Rafe Esquith Gets Real: Project-Based Learning

Rafe Esquith, long-time teacher and author of Real Talk for Real Teachers, on how long-term projects teach resilience.

By Rafe Esquith
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Meet the Author Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.

He is the author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, There Are No Shortcuts, and  his newest book is Real Talk for Real Teachers. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of Arts.

To find out more, go to

It’s About Time

In his hit song “The Long Run,” Don Henley of the Eagles sang, “Who can go the distance? We’ll find out in the long run.”

Going the distance is something many of our young people are unable to do. Here is a frightening fact: Of the current freshman class attending today’s universities, far less than half will graduate. How can that be? These are supposed to be our best students. They have done well in school, passed their exams, and shown the persistence to get through the college application process.

Clearly, getting into college is not enough to guarantee graduation. The greatest challenges students will face often don’t take place in the classroom. They must find time to study while handling relationships, money problems, and parties.

My students consistently get into top universities and finish what they start. They often point to our yearly Shakespeare production as a key to their success. They say that the year they spent producing a play taught them much more than Shakespeare.

The kids overcame challenges, solved problems, and took risks. They explored the themes of the play and applied them to their lives. They analyzed, dissected, tore down, and then built a play that changed their view of the world and, eventually, themselves. They got better with each day of rehearsal. They did all these things while studying many other subjects and being good friends and family members. They could not have succeeded at all of this without learning a crucial skill: time management.

Consider teaching students how to manage time through a long-term project—it will strengthen your curriculum and benefit students. If a child has planted a garden, or is perfecting a piece of music, he learns that part of each day must be spent working to complete his mission. There will be sacrifices. There may be a Saturday when he cannot go to the movies. He will learn to prioritize. It takes practice.

When the play is completed or the quilt finished, the student will have learned skills far beyond the project. He can think about how he has improved in managing his schedule and reflect on mistakes he made and how he grew from them. Such discoveries can be a turning point in the life of a student. Delaying gratification, being methodical and persistent, and happily seeing fantastic results will be a part of the child long after he leaves your class.

Such projects may not be part of the standardized tests, but that is precisely why they are needed more than ever. Too often we focus on the result. We are a fast-food society, rushing though our days with instant coffee, instant shopping, and instant gratification. Such values can cloud a child’s reality that being a top student takes thousands of hours of disciplined work. With project-based learning, students begin to see that the journey is far more important than the destination.

When kids go the distance early on, they have a better chance of completing college. They learn that the journey is everything, and that they will have the skill to complete many more journeys in life.


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Image: Illustration by Vanessa Dell

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  • Subjects:
    Achievement and Success, Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles, Curriculum Development, Arts and Creativity, Determination and Perseverance, Motivation, Responsibility, Resourcefulness, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Mentoring
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