Over a year ago, by pure luck, I came upon an article in the Los Angeles Times mentioning an award a local teacher, Rafe Esquith, was receiving forthe extraordinary manner in which he taught a fifth-grade class made up of immigrant children. It mentioned that one of the requirements for the nine to eleven-year-old children to complete the term was to perform a play by Shakespeare, in this case Hamlet. As I am a Shakespeare “nut”, this seemed a perfect subject for a documentary. These kids were from Mexican and Korean immigrant families whose parents did not speak English. I went to visit his class, was astounded by his teaching methods, and received his permission to film the class for a year. I contacted Cara Mertes, the head of PBS’s POV unit, and she gave me the initial funding necessary to start filming. The PBS flagship in New York, WNET, supplied the additional funds needed to complete the project.
Our cameras focused on the relationship between Rafe and his young students during the course of a school year as they pursued his unorthodox and highly rewarding curriculum that included a trip to Washington, D.C. and the Civil War battlefields. His class was led through an uncompromising course of study including mathematics, history, geography and literature, featuring books like Lord of the Flies.
During each day, time was devoted to preparation of the production of Hamlet. Interspersed with the classroom scenes were moments in which Rafe expounded on his teaching methods. In addition, we also spent time outside of the classroom with some of Rafe’s fifth-graders in order to understand the personal pressures at home that were shaping their lives.
Under the astute guidance of their dedicated teacher and charismatic friend, and despite language barriers and poverty, Rafe Esquith’s students with
their disciplined study and high expectations have constantly moved on to attend outstanding colleges and universities.
The purpose of the documentary is to prove that with the proper dedication on the part of the teacher, and with the cooperation of his students, goals thought to be unobtainable can be achieved.