Understanding Teach Like a Champion by Peggy Robertson (Peg With Pen)

(This article originally appeared on Peg With Pen | By Peggy Robertson | 2015)

I’m currently in the process of reading Teach Like a Champion 2.0. I’m reading it because it is one of the “go to” books shared via Relay Graduate School of NYC, and unfortunately, their work is being spread far and wide here in Colorado in many of our districts, including mine. We are at a very precarious time in public education – our work as educators is being stripped from our schools and replaced by non-educator think tanks who pride themselves on high test scores. Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is written by Doug Lemov. I’ll let you read more about him here. Ultimately he is not an educator, but has great experience within the world of charter schools. He has two degrees in English and one in business. He is a corporate education reformer. Period.

To be honest, after reading over 100 pages of the book (there will be a follow-up blog when I finish reading the entire book), I have to say it’s incredibly shallow and simplistic – yet the scary part is the dictatorial demand to keep everything shallow, uniform and simplistic. And as mentioned above, Lemov’s beliefs about “teaching like a champion” are beginning to co-opt what true educators really understand about teaching, child development, and engaging learners. This book is a great primer for reducing learning to uniform and robotic student behavior which is easy to “track” (Lemov’s word – not mine) and manage, in order to get the results that you want. And the results that they want are high test scores. Lemov is clear in stating that this work is gauged via state test scores.

True learning is incredibly messy, but with an inherent structure in place to support the messiness. Those of us with vast experience in public education know this. And we also know that in order for true learning to occur, we must embrace the messiness, while all along keeping a structure in place to allow for the ebb and flow of learning. We create routines and structures, with student input, to foster an environment which supports student engagement, student learning styles and interests, all the while making certain that our teaching is developmentally appropriate and meeting the needs of each learner. If we have the necessary resources, the autonomy to teach, and a class size that allows for us to address each child’s needs – amazing things can happen. If children have food, healthcare and books in their home we can move mountains. However, in this day and age – having everything necessary for all public school children to thrive mentally, physically, academically and emotionally – is rare, if not non-existent.

My experience includes teaching almost all grades Pre-K – 6 (never got to teach third!), serving as a district literacy coordinator, serving as a literacy coach, and working as an educational consultant. I have supported the development of principals and teacher leaders across Colorado and I have worked with teachers nationwide to support their understandings of literacy instruction. I am currently a literacy interventionist in my 19th year of teaching.

In the 90’s I had great autonomy to teach. The inquiries and projects my students completed would not even be possible under today’s testing conditions. Several of my classes opened restaurants – we literally opened a restaurant in our classroom and charged for meals. We designed the restaurant, shopped for the ingredients at the grocery store, and we made the pasta from scratch in our classroom. Students applied for jobs at the restaurant. We took reservations for parents and district staff to come and eat! Another example was with a sixth grade class in which we created a partnership with a nursing home. Each sixth grader had a friend at the nursing home where we visited weekly to plant flowers, read, sing, and develop relationships with these women and men at the home. The sixth graders interviewed their friends, researched the corresponding time period, and wrote biographies. I had a fourth grade class who researched activists across the country who were making changes in their communities. These students really wanted to know how they could give back to the community. We created our own service learning project and gathered food for food banks and worked at the food banks and served at a soup kitchen. We canvassed the neighborhoods gathering canned goods and other items to support families in need. I had other classes who raised money to end landmines that were harming children – we researched these countries and read about the impact on children and created a public campaign to end the landmines. What is interesting about all of these inquiries and projects is that we could connect them to every facet of our day – math, science, social studies, language arts, music, art, and on and on. Those are just a few of the learning opportunities my students had.

I share my experiences because they are important in understanding what education can and should look like. Teaching and learning should not be uniform and defined within a box. Education begins with the students in the classroom, and we then build our curriculum around the students’ strengths, needs and interests. Teachers each have their own talents, their own quirkiness and their own passions which influence their teaching. Students also have their own talents, learning styles and interests which influence how a class takes shape over the year – if indeed we wish for education to be truly intrinsically engaging and purposeful for students. Every classroom is unique – if indeed we are focused on equity for our students and their learning. Education that is standardized and is top down ultimately is dumbed-down.

Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is focused on uniformity. Lemov discusses the idea of standardized formatting for worksheets and note-taking. It is my experience that learners find that certain formats work for them and others don’t. I always share a variety of styles for note-taking with students and ultimately I let them pick what works for them as it’s important that they are able to begin to discern how they learn best and what tools will best support their learning. Classrooms must be equitable. In order to be equitable we must discern what is just and right for each student. We cannot demand all students use a tool if it does not meet their needs; this is why we have notebook paper with narrow lines, fat lines, no lines at all. This is why we have fat pencils, thin pencils, and pencil grips. This is why we want children to pick and choose their independent reading books. Uniformity ultimately destroys any chance of equity – again, considering what is fair and just for each individual student. At times do we all use a particular format – or process? Of course! But uniformity and standardization do not drive the learning – students do.

Lemov is very interested in teachers being able to quickly see the answers students are writing as they walk around the room – this is why he prefers standardization of note taking. Efficiency, mastery and getting it right is key. On page 19 Lemov states that the purpose of order in the classroom is to promote academic learning. I think the purpose of order in a classroom is to create a space which is safe and inviting for student’s social, emotional, physical and academic learning. Physically I want my students to be comfortable so that they can learn. I want them to be able to move around the room as needed to meet their personal needs. Of course, understand it’s not a free for all, children aren’t running willy nilly around the room – but they do stand if needed or cross their legs in their seats, and at times they spread their work out on the floor if that is the best space for their learning to occur. Couches are a wonderful place for children to read and work. My students can have a very carefully articulated plan for the day as they maneuver around the classroom as needed to learn, as they get the necessary supplies, and or converse with the necessary people, to do their work at hand. We work as a community and develop spaces within the room to support our work as a whole group, small groups and as individuals. We trust one another.

In contrast, Teach Like a Champion classrooms are typically rows of desks and the instruction videotaped is always whole group instruction, in which the teacher asks a question and a student answers. So, if you were diagramming the conversation in the classroom on paper it would be straight lines from teacher to student – starting at focal point (the teacher) and spreading out like a fan. Ultimately if you are wishing for a rich conversation that thrives on student talk you are looking for a diagram where the lines intersect. So, the teacher might talk, then a student, then another student responds, and another, and then back to the teacher…so forth and so on. A classroom in which the teacher asks a question and pops from student to student is very dictatorial and ultimately lacks richness and depth of learning – if the teacher is continually directing the discussion then how do we know what the students are thinking and wondering? Of the 46 videos I have watched so far the questions the teachers ask are pretty basic – questions about defining a word, a sentence starter – there are some deeper questions asked at the high school level, but the arrangement of the lesson and the classroom makes it truly difficult to really have a deep, rich conversation which builds and ultimately engages the learners in a way that develops student strengths and empowers their individual voices. There is definitely not space for individuals to come together to share and build a greater and bigger idea or thought as a result of student sharing.

I have yet to see any classrooms with tables. Tables are wonderful for classrooms where we value community, conversation, and working together. Out of the 46 videos I have watched so far I have seen only two tables for two small groups of children. I have 29 videos left to watch.

Out of the 46 videos I’ve watched I’ve seen 12 teachers smile and/or laugh and 6 students smile and/or laugh. Out of the six students who smiled or laughed 3 out of the 6 were due to a child having difficulty answering a question and/or making a mistake when answering. In the videos, when a student talks in the classroom, it is only a result of the teacher allowing the student to talk. In terms of what “talk” looks like, it takes form as a direct answer to a question from the teacher, popcorn reading (where the teacher calls on students to read a portion of a text – always a fun and relaxing strategy for readers who struggle), and 4 videos which showed a brief moment where children were allowed to partner talk (simply turning to the person next to you to converse). Another form of talk that takes place occurs when the teacher requires the entire class to repeat something in unison – there is a lot of parroting back what the teacher says.

