Barry Walmsley MACE reports on the room where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts in this book review

Notepad – Issue 7
Esquith, R., Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, New York: Penguin Books, 2007

Largely constructed from anecdotal material collected from an impressive and extensive career in teaching, Esquith has formulated a document which should inspire and engage any teacher, young or old, who is concerned with high impact teaching strategies.

His accounts are easily readable. This is not an academic research paper. In short grabs, the author reveals his techniques, some proven, some experimental in getting children to learn in his classroom. “Room 56 is one of those cosmic miracles where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts”, writes Esquith. He remains always the optimist, believing in the need to ensure learning is relevant and engaging as he deals with children who would be described as from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, he does admit that success has sometimes been a result of timing, talent and luck.

He stressed the need to create a safe haven for learning. As well, teachers need to replace the child’s fear with trust. Teachers must be dependable and good role models, ensuring that discipline, for example, is always logical. Children are encouraged to display courage, perseverance and passion.

Avoiding trouble, rewards, pleasing superiors, following rules and considering others are other important aspects to a child’s success through school, Esquith states.

Whole chapters are devoted to the skills of learning to read, write and understand maths. In reading, adult mentoring, choosing the most appropriate literature, relevancy of set reading and problems with illiteracy are addressed. Grammar, essays, book reports, and especially a focus on Shakespeare feature in his discourse on writing. The author tackles with imagination all the subject areas he teaches in the primary curriculum: science, art, sport, drama and music.

Perhaps most illuminating are his thoughts on study strategies and test-taking skills, always making sure that the child never encounters humiliation or negative stress. Teaching students to think for themselves is probably one of the greatest things a teacher can help for those in his or her charge. Esquith has turned the love (and sometimes the distraction) of cinematic culture into a positive force, utilising the knowledge of students to leap into subject areas not easily accessed.

The author notes that “teaching can be a humbling and frustrating experience”. A teacher’s shortcomings are always just near the surface. “It’s a thankless job. It’s hard to find a reason to believe. It’s thankless and it doesn’t get easier”, he writes. But, Esquith tries to communicate his life-long belief in what he is doing and how this has made positive inroads into the lives of his students. He has formulated an individual programme of teaching which he has named the Hobart Shakespeareans (see also ). He is clearly a successful educator who has made a huge impact on generations of students, improving their lives in sometimes unmeasurable ways.

Barry Walmsley MACE is Director of Music, The King’s School, Parramatta.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.