"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lighting Their Fires: a Book Review

Below is my short review of Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, by LAUSD teacher Rafe Esquith. Rafe is a well-known teacher, but I was not drawn to his book based on his accolades. I was drawn to his work because other people in the education world have claimed to based their work on his approach to learning and teaching. My curiosity led me to read all three of his books, visit his Hobart Shakespeareans website, and exchange the occaisonal e-mail and phone call with the friendly fellow (I also hope to visit his classroom someday).

Rafe is a humble man. He tells me he fails every day and every year despite the long hours he puts into his work. There's no illusion that "all kids can learn" if we just had the best teachers, a drill-and-kill approach, or No Excuses pedagogical approaches - and this is coming from a man that is widely considered to be a great teacher by a wide variety of folks.

The book isn't aimed at teachers - it's aimed at parents. That being said, all parents are teachers and many teachers act as a type of parent for their students. One of the things I most appreciate about Rafe is his take on testing:
"Schools today are basing a lot of your child's education on test scores, and I believe in assessing children, but we've made these test scores the be-all and end-all of existence and they're not. These tests that the children take don't measure things that I think will be really beneficial to a child later in life. They don't measure their ability to make wise decisions, their unselfishness, their ability to delay gratification." [Excerpted from this video]
Also, be sure to check out this video of Rafe discussing "bad metrics." He talks about tests being a thermometer, which is certainly a more appropriate way to evaluate learning (and a way to evaluate his teaching). Be sure to note the section where Rafe talks about the "lost in translation" syndrome:
I've had charter schools come to my class and say, "Oh, we're going to be like Rafe," and they turn their schools into these Dickensian prisons and then hold up their test scores and go, "We're a great school, we're a 95." Well I gotta tell you, I've met the kids in these schools. These kids are sad, they're scared, and most important of all, when they go into the world they can't function.
Rafe has many, many important things to say about education. I sent him a copy of my review to ask for feedback and he replied with this short piece of poignant feedback:
I want people to know that [education] is a long, long journey. We need to be patient. We plant seeds, set examples and if we are consistent with our words and deeds, we can produce tremendous young people. It is not a race to the top. It is a marathon and not a sprint.
I hope you enjoy my review. One of the best things about Lighting Their Fires is that it's truly an enjoyable read.

[Note: I have not received any financial compensation in exchange for this review. I purchased Rafe's book with my own funds. I believe there are some new regulations around blogging and book reviews that require me to disclose this information.]

Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World

One wouldn’t expect a book about education to begin with a teacher heading to a Dodger baseball game, but it’s also clear that Rafe Esquith isn’t your everyday teacher. His newest book, Lighting Their Fires, is a book about education and learning, but almost none of it takes place in the classroom. Instead, Rafe uses an evening field trip to a baseball game with a number of students to highlight some topics that are rarely addressed in discussions about education. As the game proceeds, Rafe uses a number of rather mundane events to point out the more nuanced logic of his approach to education.

Readers should take note of the subtitle of the book: “Raising Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World.” There’s little doubt that our culture provides some tremendous challenges for children: the ubiquitous access to TV, negative peer influences, and the temptation to think short-term instead of long-term. Rafe suggests a number of tools and skills that can help kids succeed despite these obstacles. The list is rather straightforward, but the reasoning and logic behind the recommendations provides food for thought for parents, teachers, and everyone else involved in education. I’ll highlight a few of Rafe’s suggestions, but you’ll need to pick up his book or check out a copy from the library to get the full list of his valuable tips.

Rafe cuts right to the chase about his feelings towards television, bluntly stating, “Parents, television is killing your child’s potential.” However, Rafe’s take on this is more nuanced than simply limiting a child’s access to screens and mindless programming: “The ultimate goal in raising a child is to get him to turn off his own television set.” Consciously choosing not to passively sit in front of a TV screen requires intrinsic motivation. Simply restricting a child’s access to mind-numbing TV programming does little to help kids understand why it’s important to turn off the tube, which is the real lesson Rafe hopes to teach his students.

Two other chapters dig into a pair of related issues: getting kids intrinsically motivated, and helping children develop the ability to make sound choices for themselves. High achieving kids are successful partly because they have developed their own personal code of conduct, but getting kids to this point is no simple task. A highly rigid school environment relying on punishments to control behavior encourages kids to act (or not act) based on fear, which only restricts their ability to develop a personal code of conduct. But educators should exercise caution when trying to duplicate Rafe’s philosophy: his motto of “Be Nice, Work Hard” and his extended school day (which is optional, but many students take part in the after school and Saturday sessions) have been twisted by others into creating “Dickensian workhouses,” removing the joy and happiness from the classroom. Rafe has extremely high expectations for his classroom and runs a tight ship, but he’s clear about his pedagogical approach: “I am not advocating a sober, joyless, military-style education. Nowhere will you hear more laughter than in room 56.”

There are a few reoccurring themes in Lighting Their Fires. As a fifth grade teacher, Rafe is the last elementary school teacher his students will have before they depart for the middle grades. These middle school years can be some of the most difficult times for students (along with their parents and teachers, too), and the need to demonstrate independence and sound decision-making can make or break a student’s success. LAUSD’s system, which is heavy on charters and full of underfunded public schools, means many parents are required to navigate the maze of school choice in order to find a school for their kid. One of the most important chapters in Rafe’s book deals with how to go about this process: beware of spin doctors, schools only touting test scores, and schools with PR departments (“Any school that would hire a PR person must need one,” says Rafe’s principal and mentor, Mercedes Santoyo). A good mix of younger and older teachers is the best combination; an unannounced visit provides a better glimpse into the school than pre-planned open houses intended to show the school in the most favorable light. Most of these suggestions apply to the K-12 system, but many are relevant for college-going students, too.

The book begins and ends with Sammy, a student with a history of having difficulties in school, struggling to connect with peers, and certainly not a favorite student of any of his previous teacher: he talked out of turn, couldn’t sit still, came to school dirty, and rarely engaged in group activities. Traditional wisdom might inject Sam’s young body with medications, implement a rigid behavior plan, or refer him for excessive testing. Rafe, however, takes the only path that could help Sammy develop alongside his peers: he developed a friendship with Sammy, helping him become excited about American history and build friendships with his peers. Let’s hope other educators can take this approach: treating kids like human beings is the only humane way to educate our kids, and the only way to help them fully develop to their greatest potential.

Lighting Their Fires is an enjoyable read chalk-full of many important tips for both teachers and parents. Rafe’s insights – gleaned from nearly thirty years of teaching – provide food for thought and ample anecdotes about how we can better educate our kids despite the many challenges faced by families, kids, and educators. I hope Rafe continues to teach – and write about his experiences – as the country begins another round of education reform. This long-standing teacher’s advice proposes a mode of education that is far-too-rare these days. Let’s hope Rafe continues lighting fires, both in his students and among his peers.


  1. Anonymous8:11 PM

    What I appreciate and respect about Rafe Esquith is that he has stayed in teaching. He did not write a book and then quit--only to teach other people how to teach like him. He wrote a book and kept teaching. He didn't write another book and then quit teaching. He kept teaching, and he keeps teaching. Unlike many teachers who have great successes, and then choose to leave teaching to enlighten all others, Rafe enlightens us by hanging in there teaching and continuing to write about it.

  2. Anonymous11:09 PM

    The other thing I appreciate about Rafe is that he has no intention of leaving teaching anytime soon. He's been offered positions at other places and there's no doubt the man could run from public schools for far greener pastures (in terms of his own wallet). But he stays in teaching, keeps plugging away, and does it in a very humble way.