There was one video – out of 46 that I have watched – in which a child showed some emotion and said “Oh!” as he raised his hand in excitement to answer a question. There is very little, if any emotion displayed, within any of these videos. When children are forced to comply with such great constraints and boundaries I can imagine that after awhile the emotion is beaten out of them. There are some teachers who exhibit some emotion and kindness, but the children are only allowed to exhibit any kindness to their peers in the form of hand signals or a statement of encouragement shouted in unison as a whole class. On page 11, Lemov points out that a child smiles in a video in which the teacher asks them to pass out papers faster. As Lemov explains how the students are passing out papers quickly in order to increase time for learning in the classroom he states, “The students, by the way, are happy as can be. They love to be challenged and love to see themselves improving. They are smiling.”

Students love to see themselves improving at passing out and collecting papers? *sigh* Such an insult to the children. But I’ll move pass that and talk about papers for a minute.

The videos are full of papers. I get that there is a lot of paper in classrooms, but these papers in the videos typically come in the form of worksheets and packets – seat work. I found it interesting that when they read passages from a text they didn’t have actual books in front of them (based on what I’ve seen so far) -they typically had a worksheet.

On page 12 Lemov states, “Few schools of education stoop to teach aspiring teachers how to train their students to pass out papers, even though it is one of the most valuable things they could possibly do.”

Wow. I don’t even know what to say to that. Perhaps the best thing to say is that that statement pretty much exemplifies the depth of the entire book. Honestly, reading the book and watching the videos is terribly depressing.

The sections I have read in the book so far deal with getting students to answer questions and making sure that the answer is (god I hate this word) “rigorous.” Students must answer questions and if they can’t answer the question they must repeat the answer after another student or the teacher gives the answer. At one point in the book (p.92) he shares an example of a student who doesn’t parrot back the answer and he states that the child will have to come in at recess because this is a “case of defiance.” So – not “parroting” back an answer is defiant? Defiance is defined as a daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force. I personally wouldn’t parrot it back because I’d find it insulting. I’m not a dog who needs to repeat a trick in order to be “trained.” If this is considered defiant I fear for the child who feels the need to scream and throw these worksheets in the trash.

In regard to rigorous – there is much discussion about “rigorous” content. On page 84 Lemov discusses how it saddens him that Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the most read titles in sixth grade. It is not considered rigorous enough. He obviously has not read the research on pleasure reading. But again, he is not a true teacher, so that is to be expected.

There is lots of discussion around errors. I always find this to be a fascinating pattern within books by non-educators. They focus on the negative. I have always used students’ strengths to build on their attempts and next steps. However, in this book the focus is on creating a culture of error where students feel comfortable making errors and teachers scan for evidence of “incomplete mastery.” I agree that students should feel comfortable taking risks in a classroom, but his concept of error and getting it “right” are so different than mine. In a democratic classroom we take risks continually, and when we problem solve and figure it – often together – it’s a process of learning versus this idea of searching for the errors and getting it right. I believe that the process of learning is full of risks and ultimately, NOT necessarily the right answer, but perhaps … another question?

Lemov uses the word “tracking” a lot. Teachers track students, rather than “watch” students and students must track the speaker. It really feels a bit like hunting when watching the teachers “track.” They are looking for specific answers and they will hunt the answer down until they get it. There isn’t a sense of students really ever working together to problem solve and/or determine some finite answer (this is very much about finite answers) – it’s more that the teacher directs the hunt until he or she hears or sees the answer. It’s very much whole group instruction with individual seatwork to determine “mastery” of the direct instruction. The definition of “tracking” is different for students. When the students track, they literally must shift their whole body to face the speaker – it’s a rather robotic movement to observe. I think about sitting in meetings and how teachers respond when someone speaks – I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an entire group of adults literally shift all their bodies to turn and listen to someone speak – and I definitely haven’t seen it happen in unison.

