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Teach Like a Pirate

Tuesday, December 09, 2014  
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By: David Burgess

Reviewed By: Holly Chesser, SAIS
Review Published: May 2013

Avast ye, maties! There’s a new book that may just cause you to give the heave ho to your current method of instruction: Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator

What does teaching have to do with piracy? Burgess, an award-winning U.S. History teacher, explains that all great teachers should embrace the spirit of the buccaneer. Pirates exist outside the law, sail the unchartered seas, denounce conformity, and seek adventure. Dismayed by students’ apathy and disconnection, Burgess argues that innovative, passionate teachers need to boldly wave their Jolly Rogers in defiance of the present system and reengage students with his Teach Like a Pirate guide. Eager to gain your attention through passion and persuasion, he proclaims, “In these challenging and changing times, our students need leaders who are willing to venture forward without a clear map to explore new frontiers. We need mavericks and renegades who are willing to use unorthodox tactics to spark and kindle the flame of creativity and imagination in the minds of the young. We need entrepreneurial innovators who are capable of captaining the educational ship through waters that are rough and constantly changing. In short, we need pirates…we need you.”

Writing “part inspirational manifesto and part practical roadmap,” Burgess divides his book into three parts: how to maintain student curiosity and engagement, how to develop lessons that will hook students, and how to recognize what’s holding teachers back from letting go and setting sail. 

In part one, Burgess highlights acronymically the elements of PIRATE teaching: passion, immersion, rapport, ask and analyze, transformation, and enthusiasm. 

An avowed showman, Burgess claims that students are not motivated by mediocrity or monotony. Instead, the single greatest means of engagement is modeling passion. He advises, “Light yourself on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles around just to watch you burn!” Granted, Burgess admits, there are moments when every teacher does not feel passion for his or her subject, but he urges teachers instead to find the places where their content, professional, and personal passion merge in order to tap into that energy every day of the year.

Burgess illustrates the power of immersion in teaching by highlighting the distinction between a lifeguard and a swim instructor. The lifeguard sits in an elevated seat and observes the pool, making sure no one is drowning. Conversely, the swim instructor, at least if he or she is a good one, jumps in the pool alongside the learner, plunging into the action. As Burgess explains, “An instructor who is fully immersed in the moment has a special type of intensity that resonates with great power in the classroom, regardless of the activity.”  

Since engagement lies at the heart of great teaching, Burgess encourages teachers first to learn who their students are, to discuss group dynamics, and to teach learning styles. Intent on creating the right atmosphere from the start, on day one he doesn’t lecture students on class rules for using the restroom or sharpening one’s pencil. Instead, he gives the students each a can of Play-Doh and asks them to mold shapes that tell stories about themselves. On day two, he engages them in a group exercise to determine who among a list of characters should receive a spot on a life raft after surviving a plane crash. Who the students choose is irrelevant. The process of learning how to listen, how to collaborate, and how to reach a consensus is the focus of the lesson. On day three, he teaches the students about learning styles and brain research, helping them explore the silent question he knows many of them are thinking: How can I be successful in this class?

Ask and Analyze
A regular presenter at conferences and workshops, Burgess is accustomed to hearing six words voiced over and over by so many fellow educators: “It’s easy for you. You’re creative.”The obvious insinuation from the speaker is that he or she is not and therefore incapable of teaching like a pirate. However, Burgess challenges the belief that creativity resides innately and cannot be developed. He encourages teachers to understand that the creative process depends on fostering inquiry both in themselves and in their students, on developing a system to capture ideas as they are formulated, and on understanding that failure is only feedback in disguise. 

Burgess acknowledges a fundamental reality for many students: “Too often school is a place where creativity is systematically killed, individuality is stamped out, and boredom reigns supreme.” He advises teachers that they can blame the students for their apathy or create an environment that challenges that statement. He believes teachers should ask themselves two questions: 1) If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching in an empty room? 2) Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for? The plain fact is that there are many images, sounds, voices, and products fighting for our students’ attention. Educators who seek to engender love of learning in their students cannot do so with a “medicine approach,” telling students to pay attention because it’s on the exam, will get them into college, or help them later in life. As Burgess frankly states, “If you can’t explain why someone should pay attention to what you’re saying, maybe you shouldn’t be saying it.” He argues that students find math, history, and reading boring not because those subjects are inherently uninteresting. Rather, the manner in which they’re taught makes them appear to be so. Burgess advocates reframing the subject by providing relevance, real-world connection, and creative opportunities.

Believing first and foremost in fervent teaching, Burgess states, “If you apply nothing else from this book, but you consistently ramp up your enthusiasm level in the classroom, you will be far ahead of the game and a dramatically better teacher.” Teachers may resist the notion that they must perform and capture their audience’s attention, but Burgess argues that the power of passion cannot be denied. Quoting Emerson, he reminds, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

In part two of his book, Burgess offers suggestions on how to create engaging lessons. Too often, Burgess argues, teachers focus on content and technique but miss the critical element that brings both alive – presentation. Offering the analogy of a chef expecting his guests to enjoy plates heaped with colorless, flavorless food, Burgess underscores an important point, “It doesn’t matter how much material you teach, it only matters how much is received.” In short, a teacher needs to develop the appetite of the students by providing inviting and delicious offerings. 

Working off the premise that no content standard is more important than developing a love of learning, Burgess presents a series of presentational hooks that any good pirate should keep under his sash. Describing the power of the kinesthetic hook, he explains how his students “have flown like Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic, roped cattle (or a stool in this case) on a cattle drive, flown paper airplanes during the Berlin Airlift lesson, boarded a Montgomery bus, played intense games of Trench Warfare on the floor behind desks, and fit into a box like Henry ‘Box’ Brown did to mail himself to freedom.” Burgess decries the outdated notion that the classroom experience can’t be fun. Instead, he is primarily interested in creating a memorable framework for the learning to stick. To that end, he will use the arts, music, dance, drama, excursions outside of the class, current events, costumes, storytelling, frankly anything to get and keep his students’ attention. As Burgess forthrightly states, “Promote, market, and sell are three business practices that belong in the classroom.” 

The book’s final chapter begins with a question: “Do you want to be great?” Burgess explains that posing that question generally causes teachers to squirm in their seats. A great teacher possesses a mighty purpose, he argues, but he or she must decide to be great. Explaining that the etymology of the word “decide” literally means to cut off, he encourages teachers to “cut off all other options” and commit to greatness. He catalogues what might be holding a teacher back, what “options” need excising: “fear of failure,” “believing you have to figure it all out before you begin,” “perfectionism,” “lack of focus,” fear of criticism or ridicule.” Burgess reassures teachers that the potential rewards of teaching like a pirate should outweigh any fears. He counsels, “You have to have the intestinal fortitude, self-confidence, and personal power to press on and do what you know is right for your students.”

An engaging read that invites highlighting and annotation, Teach Like a Pirate may be just the perfect summer book for teachers seeking re-invigoration, a new focus, or just flat-out encouragement. Like Johnny Depp aboard the Black Pearl, you may just find yourself proclaiming next year, “Life’s pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be? I’m a pirate after all.”

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