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Uncategorized   |   Sep 9, 2013

Teach Like a Pirate (Book Review)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Teach Like a Pirate (Book Review)

By Angela Watson


I realized from the second I met author and high school teacher Dave Burgess at the ISTE conference that he is one of those people that just exudes energy and enthusiasm. He is the teacher we all wish we could be: passionate, fearless, motivated, and purpose-driven. He’s the type of teacher you might look at and think, “I don’t know how he does it. I could never be like him. I’m not that creative, and I don’t have that kind of energy. Teaching is a really hard job, and I don’t have it in me these days.”

Reading Dave’s book might just change your mind about that. In Teach Like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator, Dave shares simple ideas that will inspire you and help you embrace the adventures and challenges of teaching.

What does it mean to teach like a pirate? As Dave explains,

…it has nothing to do with the dictionary definition and everything to do with the spirit. Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends of the earth for that which they value.

The book is divided into three sections. The first explains what it means to teach like a P.I.R.A.T.E., with a chapter for each letter of word (P-passion, I-immersion, R-rapport, A-ask and analyze, T-transformation, and and E-enthusiasm.) I initially assumed this section would simply lay the foundation for the rest of the book, but it was actually my favorite part and provided the most value for me personally.

There was one particular takeaway from the first section of the book that I know will impact the way I teach forever.  It’s related to the “deep, dark secret” that teachers hold: we are not passionate about everything that we teach, and we feel a tremendous pressure to BE passionate so that kids will be passionate, too. Dave explains that when you don’t have passion for your content, you must consciously make the decision to focus on your professional passion. That can be done by planning your instruction to include life-changing lessons, or LCLs. In other words, if you need to teach about railroads and you are not passionate about railroads, you can channel the enthusiasm needed to teach the lesson well by incorporating a message that has the ability to transform the lives of your students. The LCL for railroads could be perseverance, or hard work, or the potential for technological inventions (that students could create!) to change the world.

By tapping into those LCLs, you’re tapping into topics and values that are important to you (and for your students) even when the subject matter is dry. I can think back on many occasions in my teaching career in which I did this without realizing that’s what I was doing, and I saw the difference in my own energy level and the response from my students. I can also think of many times in which I just tried to “push through” content I thought was boring, or motivate kids by saying “you’ll need this for the test!” (something else Dave warns against)…and as you can imagine, the results were not good. From now on, whenever I have to teach something I’m not excited about, I’m going to plan an LCL so that the experience is more meaningful and enjoyable for both the learners and myself.

I also enjoyed Dave’s thoughts on the second I in PIRATE, which is immersion. He talks about being fully present in the classroom, and how student engagement decreases and behavioral problems increase when the teacher’s heart and mind are not totally there with the kids. In my experience, the worst days in the classroom are when my thoughts are focused on something besides the students–they become a distraction and an irritation instead of real human beings that I have a connection with. Dave gently reminds us to “swim with” our students instead of distancing ourselves and coaching from the sidelines.

Dave’s explanations on building rapport with kids were also excellent. He shares exactly what he says and does on the first three days of school. It’s in that section that you as the reader truly realize how out-of-the-box Dave’s teaching style is. I am a far more serious person in the classroom, but it was fun for me to read about how Dave grabs students’ attention, shakes their prior assumptions about how school works, and gets them excited to learn from him each day.

And before you write his approach off as being not your style, he leads into the Ask and Analyze section, explaining that it’s simply not true that there are only 2 types of people in this world, creative and non-creative. “For most of us, creative genius is developed through hard work, directed attention, and relentless engagement in the creative process.” Dave cringes when people write off the things he does as being “easy for him,” saying that discounts the years of hard work he’s put into developing his teaching style, and says that any teacher can do what he’s done by cultivating their creativity. His instructions on how to open your eyes to the flashes of inspiration that come to you and follow through on them is the most straight-forward and practical explanation I’ve ever heard. He teaches you how to “ask the right type of questions and actively seek the answers.”

In the second section of book, called Crafting Engaging Lessons, Dave provides many examples of the right type of questions as he explains various “hooks” teachers can use to engage students in lessons. Dave doesn’t claim that any of the hooks are truly original ideas–the incorporation of movement, the arts, mnemonic devices, etc. has been happening in many classrooms for decades. But the questions Dave provides are helpful in broadening your perspective to consider the different possibilities in your classroom, and the examples he gives from his own classroom are inspiring and sure to spark lots of great ideas of your own. Sometimes a teacher’s bag of tricks is so big, we forget everything that’s in there, and this section of the book is one you could return to whenever you’re at a loss as to how you can make a lesson or topic more engaging. I also think that Dave’s upbeat and practical suggestions might encourage you to try some things you’ve previously been afraid to implement.

The third and final section, Building a Better Pirate, reinforces the motivating tone that’s been evident throughout the book. Dave asks the questions we are scared to ask ourselves (Do you want to be great?) and he says the things that teachers desperately need to hear, but rarely do: A teacher’s impact can only be measured through generations, not through a single test. You don’t have to figure it all out before you begin. Kill the inner critic that blocks your creative flow. And, my personal favorite:

The media propaganda against education and teachers has reached a fever pitch of ridiculousness. It doesn’t faze me one single bit…Why? It’s simple. My purpose is too mighty to be dragged down by negativity. I just can’t afford it. What I’m trying to accomplish is too significant and game changing to allow anything to slow me down…You have to decide if what you’re doing is worth your complete effort and full attention. If it is, don’t let anything stop you.

UPDATED 9/17/13: Dave has generously offered to give away a signed and personalized copy of Teach Like a PIRATE to TWO readers of The Cornerstone! The winners are below! Thank you for entering.
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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I have used so much from this book already this year. Entering so I can have my own copy and share the school’s copy with my colleagues – I have been hoarding it!

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