Teach Like a Champion

I didn’t realize how heavy on theory and light on practical information my college training was until I entered a classroom.  I had lots of opinions about education, tons of great notions, but no idea about how to get a bunch of first graders to quiet down long enough to learn. That they absorbed anything during my first of year of experimentation on them is a testament to my enthusiasm and their ability to assimilate–despite my lack of actual teaching skills.

To prepare for my second year of teaching I read lots of books, including Harry Wong’s outstanding classroom management book, The First Days of School.  Together with what I’d learned by trial and error my first year, I had a very different second year. I started by teaching procedures:  what students should do when they needed to sharpen pencils (one person at the sharpener at a time), or when they needed to use the bathroom (take the pass, use the lavatory, wash your hands, leave immediately), or the right way to pass out papers (take one, pass them back). We even practiced how to stop talking when I gave the “silent signal.”  (We practiced that a LOT.)   I taught other procedures like this, too.  It took a few extra days at the beginning of the year but it sped us through the rest of the year  and eliminated the need for a lengthy list of classroom rules.  Other teachers began to notice how well behaved my class was. They started saying I was given a “cream puff” group. The following year the same thing happened. Each year, it seemed, I had been given the “best behaved” class.  What a difference a book made.

Not since Harry Wong’s book have I seen another one packed with the same kind of solid, useful information.  But reading through Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, I discovered a kindred spirit.  His book covers not only procedures but the art of teaching itself for elementary and middle school grades. It demystifies the idea that great educators are instinctive and gives truth to the notion that one can be taught the skills to become adept at teaching.  Some examples:

“Many teachers respond to almost-correct answers their students give in class by rounding up. That is they’ll affirm the student’s answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it fully correct even though the student didn’t provide (and may not recognize) the differentiating factor….Great teachers praise students for their effort but never confuse effort with mastery.” (Right is Right, Technique #2

I love the term Lemov uses for this:  rounding up.  This is essential, and yet teachers so often overlook it.   Rather than supplying the balance of the information for your student, use the Socratic method and ask questions to elicit the rest. Give them the satisfaction of drawing the correct conclusion — don’t take that from them.

“Avoid chastening wrong answers, for example, ‘No, we already talked about this.  You have to flip the sign, Ruben.’ And do not make excuses for students who get answers wrong: ‘Oh, that’s okay, Charlise.  That was a really hard one.’  In fact, if wrong answers are truly a normal and healthy part of the learning process, they don’t need much narration at all.”  (Normalize Error, Technique #49).

I’ll let you think about this one and ask yourself how you would handle it differently.  You’ll see the wisdom in it.

The best thing about Lemov’s book?  If current or future teachers read this book, highlight it, take notes and pay attention – they will become better teachers.  With practice, maybe even really good teachers.  And then hopefully they can avoid the kind of first year I had, with students who loved me for my enthusiasm but surely not because I could possibly have helped them learn to their fullest potential.

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