Teaching Lessons: What KIPP Did—and Didn’t—Learn From America’s “Best” Teacher

Real Talk2

Two things struck me as soon as I metaphorically cracked the spine of my e-version of Real Talk for Real Teachers, the latest opus by best-selling author and public-school teacher extraordinaire Rafe Esquith: How many of his ideas were borrowed by KIPP. And, yet, how radically Esquith’s philosophy and his renowned teaching methods differ from those we’ve come to associate with KIPP and KIPP-like charter schools.

Esquith teaches fifth grade at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, a traditional public school for mostly poor Latino and Asian kids in Los Angeles. His new book led me back into the pages of Jay Mathews’s book on KIPP, Work Hard. Be Nice, which refers to Esquith as “the most interesting and influential public school classroom teacher in the country.”

Esquith is the specter that haunts KIPP’s founders in Mathews’s book. He is one of two mentors whose teaching practices so influenced Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg that they even appropriated Esquith’s motto, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” But, tellingly, Esquith is the mentor whom Mathews dubs “Mr. Outside”. He is, it turns out, the anti-KIPP.

“In time, as Levin and Feinberg developed their own styles and emphases, their views diverged from Esquith’s on issues like discipline, and their relationship with their mentor suffered,” writes Mathews, adding that Esquith “sometimes complained that some of the KIPP people were acting too much like autocrats.”

If KIPP and the entire no-excuses charter-school movement has become associated with strict discipline and devotion to the 3”R”s and to test prep, Esquith is all about the importance of self-motivation and learning-by-doing, especially doing art. While charters like to hire newby teachers, chief among them legions of TFAers—though the best KIPP schools have learned to avoid putting first-years in charge of a classroom—Esquith’s book is aimed at blackboard veterans, no doubt the “Real Teachers” referred to in his title. He makes the outrageous proposition that experience matters—in teaching as in so much else.

The divergence between what KIPP borrowed from Esquith and what actually happens in Esquith’s classroom is important. While KIPP is constantly fine-tuning its methods (more on this here), the burgeoning charter school movement has come to mimic some of the most obvious Esquith-derived tools in the KIPP playbook, such as the slogans, Saturday school, paychecks and trips. But they are missing the spirit behind these innovations—especially the need to foster a love of learning and the habits of mind needed to become an autodidact.

This reductionism reminds me of W. Edwards Deming’s fury when corporations would cherry pick his quality management philosophy for the elements that appealed to them the most—whether statistical process control or quality circles–without understanding the importance of his overall philosophy or the systems they were managing. “Off to the Milky Way,” Deming would roar.

But let’s get back to Esquith’s Real Talk for Real Teachers, which as the title implies is geared to working teachers, but is equally important in these times of ed-reform as a reminder of what great education is really about. The book is at once a motivational treatise for teachers, many of whom feel disrespected and beaten down, and a gentle, but firm, exhortation to constant improvement. It is also a call for bringing joy back into teaching and learning. (Deming would love Esquith.)

Esquith begins with a visit to the Sistine Chapel and the observation that the Michaelangelo who painted the front wall of the sanctuary was an older, “gloomier” artist than the exuberant youth who had painted the ceiling. Even though Michaelangelo had “grown, changed and suffered,” writes Esquith, he was still a brilliant artist.

Esquith then proceeds to wipe the floor with Michelle Rhee and, by association, with education reformers who promulgate teaching as a drive-by profession, something any young person with a college degree can do. “Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession,” he quotes Rhee, the former Washington, DC school’s chancellor and privatization advocate, as saying.

Flicking at the naked opportunism suggested by Rhee’s quote, Esquith says: “Lack of commitment is seen in every facet of our daily lives, from personal relationships to the renegotiation of contracts…there is something to be said about a teacher who stays on the front lines,” says Esquith who has done just that for 30 years.

