BY MARK CIMILUCA
Rafe Esquith is the only teacher ever to win the President’s Medal of Arts Award. In 2007, he was named the most “interesting and influential classroom teacher” by the Washington Post. Esquith was chosen as this year’s speaker for the Riall Lecture Series at Salisbury University.
The Riall Lecture began 25 years ago from a bequest by former Salisbury Common School Principal, Pauline Riall. The goal of the series is to bring outstanding education experts to Salisbury University. Dr. Keith Conners, chair of the Riall Committee, said he hopes that the lecture will leave students “inspired, excited, and energized.”
Esquith offered numerous pieces of advice to a packed crowd in Holloway Hall’s auditorium. He teaches inner city fifth grade students. Ninety- two percent of his students live below the poverty line, and many do not speak English when they enter his classroom. However, after leaving his room, known as room 56, his students go on to score well on standardized tests and attend prestigious universities.
He teaches a unique curriculum which consists of first-hand experience in money management, music and Shakespearian plays. Esquith acknowledged that he does not have all of the answers, but hoped that he could provide tips to aspiring teachers. Indeed, some students came for that purpose.
“I want to take the information given, and use it later in life,” sophomore Sam Stern said. “Esquith’s first and central piece of advice was, “Be who you want them to be.”
Esquith said that he does not care about the test scores.
His students score well on standardized tests, but he is more concerned with students learning real life skills. For example, his classroom emulates an economy. Each student performs a task for a salary, and must pay rent to sit in their seat.
Bonuses are available for students who put in extra work, and students can purchase items with their salary. Saving is rewarded. Those students, who save up enough, can purchase seats. Thus, the student no longer has to pay rent. The student can also buy other seats, and charge rent.
This exercise teaches a lesson on ownership, and saving. However, when a student owns seats they must pay taxes in them. This is similar to a real economy.
Esquith hopes that these skills, and many more taught in his classroom, will make students successful later in life. The classroom economy is only a small part of the curriculum. His typical class days are 12 hours long, and consist of performing Shakespeare, rock and roll, and novel reading. His students are known as the “Hobart Shakespearians.”
Additionally, they can play all kinds of instruments ranging from drums to the sitar. These skills transform students, for most of his students come from a rough environment. Therefore, Esquith seeks to make his classroom a “safe haven.”
Moral principle is also at the root of Esquith’s curriculum. He teaches his students Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. He encourages all teachers to do the same. The goal is for students to reach the 6th and final stage. At this stage, students make choices because it is right thing to do. That is, being honorable and respectful.
Esquith explained a story of one of his former students. This student was notorious for having long hair. However, one day he came back to visit Room 56, and had a shaved head. The student explained that he had shaved his head, and donated his hair to girl who lost her hair during cancer treatment.
“That is level 6,” Esquith noted.
A common stage of moral development for schools is level 2. Level 2 consists of rewards for doing the “right” thing. Esquith disagrees with this level at schools, and says that students should not need a reward for doing something. The reward is what is gained through reading a book, or keeping works areas clean. This lesson can apply to everyone.
Lastly, Esquith emphasizes leading by example. In other words, avoid hypocrisy.
“Behave the way you want your students to behave, If you want your students to be nice, be as nice as you possible can.” He said. This is a lesson applicable to all kind kinds of leaders.
In all, Rafe Esquith teaches in his own style. He creates the curriculum. He has his students play music, read plays, manage money, and more. He is unconventional. Esquith says “Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” Esquith is teaching students who are in a difficult environment, and hopes that he can spread his message to aspiring teachers.
The 25th Annual Riall lecture ended with a standing ovation, and several students stayed after to meet with Esquith.