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Lighting Their Fires:
Rafe Esquiths Secret to Raising Extraordinary Kids


Rafe Esquith teaches in a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence. Yet his students consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent of the country in standardized tests and then go on to attend our most prestigious colleges and universities. How does he do it? Included: The secret" to raising extraordinary kids.

About Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith has been teaching at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, since 1981. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the president's National Medal of the Arts. His many other honors and awards include the American Teacher Award, Parents magazine's As You Grow Award, Oprah Winfrey's Use Your Life Award, and People magazine's Heroes Among Us Award. Esquith is the author of Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Barbara Tong.

Rafe Esquith teaches at Hobart Elementary School, in a Los Angeles, California, neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence. Ninety percent of Hobarts students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Nearly 80 percent of its students are Hispanic immigrants; 18 percent are Asian immigrants; 2 percent are black. Few of Hobarts more than 1600 students speak English as a first language.

And yet many of Rafe Esquith's fifth-grade students voluntarily start class at 6:30 each morning and stay until as late as 6:00 in the evening. They work through recess, and during vacations and holidays. They consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent of the country in standardized tests; many go on to attend our most prestigious colleges and universities. How do they do it? How does Esquith inspire them to do it?

Esquith has shared the secret of his success in two bestselling books for teachers, Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, Esquith turns his attention to parents, explaining how they can raise children who are not just good students, but thoughtful and honorable people as well.

Esquith recently talked with Education World about Lighting Their Fires and about how parents and teachers can work together to raise extraordinary children in this mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world."

Education World: I was surprised when I read your latest book Lighting Their Fires to find that it was written for parents, rather than teachers. Why did you decide to write a book for parents?

Rafe Esquith: I was shocked when Teach Like Your Hairs on Fire became an international bestseller. I thought I was writing a little cookbook for teachers, and instead I received thousands of letters from all over the world. Surprisingly, many of them were from parents.

Whether the letter was from Beijing or Moscow or Rio, there was a constant theme. Parents are frustrated. They want to raise honorable children in a world that is often dishonorable. They loved everything they read about my students, and wanted advice on character building. Like many outstanding teachers in classrooms today, those parents recognized that test scores only paint a tiny picture in predicting a childs happiness and success.

Rafe Esquith

It is crucial to note that Lighting Their Fires takes place in one night. Most books about children have some magical culminating triumph at a concert or test. But that is not what parenting and teaching are truly about. Raising a child is every day -- a marathon and not a sprint. But if we plant seeds and consistently nurture them, parents and teachers can courageously encourage our kids not to buy into a culture that is often detrimental to a childs development. It may surprise visitors to Room 56 to see ten-year old kids playing music and acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it does not surprise the children. When they have internalized the values discussed in Lighting Their Fires, anything is possible.

EW: In Lighting Their Fires, you identify a number of skills/concepts you believe parents should teach their children. On the surface, at least, none seem academically relevant. What, for example, do such characteristics as altruism, empathy, or humility have to do with academic success?

Esquith: The question says it all: on the surface. Our schools today only seem to be concerned with the superficial, from kids sitting at attention to API scores. I think we have to be careful about defining academic success." The guys at Enron were academically successful. Is that what we want for our children?

I love the fact that my students score high on exams and attend elite universities all over the world. But even those successful students would tell you they are more concerned with helping their communities. I believe a B" student who feeds the homeless once a month is far more successful" than an A" student who asks what his country can do for him" instead of what he can do for his country."

In Lighting Their Fires, I am urging all who work with kids to redefine academic success." My own children have been incredibly successful by traditional definitions. They have gone to outstanding universities and are highly regarded in their fields of medicine, law, and education. But I am most proud that they are good people. They have integrity, not an easy thing to find in this mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. I do not want kids to separate academic success" from life success."

It is shocking to learn that more than half the students who make it to college do not finish. Those are kids who have been academically successful." Why do they fail when they reach the university? Those are kids who know how to pass tests and write papers. I have learned that those students have not been equipped with the life skills discussed in Lighting Their Fires. I believe that skills such as empathy and focus have everything to do with academic success, and my former students are living proof.

Education World: You refer often in your book to your extraordinary" kids. What does an extraordinary kid look like?

Rafe Esquith: They certainly do not look like one another. If we are serious about celebrating diversity," then we need to steer clear of too much standardization. Extraordinary kids do not follow the crowd. They think for themselves, and pursue their own dreams with passion, rather than [aim for] goals forced upon them by others.

Extraordinary kids read for pleasure and are actively involved in the arts. They play music, and appreciate the arts and artists from other times. They have open minds, and are life-long learners.

Extraordinary kids love the journey. They are more interested in the process than the end result. They love performing a concert or play; but they love the thousands of hours of rehearsals even more than the event itself.

Extraordinary kids do not play Guitar Hero. They play the guitar. They do not play video baseball. They play baseball. They are active participants in life.

“Extraordinary kids are more interested in the process than the end result."

They have internalized a set of values that guide them in all situations both inside the class and at baseball games surrounded by drunken fans.

They love their parents and respect their teachers, but are kind and hard working because they believe in those principals, rather than doing things to please others.

And perhaps most important of all, extraordinary kids are often unnoticed or uncelebrated by others. The fact that they accomplish amazing things invisibly may be the most extraordinary thing of all.

Education World: Whats the most important thing parents -- any parents, no matter how poor, busy, uneducated, overwhelmed -- can do to ensure their childs future success?

