Top critical review
672 people found this helpful
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
on July 16, 2010
I bought TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION despite its admittedly cheesy title and without knowing that it was featured by the NY TIMES (which I gather from a sampling of other reviews). Before finishing Doug Lemov's introduction, I realized I was reading a book from "the charter camp" or the "standardized tests slash data is everything" camp. OK. Not having a closed mind (last I checked), I took a deep breath and dove in. Coming out the other end of the rabbit hole, I see that Lemov's Wonderland is not for everybody, but there's something in it for everybody. I said someTHING (or things). Others may find it far too elementary (literally -- given the age groups covered -- and figuratively). And though all of Lemov's teachers and examples come from private and charter schools and most of them are from the Uncommon Schools he himself is a part of, public school teachers can glean something from this mixed bag, too.
Let's start with the good: TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION is a practical book with strategies that can be used immediately in the classroom. You can use all, some, or a few if you wish. Why do I mention this first? Many teachers who invest in professional development books complain that their purchases are too much on theory and not enough on practical ideas. That won't be the case here. Satisfied?
Next: this is about as basic a nuts and bolts text as you can buy. Lemov names things experienced teachers might not even bother to, such as "No Opt Out" (meaning: it's bad to let a kid say, "I don't know") and "Right Is Right" (meaning: you have to answer the question fully and accurately). Still, what looks obvious to teachers already in the trenches might not be to newbies and interested parents. Also, if you're a new teacher who feels like you're being fed to the lions with only platitudes from the veterans for assistance, you'd do well to hang your hat on this book's techniques before you review your notes from college education courses or repeat the mantra "Don't smile until Easter." The Uncommon Schools are mostly inner city ones proving that socio-economic factors can be negated if a school develops a business-like attitude with predictable structures and techniques. So even if you're in a public school, many of these ideas -- if used consistently and rigorously -- might help.
Now for the bad (if it strikes you as ugly, so be it): Veteran teachers will mostly shrug because little if anything is new. Also, many of the approaches -- and this is confirmed by the accompanying DVD in the book's sleeve -- seem hopelessly regimented. Even fun is planned, boxed, and labeled -- in this case, into something called "Vegas" (performing for the kids or kids performing for you -- briefly now!) and the "J-Factor" ("J" stands for -- surprise! -- "Joy" and includes competitive games, dance, and song, but only briefly now!). The brief jokes are only half in jest. Lemov is constantly reminding you that time is of the essence, that you own the classroom, that you'd best get back on task ASAP or the kids' standardized scores and chances for going to college will plummet. To which I can only say, "Good grief." Spontaneity and tangents in the classroom can often lead to wonderful places where learning and enrichment DO occur (even if it wasn't planned and even if it has no silly name).
And the video. Well, each clip is designed to show a strategy (though not all are shown -- not by a long shot). The trouble is, you might see a teacher showing one strategy while not observing another. For instance, a teacher could be showing the "Right Is Right" technique while students in the clip are not observing the SLANT (Sit Up/ Listen/ Ask and Answer Questions/ Nod/ Track the Speaker) one. They're slouched in their seats or doodling and certainly not looking at the speaker. And one clip demonstrates a means of "Tight Transitions" by showing a teacher instructing kids on how to pass out papers quickly and to a timer (lots of timers in these clips -- remember, "regimented"). The object is to pass papers across by row so kids don't "waste time" twisting around while passing it back. And yet SLANT demands that kids "track" the speaker -- and because of the traditional seating arrangements favored by Lemov et. al. (it has a name, of course -- "Draw the Map"), kids have no choice but to "waste time" by twisting in their seats to look at classmates in back. You also see gimmicks like one or two claps, a brief cheer, all timed and clipped neatly, much like military instructions and echoes.
OK, my next technique I'm going to name "Wrap Up." Here goes: I'd recommend TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION to new teachers, struggling teachers, and teachers in need of classroom management help. Veterans -- especially of the public schools -- might get a bit indignant at the way the obvious is gussied up here. They also might take issue with some of Lemov's opinions. For instance, he dismisses silent reading for enjoyment in class as wasteful chiefly because it is not "measurable" and you cannot guarantee that every child is actually reading. But what if even 19 out of 25 ARE reading, and what if they get hooked and finish the book at home (especially if the wise English teacher assigns 30 minutes of independent reading for homework)? What if constant reading time improves fluency, widens the students' interests in books (especially as they hear their classmates talk about THEIR books)? Lemov seems to be losing a lot of baby with this bathwater.
Oddly, while he condemns SSR, Lemov advocates the ancient practice of reading aloud popcorn-style (which can be torturous and brutally boring, even while applying Uncommon strategies... sorry). Isn't it possible that the non-reading kids are also not reading along or paying attention, just as with SSR? Lemov believes random picking of non-volunteering students (technique label: "cold-calling") will cure this, but you'd have to cold-call frequently (a problem unto itself) to keep EVERYbody on his or her toes.
Is the book food for thought? Some. Is it grist for the argument mill? That, too. How about worth your money? Check your demographic. And politics. Then give it a name, will you? < clap, clap -- track the reviewer! >