Open Court and imposed uniformity vs. creative, enthusiastic teac her
- Subject: Open Court and imposed uniformity vs. creative, enthusiastic teac her
- From: "Allen Flanigan." <Allen.Flanigan@USPTO.GOV>
- Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2002 14:30:50 -0500
- Reply-to: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
- Sender: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
jay mathews' latest column in the post.
Unconventional Twists to Conventional Methods
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 5, 2002; 1:21 PM
Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher, has nothing against the phonics-rich,
carefully scripted Open Court reading program that is now required at his
other low-performing Los Angeles schools. He just refuses to use its reading
This is a problem for people who care about making schools better. Open
Court is a good system. I have seen it do wonders for District of Columbia
children trying to catch up in summer school. In Los Angeles, first-graders
went from the 42nd to the 56th percentile in reading last year, the first
Court and two other proven programs were used. Esquith's 31 students at
Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, all from non-English-speaking families,
seem to be just the sort of kids to benefit from that kind of a boost.
But a good teacher beats a good program every time. Open Court is a good
program. Esquith is a GREAT teacher, and I don't have big enough or bold
enough a font to give that adjective the proper emphasis. I applaud moving
students from the 42nd to the 56th percentile, but Esquith has gotten his
class to the
91st percentile. Why should he change?
At 47, Esquith is a bearded 6-foot-tall cyclone. He grew up in Los Angeles,
taking sociology and math at UCLA and then deciding to be a teacher because
always liked counseling at summer camps. He taught sixth grade at a school
in a middle class neighborhood until the principal at Hobart Boulevard
taunted him after a math contest.
Esquith's team had won the city math championship. He was feeling very full
of himself, something he admits happens often. "You are feeling good,
Hobart principal said. "But you didn't do a thing. If you did that as the
math teacher at my school, then you'd be a good teacher."
So he transferred to Hobart in 1986. He was angry at what he saw. "I was
only 15 minutes from my previous school and I met kids who were just as
the kids I had before, but these kids were well below grade level," he said.
About 95 percent of the children were from low-income families that had
immigrated from South Korea. Now about half of the families are from Latin
America. "This is supposed to be a land of equal opportunity, but it's not,"
"I am not a bleeding heart, but I want a level playing field. If you are new
to the country and don't know the system, you don't have an equal
His solution was simple: "Because they were behind, we had to work harder."
He started class at 6:30 a.m, two hours before the usual opening, and
parents to drop their children off early. Only five responded the first day,
but the numbers increased when families saw the impact the extra time had on
kids. He kept them late, until 5 p.m, and began to hold class on Saturdays
and during vacations.
The parents loved it. The administrators thought he was insane. Some of his
fellow teachers admired him, he said, "and some thought I was the
He had all the basic textbooks. He taught all the required subjects. But it
wasn't enough to inspire the wonder and joy he remembered from the best of
school days. So he adopted a banned book strategy. "We took all the books
that had been banned and we read them," he said.
His list included "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Autobiography of
Malcolm X," "Of Mice and Men," "Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Hobbit."
He would read a few paragraphs aloud in class. Students would take turns
reading a few paragraphs aloud. They would discuss the interesting parts. He
acquired a set of prize-winning children's novels which he sent home with
them for more reading pleasure.
He embraced Shakespeare in an extravagant way (the only way Esquith
apparently knows how to do anything.) He began to organize student
all the plays, not just the standards. When he took his class to see Ian
McKellen perform at the Westwood Playhouse, the great actor quizzed the
asking them to name as many Shakespearean dramas as they could. Soon the
room ran out of answers, except for a lot of dark-haired 10-year-olds up
who came up with titles like "Pericles" and "The Two Noble Kinsmen" and
"Timon of Athens."
"Who is your teacher?" McKellen asked.
Single at the time, Esquith took extra jobs--messenger, ice cream machine
technician, rock concert men's room attendant--to pay for the trips to the
Theater in San Diego and the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., and New
York and Washington other places he thought would excite his kids.
He discovered the power of the word "yet," which he still uses today. He
tells students who have not measured up that they have not earned the right
to go on a
trip, yet. For instance, his class listens to CDs of music they will hear at
the Hollywood Bowl. They must be silent and attentive. "If a child cannot do
that, he is
not in trouble," Esquith said. "But he won't go to the Bowl, yet."
As his test scores rose and his legend grew, local business leaders and film
stars visited and stayed to help teach and raise money. McKellen became a
patron. In 1992, Esquith became a Disney Teacher of the Year. Other awards
In 1999, the Los Angeles school board decided that phonetically rich,
research-driven reading systems were necessary to get the district unstuck
from years of
low reading scores. Hobart's administrators picked Open Court from the list
of three programs all low-performing schools had to choose.
But Equith's class did not fit. When the Open Court coaches tested each
child's reading speed, Esquith's students sped past the target, 115 words a
Despite the worst possible home conditions for English fluency, some read at
more than 200 words a minute. When one child stumbled over a word, one of
coaches seemed almost relieved. She told Esquith this was an example of why
they needed Open Court. "But they are reading Twain!" said the teacher,
astonished. "Even I stumble over some of these paragraphs."
Who will win? Open Court or Will Shakespeare? Selections from children's
literature (Open Court uses books like "Old Yeller" and "The Wizard of Oz")
pure John Steinbeck? The local district superintendent for Hobart's part of
the city, Liliam Castillo, told me yesterday that Esquith has promised to
Court and have his novels and plays be supplemental materials. Esquith told
me he will not use the Open Court reading materials, but will give his
Open Court tests and any other assessments required. They have already
surpassed the early Open Court reading targets.
"One size does not fit all and I will not dumb down my class," he said. He
does not think anyone will try to force him to do that. But he worries about
good teachers, younger ones who have the chance to do well but will not
teach to a script.
Why not, he asks, let such teachers do their own thing as long as their
students reach the testing targets set for all? Castillo said she did not
think this would
work. Only when the entire school, not just one classroom, has reached the
standard can the district lift the requirement that everyone teach one way.
That sounds to me like giving up. If we want to help all kids, what is the
harm in experimenting with a few wild-eyed individualists? Perhaps there are
teachers who can do what Esquith did, but how will we know until we try?
© 2002 The Washington Post
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