Rafe Esquith: Parents must be the people they want their children to be. We parents and teachers need to understand that we cannot be in front of a television set and command our kids to go to their rooms and read. When my students and I are on the road, as we are many weeks of the year, the kids do not watch television. We have no rule about that, but as I never turn on a television, the kids follow my example. Never underestimate the power of a role model.

Another request I have of all parents and teachers is to be patient. Our kids are not going to learn everything there is to know in one day. When we have bad days, and we all have them, remember that our lessons often kick in years after we have raised a child.

The best thing parents can do is to have dinner with their kids at night without television. Simple conversations, like the ones in Lighting Their Fires, have a significant impact on a childs performance the following day at school.

Education World: Can a kid become extraordinary without supportive parents?

Rafe Esquith: It is possible, but someone has to set the example and show a child the benefit of the skills discussed in Lighting Their Fires. Many of my students come from difficult home situations.

Fortunately, I have an army of former students who often return from high school or college and mentor the younger kids. It is best when a child has parents to follow, but if that is not the case, someone has to step in. Given the awful values and visions children are assaulted by on a daily basis, someone has to show them an alternative way to live a life. I have been very lucky to have so many former students talk to my new class each year. Those older kids give the younger ones a vision of what is possible, and that can be the motivating factor that lights a childs fire.

Education World: How can teachers and parents best support one another in their efforts to raise successful kids?

The overall message must be that we like the child and want to help him achieve his considerable potential."

Rafe Esquith: They need to communicate. Teaching has often become an isolated profession. I have been incredibly lucky because I work with some amazing teachers who make me far better. They tell me about children they know, and about family situations. The parents learn to trust our team of teachers.

Teachers need to help parents by being honest about a childs strengths and weaknesses. But the overall message must be that we like the child and want to help him achieve his considerable potential.

I also hope parents are encouraged to spend many days in class. That not only helps both parents and teachers start to understand one another, but shows the kids that we are in this together. I am fortunate to have a close relationship with many parents at my school, and that trust has led to happier and healthier children, both at home and in the classroom.

Teachers might consider easing up on homework. I am a very tough teacher, but some well-meaning teachers I know, in an attempt to close the achievement gap, are keeping very young children up until midnight doing worksheets. That is not only wearing on the children, but on their families as well.

Below is a letter from a student who wrote to me recently. He was in my class twenty-two years ago, and look at what he has achieved! If we are patient, and take things slowly, kids like Osvaldo may one day be the rule and not the exception.

Mr. Esquith,

My name is Osvaldo Lopez. I grew up in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Like many of the kids in my neighborhood, I was raised by a single mother who had no choice but to rely on the LAUSD's free meal program and food stamps to keep her children from starving.

I attended Hobart Elementary from 1980, when I entered kindergarten, until 1987, when I finished the sixth grade. In my last year at Hobart, I was assigned to Ms. Barbara Lugger's sixth grade class. However, I was lucky enough to spend a significant portion of that school year in your classroom and under your instruction after all the sixth grade classes (or at least, the three classes belonging to Red Track) were merged and students randomly divided into three groups that were then rotated between the classrooms. (If I remember correctly, the third teacher was Ms. Deborah Walpow.)

I recently thought about you when a young and very hard-working ESL teacher whom I met recently told me that she had chosen to become a teacher after reading your book "There Are No Shortcuts." I proudly told her that you were once a teacher of mine. In the last several months, I have also proudly revealed that fact to a few co-workers who have seen you on television.

I realize that it's been more than 20 years; however, if you don't mind, I'd like to tell you a bit about me and about what I've done since I last sat in your classroom. I'm not sure that you'll remember me, but I've attached my third grade picture in case you do. (Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of me available from the sixth grade).

Here goes: After graduating from Hobart, I, like most of my fellow classmates, entered Berendo Junior High. After a year there, I transferred to Parkman Junior High in Woodlands Hills. The next year, I started at Taft High School, from where I graduated, four years later, in 1993. In my senior year of high school, I had no desire to attend college and did not take the SAT. Over the summer after graduation, I changed my mind and enrolled in Los Angeles City College (LACC) with the goal of becoming a lawyer one day.

All together, I spent about three years at LACC, constantly changing majors (Political Science, Journalism, and English, to name a few), and not even knowing if I would ever have the discipline to transfer to a university and obtain a four-year degree. Just prior to enrolling in yet another year at LACC, I decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. There, I worked as an aviation electronics technician and, briefly, as a clerk in a military legal office. I ultimately served five years and attained the rank of sergeant before my discharge in Feb 2002.

I eventually managed to complete my undergraduate education (B.S. in Criminal Justice) at Park University -- a small college in Missouri -- while still on active duty in the Marine Corps. Because the school is affiliated with the military, I was able to take satellite classes, mostly at night, at the Marine air base in North Carolina where I was stationed. In the middle of all that, I also attended East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, for two semesters.

In the fall of 2003, I finally made it into law school. I attended the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, from where I graduated with honors and served as an associate and senior editor of the school's law review. In my final semester, I landed the internship of my dreams at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office in Charlotte, North Carolina. After my internship, law school graduation, and bar exam passage, the Mecklenburg County Office hired me as a public defender full time in April 2006. About 4 months later, with the Office's blessings, I left to become a staff attorney at the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. And it is there, where I remain now after three years.

Anyway, the main reason I wrote, is to simply thank you for all the wonderful things you've done and continue to do for all your students, of which I am proud to be one. Please accept my donation of $500 to the Hobart Shakespeareans. I submitted it online through your awesome website. If it doesn't reach you, please let me know, and I'll be happy to resend it.

Osvaldo Lopez

For more information about Rafe and his kids, visit The Hobart Shakespeareans.

This e-interview with Rafe Esquith is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


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