There is a lot of unison in body movement and speech. Some of the teachers snap their fingers to demand all students say a word at the same time. Teachers will ask all students to repeat something like, “adverbs end in -ly.” There were some moments where children were reprimanded and you could hear the teacher saying quietly “Laughing is ten dollars.” or “I’ll call your mother.” If I were a child in one of those classrooms I would positively have exploded under the pressure of keeping my body still and my voice still. All students must be sitting up very straight. Many classrooms have the students folding their hands on the desk at all times – and if they raise their hand, they very quickly rush the hands back to folded position when they are done answering the question. When students raise their hand they are praised for how high and straight the arm is. If they praise a student they will often ask the whole class to repeat a phrase like, “Way to go, you!”

I can’t sit still for more than ten minutes in a meeting before I must shift my body. If I am required to sit still for too long I ultimately feel very agitated. I wonder how the children feel? And how does this impact how they act when they are finally able to leave school?

All the classes are mainly children of color in the 46 videos I have observed so far. Out of the 46 videos there was only one video in which the children did not wear uniforms. I wonder, where are the wealthy districts in suburbia in these videos? Has this been tried out at Sidwell?

There are all sorts of whole group movements like banging on the desk or doing rock paper scissors all at once to determine an answer to a multiple choice question. Hand gestures are used continually to replace actual speech.

I have grave concerns about this book being used in any school as a model of techniques which support student learning. The fact that I have to explain this in a blog clearly signals a very sad period of time in the history of public education in our country. There is no room for student learning styles in terms of how students sit, talk, or process their learning using these techniques. There is no respect for culture – some children come from cultures in which eye contact is actually disrespectful. There is no respect for specific learning needs of children – what about the child who does not process quickly, yet is required daily to participate in the gut wrenching practice of cold calling (in which a teacher rapid fires questions at random children with no think time for the child). These strategies are absolutely detrimental to the second language learner or the child with learning disabilities as there is no scaffolding or additional supports to meet their needs. Children will simply become compliant or….. they will revolt, and then, they will be asked to leave the school. We must remember, few charter schools accept all children and these techniques come straight from charter schools. Charters are also excellent at counseling children out of the school. There is not a single video I have observed yet that shows children independently moving around the room. The children move like robots and the teachers dictate their every move.

Lemov believes that all these techniques create efficiency and therefore better use of time for students to reach “mastery.” What I observe is a large amount of time wasted parroting motions and words that require minimal thinking but 100% compliance. I do not observe any authentic learning. The children are expressionless. In a classroom of vibrant learning you can feel the buzz and hear the buzz of learning. These classrooms feel more like boot camp.

As an educator I have a vast array of approaches I use to support children. My bachelor’s is in Elementary Education and my master’s is in English as a Second Language, so I understand clearly the many scaffolds and teaching methods that can be used to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Yet, in these videos of diverse classrooms, the only approach I have observed is whole group direct instruction.

Where are the chatty children who are engaged in learning as they lean over a project or book? Where are the smiling children? Where are the excited children who are bubbling over with information about their learning, their friends, their family and their school? And where are the sad children who need the extra moment to talk quietly with the teacher about how they were up all night due to a parental fight? The children have no emotion. After watching 46 videos of children with absolutely no expression on their faces – minus only six children who let out a brief smile or laugh – I literally wanted to cry.

There is a reason I am absolutely livid over this book. There is a reason I am angry that Colorado – and the rest of the country – is allowing this book and the Relay Graduate School to infiltrate their schools. When I read the book and watch the videos, all I can think of is fascist, racist times in history in which children were harmed. Corporate education is devouring our children – specifically – our neediest children. It is gut wrenching to watch the students in these videos. I know what is possible in a school community – a school where vibrant learning occurs and students and teachers are engaged – with purpose, passion and humanity. Sadly, the strategies in this book adhere to very direct instruction and dictatorial behavior models which strip children of their identity and culture – all in the name of high stakes tests scores. There is no equity here. There is no justice for children.

 

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