Three Little-known Secrets to Great Teaching

Learning about Shakespeare with Rafe Esquith

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”  ~ Henry Brooks Adams

Have you ever had one of those teachers whose inspiration never left you? Someone who lit a fire in you that never died. A teacher whose influence and ideas are carried with you to this day?

flute playing with rafe esquith

I feel lucky to say that I’ve had one of these teachers.

Rafe Esquith taught fifth grade at my school and I was lucky enough to participate in his after school Shakespeare program. But teachers come in all forms just as children do. Based solely on my elementary school memories of Mr. Esquith, I bring you Three Little Known Secrets to Great Teaching. 

3 little known secrets to great teaching

#1 Secret to Great Teaching: Teach What You’re Passionate About

Rafe was (and still is) passionate about Shakespeare. He spent endless hours of his personal time teaching eleven-year-olds how to unpack meaning from plays like Richard III, MacBeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each year we put on a full unabridged Shakespeare play complete with costumes, rock ‘n’ roll musical accompaniment, and sets. There were so many children in the program that he double cast every role and we held two separate performances so that each child could perform. Before we ever stepped foot on the stage, we read the play numerous times, laughed over Shakespeare’s play on words, and learned about some of the words that he invented (did you know that the word Moonbeam was first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?).

What made Mr.Esquith shine so brightly in my eyes is that he walked the talk. He didn’t say, “Shakespeare is important. Read these ten pages and we’ll have a quiz on it tomorrow.” Rather he loved everything about Shakespeare and his enthusiasm for the topic was contagious. There was not one child in Rafe’s Shakespeare program who didn’t aspire to love Shakespeare as much as Rafe did.

Many years later when I was studying at UCLA, I enrolled in a Shakespeare class. Half of the plays we read in that course were plays we had covered in Rafe’s afterschool program, and I remember breezing through the text like you might nostalgically look at Good Night Moon. The meaning and the stories stuck with me after all those years.

Lesson: Teach what you’re passionate about and your enthusiasm will spread.

rafe esquith shakespeare

Secret #2: Look for the Gift in Every Child

Not every child is the same, and each child carries unique strengths.

After spending time getting to know all of us, Rafe assigned roles. I was a pretty good flute player, so he found a place for me as a musician. My friend Rachel carried herself eloquently and was such a strong actor — she took a lead role. Some of the children were quieter than others (I was one of these children), and he cast them in ensemble roles. Rafe genuinely cared about his students and saw that everyone participated in a way that made sense for them.

Lesson: Pay attention to the children who are not the typical shining stars and find something wonderful in them. Figure out what makes them tick, and celebrate this. Children are capable of so much if you just give them the chance.

Learning about Shakespeare with Rafe Esquith

Secret #3: Be Unconventional

I’ve been watching Rafe’s career from the sidelines, and I know that he follows district guidelines in order to deliver the curriculum that all Los Angeles public school teachers are supposed to provide for their children. What sets Rafe apart from the teacher who solely follows the rules is that he’s not afraid to forge his own path. He arrives at school early, he stays late, he makes a point to accompany each unabridged Shakespearean play with rock ‘n’ roll music, and he raises money to take his students all over the world to apply their classroom learning to the real world.

Lesson: Look at your curriculum and find fun and non-traditional ways to bring it to life. 

More about Rafe Esquith

When I first met Mr. Esquith, he was just at the beginning of his career and I simply knew him as an amazing teacher.  He’s since gone on to write numerous books and receive teaching honors such as the Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, Oprah Winfrey’s $100,000 “Use Your Life Award”, Parents Magazine’s “As You Grow Award”, National Medal of Arts, and Esquith was made an honoraryMember of the Order of the British Empire. You can read more about his program The Hobart Shakespeareans here. 

rafe esquith books

Books by Rafe Esquith

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!”, Work Hard. Be Nice. (New York Times Bestseller), Teach Like Your Hair’s On FireThere Are No Shortcuts

A Question For You…

You’ve heard my three secrets to great teaching. Please share more secrets to great teaching!


Note: this post contains affiliate links but we only share links to products that we love or that we think you’ll find useful. 

Failure is Not Trying

failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

- Henry Ford

What do you think about failure? Do you encourage your child to make mistakes? Do you celebrate attempts to try new things? Do you share your own failed attempts freely with your child?

failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently

Last night was Back to School Night at my new kindergartener’s school. The principal gave a motivating talk about the importance of extending the school’s core values into our children’s home lives as a way to reinforce the home-school connection.

