Saturday, July 1, 2017

Teaching Like a Champion, Part 1

I’ve been in a lot of conversations about making our classrooms safe places to fail, but reading the first half of Doug Lemov’s wildly popular Teach Like a Champion 2.0on nearly every “essential reading for teachers” list I’ve come across recently—is the first time I’ve seen such a collection of specific protocols and examples for doing just that.

And that is the strength of this book—practical, specific protocols and examples. The book I reviewed last week, Creating Cultures of Thinking, was big on the theory, on painting the vision, with a few specific examples thrown in, assuming that once a teacher has the vision, he or she can come up with plenty of ways to apply it. It decries just giving teachers new techniques without really changing their thinking. But it’s also true that sometimes a vision needs a few more hooks. Teach Like a Champion is the complementary other half—assuming you have the theory and vision for what student learning should look like, but experience the frustration of, “Yes, but what does that look like in my classroom at 8:25 on this particular Tuesday morning?” 

Doug Lemov has spent many years observing champion teachers in their classrooms, capturing the moves that make them great, classifying and naming those moves, and then sharing them with other teachers so we, too can teach like champions. The first half of the book covers (1) checking for understanding (a lot of good ideas here for efficiently gathering data on student mastery and using that data) and (2) establishing an academic ethos (setting high expectations, planning, lesson structure, and pacing). 

Making it safe to fail, or what Lemov calls creating a culture of error, is part of checking for understanding, because it’s much easier to check for understanding if students are eager to expose their errors so they can get them fixed than if they are trying to hide them for fear of disappointing the teacher or looking dumb. I realized I need to examine my own attitude first—do student mistakes frustrate me because I feel they reflect badly on my teaching or because they throw off my well-timed lesson when I have to circle back and re-teach? Or do I honestly welcome them—because what if we hadn’t uncovered that misunderstanding, and a group of students had continued building on their confusion? 

With experience, it’s easier to plan for errors—to anticipate that there will be confusion about a particular character’s motivation at a given point in a novel, or about how to format the hanging indent for a Works Cited page using rulers rather than tabs—and to build into the lesson the necessary time for dealing with those errors. Lemov gives 4 key parts to establishing a classroom culture that “respects error, normalizes it, and values learning from it,” and they are “expecting error, withholding the answer, managing your tell, and praising risk-taking” (67). Read the book for more explanation and examples. (It even comes with a companion CD so you can watch champion teachers in action.)

I realized also that an exciting aspect of a classroom culture in which it is safe to struggle and fail is that it is shaped not just by the teacher’s attitudes, words, and efforts, but also by how students respond to each other. This requires the teacher to articulate how students are expected to respond to each other and why, to practice those responses with students, and to hold students accountable for them. I find this exciting because part of our school’s vision for students is that they will use their learning to serve others, and this doesn’t need to wait until after graduation, or even until our dedicated “Service Week” in February—it can happen every day in every classroom as we support and help each other through the struggle of learning.   

In addition, I learned that some controversial practices can be managed to good effect. Two that Lemov champions are cold calling (if you’ve truly established a culture of error—because how else can we efficiently judge the level of student mastery?) and reading out loud. His group of protocols for managing reading out loud he calls “controlling the game,” and he spends 11 pages on it. Something else I want to consider trying next year. 

This book is full of practical, specific and illustrated ideas for putting to work in our classrooms the grand visions of learning that sometimes seem elusive in the press of everyday lessons. I’m looking forward to implementing more intentionally a culture of error, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the book. I just don’t think I’ll probably be scripting and practicing my lines as the author suggests. But then again, I’m not his main target audience of teachers in urban schools serving low-income students. However, one don’t have to be in that target audience to find enough useable ideas to make this book well worth its price and the time spent reading it.

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