The choice of Michaelangelo is also a telling metaphor. For Esquith’s teaching is all about art and music and experiential learning. The first chapters of his book are dominated by anecdotes about the guitar lessons, museum visits, drama, film club and other sundry artistic pursuits he brings to his classes; little is said about the nuts and bolts of teaching math, English, history and science. While the arts have been elbowed out of both public and charter school curricula by test prep, with dubious long-term results, the way he weaves art into the curriculum, Esquith suggests, is one reason large numbers of his low-income students wind up not just at college, but at places like Stanford, Yale, Oberlin, Williams, Princeton, Colby, Notre Dame, Tufts West Point etc. etc.

Of Hook Rugs and Shortcuts

KIPP borrowed several slogans from Esquith, including “There Are No Shortcuts.” But in Room 56, the fifth grade classroom where Esquith has taught for over two decades, it is much more than a slogan. At the start of the school year, every child in Esquith’s class begins to make a hook rug, a project that can take months to complete. As the kids get to work, sorting their yarn, separating strands of color, learning the color charts, Esquith explains:

“[T]hey are not only having fun making a rug but taking the first of many steps toward understanding a key lesson: there are no shortcuts. After an hour or so, most none of the children will have finished sorting their yarn. But more often than not, the kids have had fun, and they are not complaining. Instead, they have begun to realize that the process is more important than the finished product.

Esquith and Hobart Shakespeareans

Ah, the Importance of Process, Constancy and Commitment

KIPP also borrowed Saturday classes from Esquith. While Esquith uses the classes to help former students study for the SAT, Saturdays (and vacations) are also for rehearsing the Shakespeare play the fifth graders produce each spring. Indeed, Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans have become famous for the quality of their plays, winning praise and support from no lesser lights than the Royal Shakespeare company’s Ian McKellan.

Here is what Esquith says about the connection between Shakespeare and the process of learning English and literature, especially for inner-city, mostly immigrant kids with poor English-language skills: “Grasping grammar and basic reading skills could help these children catch up, but I thought that if the students were given the opportunity to stay after school and learn about Shakespeare, it might make things more fun for them.”

However, the lesson that Esquith learns during the early years of producing plays—indeed, the lesson that is the leitmotif of his book—is the importance of putting the process ahead of the final product. As he writes: “The plays and concerts became so popular with the kids and the neighborhood that I forgot the original reason I began doing them. For a little while, the play became more important than the lessons I was supposed to be teaching…Sure the students were learning tons of language and becoming accomplished musicians, but there was too much focus being placed on the final product. It would be better to place the emphasis on the journey and not the creation. Realizing this helped me correct my course. Such is the beauty of developing something over a long time.”

At the end of fifth grade, the Hobart Shakespeareans produce a play, complete with rock music and sophisticated choreography. In the process they learn:

–A lot of vocabulary, which improves their reading, writing and speaking.

–How to focus for long periods of time and to be patient


–Not to be afraid of making mistakes

–The importance of practicing their skills

–How to make a yearlong commitment to a project and finish what they start

All Men (and Kids) Are Created Equal. Or Are They?

Esquith’s book is scathing on one subject in particular—the role of bureaucrats, including their one-size-fits-all directives and lesson plans. Much of Esquith’s book is dedicated to helping teachers tailor their lessons to the very wide range of skills and deficits of their kids.

But Esquith’s most interesting—and controversial—argument is that kids are neither created equal (few would argue that they are), nor that they should be treated equally. Like many critics of the current reform movement, Esquith contends that parents are a much more important factor in a student’s academic success than are her teachers. In fact, he challenges the prevailing assumption that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that all kids succeed. Teachers owe every child an equal chance at success—as Esquith puts it, a full menu of options—but what they select from the menu, is really up to each child.

Indeed, Esquith suggests, that to survive teaching and to create a sustainable classroom, teachers need to engage in a kind of triage. “Some children need to be left behind,” argues Esquith. “not the ones who are struggling with the material, or whose problems make focused learning difficult, but there are students who have not earned the right to move forward.

“We have created situations where children do not understand that actions have consequences.”

Whether you agree with Esquith or not, in the era of No Child Left Behind, this view is heresy. Traditional public schools are supposed to bring ALL children to grade level. Charter organizations like KIPP insist—with little credibility—that there is no difference in the make-up of their classrooms and the public schools down the block. I couldn’t help but wonder whether, in fact, this is one Esquith lesson that KIPP and Co. have absorbed—though not quite the way he intends it.

