Teach Like a Pirate

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Teach like a Pirate by Dave Burgess has crossed my path numerous times over the past number of years, but I am not sure why I never picked it up. I tend to shy away from things that feel a bit gimmicky, so perhaps it was some preconceived notion I had.  However, this past summer a colleague of mine highly recommended it, so I decided to download it for the ride home across the Canadian prairies.  I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. I was sold. I loved The Pirate’s enthusiasm, passion and message about increasing student engagement, boosting creativity and  transforming the lives of educators.

I found each of the six sections of the PIRATE system (Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask and Analyze, Transformation, Enthusiasm) relevant and through provoking. Dave Burgess has a way of disrupting our thinking as readers and pushing the envelope.  It may be difficult to find too many teachers that can match his energy, style and somewhat outlandish ways but we can all apply the principles behind the thinking in our own way.

Throughout the book, Dave Burgess has a refreshing way of telling it like it is.  This starts early on page 3 when he addresses the issue of passion and acknowledges that it is NOT possible or realistic to be passionate about EVERYTHING we teach. He talks about how passion is broken into three distinct categories: Content Passion, Professional Passion, and Personal Passion.  The key to impassioned, successful teaching involves tapping into all three of these types of passions and in doing so we become “relentless in our pursuit of excellence as an educator”.  Teaching is not a profession in which we can leave our passion, and the essence of who we are, at the door.  Demonstrating passion as an educator is a game changer.

When Dave Burgess talks about immersion the stand out for me is the pool metaphor.  When it comes to teaching… are you a lifeguard or a swimmer?  A lifeguard type of teacher sits above the action and supervises the pool deck.  A swimmer immerses him or herself in the water, gets wet and is an integral part of the action. For me, this powerful analogy drives home the importance of being present and involved as an educator and truly immersing ourselves in what we are facilitating, modeling, and teaching. It means at times being vulnerable. It means being a risk taker ourselves and it means learning alongside our students.  As we move away from traditional practices of stand and deliver and students as mere passive learners, to a more personalized approach with students taking a more active role in their own learning, we must let go of the idea that we as teachers have all the answers. It is essential that we immerse ourselves in the journey and be learners ourselves.

In discussing the necessity of developing rapport with students, the pirate does an excellent job of outlining just how to start to build this foundation.  He highlights the importance of developing relationships and community, first and always.  As he outlines his “First Three Days”, he suggests the need to slow things down, focus on really getting to know students, offer regular opportunities for teamwork or collaboration and set the stage for an exciting, inclusive, engaging, dynamic learning environment.  If we truly want to reach our students, we must first develop rapport, next build trust and ultimately strengthen relationships.  It is through the thoughtful planning of meaningful, engaging, and rich lessons and learning opportunities that “the pirate” hooks his audience, gets huge buy in, ensures his learning intentions are met and ultimately develops rapport with this students.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes up in the ask and analyze section.  I am a firm believer that as educators, one of our most important skills and charges is to be creative.  We constantly have to come up with new and improved ways to teach a concept, adapt a lesson, structure a project, deal with a problem, support a learner, and three thousand other things along the way. Thinking and doing in creative and innovative ways is inherent and necessary within the job, perhaps like in no other profession, each and every day.  The 6 Words spoken to him by a teacher at a workshop…”It’s easy for you. You’re creative” resonated with me.

First of all, teaching isn’t easy. Being an effective, engaging, empowering educator is no simple feat.  It takes hard work, a lot of time, great effort, constant learning, along with continuous personal and professional reflection and growth.  It’s not “easy” for the pirate and it’s not “easy” for any of you reading this.

Secondly, as the pirate so eloquently says, “We all have unbelievable creative potential”. That creativity can be demonstrated and shared in a variety of ways, but each and every one of us has our own individual creative capacity.   We MUST believe that of ourselves and we MUST  believe that of our students.  Often people get caught up in seeing creativity through a very narrow lens. Creativity goes beyond art, music and dance.  Creativity is not reserved for those with dramatic tendencies or a knack for design.  We all have valuable, innovative ideas worth developing and sharing. Dave Burgess outlines a plethora of ways it is possible to be creative in our classroom in the second section of the book.  The key is asking ourselves the right questions, being open to trying something new, and believing in our potential as educators and creators.

In the transformation section Dave Burgess suggests two questions for raising the bar: “If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?” and  “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?”.  I found the second question fascinating and compelling.  I liked the idea of thinking about my own “stand out lessons”.  In my mind these are the lessons or a sequence of lessons that I would never dream of leaving to a substitute. They are the activities that kept me up at night in anticipation, that had me jumping out of bed in the morning to get to and that had become refined works of art over the years.  As teachers, many of us have units, lessons, and activities we do with our students that we are the most proud of, that we know are highly effective and engage our students in superlative ways.  An important skill for any educator is reflecting regularly on our practice, building on our strengths, recognizing our challenges and planning our next steps.  The pirate’s question about “lessons we could sell tickets for” gives us a lens to start this good work. Watch for more on this topic, and my own reflections, in a follow up blog post.

If there is one thing Dave Burgess is not short on, it is enthusiasm which he readily admits, however in this section he also acknowledges many of things he “is not good at” as an educator. He explains how, like all of us, despite our many years of teaching experience we are still a “work in progress”. He goes on though, to stress the necessity and importance of being enthusiastic. If we do not demonstrate interest and enthusiasm in what we teach, how can we expect engagement from our students? In fact, it doesn’t matter how much material you cover, or how much work students do, nothing is more important than “nurturing and building a love of learning”.  

The second part of the book does an extraordinary job of outlining page after page of practical ideas for crafting engaging lessons.  There is an extensive selection of prompting questions, ideas and “hooks” related to:  presentation styles, props, movement, costumes, artifacts, music, the arts, technology, food, drama, current events and building on students’ interests.  There is also a considerable number of unique and novel suggestions in areas such as:  student choice, classroom design, magic, mystery, reality tv and the list goes on.  Dave Burgess outlines how to send students out on secret missions for extra credit.  He uses “advanced tactics” to come up with mysteries to unravel related to content. He describes the ways he has transformed his classroom to replicate a bus, a factory, the moon, or a courtroom, dependent on his unit of study. He offers suggestions in dressing up like a multitude of characters to build authenticity. He promotes the use of just the right video, image, piece of music or prop to provoke, entice and illicit interest and intrigue.  He makes learning relevant, exciting and fun, which in turn both engages and empowers his learners. There is no shortage of amazing ideas to build on here and I think it may be hard to walk away from reading this section without at least a few things to try in your classroom…. tomorrow…… at any grade level.

Dave Burgess names two intents for the book. The first one is  to be inspirational, and the second is  to offer a variety of ideas for educators to apply to their teaching.  The book goes well beyond that and serves as an excellent reminder of the importance of setting a stage for student learning that engages, inspires and empowers learners on a daily basis, that boosts creativity and nurtures a love of learning. It then backs it up with practical, real, time-tested ways to do exactly that!

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