At the end of the presentation the principal talked about failure, and how we should encourage our children to work hard to achieve their ideas and goals in spite of their lack of knowledge. If they don’t know how to do something, they shouldn’t see this as a limitation but as an opportunity to fail forward as they learn through the process of trying.

As you can imagine, I LOVED this talk and felt so grateful that my daughter landed in an environment with such entrepreneurial spirit at its heart.

At the end of the talk, they shared a link to an interview with the youngest female self-made billionaire, Sarah Blakely (founder of Spanx), who discussed her journey with ABC News. Whatever you might think of Spanx (I don’t own any myself), you’ll appreciate how her father redefined the word failure for her and her brother. 

“We would sit around the dining room table at night and he would say, ‘OK, kids, what did you fail at today?’ I would say, ‘Dad, I tried out for this sport and I was horrible,’ and he would say ‘way to go,’ and high five me. And it completely reset my definition of failure. So, for my brother and me, failure is not trying.”

Sadly, I can’t embed the video here, but you can watch it here. And if you find her story motivating, here’s a link to Sarah Blakely on YouTube. 

Parents and Teachers as Co-Learners

It’s so important to model our own failures to our children. If children don’t see us struggle as we try new things, and in turn find ways to overcome setbacks, how can we ever expect them to do the same?

When was the last time you celebrated a failure with a child? Not too long ago I baked a new recipe with my kids. We thought we could alter the recipe to use up some of our pantry ingredients and talked about experimentation as we went along. In end the recipe was a disaster, but it was a fantastic opportunity to discuss how we could do it differently next time. Some of the things that came up: follow the recipe more closely, take more time with fewer distractions, and don’t use so much pumpkin.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy this post on failure.

A question for you:

When was the last time you tried something new? Did you succeed on your first attempt? If not, what did you have to do in order to achieve your goal?

How to set up a Magic Potion Lab (with 3 Simple Tips)

How to set up a magic potion lab

Science Week articles on No Time for Flashcards

When friends and readers talk to me about Tinkerlab, they almost always ask me about science projects. And with that, process-based experiments like the following magic potion lab inevitably come up. Today I’m over on one of my favorite blogs for childhood projects, No Time for Flash Cards, talking about one of my 3-year old’s most requested activities.

Won’t you pop over and pay us a visit? 

How to set up a magic potion lab

For more creative science experiments that encourage children to think for themselves and develop critical thinking skills, click on over here for all of our posts, and sign up for the Tinkerlab newsletter.

 

This Creative Week: Interactive Sidewalk Art + The Creative Table Project

pleasedraw

Please Draw Prompt with sidewalk chalk

Interactive Sidewalk Art: Send us your Ideas!

In our last post, The Tree Tag Project, we talked about how you can set up an interactive art project that will surprise and inspire your neighbors. Related to that, a few weeks earlier, we set up this very simple prompt with a bowl of sidewalk chalk (above). Within hours our sidewalk was covered with flowers, faces, names, messages to friends, a hopscotch, and quite a few drawings by adults (that was the big surprise).

If you were inspired by this post, we would love to hear about any interactive projects you’ve set up and how it went for you. If you’re game, please send us your high resolution photos and we’ll feature your project right here on Tinkerlab. You can write to us at Rachelle at Tinkerlab.com.

 A question from a friend

One of our friends, Jill, has a question for everyone about The Tree Tag Project: How to Surprise Your Neighbors.

This is such an inspiring idea! Do you (or your readers) have any ideas about how to make it work in an urban setting….where art supplies are more likely to “walk” if left unattended?

Here’s how I responded to her question. What more would you add?

I wouldn’t be afraid of materials walking away (at first) — maybe test this out with something inexpensive and see how it goes. Our first interactive project was with sidewalk chalk: We wrote a prompt directly onto the sidewalk and left a bowl of chalk nearby. You could write a little blurb about returning the art materials to where they were found, along with an appeal to help other people enjoy the project. Or how about projects that only use inexpensive and easily replaced materials. I hope this helps!

Creative Table Highlights

We have a fun project brewing over on Instagram called Creative Table. You can read more about it over here or see all the Instagram pictures tagged with #creativetable here when you type creativetable into the search bar. This project is always open if you’d like to participate. Just read the instructions and take a look at some of these inspiring photos to get a sense of what it’s all about.

It’s always fun to share a few highlights from this project, so here are a few from this past week…

Craft Stick People from Molly Moo

Craft Stick Dolls from Michelle McInerney who blogs at Molly Moo.

Creativetable from An Everyday Story

Drawing birds from a book: Kate of An Everyday Story.

