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Thursday, August 01, 2013

Book review -- Real Talk for Real Teachers

I recently received a copy of Rafe Esquith's newest book, Real Talk for Real Teachers.  In exchange, I agreed to read and review it.  Below is my review.

Rafe Esquith is a name that I associate with one of those magically awesome teachers, who always does exactly the right thing in every circumstance, and all of his kids go from homeless, penniless, and educationless to being world leaders, multimillionaires, or astroid-destroying saviors of the planet. One of those educators whose stories and experiences make the rest of us – who DON'T always love every single second in the classroom and who often CAN'T reach every single student – feel unworthy by comparison.

But I had that impression without ever having read any of Rafe's books before. When someone emailed me with an offer to receive a copy of Rafe's newest – "Real Talk for Real Teachers" – in exchange for a review, I quickly accepted. I'm at the 10 year mark in my teaching career, feeling a bit burnt out, underappreciated, and undermotivated. I wanted to see if a super teacher like Rafe Esquith could impart any words of wisdom.

In a nutshell, boy could he. Right from the start, it became very apparent that Rafe Esquith is not one of those types who believes the burden of success is entirely on the teacher's shoulders. Believe me, there is no better way to turn a teacher off to what you're saying then by implying, "You must be doing something wrong!" In fact, Rafe speaks directly to one of the biggest points of contention early in the book, and it truly won me over.

More times than I can count throughout my teaching career, I've heard either directly or indirectly that the single greatest factor in determining a child's success is the teacher. Poverty? Not important, and a frequent teacher excuse. Family? They're not at school, so they don't influence learning. A teacher worth anything at all should be able to overcome those other minor setbacks to pave the way to success. In chapter 9, Rafe directly contradicts this way of thinking, summing up with, "The family situation of every student, both emotionally and financially, is the primary influence on a child's success or failure in school."

From that point on, this guy had me. Undoubtedly, he is a master teacher, an incredible educator, and he probably DOES reach most of the kids he works with. The guy spends about 12 hours at school every day, comes in on Saturdays, and takes his kids on cross-country field trips over the summer. Many of us are just not going to want to or be able to do that. But his entire book truly did live up to part of its title – REAL talk. Everything felt very real, very grounded, to me, the regular Joe trying to make a difference. Nothing suggesting the expectation that the lowest underachiever would blossom into the valedictorian overnight if only I worked harder. Or that all discipline problems would melt away if I just followed this one simple step.

Rafe does not come off as cynical or pessimistic at all in his book, but a lot of what he says is very practical and not in line with much of what educational policy makers have to say.

He says that some children definitely DO need to be left behind If they are not doing what they need to do to progress. He says, "Keep calm in the knowledge that your job is to open the door. If a child is not interested in walking through it, you must accompany the willing ones through and move on."
There are three parts to the book, aimed at rookie teachers, those with several years under their belt, and seasoned lifers.  All three are worth reading, regardless of what stage you fall into. Rafe's experiences are inspirational, his advice is motivational, and his tone is engaging and encouraging.

My only complaint about this book is that I wish Rafe would have gone into more specifics about how he differentiates within his class. He tells some stories about kids improving with either slower-based lessons or more advanced enrichment activities, and I would love to have details, as I always have a problem keeping kids engaged and working while I'm working with small groups. However, this is not truly a valid complaint, because it is obviously outside the scope and purpose of this book.

I thoroughly benefited from reading Real Talk for Real Teachers, and I highly recommend it. I plan on passing it around to any and all of my teaching friends who are interested in reading it.

Real Talk for Real Teachers by Rafe Esquith is available on Amazon in hardback and for the Kindle.

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