Teacher Inspires Kids To Love Learning

Bill Whitaker teacher school Rafe Esquith
Bill Whitaker teacher school Rafe Esquith

It's only 6:15 a.m., nearly two hours before school begins, but Rafe Esquith is already at work, giving extra help to his fifth-grade students. It's a typical day in Room 56, but you soon realize, his classroom is anything but typical, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports.

"The key to this classroom, if you look, there is no teacher's desk in here. Desks are for sitting, and I'm not paid to sit," Esquith says.

He's a 52-year old maestro in motion. He's on a mission to make sure his inner-city students not only are not left behind, but soar ahead.

Why does he care so much about these students? "I care because I'm angry. I mean, this is supposed to be a land of equal opportunity. And it's not," Esquith explains.

While too many Los Angeles students struggle to read at grade level, these students are devouring the classics.

When they read of Huck Finn's dilemma — whether to turn in runaway slave Jim or break the law — they get it.

"The average reading score at our school last year was like 29 percent or something. This classroom was in the high 80s," Esquith says, proudly.

"He makes us understand that the work is not only hard to do, but fun," says 10-year old Eduardo Sorto.

"If I want those children to work hard, then I better be the hardest worker they ever saw," Esquith says.

He is. He just wrote a book about his experiences in the classroom. He even comes in Saturdays to help former students with SAT preps. And if that weren't enough, his current class — like all his classes for two decades — learn music.

They're polishing moves for their one-of-a-kind, rock performance of Shakespeare. This year, they'll perform "Macbeth" — the entire play — with perhaps the smallest, certainly the cutest Macbeth ever.

No less an authority than Sir Ian McKellen, who has played a bit of Shakespeare himself, marvels at what they do.

"They understand every single word. That couldn't be said of all actors who do Shakespeare," McKellen says.

"Our Shakespeare play takes a year of their lives, a year where they give up television. But they're so happy doing it that they all think it's worth it," Esquith says.

The class motto is "Be nice. Work hard." That's taken his students to places most never dreamed of before entering Room 56.

To read about "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" by Rafe Esquith, click here. To hear Mr. Esquith on podcast, click here.