Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Teach Like a Champion" by Doug Lemov

Summary: A book of techniques, compiled through observations of "champion" teachers, on how to most effectively run a classroom to maximize student achievement.

Musings: This book first came to my attention through a New York Times article ("Building a Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green, 3/2/2010).  I rarely purchase teaching books, partly because I still have a ton on my bookshelf from grad school that I never read, and secondly because I often don't see specific enough application to my teaching to warrant a purchase and read.  Nonetheless, I was struck by Lemov's emphasis, as described in the Times article, of observing the best teachers and, from that, drawing out specific and easily applicable techniques that any teacher could employ.

Some of the criticism of education schools present in the article, which served as an impetus for Lemov's work, especially struck home for me.  I was an English major in undergrad, but I had no interest in becoming a teacher.  But, a year out of college, bored to tears at my nonprofit job, and living two hours away from the man who would become my husband, I decided I needed a change.  So I entered graduate school in education more out of a necessity for a purpose than for a real desire to teach, though fortunately that love of teaching did develop afterward.  I enrolled in an excessively expensive Ivy League school of education in a program that would give me my masters and certification to teach.

The faculty at the school was certainly passionate.  Situated in an urban area with dangerous and failing public schools, my graduate school truly believed in education as social justice.  They wanted to empower students, change the dictatorial nature of schools, and focus on inquiry.  I believed it; I wanted to change the world.  Then, they threw us into the public school classroom.  I was armed with theory and good intentions--and absolutely no applicable skills.

How could I empower my students if I couldn't even get them to be quiet long enough to hear my directions?  How could critical inquiry take place with students who hated and distrusted one another?  It was a heartbreaking situation for me.  I truly loved my kids, and I believed in them, but I had no idea how to lead a 90-minute class.  I was left feeling that attempts at authority were bad, that instructing a class was replicating an undemocratic social structure, but that in no way helped me or my students.  And I was angry at my school.

I teach at a public school now, and through trial and error I've been able to create a classroom that I think works.  But, I still feel I missed out on those "tools of the trade" that could make it better.  For this reason, I was eager to read Lemov's work.  Some of my old graduate school faculty might balk at some of his methods: teacher lead work (gasp!), methods of control (shock!), and an emphasis on getting the right answer (horror!).  Nonetheless, I do believe these techniques can help any teacher create a more effective and successful classroom.

What I liked most was how Lemov broke the book down into specific, named techniques.  He explains the technique, the theory behind it, and then provides several examples (a CD is also included with a number of video examples).  The techniques involve specific actions any teacher can take and implement tomorrow.  They're not necessarily groundbreaking, and most teachers probably do at least some of them already, but they are clear, organized, and build upon one another.

I thought the first section, "Setting High Academic Expectations," was one of the most useful.  It really led me to reconsider the way I do whole class question-and-answer by emphasizing student accountability and involvement.  Even basic techniques, like "no opt out," which ensures that a student who answers a question incorrectly ends the sequence by answering correctly, can really change a classroom atmosphere.  The sections "Engaging Students in your Lessons" and "Creating a Strong Classroom Culture" were also especially helpful.

While I read, I found it useful to take notes and ask myself questions about how I might reorganize some aspects of my classes.  Lemov emphasizes the importance of making use of every moment in the classroom, and I know there are ways I could improve upon that.

The book is, of course, not perfect.  Most of the techniques relate to whole class, teacher directed work (oh, what my grad school faculty would say!), and there's almost nothing on individual or group work.  A lot of the most interesting techniques also work primarily for questions to which there is a specific correct answer.  They would work great for lessons on grammar, but would be less helpful in open-ended discussions on literature, especially at a high school level.  The book's categorized as K-12, but most of the examples are for elementary school.  Many of the techniques can certainly be adapted for upper grades, but high school presents additional challenges, especially in implementing behavior techniques.  Elementary school students are probably more willing to be taught how to sit up and follow a speaker than high school students (even though high school students certainly need it!).

I go back to school next week, so this was the perfect time to reconsider how I lead my classroom.  I think any teacher would benefit by the book.  Lemov's techniques could also make a great professional development (I'll pretend that's not an oxymoron) if teachers were given the opportunity to practice.

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