Friday, July 27, 2018

On being your own kind of pirate

I've just recently read Dave Burgess's book Teach Like a Pirate. Yes, I'm slow to this particular party, but I have my reasons. ;)

There were lots of things I like about his book and some I don't. I understand the appeal and I can only imagine the energy he brings to any presentation he does and maybe it was his high energy brashness that made me hesitate. I'm an introvert. Yes, I do like to be on stage to present to people and I love to teach, but I also know my strengths and I know what makes me uncomfortable. Dave Burgess makes me uncomfortable in good ways, and bad.

Let's start with one of the things I don't like. I don't like his over-the-top nature. It made me uncomfortable. I've never seen him, but his boisterousness comes through in his book and it's clear that his style works for him. When he talked about Anthony Robbins, aka Tony Robbins, I understood immediately. In fact, I wrote in the margin, "that explains a lot." I'm not a fan of the Tony Robbins bigger-than-life style; however, I really like his PIRATE acronym and I wanted to give Burgess a fair shake--he's successful for a reason--so I kept reading and thinking.

Unless you've managed to ignore it as I have, you're familiar with the PIRATE acronym. Burgess speaks first of PASSION and notes there are three types of passion: content, professional, and personal. Middle school and high school teachers might be able to express content passion more easily because that's what they teach all day every day. Elementary school teachers might find this a bit more challenging because they may teach content for which they have less passion. I remember a 3rd grade teacher telling me she wished she could teach more science because it's her favorite subject, but she felt like she had to spend too much time teaching reading. Huh. Well, that's a different blog post BUT it was an opportunity to talk with her about what I'd now call content passion intersecting professional passion. So she didn't much like teaching reading, but why not use more science picture books and chapter books when teaching reading? She could get her science fix, show her students her content passion for science, and kids would learn how to read and get introduced to science in a different way. Seems obvious, but one of the challenges for teachers is that we develop blinders of sorts and struggle to see opportunity and possibility.

Burgess states "[o]n all of those days when you don't have passion for your content, you must consciously make the decision to focus on your professional passion" (p. 6). Absolutely. On those days that teaching something that doesn't move you feels really hard, you must dig deep into professional passion and what drives you to do what you do. (Cross-reference Simon Sinek's Golden Circle and the importance of knowing your "why". You might also watch this amazing video about how why informs what.) What Sinek is saying is: "When you know your why, your what has more impact."

Burgess also notes that our personal passions can drive our professional passion as well as our content passion. We all know those teachers who have interests that support what they teach, some to what might seem like an excessive extreme. But we also know others who have personal passions that can somehow be informed by their content passion or might contribute an idea to their content passion. What's also important about personal passion is what an impact those revelations can have on our students when we allow those bits to creep into our classrooms. Students are often astonished to learn teachers are real people with real lives and real interests outside of the classroom, and even more amazed to learn they might have something in common. With their teacher!!

What comes after PASSION? IMMERSION. Students know when we're disconnected in any way. I'd been invited into a 5th grade class to show students how to use a particular tool. I'd asked her what the students were learning and what she wanted them to be able to do with the tool. She gave me answer though I was a bit uneasy, but, well, I dug into my passions and went all in to show these kids this tool and make some connections with what they'd been doing. I glanced over at the teacher in case she had any questions or comments she wanted to make, but she was busy with her phone. She was paying no attention at all. I felt like the message to the kids was this: "I need to catch up on a few things so this person is going to fill some time for me and it doesn't really matter to me if you learn anything from her or not." Now I'm a professional and I felt that slap, but I figured she just gave me an huge opportunity. I figured I'd keep going since she was in no rush to take her class back. I checked the schedule and realized how much time I had and went on with showing them the tool, inviting some ideas how to use, asking them to show me what they could do with whatever they'd be learning, pushed them to ask a few more questions. It took a while for the teacher to realize the kids were having conversations with me and really into whatever it was she'd missed. She stood up suddenly; the surprise registered on her face when she saw the time and what was going on in her room. She clapped her hands because it really was almost time to go to lunch or specials or whatever (I really don't remember) and the oddest hush fell over the room. That thirty minutes spoke volumes about this teacher and her content and professional passions, her level of involvement with her students, and their interest in learning.

Immersion is a bit easier once you have established a RAPPORT with your students. Burgess observes that misbehavior is often a result of students being bored, overwhelmed, or having a lack of connection with the material (p. 20). Building a rapport isn't just knowing a student's name. Building a rapport is taking the time to know something about each student.

I was lucky when I was teaching freshman writing. Lucky because I enjoyed teaching it and lucky because I had a lot of flexibility in how I could approach it. I hated those "What you did over the summer" essays, and so did the kids. Predictable. Sure, I needed a sample of their writing at the beginning of the semester, but I was going to get junk if they were bored. So I'd ask them to tell me the most interesting thing that never happened to them. Or the most important things they think I need to know about them.

