Screens A lesson in teaching

In The Hobart Shakespeareans, one instructor proves again that children rise to meet expectations

To find an early advocate of dumbing down the curriculum, look to Shakespeare's Desdemona. "Those that do teach young babes/ Do it with gentle means and easy tasks," she tells Iago. However, though Rafe Esquith reveres Shakespeare, the tasks he sets the young babes in his classroom are far from easy. Esquith teaches fifth grade at Hobart Elementary, a large public school serving a neighborhood in central Los Angeles so tough that the building sometimes has to be locked down to protect the children from violence outside. Most of his students are either Latino or Asian, and none speaks English as a first language. Yet Esquith inspires his 10-year-old charges to mount a production of Hamlet that astonishes Ian McKellen. "You understand every single word," the master actor tells the young performers, in awe of an accomplishment that eludes most college students, and even their professors. "Once they're in a culture of excellence, they do fine," says Esquith about the correlation between expectation and achievement.

Fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith uses Shakespeare to teach vocabulary, fencing, ethics, and more. His unorthodox, award-winning dedication to a Los Angeles public school is documented in P.O.V.'s Hobart Shakespeareans.

The Hobart Shakespeareans focuses on preparations for the staging of a Shakespeare play that concludes the school year for each successive cohort under Esquith's tutelage. It is a grander example of San Antonio's "Shakespeare in the Barrio" program. But the film, which is scheduled for broadcast on KLRN-TV Tuesday, September 6, at 10 p.m., as part of the PBS P.O.V. series, is not confined to Elizabethan drama. Esquith also teaches math, geography, history, music, and baseball, as well as discipline, civility, and compassion. "We do Shakespeare because I personally love him," he explains. But Hamlet becomes a pretext for the study of vocabulary, fencing, ethics, and much else.

"Be nice. Work hard." If a secular institution must have commandments carved in granite, those two rules that govern the world according to Rafe would do just fine. The children enrolled in Esquith's class are not there because of any special tracking. They happen to live in the impoverished district and are fortunate enough to be assigned a teacher so dedicated to his profession and pupils that he voluntarily comes to school six days a week. Esquith even holds sessions during vacations, and, until wealthy patrons began making donations, paid for group trips with his own funds. He expands the boundaries of the California classroom by taking his students to Washington, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Mount Rushmore. In a society that honored teachers as much as politicians, the pedagogical paragon of Hobart Elementary would be immortalized on the face of a South Dakota cliff.

The Hobart Shakespeareans
Dir. Mel Stuart

Some dissent. Mercedes Santoyo, his principal, hints at the envy that Esquith's international attention has aroused in fellow teachers. But director Mel Stuart (best known for the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) offers no elaboration. Sixth-grade teachers must consider Esquith a hard act to follow. Except for a glimpse of him lecturing in Houston, we are shown no interaction between Esquith and others except his adoring students and his devoted wife, Barbara. Nor do former students testify to his influence during a career spanning two decades. Ignoring the neighborhood, the camera remains riveted on Esquith at work. While reading about Huckleberry Finn's moral dilemmas, several students are moved to tears. Learning about the reading list - including Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and A Catcher in the Rye - that these fifth-graders master, a viewer is moved to wonder why Johnny can't read in twelfth-grade classes elsewhere. Like Jaime Escalante, who - portrayed by Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver - taught calculus and self-esteem to disadvantaged youngsters in East L.A., Rafe Esquith is an inspiration to us all, and an admonition to all those Texas leaders who lack and limit education.

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