Dave Burgess, national speaker and author of Teach Like a Pirate, came to Dawson High School to teach 650 teachers from the area about how to increase student engagement. His message is to incorporate presentation skills in to the classroom. Teachers know their content well, and spend a lot of time learning teaching techniques and strategies, but almost no time with presentational skills.
Burgess has a background as a magician and emcee, so his style brings tons of enthusiasm, pizzazz, and misdirection to get students pumped up. He lives for the moment where he sees student's brain switch and realize, "Oh wait, he's teaching us!"
That doesn't mean every teacher needs to be learning card tricks. His book has 170 questions for teachers to ask themselves to make lessons more engaging. That could be anything - can we take the class outside, is there a way to incorporate food, music, props, pop culture, current events, games, competition, anything. He spoke about taking your passions and also what the students love and blending that in with the curriculum content.
Burgess reported, " I think we spend too much time in the education section of the bookstore, and not enough time reading wide and living wide. Teach like a Pirate is drawn from a lot of outside sources. It's a mindset. It's a way of looking at the world and saying "How can I use that? What are other professions using that I can use? What are the kids into that I can use?"
But why bother with flash? School is school, and students are there to learn so they can prepare to build a solid future for themselves and better society. On top of that, coming up with all these creative ideas and lessons is a lot of work. Burgess said that he had been working on developing his lessons for 17 years, and his salary didn't go up because he had students picking up golf balls pretending they were astronauts learning about the moon landing.
Burgess explains, "I think there's a compliance mentality in a lot of education systems. 'This is the way we do things, this is the way you're going to do it. If they ask why we do it this way, it's because we've always done it that way.' We're losing a lot of chances for kids to tap in to their creativity and to explore some of their passions and interests as a part of what we do in the school system."
"There's an overemphasis on standardized testing. I think they (schools and politicians) don't know any better way of measuring success. You can put a number on it and quantify it. Most of the important things in education can't be quantified. For example, what's my goal at the end of the Civil Rights unit? Should it be that they know every feature of the civil rights act of 1964, or should they be not racist, and willing to fight injustice when they see it? My goal is the second, but the test is only going to ask about the first."
So if standardized tests aren't the best way to measure student success and teacher effectiveness, what else could we look at? Burgess responds, "It's hard to quantify, but are the students leaving with a greater love of learning or less? Do they feel prepared for their next step in life? Are they well-rounded human beings? There needs to be a focus on the social and emotional well being students and adults in the school system. I want people to be healthy, psychologically sound human beings when they leave our school system and walk out into society, and I don't think it's doing that right now."
We also spoke with two teachers at YME who were implementing what they had learned from the book and presentation, Kari Coulter and Jeff Lalim. On Tuesday, Lalim was dressed as two different super heroes during the day - Nutrient Man and Diet Pepsi Man. He had a skit involving alcohol serving as Kryptonite, and then a student rescued him with a diet Pepsi to make him feel better. The skit reinforced the point about making better choices with choosing beverages in social situations.
Coulter mentioned struggling a bit because math concepts seemed trickier to make "entertaining." She found help through a website called Teacher Pay Teacher, which lets teachers buy lessons, projects, games, whatever the teacher created and put up for other teachers to use. It seems like a good answer for teachers who feel stuck creatively.
They may want to embrace the Pirate teaching mindset, but may not have the time or money to come up with and actually create the stuff. There's not an easy answer when it comes to the reality of doing all the extra work to make learning fun. Some teachers are going to thrive, and it creates feedback loops where the teacher has more fun teaching because students are having fun and engaged, so they want to create more fun lessons. Other teachers are more set in their ways and don't want to try anything else.
In his book, Burgess explains that there are three different sources of passion. There's content passion within your job, the parts that you love doing/teaching. There's professional passion, in this example, the reason someone got in to teaching. and then there's personal passion, things that have nothing to do with the job - other hobbies, activities, concepts, events, etc. The Professional passion, why someone got in to teaching, is critical.
Burgess explains the concept of Life Changing Lessons, (LCL) which he tries to fit in to as many lessons as he can. Those are the lessons that, as the title describes, have a significant impact on the student, opening their eyes to something, learning a concept that stays with them for the rest of their life. On a less profound level, the Pirate teaching method greatly enhances the amount of information a student will learn the first time hearing it.
Burgess also posed a question that serves as a "gut-punch" for some teachers. "If your students weren't forced to be there, would you be teaching an empty classroom?" His other question serves as a "bar-raiser," to encourage the Pirate mindset - "Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?"
In the afternoon workshops, teachers got to practice and see just how creative they could be. They played out hypothetical scenarios like "If you and your students were locked in a room and all you had was a box of Legos to teach, what would you do?" Coulter reported being shocked at how many ideas she and other teachers generated in the 90 seconds given in that scenario.
We also spoke with Assistant Director of MRVED, Bryan Raymo, about how the Teach Like a Pirate workshop came to be. MRVED has the Flexible Learning Year Application, which lets schools start before labor day, and lines up common days for the district. The workshop was the first of four days in the school year set aside to help teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff with professional development. The schools pool funds, which helped bring in a higher level speaker, like Dave Burgess.
The Teacher Advisory Council is made up of two teachers from each district, and booked the speaker to fit this year's theme, which is student engagement. Based on the glimpse seen in the first week after, it seems like YME could be fostering quite a few swashbucklers in the future.