Teach Like a Pirate: Some Thoughts

teach like a pirate

Here’s why I wanted to like Teach Like a Pirate:

There is so much enthusiasm for this book among my PLN, and I do love to see teachers enthusiastic about their work and looking for new ways to engage students and create excitement about learning. Burgess loves his work, and he’s incredibly enthusiastic about his message. He also seems like an all-around nice guy: he is very generous on social media interacting with teachers who are reading his book, regularly popping in during #tlap Twitter chats and commenting on the reviews teachers post on their blogs. 

Here are the things I did like: 

First, I copied plenty of great quotes:

On 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.

With a focus on professional passion, teaching is no longer about relaying the content standard… it’s about transforming lives.

At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids.

An engaged student is rarely a behavior problem.

Far too many of our students have been beaten up by school.

I’ve worked my butt off to build a class that is outrageously engaging, fun, educationally sound, and dearly loved by students. It wasn’t easy when I started, it wasn’t easy last week, and it won’t be easy next week either. It’s not supposed to be easy–it’s supposed to be worth it.

If you haven’t failed in the classroom lately, you aren’t pushing the envelope far enough. ‘Safe’ lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best.

Education shouldn’t be about raising statistics. It should be about raising and fulfilling human potential.

To win in the classroom, you must develop the ability to take leaps of faith. The cost of having a lesson fail is low. Nobody is going to die if we experiment in the classroom and it doesn’t work out. If my surgeon decides to experiment during my operation, that’s different. If a lesson plan fails, you show up the next day and make it right.

It doesn’t particularly matter what the subject is; our mission is to teach in such a way that who we are as human beings has a more powerful and lasting effect on students than what we say.

Burgess’s stance toward students, his understanding of the larger purpose of education (“transforming lives”), and his belief that failure is part of teaching and learning are exactly the things I’m trying to teach in my Methods course. Burgess believes that every student can learn, and he believes that it’s the teacher’s job to reach every student. I believe that too. And his pirate acronym effectively conveys the spirit and energy of a successful classroom (passion, immersion, rapport, ask & analyze, transformation, enthusiasm).

I also liked the section on “presentation hooks.” In this section, Burgess shares tried-and-true techniques for getting students to create, make, explore, and experience in the classroom. Burgess asks questions to get teachers thinking of ways to use these different techniques in their own classrooms. He does provide some examples of what he does in his classroom, but he emphasizes that all teachers of every subject matter can use these techniques. He encourages teachers to be reflective about their work and to take risks. 

Here’s what I didn’t like:

Burgess rightly points out that there is a problem in our school systems: our students are not engaged. But he doesn’t identify the cause of that problem–an outmoded system that forces students to memorize content that is easily Google-able and to learn that content in ways that are also increasingly outmoded. Our students are disengaged because there is such a tremendous disconnect between how they’re learning outside of school and how they’re forced to conform inside of school. Burgess never really questions what we’re teaching in school or, ultimately, the way we’re teaching it. He doesn’t rethink the role of teacher as subject matter expert and content-deliverer.

Burgess places all of the burden for engagement onto teachers, who are basically supposed to do a song-and-dance number (sometimes literally!) to entertain their students. I love the performative nature of teaching, but Burgess’s model strikes me as another way to blame teachers. He assumes that our students will be more engaged if we are more engaging:

Even on the days when some students may not be enthralled with the subject matter, they are engaged by, if nothing else, the fact that I am wound up and going off!

So if your students aren’t beating down the door to get into your classroom, it’s really your own fault for not being more entertaining, for not redecorating your classroom as a speakeasy, dressing up as a character in the book and teaching your lesson in character, etc.

But do students really need this kind of elaborate apparatus to want to learn? Isn’t learning its own reward? Burgess scoffs at that notion, and I think I understand why. He is confusing learning with school. But I mean real learning, real engagement with real questions set by real learners. Which is not something that most students ever experience in school. But that is something that we can redesign and refocus schools to do. If we rethink school and move away from delivering content to inviting exploration, we get something that looks a lot more like learning.

Burgess believes that his role as a teacher is to sell his subject, and to some degree I can get behind that. I also want my class to be the best class that my students have ever taken, I want them talking about it, I want them excited to come to class, I want them to have a life-changing experience of reading and writing in my classroom. I am all for thinking big.

But I want to have as little as possible to do with that life-changing experience. My job is to create a structure that invites something wonderful to happen, and then to get out of the way while the students do the work and the learning. My classroom isn’t about me or what I know or what I do. My classroom is about my students and what they know and what they do.

Burgess notes that in his classroom, “I am selling! I believe great teaching incorporates many of the same skills and techniques used in successful salesmanship and marketing.”

But people only have to be persuaded to buy the things that they don’t need in the first place. I believe that everyone has a sense of wonder and curiosity; everyone wants to engage with big questions, find out more about the things that passionately interest them, and share what they’ve learned with others. I don’t really have to sell that to my students, because it’s something they have an innate desire to do. What I do have to do is create a structure where that’s possible, and that can be challenging when you work within a traditional school structure. It turns out that institutions tend to resist deconstruction and reinvention.

I believe that the person doing most of the work in the classroom is also the one who is doing the learning, and teaching like a pirate looks like an incredible amount of work for teachers. Teaching is such an energy-intensive profession already, and what Burgess asks teachers to do seems incredibly, exhaustively draining to me. I got tired just reading about his classroom high-jinks. I was imagining how I would feel after putting on 5 or 6 pirate performances in a day. I can see that I would be on a teaching high after a successful pirate performance (much less 5 of them in a row!), and I would imagine that such highs become addictive. But I know that it would also lead pretty quickly to teacher burn-out–at least for me.

One Final Thought:

What I think I appreciated most about this book is how much it has gotten me thinking and reflecting on what I do believe as a teacher, what I think effective teaching looks like, and what I want to say to my students about teaching and learning. I took pages of notes on this book as I was reading and did quite a bit of free-writing to capture my thinking. So, a big thanks to Dave Burgess for helping me learn.

One thought on “Teach Like a Pirate: Some Thoughts

  1. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 11/18/13 | the dirigible plum

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