To be clear, while charters are criticized for taking fewer kids with special needs and English-language deficits, Esquith does not advocate shutting out kids who struggle to learn. In  Chapter Thirteen, Esquith explains that he mentally divides kids into three groups—Kid One is eager to learn and completely committed to school; Kid Two is what Esquith calls “the Man in the Middle”—average, often quiet, usually overlooked; Kid Three “hates everyone and everything”.

Most teachers, says Esquith spend most of their time on Kid One and Kid Three. Esquith says he focuses on Kid Two because “(t)here is a Kid One inside many of them. It’s just that no one has ever developed him.” By reaching the Middle Man, he adds, you can often shift the balance of power in a classroom and sometimes even bring along Kid Three.

On Puppeteers and Marionettes

Esquith never mentions KIPP, Levin or Feinberg by name. As with most worthwhile books, it becomes important to read between the lines.

Here is what he does say:

On initiative—“Most kids in school are trained to wait for their teacher to give an instruction and to ask permission to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom. It’s understandable. Many teachers have to deal with children who take advantage of any freedom they are given…But I have discovered that if children are given the opportunity to show initiative, make decisions by themselves, and do so responsibly, a class will function on a much higher level than with a teacher being the puppeteer and the students mere marionettes.”

On using fear as a classroom management tool…

One popular approach to managing classrooms assumes that “whether the students are first graders or high school seniors, they fear the consequences of bad behavior so much that they can be frightened into being compliant little humans that would make each day of teaching easy.”

“My goal is to teach the children a set of values that they internalize…I am suggesting that while some of the latest trends may work in the short run, they are a quick fix. As you grow as an instructor, it’s better if your lessons have a longer-lasting effect.

“It is therefore predictable for novice teachers to use simple techniques to get their classrooms running smoothly.”

On SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod (I’m not kidding), Track the speaker) and why this technique, popular in charter schools, is one that Esquith says he “would not use…

“An important question I would ask any teacher who used this sort of management: In your own life, do you SLANT?”

‘The most effective way to keep a class in order is with an interesting lesson.”

On high-stakes testing and Bernie Madoff…

“My students learn prepare for exams but also participate in discussion about the shallowness of the belief that test scores are the most important data in assessing a child’s worth. My students learn that men like Bernie Madoff and the Enron boys most likely had very good test scores.”

On self-discovery and the “soft sell”…

“Giving students valuable information is good; shoving information, or ideas, or behaviors, or even values, down their throats is not. As we mature as teachers we can see the difference, and in doing so encourage students to listen to our information and use it to form their own opinion.”

“One of the best things we can do for students is to help them control their own destinies. If we force them to do everything, even good things, how will they know what to do when we are no longer there to tell them? We need to provide a large menu for the kids, but it’s best to allow them to order their own food.”

On college-for-all…

“In the current environment, which schools proudly hang banners declaring “All of us will learn and All of us will go to college, allow me to make two predictions. Despite the admirable sentiments expressed in such goals, it won’t happen. When their students don’t achieve these goals, young teachers become discouraged and give up. High expectations are important, but unrealistic expectations do not help anyone.”

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7 Responses to Teaching Lessons: What KIPP Did—and Didn’t—Learn From America’s “Best” Teacher

  1. Pingback: Andrea Gabor: The Important Differences Between KIPP and Rafe Esquith | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Kathy Irwin says:

    So beautiful. Right on in every paragraph. Can we please return our Free Public School System to real teachers like this one and so many others ready to resume control.

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  5. Pingback: What About the Kids Who Don’t Work Hard and Won’t Be Nice? | EdGator

  6. Pingback: Rafe Esquith’s Former Students Respond to Misconduct Allegations | Andrea Gabor

  7. fmindlin says:

    Reblogged this on Putting chin to knee and commented:
    Wanting to keep this post handy, and link it to the discussion of “discipline systems” we had in the #CLMOOC

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