Thursday, April 9, 2015

Is there anything I can use? (What does it mean to TLAC, Part 3)

This is the final piece of a guest post from an anonymous teacher trained to Teach Like a Champion [TLAC] and to pass that training along to new teachers. In the first part, we gained some insight into what the TLAC training entails. The second part began to describe some of the issues the teacher had with the TLAC approach. Below, the teacher arrives at a conclusion about this approach to classroom management.

In the TLAC training curriculum, there is a real emphasis on the procedural, rather than the conceptual, which, as we math teacher folk know, is problematic. The suggested structure that seminars are expected to follow seems to resemble the worst of the Khan Academy lesson collection [i.e.: “First I’ll tell you exactly what to do and how to do it.  (Don’t stress too much about why, okay?) Now, I’ll show you what it looks like. And finally, you’ll try it out on your own - and you should do it just like me.”].

In my five years of teaching, I’ve made every effort to move away from this approach. (Okay, correction. The last four years have been focused on these efforts. My first year was spent flailing about, miserably.) I want my students, the 11-year old ones, to explore and to figure stuff out. I want them to determine, through trial and error, why this method works, and that one doesn’t. I even want them to consider that third method - the one that seems crazy and implausible. I’ve tried hard to move away from spoon-feeding, from communicating, “Do it this way and you’ll get the outcome that will earn you full credit, the ‘right’ answer.” Unsurprisingly, I can’t help but ask myself: Do I really want to model this sort of instruction to a group of impressionable first-year teachers?

The book claims that, “Lemov offers the essential tools of the teaching craft so that you can unlock that talent and skill waiting in your students.” There is a top-down feel to it all, with the unspoken message being: Doug Lemov has figured it all out. Don’t struggle, don’t grapple.  All of the deep-thinking and analyzing has been done for you. Trust in Doug Lemov.

Lemov’s taxonomy is not, however, exhaustive. There are undoubtedly more than five ways of breaking down a concept, as Lemov outlines in Technique 16: Break It Down. I am grateful that Lemov acknowledges the limit of his scope (“there are probably a limitless number of ways to break down difficult information and tasks,” he says), but I worry that the curriculum puts TLAC on a pedestal, and frames it as the end-all, be-all.  (Many charter networks have put TLAC on that same pedestal.) Consequently, it will be received as such. Only the sharpest of thinkers among these overwhelmed first-year teachers will look beyond the narrow focus of this dogmatic treatise that utterly fails to acknowledge the “grey area” that pervades all schools and classrooms.  

Part of me wonders why I must overcomplicate things. Lemov is trying to make it simple! This TLAC-inducted crop of teachers will receive repeated opportunities to role-play these techniques, and to make the wrong choices in a setting where their decisions are of no consequence. Think of how you struggled, Pat, back in the day. You would have been ecstatic to receive this book. Even today, when I read Lemov’s text, I often find myself thinking, “Huh. I totally do that, all the time. Look at how cleverly he’s named this thing that I do, that many teachers do, and found a way to articulate its essence to someone not familiar with thinking in this way.” TLAC has inspired me to adopt a handful of new techniques, and to look at my own teaching with a more critical eye. TLAC is, in many senses, brilliant. It is not, however, the answer - and Doug Lemov is not the messiah. The program’s limited scope, paired with its over-zealous proselytizing of one man’s manifesto as a catch-all solution to educational inequity, will be detrimental to children.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Which way? (What does it mean to TLAC, Part 2)

In the previous post, an anonymous guest blogger chronicled the training they received in order to use Doug Lemov's "taxonomy of effective teaching practice" as a tool for teacher development. The training made them more than a little uncomfortable. We learn why in Part 2.


Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me preface: My stance on teacher training (fast-track, traditional, whatever) and Teach Like a Champion [TLAC] is complicated. I worry that codifying teaching downplays the importance of critical thinking and creativity among teachers and, more importantly, among their students. I believe that there is some real tension at play, here, which I see (primarily) in two arenas:
  1. Yes, we need to help teachers develop skills that will help them to stay afloat—but what about cultivating an interest in and passion for the things that make teaching awesome? (You know—moments like this and this and this and a million more.) 
  2. It’s great to provide teachers with the opportunity for methodic practice in a safe setting (where no children will suffer from novice teacher errors)—but isn’t it, well, weird, this enthusiastic offering up of a step-by-step recipe for success? (Good teachers know better than to dumb down a complex concept into a set of instructions to be followed blindly.)

I’ve been grappling with these dilemmas since re-signing my contract—committing, in a sense, to being a Lemov apostle. In effort to come to peace with my uneasy feelings, I thought: What if I could turn back the clock five years to 2007, and ask the 24-year-old, first-year teacher version of me what sort of professional development would most benefit me.  What if I asked my former-self, “Hey, Pat. Would you rather do a deep analysis of your content area and explore student-driven discovery learning via rich digital media sources? Or, would you prefer to practice specific, concrete, actionable steps that you can integrate at school, tomorrow?”

I would have looked at you like you were crazy. In 2007, I wanted—was in fact desperate for—the latter.  After my five weeks of Teach for America training, I was utterly ineffective. Part of the problem was that no matter how I tried, I could not be the teacher that I wanted to be.  Perhaps the real problem, the heart of the matter, was that I had not adequately envisioned who that teacher was—how she presented material, interacted with kids, and planned lessons. Tragically, I had not formed any real opinions on what effective teaching might look like. Rather, I had adopted and internalized a few misguided ideas from various (influential) sources, which were of little use. I really and truly wanted someone to tell me what I needed to do and say so that I could just get my kids to pay attention and listen and learn something, dammit.

Here’s the catch. I can’t help but wonder if great teachers become great because they carve their own way—through trial and error, critical thinking, and meaningful collaboration. They talk to others and they think things through and they problem-solve and figure stuff out—and they expect their students to do the same.  Will my facilitation of this curriculum prevent teachers from making their own novel discoveries, and from experiencing one of the most rewarding elements of our noble profession? Or, alternatively, will this curriculum give these teachers the framework that they need, within which to freely develop their own authentic teacher identity? I’m not certain.

To Be Continued