachers will find less of interest here.

OK, so what is it you're looking for from a book like this? If you're more in it for Rafe's STORY and for what goes on his classroom, have a ball. If you're more in it for selfish reasons -- that is, methods you might emulate yourself in the classroom, proceed with care. There's no denying the book contains some useful advice and methods, but it also devotes much attention to matters beyond the realm and finances of most teachers -- full-play productions of Shakespeare, field trips that involve airplane flights (not buses) cross country, film festivals and book clubs held after school or at 6:30 in the morning. Clearly this is a devoted man and, by comparison, some teachers may feel depressed by all he pulls off (while still maintaining a life of his own).

Highlights for me were the Six Levels (in which Rafe explains wrong reasons and right reasons that kids obey their teachers), the well-thought out attack on standardized testing (the bane of any school), and the overall iconoclastic tone. Also, a few of his ideas were illuminating. True, there were not a lot of practical ideas for the classroom, but there were some and some are bound to be of use for teacher/readers.

If I taught elementary grades, I'd invest in this book and add it to my professional library (go ahead, set the bar high for yourself). If I taught junior or high school (or were simply a parent interested in education), I'd check it out at the library and pick the chapters that best suited my interests.

In any case, the bottom line is this: we should all be grateful for teachers like Rafe Esquith.
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on April 30, 2008
I read Rafe Esquith's Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire for an educational psychology class. I found his book to be very readable and full of practical information, but it is definitely for the most dedicated teachers.

Esquith writes in a readable style that is entertaining and informative. The title itself shows this, but the point of the story about his hair being caught on fire is how he became so engrossed in helping a student with her science experiment that he didn't even realize what was happening to him. The student was also really impacted by his concern. Esquith uses many examples from his own students and experience throughout the book. An example of this would be when he describes his field trips to Washington D.C. He details, very specifically, what works for his class and why it is important not to overwhelm the kids with so many things to do.

However, Esquith is a very exceptional teacher. He puts in over 12 hours a day, from the early morning to late at night, helping students who need additional help and providing before-school and after-school activities. It is evident that his extra time and effort is well-worth it, because he is helping under-privileged ESL students become world-renowned Hobart Shakespeareans. Many teachers will not have that time or level of dedication to commit to our careers, but I found some very practical suggestions which I could see incorporating into my classroom someday.

First, I liked his theory of packing learning into every moment of every day. From the moment his students walk into the door in the morning they are learning and Esquith keeps up the momentum throughout the day. He packs as much in by incorporating material from different subjects into one activity, even in art and music. I also learned suggestions for how to make students enjoy learning for the sake of learning. We want them to work their way up to realizing that they are responsible for their education, so it is important to do their very best at all times for themselves, not for the teacher or grade. Finally, I liked that he actually provides the links and information for where to get the materials and tools he uses, so anyone can put his theories into action.

The only thing that irritated me a little about the book was the fact that Esquith seemed to have a self-righteous tone throughout. He constantly praised his students, and indirectly himself, comparing them to other students and classrooms. In a way this praise is rightly deserved, but I felt it was used a little excessively throughout the book.

The average, even good teacher, might not have the extreme passion that Esquith displays for his profession, but for those willing to put in just a little extra time and effort this book is definitely well worth a read.
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on July 7, 2011
After reading the first two chapters, I was inspired! Esquith's motto of "We can do better" resonated within me. Yes, I thought, we CAN do better.

I bought this book hoping for inspiration that could help me reach my at-risk learners. However, most teachers will never be able to teach the way that the author does. There are many things about Esquith's practice that are unattainable for me and my colleagues. I cannot realistically ever expect to be able to purchase my own science kits, to pay for guitar lessons for my students, or to spend from 6:45 am to 7 pm at school every day (and go back on Saturdays!) and still be an enthusiastic, balanced, dedicated educator.

Instead of inspired, I felt disheartened. I recommend purchasing an alternate book that focuses on modifying classroom practices, such as Igniting a Passion for Reading, instead of this book.
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on December 29, 2007
Rafe Esquith is vulnerable, challenging, inspiring and honest. These qualities reveal themselves in this candid look at his own teaching practices, and how he has been able to motivate fifth grade students in a rough school district of Los Angeles to succeed in glorious ways. The winner of a variety of national awards, Esquith uses his words to encourage and challenge readers to demand the best they have to offer, and to demand the same from the students they work with. I read the book cover to cover, and was inspired to become a better teacher. If you are looking for hope, inspiration and growth as a teacher or parent, then this book is for you.
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on January 27, 2007
I'm a teacher at a public continuation high school in California. I heard about this book on my afternoon commute home listening to NPR. I'm always looking for material to inspire me to become a better teacher. Liking what I heard on the radio, I ordered the book. I was not dissapointed. I resonate with Rafe's passion for teaching and I found many useful ideas in this book even though the students I teach are at the end of their public school journey and his are in the fifth grade. I would recomment this book to any teacher or parent who wants to light their little ones' hearts on fire with a love of learning. His enthusiasm is contagious and is a wonderful "shot in the arm" to any teacher who is struggling in the trenches. I found Mr. Esquith's writing to be upbeat, informative, and when there was blame, it was evenly spread amongst the government, administrators, teachers, and parents-- all whom have a say in how our kids are educated. California is inundated with English learners, yet this book touts a "no holds barred" strategy for having all our kids striving for excellence: no excuses! And he's right in claiming to be "an actual teacher." Many pundits hit the road with their book, abandoning the field to hawk their book and theories, not so with this teacher apparently. You can still find him in room 56. Thanks. Mahalo. I mean it. Two thumbs up. Rock on! Garth.
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on February 16, 2008
Rafe Esquith is an exceptional, experienced teacher, and this book helps to clarify how he teaches. As with any exceptional professional, it is unlikely that all of his methods will be valid for any other teacher, but each teacher and parent who reads this is likely to walk away with some new ideas and a renewed excitement for the wonderful potential of a 5th grade classroom to achieve substantially higher outcomes than most of us have come to expect.

