Book Review: There Are No Shortcuts, by Rafe Esquith

It mentions TWICE on the cover of this book that Rafe Esquith was the winner of the American Teacher Award. The list of awards continues on the inside cover: National Medal of the Arts, Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, Parent’s magazine As You Grow Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. This guy’s got credentials.

He’s also got a bit of a pompous attitude in his book There Are No Shortcuts, but maybe it’s forgivable in light of the miracles he is performing in the lives of 5th graders at Hobart Elementary in inner-city LA. I first saw Esquith in a PBS documentary, one of the P.O.V. (Point of View) specials. I was completely enthralled by his teaching style, and the way the children listened and followed, as if he were the Pied Piper. Esquith has his 5th graders – 100% of whom are not native English-speakers – reading and performing Shakespeare, disecting classic literature, and solving algebraic equations. They go to school (enthusiastically!) from 6am to 5pm every day. He teaches them classical music on guitar. He is phenominal.

His book chronicles his early years of teaching, his arrival at Hobart Elementary, and his many maverick ideas about public education. I couldn’t figure out who his intended audience is: parents? teachers? administrators? The book is all over the place in its narrative, and there are plenty of self-congratulatory passages. But Esquith does have some interesting ideas to share, one of my favorite being his in-class economic system he sets up with his students every year. Each student “applies” for a job (classroom police, janitor, clerk, librarian, attendance monitor, etc), with a salary attached to each position. Some of the jobs require references, and Esquith will actually contact those references (former teachers, neighbors) to verify if the student is qualified for the job. The students get paid every Friday, but they must also pay rent on their seats in class. If they save up enough money, they can buy their seat and keep it for the year. If they spend their money during one of the in-class auctions, and they don’t have enough to pay rent on their seat, they sit on the floor. It’s actually quite an ingenious program.

Esquith tells of the times he worked as many as three other jobs (in addition to teaching) to afford the many public outings his class takes – camping trips, the Hollywood Bowl, etc. Eventually, though, he hooked up with many generous sponsors and now takes his students to Europe, Washington DC, several college campuses a year. He wants to show these 1st generation Americans what they should be working for. He also has some very well-known patrons, including Sir Ian McKellen and Hal Holbrook.

I think what Esquith is doing is amazing, and I’d send my 5th grader to him in a ~heartbeat~. I’m just not sure after reading the tone of this book that I’d like to sit with him in a room for an hour or become best pals. I don’t know how on earth he’s been able to do all he’s done within a public school system, but like he says, he’s a renegade and goes against many of the rules.

This was an interesting book, and may give parents and new teachers a wake-up call for what public education can – and maybe should? – be like for ALL students.

*Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link included.