Class Notes

The Hobart Shakespeareans

A movie that reminds us how much a great teacher can do

By Paula Marantz Cohen | September 25, 2012


I only recently happened upon a 2005 television documentary entitled The Hobart Shakespeareans. After watching it, I immediately needed to tell all my friends and all the readers of this column to see it at once.

The film is about Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary School in inner-city Los Angeles. Rafe inspires his students in an extraordinary way, exhorting them to lead their lives with two simple principles in mind: be kind and work hard. He adds one corollary: no shortcuts. He treats his young charges as though they were the most precious and important creatures on earth, assuming that they are capable of a profound appreciation of literature and of life.

A major component of his curriculum involves reading and acting in Shakespeare’s plays. We hear these fifth graders perform the speeches of Hamlet and Polonius and Laertes with a clear understanding of what they are saying and how the texts pertain to their own lives. Rafe has become famous in the area for his teaching, so actors like Michael York and Ian McKellan visit his classroom. In one scene the students sit open-mouthed as McKellan recites the Hecuba speech from Hamlet.

We also see the class discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that many high schoolers can’t seem to wade through or that has been excised from their curriculum for political reasons. As Esquith teaches it, the book resonates powerfully for his culturally diverse students. At one point, the fifth graders read the passage where Huck decides he will not turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, and will reconcile himself to going to hell since his society says that protecting Jim is a crime. Tears run down the children’s faces; they are deeply frustrated by the double bind that Huck confronts and appreciate viscerally the sacrifice he feels he is making.

Rafe plays baseball with his students—the best and most American of games, he says, because everyone gets a turn. He takes them for a class trip to Washington, D.C., leading them from monument to monument and teaching them about the values associated with our country’s history. These students, mostly Asian and Hispanic, many not born here, are being taught to be the best kind of Americans.

Most moving of all is Rafe’s final speech to them, as he sends them off to middle school. What they are going to face next year will be hard, he explains. Many temptations will confront them. It will be difficult to continue to be kind and work hard in the face of these temptations. But he implores them to remember the importance of what they have learned and to hold the course.

What a noble profession Rafe shows teaching to be. How full of variety, excitement, creativity, and feeling. What an opportunity to make a difference. Every college student should see this film. I predict that people who have never considered the rewards and pleasures of teaching will be inspired by Rafe’s example.

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