Sunday, February 5, 2012

Teach Like A Champion

Over the winter break I read the book, Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov. The book is mostly aimed at teachers of elementary or upper elementary aged kids and is more broadly designed for K-12 teachers, but it had some elements that seemed applicable or adaptable to college level teaching. I originally learned about the book because it was referred to in an free kindle "book" about how our perceptions or conventional wisdom don't line up with what is really happening. This book, The Myth of the Garage, was similar to several other titles I've read, such as The Tipping Point (or pretty much anything by Malcolm Gladwell), in that it revealed that research-based information isn't always what we expect it to be. The book is comprised of different articles. The article from which the book's title is derived referred to the belief that people make amazing inventions or discoveries or turn into awesome bands in their garage (or when they are unemployed with no equipment, just hanging out). But the truth is the heros of those amazing stories of success have generally benefited from experience and jobs in their field before they make their discovery or invention or big break. They may have operated out of the garage or been unemployed just at the moment they have the breakthrough, but that breakthrough is based on years of work and practice.

I have digressed. The specific article that directed me to Teach Like a Champion discussed how successful teachers aren't divinely inspired but practice a relatively standard set of techniques that any ol' person can learn. Lemov's book, in turn, set its intention to identify and explain 49 of these techniques. The idea is that teachers don't fall on a continuum from good to bad where the bad are irrevocably bad, but that the best teachers have the most complete bag of tricks. Or something like that.

The point of all this explanation is that I read the book and I found several tricks, techniques or ideas (whatever you want to call them) to be useful. So I've been trying to incorporate them into my teaching this quarter. I would love to say that the results are unequivocally clear and my students are learning better than ever before, but my results are impacted by far too many factors to be sure. For what it is worth, the class in which I am consciously adding these techniques seems to be engaged and keeping pace with the material.

Do It Now

The technique that I have been most actively employing might even be the one I read about in the first place. Lemov explained that many of the successful teachers used "Do it now" assignments at the start of class. These instructors had short assignments on the board when the students walked in or during transition times. My adaptation is that I post several review questions on the document camera immediately when I walk into class. Usually I arrive 5 or 10 minutes early. It takes me a few minutes to get my papers organized, return assignments, open up my PowerPoint on the computer or answer questions from students.

During this time, instead of waiting or chatting or studying on their own, those students who come in early can start reviewing key information from the previous class. I have put up questions every morning when we have been in the classroom except for the first and second day of class. On the second day of class I put up a short article about art from Smithsonian magazine for them to read before class.  Sometimes I specifically ask the students to write their answers down in their notes. Twice the "do now" questions have turned into a pop quiz once class officially started. Usually I ask the students to give their answers out-loud once class has started. Several times I have had volunteers (or students I pick) draw their answers on the board.

This past Friday, I had the students change the composition of a simple drawing I had on the document camera. The directions were on the screen for 10 minutes before class. As I said, this was a review and the students had seen exactly these directions several days earlier. I sent 9 students up to the board to illustrate various principles of design using the same elements I used in my drawing. We then discussed the compositions as a class. This particular activity took longer than usual, about 10 or 15 minutes once class had officially started, because it was a review for the entire section. Usually the review of the "do now" questions takes only a couple minutes.

copies of my example drawing (left) and two student compositions illustrating linear rhythm (center) and scale (right)
I've felt pretty confident about this new technique because it seems to make such good use of otherwise not particularly useful time. First, students who arrive early are asked to interact with the class material before they are able to interact with me (because I am answering individual questions or logging into the computer). They are also seeing the information again, rather than just hearing it. If they arrive early, they are able to spend the extra minutes looking in their notes or discussing the answers with classmates, thus reinforcing that they can find the information and giving them a few moments to prepare a confident answer (before the class-time pressure is on).

As class begins, students don't have to wait for equipment or for me to write or ask a question. Those students who come in late are not as much of a distraction because I do not have to stop for them and I don't have to repeat myself or explain what we are doing. They can look up at the board and see exactly what we are reviewing. I also don't feel that I am hurting those students who come late. Yes, of course, it is their fault they are late, but by walking in two minutes late, they miss review of information they should have already heard. I don't make class announcements until after the review questions, so anyone walking in so late as to miss an announcement or the directions for the day's main activity has probably done more than stop at the bathroom between classes or hit traffic on the way in.

