The first thing that stands out about Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate is that it is not an instruction manual or how-to guide. It does not list steps that follow a linear path making you a better teacher when the book is completed. That is not to say that you can’t become a better teacher by reading it; it simply uses the “magic” of motivation and taps into the creativity we all have inside somewhere, even though so many are unaware of this latent ability. From page one you can feel the passion and energy that Burgess brings to teaching and he spends the next 177 pages trying to infuse the reader with the same passion and energy.
Passion is the word used most throughout the book. Burgess starts the book by speaking of three types of Passion: Content; Professional; and Personal. Content passion is easily defined. It is the thing you know the best and feel the strongest about. If you are a math teacher and do not care for or know the ends and outs of math, your effectiveness will suffer. Professional passion is defined more broadly but is no less important to your effectiveness in teaching. It answers the question: Why did you become a teacher in the first place? What drives you to continue past all the hardships and come back year after year? Personal passion transcends subject matter and teaching as a profession altogether. There are many service professions in the job market and as a general rule do not pay as well as professions in business, law, and other parts of the private sector. A personal passion is what drives one to want to make some kind of difference in the world and to the people in it. Burgess believes it is the passion in whatever you do that makes people sit up and take notice, even to the degree of listening intently about something we actually care nothing about.
Immersion is a concept Burgess dedicates an entire chapter. Immersion is not an unfamiliar term in the business of education; most notably in the bi-lingual programs of school districts around the country. Immersion can be summed up in the cliché “Sink or Swim” Many people I know, most notably in my parent’s generation (The end of WW2 through the present) learned to swim by being literally thrown into the water. Survival is the motivating factor of this method. In many educational settings where there are sub-cultures such as Hispanics in the South-west of the country and immigrant hot-spots such as New York and Florida; French speakers in Louisiana and places along the Canadian border and other such places, immersion is placing them right beside the English speakers and delivering all lessons in English. By way of “have-to” these students succeed in learning English because the alternative is failure and loss of the American Dream. Burgess believes that as teachers we must immerse ourselves into our students and also into whatever we are trying to teach them. If we do this we are more likely to succeed because we are showing, not just telling. Do we learn more from the coach who sits on the sidelines and yells out instruction, or the one who dives into the game and goes through all the motions right there at our side, not to catch us when we fall but to show us how not to fall in the first place.
Rapport is the next major factor to which Burgess credits his success. He outlines its general importance with a quote from the Japanese philosopher Sun Tzu, from his book The Art of War: “One hundred victories in one hundred battles are not the most skillful. Subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful” What Burgess is referring to here is the one challenge all teachers must overcome: Classroom Management. Instead of being reactionary, our greatest classroom management technique is the rapport we cultivate with our students from the very beginning. Burgess argues that most misbehavior indicates boredom, overwhelm, or lack of connection to the material being covered. He finds that the best weapon to overcome this problem is listening to the students. Listen to what they talk about, refer to, connect with and use it to your advantage. Pop culture is a very dynamic and changing entity that must be investigated constantly to know how to use it effectively. In addition to understanding their world, Burgess explains the importance of what he calls “informal time.” Spending time listening to what they have to say and talk about outside the material in your class lets them know you care about what they think, say, and feel. Rapport is also important because it can help create buy-in to the material. If your students know you care for their opinions and beliefs, it opens the door to their feelings about what you as the teacher think is important.
Burgess dedicates a chapter that chronicles his first three days of school. Posted on his door the first day is the following message: “YOU’VE HEARD THE STORIES….ARE YOU READY FOR THE EXPERIENCE? This is his first hook. His second is the music he plays during passing period to garnish attention. The third is the can of Play-Doh sitting on each student’ desk when they arrive. What Burgess is looking for is a new perspective and vision that students have not found yet in a teacher, class, or subject. He utilizes these tools like movies attract with teaser trailers. He’s looking for buy-in before the class has even started.
He does not write the name of his course on the board. Instead he writes “WELCOME TO THE WORLD FAMOUS LEARNING EXTRAVAGANZA! HOSTED BY: DAVE BURGESS NOW PLAYING IN SS-9
Once he has their attention he instructs them to use the Play-doh to make something that expresses who they are and to present it to the class when finished. While the students make their object Burgess flits around the room interacting with the students, taking the time to pay attention to what they like and how it can be used later to keep them “buying-in”
Day two Burgess plays a game with them. After some theatrics he asks them to imagine ten people had crashed on a deserted island. He gives the students short biographies of the ten which runs the gamut from convicted murderer to a botanist with two children back home. He asks them to imagine a helicopter finds them but can only take five back. The students are to choose the five going and the five staying using whatever criteria they choose. Burgess uses this activity to discuss group dynamics, collaborative process, and procedures used to get in groups.
Burgess considers day three to be the most important day of the school year. In the previous two days he spent preparing them to prepare for a new kind of learning experience. Day three is where he tells them how they are going to be successful in his class. He explains that his lessons and style are based on the very latest brain research and has proven effective previously for students. One of the styles and method he utilizes is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. He uses this because it works for kids who may not do well on standardized tests, but do well in arts, sports and other types of learning. He is saying to the students that they can all be successful because he includes them all and promises each that they can succeed utilizing their particular intellectual strength.
Next Burgess takes on the question “How can I teach like you when I’m not creative?” In Burgess’s view the world is not split between those who are creative and those who are not. He believes everyone has creative potential. He states “Creative ideas don’t come out of the blue; they come from engaging in the creative process. That critical process starts when you ask the right types of questions and then actively seek the answers.” There is no lack of creativity, just a lack of impetus to do something creative.
