Yes, the self-congratulatory tone can get to be a bit much, and yes, some of his brilliant ideas are not all that unusual, but there is still a whole lot to be gained from the book. What strikes me most is that he has created a classroom that is its own little world with a different set of standards, rules, and atmosphere than the rest of the inner-city Los Angeles elementary school in which his classroom dwells. He often refers to his “classroom culture” and that seems appropriate; he really has created a separate and unique culture. In this culture, hard work, personal responsibility, problem solving, kindness, and the arts are valued highly by both teacher and students. Creating and maintaining this culture requires a huge amount of time and devotion – much more than the vast majority of us are willing to give.
Esquith’s students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 AM – long before the regular school day starts. They stay until 5:00 or 6:00 at night. They come on Saturdays and through most school breaks. It seems to me that Esquith has come as close as possible to creating a boarding school – without actually keeping the kids overnight (except when they are on road trips, which seems to happen often). The kids spend more time with him and their classmates than they do with their own families.
I have seen reviews criticizing Esquith for the immense amount of time he spends with his 5th graders. Some even saying it is somehow wrong. I have to say, it is not the choice I would make. Neither would I spend months on my back painting a chapel ceiling or most of my waking hours skating around an ice rink in hopes of winning a gold medal, even if I had the talents these pursuits require. People who excel in a given area – excel far beyond normal into the realm of extraordinary – devote their lives to the pursuit. Teaching is no different. I would not choose this for my own life, but for the sake of the kids in his class – almost all of whom come from low-income homes and for whom English is a second language – I am glad he does. Almost all of these kids go to college and have successful careers. He changes lives.
There is much to take from this book, even if you are not planning to devote the insane amount of time and effort he does. He has some excellent ideas, and his classroom culture is inspiring. I have to say, though, that it did make me feel a bit guilty about my own teaching (when I was in the classroom) and my own parenting…I feel like I missed opportunities to do more, teach better, parent better.
I also wonder about the politics at his school. There are several other 5th grade classrooms. How does the school decide which children will get to be in his class? What of the other 5th graders who are only in normal 5th grade classes? Even a good teacher pales by comparison.
Anybody else read this book? What did you think?