When I first started teaching writing, I made the same mistakes as every other writing teacher by asking for a word count or a specific number of pages and making sure they knew to use one-inch margins and a specific font. So dumb. And that was made abundantly clear when I got the requisite two pages from a student with only one sentence on the second page. That's when I started telling kids I didn't care how many words or how many pages though I did care about margins and fonts; no funky fonts that were hard to read. They were to write as much as they thought they needed to write. Here's what so funny about that: the shortest papers were usually about three pages, sometimes more. In other words, I often got more and I usually got better which meant I had better insight into how each student thought and what sorts of things moved them. My point is that I learned a lot about my students from those initial papers. Because of what I learned from them, I was able to have better conversations with them which meant I could offer more specific coaching and mentoring to them because I was talking to each person as an individual.

What comes next put me off a bit, but I understand why he did it: he talked about his first three days. Burgess explains how he gives his students the full pirate treatment in those first few days. My thought? "I could never do that." And I couldn't. It would be inauthentic. Burgess isn't asking us to mimic him, though; he is asking us to think about those really important first few days.

I want you to think about Day 1 and what you do typically. What kinds of activities? How do you take care of the administrivia of the day? What's most important? What happens on that first day of school sends a message and informs how students experience every subsequent day after that. Again, I remember doing the roll call thing followed by the review of the syllabus thing. So boring. And if I was bored, the kids were comatose. I had to do the roll call to make sure students were in the right classroom. Here's what I did once and wished I'd done again but once I started teaching majors classes and advising, I knew the majority of the students so it wasn't as much fun. But it's easy to forget how many students, whether in middle or high school or college, don't know some of their classmates. So this worked out for them, too. I wrote one name on an index card and just put the index card face down at seats. As kids came in, I welcomed them and asked them to find a seat but not turn over the index card. When it was time for class to start, I asked them to turn over the index card and explained they would probably not see their own name. Their task was to find the person with the name matching their card but every time they met someone whose name didn't match the one on their card, they needed to get at least the first name and one fun fact that didn't have to be related to college. So let's say Eli found Jose but Jose still had to find Nathan, so Eli and Jose went together to find Nathan who was looking for Ashley who was NOT looking for either Eli or Nathan. Oh it was absolute chaos as groups formed, broke, reformed. Eventually I called time. I asked how many had found the name on their cards? A lot had, but not all. I asked how many had learned something interesting about at least one of their classmates. Every hand went up. I'd wandered around and eavesdropped on some conversations. I called names at random for a quick introduction with a fun fact. I had them return to a seat, handed out the syllabus, asked them to read it before the next class, told them to be sure to have a writing utensil with them, and then did a quick roll call. Class dismissed.

Your first few days may not be anything like Dave Burgess's or mine. The point is that you set the tone for learning. You establish the framework for the culture of learning in your classroom. You give students some insight into how you see them, how you see your work, how you see learning, and how you see them as learners.

So you need to do and be you. Bring on your content, professional, and personal passions so students can see what you do and how you do, with or without a high energy sales pitch or a funky costume or whatever you think you need to do or bring to distinguish yourself from everyone else but mostly to make yourself vulnerable enough to establish a rapport with your students. (For a really interesting perspective on Day 1, check out this video of Jeff Bezos answering the question, "What does Day 2 look like?") Jeff Bezos, quite possibly the richest man in the world, once said this: "The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind."

I think there is an important part of the Bezos Day 1 philosophy that can apply to our classrooms: it's all new, it's all fresh, it's all ready to discover and examine and determine and figure out. If we can somehow keep that Day 1 excitement and anticipation, at least at some level, just imagine what might happen.

ASK AND ANALYZE. That's what comes next. I don't agree with all of his questions, but that's fine. I certainly agree with what he's pushing teachers to think about, which is the kids. Maybe you're not worried about creating a "lesson outrageously entertaining, engaging, and powerful so that [your] students will never forget it and will be desperate to come back for more?" (p. 43). I think his point is this: we need to design lessons that meet students where they are and challenge them in unexpected ways, maybe prod or push or poke them in ways that make them take notice, maybe entice them in ways that encourage them to be willing to try a little harder or engage a little more. We've all talked or worked with teachers who either blame the students for their inability or unwillingness to learn OR fret about keeping their attention and interest.


This can be dangerous for a coach, but sometimes I ask teachers if they'd want to be in their class as a student. Burgess says much the same when he asks if students would come to a teacher's class if they didn't have to (p. 58). Once we've ripped off that bandage, let's pour some lemon juice on the wound and ask, "So why wouldn't you want to be in your own class?" They know. They do know and some are willing to admit it, but now there's an opening to tap into content or professional passion because we have to start there.

Burgess notes that too many teachers offer up the excuse that they're not very creative or not as creative as he is. Okay, so they're not willing to dress up like a pirate or channel Tony Robbins. I get it. Me neither. But that doesn't mean they're not creative. That's just balderdash.

Scott Berkun wrote The Myth of Innovation (2007) to share some insight about that creative burst, that "Eureka!" moment we believe somehow comes from nowhere. He offers a summary of the ten myths of innovation, the most popular of which is that moment of epiphany, that moment of revelation and insight. You may know of the story of Archimedes and his use of the word "Eureka!" when he made a discovery about water displacement. As Berkun notes, such moments of insight are a result of effort. When we have that "Aha!" moment, it's often because we've heard or seen or thought something that was the final piece of the puzzle to something we've been thinking about for some time. For most of us, creative insight comes with some hard work and tinkering, and maybe some perusal of Pinterest.

