It’s been nearly three weeks since I visited Rafe Esquith’s classroom at Hobart Blvd. Elementary School, and I’m still thinking about what I saw, and how it relates to the work we do with kids here at Wildwood.
Hobart Blvd. Elementary in Los Angeles’s Koreatown is a non-descript Los Angeles public school serving a predominantly Latino and Korean-American student body. Eighty-five percent of the students at Hobart qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—a common indicator of poverty.
Here Rafe Esquith, the most influential classroom teacher in America, (according to The Washington Post’s long-time education reporter Jay Matthews), does things his way.
After spending some time there, I saw that his way is in many ways, the Wildwood way.
His core focus is on instilling skills and habits that prepare students to meet the challenges ahead. And the outcomes are irrefutable. Despite their modest means, Rafe’s students from the past three decades have gone on to lead happy, fulfilling lives, with scores attending the most prestigious universities in the country.
On the day I visit Rafe’s classroom, I can see this focus first-hand. The school day is over, and I’m sitting in on a typical 3-hour afterschool rehearsal of the Hobart Shakespeareans, an internationally recognized group of Hobart 3rd through 5th graders, led by Rafe. His students perform a different Shakespeare play each year. This year, the play is The Tempest and over 50 students are arrayed across the room, and each has an open copy. Silent and attentive, the students are entirely focused on their peers who are rehearsing a scene on the makeshift stage at the back of the room.
Rafe seems aware of what about this scenario might pique his classroom visitors’ curiosities most, so when the scene concludes he asks a young boy, rhetorically, why he and his peers are so quiet and attentive. “Because it shows the students rehearsing that they matter to us; it’s respectful.”
Immediately, my thoughts turn to Wildwood’s Life Skills—the personal qualities and skills that we consistently weave into our own elementary program. One of these, Interpersonal Skills, includes the respect and good manners that this young man describes.
As if reading my mind, Rafe asks his students this follow-up: “What else are we doing here today that has nothing at all to do with Shakespeare?” Hands shoot up everywhere. “We’re learning to be organized—we need to know our cues and our stage directions,” says one student. “You have to know your lines and everyone else’s in your scene—so we’re learning to be responsible and collaborative.” Again, I hear an echo of the Wildwood Life Skills.
What’s my takeaway? While there are obvious differences between Wildwood and Rafe Esquith’s classroom at Hobart Blvd. Elementary– differences that can’t be glossed over—the students in both settings benefit profoundly from each’s rich, nurturing environment. Wildwood classrooms, like Rafe’s, flourish in an atmosphere of respect, trust, and a sensitivity to each child’s needs. It’s good educational practice, and it knows no socio-economic bounds. However, to make substantive changes in every child’s education, we need more Rafe Esquiths… and more Wildwoods.
~ By Steve Barrett, Director Of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning
Learn more. Rafe Esquith is also a New York Times bestselling author.