Classroom Arrangement

Another of the book's suggestions I may not have had much control over last quarter anyway. In the fall, I taught in a classroom that had an odd arrangement for the desks. They were grouped in pods of 4-6 desks (most days). The desks were arranged facing one another so that only some of the students were looking towards the front of the room or the screen. This arrangement was good when the students did group work but, ultimately, I think it was disruptive. When I lectured, the students weren't automatically facing me or the images I was showing. Students seated on my side of their groups had to turn their bodies away from the group to see me. This didn't always happen. In one memorable instance, I had to stop class twice to ask students to stop talking amongst themselves. I think the desk pods contributed to a less structured, orderly classroom.

Over break, while reading this book, I was flabbergasted to read the section on classroom arrangement. Of course it makes a difference, why hadn't I considered it before? I may not have had much control over the seating arrangement last quarter but I never bothered to find out. This quarter, when I walked into the new classroom to discover the desks arranged in a gigantic circle at the edge of the room with a quarter of the desks facing backwards, several under the raised screen and about 5 stacked in the corner, I knew I would need to make serious changes. Though my inquiries set off a strange domino of e-mails and room changes, the upshot was that my classroom now has rows of four and five desks on either side of the classroom with an aisle in the middle. Occasionally we move desks to sit in groups, but most days this set up works well, allowing me to reach all the students quickly and to have their attention (most of the time). I think I even learned their names faster with this arrangement. About half of our days are spent in lecture mode. On the other days we still spend half our time looking forward. The only thing this set-up doesn't do well is put students in even numbered groups for discussion. When I do ask them to divide into groups we usually have a few people move and students need to turn around or lean across a a row of desks. I guess I'm still working on this.

Everybody Answers

Though I may use a few more of the techniques in the book, their use hasn't been particularly conscious. Before reading the book I already used some of the techniques. The book gave them a name, but didn't change how I do them. The one other technique I have consciously tried to use is really a combination of techniques for holding each student accountable for answering (rather than giving an "I don't know" and letting someone else be involved instead). I haven't done a perfect job of implementing this tactic. Some of the ways in which the author advocated using this technique seem a little condescending for adult students. In the book a student is called on to give an answer to an arithmetic question (or something similar), if the student doesn't answer, the teacher moves on to another student but then comes back to the first student after the correct answer has been given by someone else. The first student is then asked to give the answer. He might just be repeating the first student's answer. This technique is meant to hold all students accountable for paying attention and eventually giving the correct answer. It is meant to give the students the feeling that they can do it. I find it to be a tricky technique to comfortably use in my class.

The book also talks about having the teacher cold-call students, meaning to call students who haven't volunteered. This is an issue in my classes because I pepper the students with a lot of questions throughout my lectures and I have a tendency to allow people to shout out their answer. The problem is that this technique often results in an active class size of only 5 or 10 students. By this I mean that only 5 or 10 students volunteer answers and it becomes a smaller conversation. This is something I have been working on this quarter. I ask the students who normally answer to stay quiet and let someone else have a chance.  This seems obvious, but I think it is important to do this in such a way that students don't think you are annoyed with them. The risk with this technique is also that students won't volunteer so I'll have to call on them.

One particular day this quarter we were doing a lot of review and I made a real effort to involve more students in the discussion. At one point I called on a student who didn't have the answer. I adjusted the question and waited but he still didn't know, so I moved on to someone else. After a classmate eventually gave the correct answer, I asked the first student to repeat the answer. He did, and thus, according to Doug Lemov was involved in the class discussion and was able to learn that he could give the correct answer, but the process didn't feel quite natural. I felt like I was picking on him for not knowing in the first place. For this reason I haven't exactly used the technique again. I have come back to the first student again with a modified question, but not the exact same one. Perhaps I should just do exactly what I did the first day so that particular student won't feel singled out.

As always, the classes are works in progress.

1 comment:

  1. What I love about the "do it now" is that students are actively engaged the moment they enter your classroom. They know exactly what is going on and what will be going on throughout the class period. Plus, it keeps me on track. We call these "learning targets" in our school.

    Not sure how I feel about the "everbody answers". For some students (adults included) speaking in front of peers is torture. I HATE speaking at my staff meetings, but I can talk in front on my kids any old day. So, instead of making kids answer out loud, every couple of weeks I have them complete an "exit ticket". The last five minutes of class I will pass out a half sheet of paper with a couple of questions already on it, or post it on the board and have them answer on a index card. They turn it in as they exit. This way, I have a better idea of really how many students actually understand what is going on. I started using that this year and it is really helpful.


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