So relax. Think about what your students can do that will help them connect to what you need and want them to learn. Put your brain on "daydream" as you wander through a dollar store or do idle searches in Pinterest. Think about what you know about Omar or Bethany or Amari or Destiny or whoever. Just let kids float through your head. Something will come to you, and it doesn't have to be grandiose or super duper amazing. Sometimes just a simple twist to something you've always done can make a difference in the way students respond to a lesson. So you can't be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions and analyze the answers as well as pay attention to the way which students respond to which parts of your lesson.

Burgess speaks next of TRANSFORMATION in context of "position and reframing" as you strive to "transform your class into something irresistible to your students. (p. 60). He refers to some marketing strategies here and how important positioning is for marketers to win new clients and retain existing ones. "Why should our students bother to learn what we are teaching? Why should they bother to give us their attention and active engagement in the first place?" (p. 61).

I understand those questions. I asked them when I had to take algebra. We've heard others say that we know something is hard but it will be important for later or for the test; I've said that. And then we wonder why our students don't rise up with all kinds of enthusiasm and beg to learn whatever is hard or "not exactly fun."

Two things: Day 1 and connect. As you settle in with your students, you make little mental annotations about every kid. Every day you add to those mental annotations when a student lives up or down to your expectations. I agree that transformation is often the way you position or frame what you're asking students to do, but transformation is also in your attitude. Those two things? 1) Think of every day as a sort of Day 1 as you reset and refresh your expectations and perceptions of students and 2) Think about your students as you design lessons to meet them where they are and help them in their own transformation as learners; help them be able to make connections with their learning from where they are and what they already know.

I hear ya. Some things are harder to reframe than others. But you have resources other than Pinterest to help you find options. Maybe you have a trusted colleague or an instructional coach who can help you brainstorm. The reframing doesn't have to be huge; it can be a small change in one small activity.

I've learned that multi-digit subtraction is the bane of a 2nd grader's existence. Subtraction is hard to begin with and then they have to do multi-digit subtraction. Yikes! But what if you make it into a game? Kids are still working problems and they have to understand regrouping and place value, but their thinking about the problems might be different because it's not a standard worksheet. (I have several ideas for this using BeeBot, so give me a shout if you want some help.) Even if you can't or won't make it into a game, why not offer some choice in what problems they do and how they have to show you they know how to solve them.

ENTHUSIASM. Remember earlier when Burgess said that some days you're going to have to draw on your professional passion because your content passion just ain't workin' it? (Or something to that effect). Well, sometimes we're just not enthusiastic, even if we know our why, even if we're trying to make this Day 1, even if we have this kickass lesson that reframes and transforms in amazing ways, even if. . . . Some days are just hard and sometimes for no reason at all; they're just hard. We're all familiar with that phrase "Fake it until you make it" and some days, that's what we have to do. You will have to find your own recipe for this kind of emotional and mental success; your own routines to overcome whatever malaise has got you in its grip. A lot will depend on your students
and what grade level you teach.

Burgess speaks of Robbins's notion of "acting as if," which is rooted in some thinking introduced by Aristotle. It has to do with reaching deep within and finding some tiny spark, finding those reserves. And sometimes it means upending everything and doing something completely different. Don't tell your students what you had planned for the day and you're doing something different because you're having a bad day. Let's say you're supposed to teach a lesson in probability and you have some pretty cool activities planned but you're just not feeling it. You read recently that there's an intersection that seems to have an unusual number of accidents and the community is trying to figure out what to do. You can't tell if there is really an unusual number of accidents, but you know the intersection isn't too far from the school. You decide you're going to ask students to do some research about that intersection and you start by asking them to work in pairs to read the article and start coming up with questions they think they need to ask and who they think should be providing answers. After some time, you ask them to square up their pairs and compare their questions and sources to come up with the best questions, then chart them. Buzz ensues. Conversations, even arguments. Then someone asks something like, "How do we know the real number of accidents and the probability of accidents happening?" Boom. Now they're excited to find the answer and all you have to do is guide their learning and ride that wave and then you find you're a little more interested and enthusiastic about this lesson, too.

What Burgess doesn't say is that your enthusiasm, fake or real, circles back to your content, professional, and personal passion. Your ENTHUSIASM feeds those PASSIONS which inform your willingness to be IMMERSED which is made easier by the RAPPORT you've established with your students which is deepened when you ASK AND ANALYZE good questions that reflect your ENTHUSIASM that is informed by your PASSION. Well, you get the idea.

Maybe you're not going to be a Dave Burgess-like PIRATE because you don't have his extroverted style or way of doing, but you don't have to. You can be your own kind of pirate because what's really important is that you are willing to take risks and, if I might paraphrase, travel as far as you possibly can for that which you value: your students and their learning (p. xii).

Because your why is about your what--what you do every day with those students, and your wanting them to be able to realize their very best selves. So go swash that buckle as much as you dare!

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