Lighting Their Fires
Rafe Esquith
Saturday, March 24

My experience is that NAESP saves the best for last when it comes to its keynote speakers. This year was no exception. Keep this in mind when you look to attend future conferences. You don't want to miss the last one.

There were no less than three times that my eyes were watering enough to keep me from typing. Needless to say I was quite moved by the message that was shared. Rage Esquith is quite a person. The dedication to the children he serves cannot be surpassed. Here are some of the thoughts that jumped out at me!

Rafe told us that his purpose in life is to break the cycle of drugs, poverty ,and abuse he found in his school 27 years ago. From my chair I think he has accomplished that mission. He apologized up front to the audience of principals. He told us we may not agree with everything he had to say but he is a straight shooter and doesn't know any other way.

One of the first admissions is that his focus in the classroom is NOT the test at the end of the year. This is not to say that his kids don't do well on end-of-the-year exams. He is more concerned about teaching them skills they will need for the rest of their lives. This can be done while making sure the standards are covered as well.

His classroom is based on trust. This is instilled into the students starting the first day of school. They are told that they will mess up. When they mess up, it won't change how he cares about them. Central to his classroom management are the six levels of development. His kids have a deep understanding of these levels, and he strives to help them to the fifth and sixth levels:

Level One- Afraid they will get in trouble...
Level Two- I do things for a reward...
Level Three- We do things to please people...
Level Four- We do things because it's the rule...
Level Five- I do things because I am considerate of other people...
Level Six- I behave in a way because I have a personal code of conduct.

He told us that he really doesn't do much of the talking. I really like this idea. I was at a different conference recently where that presenter told us that the person doing the talking is really the person doing the learning. The videos of his classroom showed this strategy at work.

Rafe is very big on the WHY we learn. He feels that students should know why they are learning something--how it will affect them later in life--in order for real learning to take place. I appreciated his comment regarding behavior. He stated that he does not reward behavior. Good behavior is something that is expected!

In his class reading is not a subject to be taught one hour each morning. Reading is something joyous! Reading is something one should be excited about!!

Finally he told us to take risks. Failure is a great teacher. Students need to learn how to learn from and accept failures. If you always play it safe you will never know what might have been.

This was an excellent way to end the conference. Rafe is a great example of what we would hope all educators and schools could look like!

David M. Hanson, elementary principal, Wyndmere Public Schools, North Dakota

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