Monday, July 14, 2014

Teach like a Pirate

Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator made me think about some of the classrooms I have worked in recently. The science teacher I worked with left late in the year and was replaced with a university professor seeking to re-ground herself in the classroom. She did a fantastic job immersing herself in the activities the students were doing. She was racing around from person or group to person or group, bringing lab supplies, asking questions and helping students participate in the activity. During a video she stopped and asked questions and commented about the content. Immersion is one of the big parts of Burgess' PIRATE program. It was inspiring to be part of an activity with a teacher so immersed in the class.

One place this teacher struggled, however, was with capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the moment. The school we worked in had teachers rather than students moving from classroom to classroom. This meant it was often hard to start the class on time because a teacher had to unpack materials and set things up. Poor technological infrastructure made any time she wanted to show a video a nightmare of trying to get everything going. Wasted time and disengaged students followed. More experience in the building would resolve some of these issues, but they were an impediment to progress. I would step in and wing some engagement questions and discussion, but it was often less focused because I had not planned it. A group without direction is not only gone, but often disruptive.

Burgess established a mnemonic to describe his strategies for increasing engagement
  • P- passion
  • I- immersion
  • R- rapport
  • A- ask and analyze
  • T- transformation
  • E- enthusiasm
These pieces of the engagement puzzle are then described, a mini-chapter to a tool. Having worked with many teachers and students of different levels, this group of ideas seems especially relevant. As shown above, they impact learning.

I really liked his description of passion. He explains that we all have favored and less favored things to teach, but the critical point is to teach them all with passion. If that means bringing in your personal hobbies to link to a less preferred activity, do it. If it means faking it- do that too. We can all be actors at times. If we want students to be engaged and invested, everything we do with them must be enthusiastic and passionate.

Another area of the text that I relished was his idea that success encompasses failure. Great teachers fail and adjust. They learn from their students of the moment what works. Monitor what you are doing and adjust. Decades of teacher preparation have taught that concept, but sometimes we forget and plow ahead because there is so much to cover. Part of what monitor and adjust means is that we do not just dust off previous lesson plans, but we adjust them based on what we know about our kids, what their baggage of the day is, and how they grasp what we are teaching. Great teachers will never take a packaged program and deliver it verbatim. They will say, "I cannot do that because Johnny and Susie needs to build prerequisite skills and I know that my three soccer players will respond better if I include an analogy to the game. I have a mute child who cannot participate in a verbal discussion so I need to ensure that she can draw her input,... " Half way through a preplanned lesson, they will skip ahead or come up with more examples because the students' responses tell them that is the direction the lesson needs to go.

The transformation section hit a chord as well. I really liked his idea of write a letter from a fictional student describing what is great about your class- how you want your class to be viewed. This then is the goal of how you need to evaluate what you are doing.

I really like coming to your class because I always know what I will be asked to do- you tell us. It is safe and I never feel like you are going to ask me to do something that I cannot do. It may take me lots of tries and hard work, but you will be with me through it all, explaining as many times as I need it and encouraging me when I am ready to give up. You never let me give up. I know that I will learn new things and you will help me feel proud of my accomplishments.

This is the sort of thing that I hope my students can say about me. It took lots of thinking to verbalize what I want students to get out of being in my class. This is more than just learn or have fun or pass the class. The exercise showcases your best class, not the class in which you sometimes fumble because you are as imperfect as the rest of the world. It is a great exercise because once you know your goal, everything you do needs to take you closer to that goal. For me, when I am working with students in a resource room, I spend as much time or as little, going over a concept so that I am sure the student has it. I document success and share it with students. I can explain things 101 different ways and know that sometimes I will need to figure out explanation 102.

This book is an engaging and easy read. It highlights some of the best engagement techniques. Some people may be challenged to frame his examples in their classrooms, the majority of his examples are secondary historical ones. Making yourself think about how the concepts- for example, how do you build enthusiasm and passion into every lesson? How do you mix it up so that blood flows to the brain? is important to personalize the information. While on teacher can do it all at once, every teacher can tweak something to make it better.

I was at a Paula Kluth workshop. She made us chant "novelty" and "joy" in rounds and according direction to remind us that these are the key items to make our brains turn on and remember. Burgess may not put it that way, but much of what he shares is about novelty and joy. Judy Willis, a neurologist, author and teacher, has produced a number of webinars and videos about this topic here and on ASCD here as well. His work is grounded in research, even though he does not frame it as such. If we want to have our kids really learn and remember, we need to increase engagement so that their brains will attend and learn for the long term.

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