Book Review

Book Review: ‘Lighting their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World’, by Rafe Esquith

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Every child has amazing capacities inherent in him, and these gems of inestimable value must be polished. Most parents and educators alike are more than eager to do so, but the question remains: how?

Who better to ask this question to – and get an answer from – than Rafe Esquith. He has been a teacher at Hobart Elementary school for over twenty years, and his classroom, Room 56, has made quite a name for itself for all the right reasons.

His first book, There Are No Shortcuts: Changing the World One Kid at a Time, introduced us to Room 56 and its magic. His second book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, is filled with great advice on how to make that magic happen. In his third book, Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, Rafe Esquith continues sharing insights gained from his more than 20 year’s worth of experience as a teacher, expanding on some of the themes covered in his first book, to expand the magic beyond the classroom.

These aren’t only books about inspiring children to become great students. After all, that’s not what’s the most important about education. Rather, these books are about how to inspire children to become thoughtful and honourable people, making good decisions at each crossroad they encounter during their lives and whose every action is imbibed with wisdom.

And you know you’re getting good advice when the person dispensing said advice is following it, too. This reality leaps out of the pages of this book, as Rafe Esquith strives to make parents and educators understand why he is giving the advice he is giving, rather than simply giving out a list of do’s and don’t’s.

The other thing Rafe Esquith does is to place the advice he gives in the context of his own personal learning experiences. The overarching plotline of this book is a Dodger’s game to which he took five of his students, but other stories from day-to-day encounters with his students and various programmes Rafe Esquith started fill the gaps.

The success of Rafe Esquith the teacher is probably linked to his true love for teaching, as well as his confident yet humble approach to ten-year-old children; for those of you who have had the experience, you know that an arrogant person cannot hope to achieve a working, two-way relationship with a youngster that age – the type of relationship which is the basis of Rafe Esquith’s teaching method.

And don’t think this means that he takes it easy with his students. Quite the contrary; he expects only the best from each and every one of them, and the simplest of things becomes a lesson enormous in its scope.

For example, one of his first pieces of advice is that children should be taught to always arrive on time. Relatively simple, you’d think – until he explains that arriving on time not only teaches children to respect others, but makes them aware of others who are not on time. And that’s not all there is: he continues to explain how this knowledge, combined with that age-group’s increasing powers of observation and capacity to analyse, helps the children correlate the fact that people who do not arrive on time are usually the ones who also show other signs of disregard for others.

And it doesn’t stop here.

Making children aware of the need to arrive places on time makes them aware of how time is limited to twenty-four hours a day. Coupled with various interests, encouraged and honed through after-school activities, children soon learn to use their time in more productive ways, rather than wasting it, say, in front of a TV screen – voluntarily.

Doesn’t that sound like a parent’s dream come true: a child who chooses not to turn on a television.

One exercise in particular that the author does with his students that struck me is when he helps them plan their week-ends. He actually does the math with them: if they leave the school at 5PM on Friday and are back by 6:30AM (you read that right) on Monday, that gives them 61.5 hours of ‘week-end’ time. Barring nine hours of sleep, six hours eating meals and doing chores, 10 hours of pre-planned family time (church, visits etc), that leaves the students with a whooping 18.5 hours of time. Rafe is generous; even with 13 hours of time to play, a child still has 5.5 hours left to do something else.

A child who realizes how precious time is will realize what a real treasure those five hours are; a child whose curiosity has been aroused and who has various interests will use these hours to satisfy that curiosity. While every second of the child’s free time doesn’t have to be pre-programmed, having a vision of its potentialities will help guide his decision between doing something constructive versus doing something destructive.

How can we further reinforce these lessons about time? Rafe Esquith has noted time and again (pun not intended) that one of the most efficient ways to do so is by teaching children how to play an instrument. On the one hand, the student has to be on time for his music lessons and has to make time to practice. But the student also has to know how to time each piece played to the beat of the metronome and, when the student plays with others, he or she learns that it isn’t playing well that counts, but also playing in time with the others.

By the same token, putting on plays (again, pun not intended) helps to reinforce the concept of time. The student has to make time and be on time for rehearsals and preparations, but also has to learn the importance of timing, especially when it comes to comedy routines and punch lines.

As if Shakespeare wasn’t already deep enough.

Another one of the important topics covered in this book is that of helping a child develop focus. It’s a well-known fact: focus is needed to achieve things, and, yet, because of the increasing distractions that surround them, children have a hard time developing it (and, it could be argued, adults have a hard time keeping theirs, too). It probably won’t come as a big surprise that television is one of the big culprits. However Rafe Esquith doesn’t tell us to turn off the TV or to get rid of them. Rather, he encourages parents and educators to make the children turn off the TV themselves. How they can manage this is intimately linked with the development of an appreciation for time and its limitless possibilities. Why sit and watch hours of TV when one can do so much other things?

Seriously, this book is brilliant, and no review less than fifty pages long can hope to sum up its awesomeness. It’s all the more inspiring that the author doesn’t only expect the best from his students; he also expects the best from parents and educators. While he is the first to admit that it’s not easy polishing the gems in each child, that it takes a lot of effort and time, he does make it sound remarkably simple once the basic principles of his philosophy are understood.

Of course, neither the philosophy nor the book is perfect. There are a couple of little things I don’t agree with. One of them is that Rafe Esquith presents altruism as something that needs to be taught. Having working with 11 to 14 year olds for over 10 years, when I myself was a teenager, I have come to realize that most kids (if not all) have a deep sense of justice and an innate sense of altruism. Parents and educators are only there to make that inherent gem shine, which is a task all the tougher since altruism is one of the first victims of today’s egocentric individualistic society.

Despite its weighty topic and the wisdom behind each piece of advice, this book is not only easy but a delight to read. It is a must not only for parents and educators, but for aunts, uncles, older siblings and cousins whose lives are blessed with children they love and would like to help become thoughtful and honourable.

Rafe Esquith’s book, Lighting their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, hit bookstores in August 2009. You can read more about what is happening in Room 56 here.

First posted here on Blogcritics.
First posted on Sahar’s Blog on 3 June 2013.

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