Beyond providing insightful methods for teaching the various subjects, from reading to mathematics problemsolving to multiple choice testing, he inspires me by his approach to helping his students develop self-discipline and character by applying the six levels of motivation. This is a wonderful achievement, and perhaps the greatest lesson of all.

Rafe is not of the opinion that every teacher can or should emulate everything he does. Not only are most teachers not able or willing to dedicate as much time to their profession, each teacher has their own areas of expertise and passion which they should bring to bear in the classroom.

He is understandably proud of his achievements, but readily acknowledges many of his mistakes and sources of insight. Like any good teacher, he is constantly improving his methods by learning from others.

My main critique, of both the book and the author, whom I have met in person, is that he does not always respect his students to the same degree that he claims in his book. I have seen him give them backhanded compliments sarcastically in public in their presence, which contradicts his mantra of always modelling the respect of others that he wants them to attain. This does not, however, reduce the value of this book for educators and parents alike. I doubt many who read this book will finish it without a broader perspective of what is possible.
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The failing of our education system is one of my biggest worries as a parent of two in the public school system. I have seen first hand the disinterest of teachers as well as students. Everyone is forced into a box and made to perform like circus animals. They are being trained, not educated. When most teachers have given in and given up in this climate of over-reaching and under-funded "No Child Left Behind," Rafe Esquith has gone beyond. He despises it but finds a way to work with-in it and gives his kids a fighting chance. He's part teacher, part parent, and part saint. Every child in the world deserves a teacher as dedicated and versatile as Rafe Esquith.
Too often, school officials feel test prep is the only way to get student scores up and in turn, get the money the schools need. Well, in "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56" Esquith shows how "teaching" is actually the answer. I feel hopeful for all our kids when I read a book such as this. There is so much possibility as long as there are teachers willing to go the extra mile and demand more out of our kids than how to read prompts and Christmas tree their answers and then go home. Education is not about tests or scores but as Esquith has proved with his 5th graders, it's about lighting a fire beneath them and giving them a love of and a desire for learning. Rafe Esquith's "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56" should be mandatory reading for every person who takes on the job of educating our children. No less should be tolerated.
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on February 17, 2007
Esquith has wonderful ideas and this is an excellent book insofar as it shows what can be done with creativity, patience, and dedication. Still, the reader should understand one thing up front--only a minority of teachers, even good teachers, have the same mindset and dedication that Esquith has.

As the manager of a juvenile hall in California, I loved Esquith's classroom philosophy--there are no shortcuts--and as he points out, to be effective you first have to establish what the rules of conduct are in your class. He teaches kids to respect themselves and each other. He is patient, tenacious, and appears open to better ideas. These are great things to model for kids.

A quick look at some downsides of Esquith's book: it is not all that well-written or organized. Worse, he and his book would come off better if he just told us what he does, how he does it, and how he sells his kids and their parents on his program. Instead, in what almost appears to be a (needless) effort to make himself look good, he dishes out criticisms of teachers, school administrators, and other persons and entities who he regards as less enlightened than himself--sometimes to a point where he seems self-righteous and condescending. School administrators and bad teachers are easy and even deserving targets but reading horror story after horror story is tedious and, because it seems somewhat mean-spirited at times, Esquith as a common scold tends to undercut his image. It's almost as if his editor needed to tell him, "Rafe, you're a great teacher, most everyone recognizes it, and you don't need to badmouth others to burnish your own reputation--just tell us how you do what you do with your kids."

I'd suggest that teachers cherry-pick this book for ideas that they feel comfortable with, that work for them, and that help the kids in their classes. Nesquith makes things happen, he's proven himself over the past 25 years, and there also is plenty in this book to make it worthwhile reading for non-teachers who work with kids.
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on February 4, 2007
As a public school teacher, I often lament about all the frustrating and pointless changes that I have had to endure over the course of my 23 years of teaching. The madness of chasing after accountability has slowly been sapping the energy out of myself and I am sure out countless others in the teaching profession. Just when I was thinking all hope was lost I stumbled upon this incredible book by Rafe Esquith. In the tradition of Chicken Soup for The Teacher's Soul, this book truly does remind us about what motivated us to become teachers in the first place: Our Students.

The true beauty of this book is that it is written by someone who is actually in the trenches. Mr. Esquith has been teaching in the same school for 22 years in a less than desirable location in Los Angeles. This clearly adds to the credibility of his message and the inspirational affect the book has on the reader. In short Rafe Esquith "gets it".

He shares in the book his own frustration with a "test happy" system that has gone mad, and how it drives him crazy. Yet despite this reality, he has still one sanctuary left that he has control over and that is Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School.

The book is a beautiful blend of practical suggestions and inspirational proof of what takes place in room 56. As a teacher at the high school level I was skeptical about how I could incorporate any strategy that he used in a 5th grade classroom with juniors and seniors. What I learned however, is the message he tries to convey to his students, "be nice and work hard" though simple, has relevance for any age level.

This book is a must for all teachers. Whether you are a wet behind the ears newbie or a slightly graying grissly veteran like myself, this book will inspire you. The book is also great for anyone who needs to believe that there are still inspirational people in the world. I know this is going to be a book that I keep very handy as a reminder to me about why I do what I do.

Thank God for incredible human beings like Rafe Esquith. I know he did not write this book for recognition or praise because he is clearly a level VI thinker, but I am thankful he did. This book can and should inspire generations of current and future teachers for years to come.

Mike Elko-Langhorne, PA - Go Falcons
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