Channel 13 Celebrates Teaching & Learning:
A Great Teacher, Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith literally lives to teach. Working at least 12 hour days and foregoing Saturdays and vacations, Esquith devotes all his passion and energy towards improving the minds of his students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles as well as their lives in general.
At the recent WNET/WLIW inaugural “Celebration of Teaching and Learning” Esquith and his students traveled 3,000 miles to be at pier 94 in NYC. Esquith provided inspirational words for educators as well as evidence of the wonderful work he’s doing through performances by students.
In spite of all the accolades Esquith has received, including being knighted by the British Empire and receiving the Disney Teacher of the Year award, the real reward for him is seeing students succeed and be happy. Although he could easily teach in a different school, or serve in the capacity of a school administrator, Esquith chooses to stay at the overcrowded Hobart Elementary where 92 percent of students speak English as a second language and are from families below the poverty line. His goal as a teacher is for “students to learn skills that will help them not just now, but five, ten years down the road.” One of many innovative systems Esquith has developed is teaching students life skills through a real estate model. All students have to pay rent for their seats with front row seats being top dollar. Students earn money by exhibiting diligence, and “being a good kid.” If a student is really entrepreneurial, he can become the landlord of a few seats and have others pay him the rent. Esquith expects and receives excellence from his students in terms of character and academic performance. Through his powerful teaching approach students have become what Esquith calls “Hobart Shakespeareans,” performing not only Shakespeare’s works, but professional level musical performances to accompany them.
Recounting to the audience his early experience and the development of the “Hobart Shakespeareans,” Esquith described how he was initially irked by students being pulled out of his class for orchestra, thinking they were losing valuable class time. He soon made the discovery that students who came from orchestra were much more alert and attentive; that it wasn’t just music that they were learning, but they were developing discipline and stamina to work hard. The idea came to him to combine his love of Shakespeare and music. The proposal was rejected by the school administration, with the ironic response of: “We don’t want you to teach Shakespeare; we’d rather have you teach something more academic.” And so Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was performed instead. The superintendent exclaimed “it was the best performance of Shakespeare she’d ever seen.”
Overcoming these initial debacles, the “Hobart Shakespeareans” has become a symbol for teacher and student excellence. Recently a documentary film capturing the accomplishments of Esquith and his students entitled The Hobart Shakespeareans, was co-produced by Mel Stuart Productions, Inc., P.O.V./American Documentary Inc., and Thirteen/WNET.
At Channel Thirteen’s Celebration, Esquith’s students engaged in a performance highlighted with creativity, humor and intelligence, Shakespearean scenes and information surrounding his life and works. Students powerfully re-enacted Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, with a maturity which belied their middle school age. Talented student musicians strummed on the guitar and beat the drums as a musical accompaniment to the scenes, having developed these skills with Esquith over the course of the school year.
Esquith throughout the performance watched from the sidelines, mouthing the words, or laughing at the humorous scenes.
The moral discipline Esquith aims to instill in his students was clearly evident by their respect for one another and their devotion to their task. “Don’t clap too much for these students,” Esquith warned, however, at the end of their performance, “I want them to remain humble.” He encourages teachers to be role models for their students and stated: “these students work hard because I do.”
With his personality, support and endurance, it’s not hard to envision students becoming stars, not necessarily in the theatre, but in life.#