Burgess believes that if you ask the right questions your brain won’t rest until it finds the right answers to go with it. Finding the right questions then, becomes paramount. You can create a vision of what you want and define the goals you wish to achieve, and then start working for them in order to answer the questions you posed. I have personally used this method when writing fiction. It comes down to the concept used often in the education community: “Begin with the end in mind.” You have to know where you are going in order to actually get there.
Burgess had many lessons “blow up in his face” as he puts it. Not all plans come together the first time or at all. The only failure however would be to stop working on what you wish to ultimately achieve. Gather feedback and go back to the drawing board is his suggestion.
Along with this he suggests making what he calls “Creative Alchemy” What this means is that people should follow their passions hobbies, and other activities in order to create experience that can be brought into the classroom. My personal belief is that you cannot know anything if you do not do anything. Experience can, and does, create idea processes.
In the next chapter, Transformation, Burgess tackles the issue of boredom in the classroom. Looking at it from the perspective of students, he believes monotony and drudgery can foster poor classroom performance because of the lack of enthusiasm they can suffer from. He writes a letter that he thinks is the antithesis of what he wants his class to be. He states that the letter is based on many he received from students over the years. The fictional (or amalgamated as he claims) letter sings his praises as a teacher, praises his class as a nirvana-like hub of education amid a sea of “brown cow” boredom. I don’t doubt that Burgesses teaching is good and his class interesting but I was actually turned off by this plethora of self-praise. I was reminded of carnival barkers trying to hook you into taking a peek at the freak show behind the curtain. Be that as it may, it being true or untrue is really irrelevant as long as he is using it to make his class the best it can be. He encourages professional educators to keep working at it until they have lived up to the vision they have of themselves and their classrooms at its absolute best.
Burgess also suggested what the business world called “Positioning and Re-framing” to aid effectiveness in the classroom. He describes it as “The process by which you create a compelling and understanding in the minds of your audience members to differentiate your brand, product or service.” The object is to catch the attention of your students in such a way that they don’t feel like they are being given medicine and taking it because they have to. The object is to make them want to take what you are handing out.
The remainder of the book gives instruction on presentation and “hooks” that he has effectively used in his own classroom. His lessons are geared as to span subject matter and curriculum. Here is a brief list and summary of each type:
- 1) The Kinesthetic Hook: Movement facilitates learning. This has been a known fact for some time now, and is not only used on children, but with adult education as well. Burgess lists several movement based lessons he has used: Collecting golf balls symbolizing moon rocks in a close by field; roped stools doubling as cattle when studying the Old West; acted out WW1 trench warfare and many others.
- 2) The Artistic Hook: The Picasso Hook involves the visual arts and has the students depicting concepts through painting and drawing. Coupling the lecture with the creation of a visual reinforces the concept and helps retention. Another he calls The Mozart Hook. This entails using music for various lessons as an enticement. He tries matching music with the theme of the lesson he is teaching. Some examples include playing Public Enemies Can’t Truss It for teaching The Middle Passage and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon when teaching about the first lunar landing. The Dance and Drama Hook gives students a chance to use acting out as a learning tool. One example is teaching a lesson about “The Twenties” by having students create a video of them doing the Charleston. The Craft Store Hook uses things like origami and having students create models of items used in certain eras of study.
- 3) The What’s in it For Me Hooks: This hook depends solely upon the likes and interests of the student. Its subcategories include The Hobby Hook, which caters to individual or popular interests. The Real World Application Hook shows the worth of content they learn in class to the real world. The Student Directed Hook allows students some freedom in the method of learning that is used. The Opportunistic Hook allows current events to be applied to what they are learning.
- 4) The All the World is a Stage Hook: pays attention to how the classroom appears. The dynamics of the classroom’s décor can be tailored to the unit being taught, such as darkening the room and playing gloomy music while wearing a witch costume to teach the lesson on The Salem Witch Trials. With the Props Hook Burgess uses items relevant to the lesson being taught the same way a play uses stage props. The Involved Audience Prop brings the student directly into the lesson. The Mystery Bag Hook uses something hidden from the class to build up interest.
- 5) Stand and Deliver Hooks: These types of hooks are geared toward improving your performance when orally delivering lessons to the class. They include: The Story Telling Hook-Matching a high-interest story to tell that would go along with the lesson being delivered. The Swimming With the Sharks Hook-Change how you physically relate to the students when delivering the lesson. The front of the class should not be the only place you can “perform” The Taboo Hook-Works by making information seem secret or even illicit to arouse curiosity about the topic. The Teaser Hook-Works almost like a movie trailer in building up the subject and promoting it ahead of time.
- 6) Around the Edges Hook-Making the activities more dynamic: The Contest Hook: This hook is best used for group study or review and involves having games linked with studying Examples include having a paper ball war mimicking trench warfare in WWI and having them answer questions correctly in order to be able to take a shot. He also uses group Battleship contests as review purposes. The Chef Hook-This one brings food and drink into the classroom to enhance the lesson. The MNEMONIC method can work with any subject and is very good for retention. The Extra-Credit Challenge-This brings struggling students within range of success by giving workable second chances..
The conclusion is basically a pep-talk. He reviews his success and failures and how his attitude about education has evolved along with his lessons. The book is short but packed with ideas. The ideas for crafting lessons make sense and are in my opinion the strongest thing in the text. That alone makes it a book worth reading. While I don’t agree with him about everyone’s inner “dynamic” waiting to come out. Not everyone’s personality can support such a vigorous and energy laden teaching style, I do believe readers should give it their best regardless of whether they are capable of duplicating Burgess’ results or not. This assures some success in improving your teaching, and we should take what we can get.