Paper Bag Painting from ArtBarBlog

Painting on a paper bag from Bar Rucci or Art Bar . Bar’s blog is a gorgeous, happy place (her words and mine), and one of my new favorite spots to spend some time online.

 A question for you…

Do you have any advice for Jill about setting up an interactive art experience in her urban neighborhood?

The Tree Tag Project {or How to Surprise Your Neighbors}

The Tree Tag Project | Tinkerlab

Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. 

- Alice Walker

I love visual surprises. They fill me with fresh ideas and the reminder that humans are full of the endless potential to create. Things like public art installations, alleys full of colorful murals, political graffiti on the sidewalk, yarn bombing, and couches falling out of buildings excite me.

But where I live these visual surprises barely exist.

There are all sorts of things that I adore about my neighborhood, my immediate neighbors for one. But my town lacks the weirdness that comes with living in a place inhabited by artists. Like this altered sign by Banksy, the intersection painting project in Portland, OR these fake shiny geodes by artist Paige Smith.  After much complaining I realized, of course, that I had become part of the problem. It wasn’t like I was out there nailing rubber chickens to the side of my house or anything.

Stung with the realization that the suburban dream was about to swallow me whole, I decided to reclaim my place among the artists.

So let me introduce to you the first of what I hope are many more surprising projects to come (along with the caveat that this project is on the tame side — I’m just getting started here, after all)…

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

What is the Tree Tag Project?

Our neighbors are invited to write their response to a prompt and then hang it from a tree.

What’s the Point?

Bring people together: I want my children to get to know their neighbors outside of hosting the usual lemonade stand.

Empower a child: It’s empowering for children to see that they can set up a real world project that other people will respond to.

Be Surprising: Surprise my neighbors with an interactive project that stops them in their tracks and gets them thinking.

Democratize visual communication: Have you noticed that public visual communication is often limited to brands as they market to us through their loud signs and billboards. Visual noise is all around us, so why not reclaim a bit of this space in a way that’s fun, inexpensive, positive, and community-building?

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

How we did it

We turned an old crate on its side and topped it with a small container that was filled with crayons, pre-made paper tags, and a card with the question: “What’s your favorite place to travel to…near or far?”

Choosing the question proved challenging for us because I wanted five-year old N to be involved in the whole process. Our brainstorming session went something like this:

  • What book are you reading? (me)
  • What does your backpack look like? (N)
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you today? (me)
  • What’s your favorite show? (N)

We finally agreed on the travel question, I think because it’s something we were each able to answer, and that made it all the better since it was important to me that children could respond to these cards as much as adults could.

By the way, I still got to ask my book reading question over here. If you’re looking for a new book, you might find it as useful and interesting as I did.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

To get this started we gathered supplies.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

And then set it up.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

My kids seeded it with a few cards. Some with words.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

Others with pictures.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

The next day we were greeted with messages from our neighbors who like to travel to Tokyo, the Amalfi Coast, Bali, Lake Tahoe, the local walking trail, a city park in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a host of other places. One neighbor who was out for her brisk morning walk didn’t have time to make a contribution, but she commented (while walking) on how inspiring the project was.

Baby steps, people. Today it’s a question about travel, tomorrow we may paint our grass purple.

The Tree Tag Project, or how to Surprise your neighbors and get them talking | Tinkerlab

My kids loved counting the cards each day. At the end of the first day there were five cards, and by the middle of the second day there were ten. This was exciting!

The project ran for one week, and then we took it down to build the next street project. We’ll test out a few more questions, and maybe shake this up with some variations on the challenge.

Will you join me?

I realize that this isn’t for everyone, but I hope I’ve managed to encourage you to give this a shot. You don’t need a lot of materials or anything fancy to make this happen. And my experience is simply here for inspiration — you should run this with whatever materials move you.

The real joy here lies in the feeling of empowerment that comes from bringing people together and making something fun happen. If you’re as excited about projects like this as I am, will you let me know in a comment? I’m thinking about setting up a series of challenges that relate to this theme and I’d love to know if there’s a real interest…or not.

There are two ways to share immediately:

Facebook: Share a photo or a link to your blog post of your own Tree Tag Project (or something in the same spirit) on my Facebook page

On my blog: Send me an email with a photo of your Tree Tag Project (or something similar) or a link to your blog post, and I’ll share it right here on Tinkerlab! Email: Rachelle at Tinkerlab dot com

More Neighborhood Interventions

Keri Smith wrote a cool book called the Guerilla Art Kit, which is full of all kinds of public art interventions that share the spirit of this project.

A question for you

What other ideas do you have for neighborhood art installations or interventions?