Part One: A Truly Inspirational Book List For Teachers

This book is not short on inspiration or terrific, practical ideas and techniques you can implement in your classroom.

By Barry Nitikman

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blackboard with apple and books

I’m sure if you searched on the Internet, you’d find many lists titled “Best Books for Teachers.” I compiled a list of books that have genuinely inspired me, and I will talk about them over a two-part article series. I chose only the books that have caused significant changes in the way I approach teaching, manage my classroom, and deliver curriculum. It is also a very quirky list, and you may shake your head at first glance. But trust me, each one of the books is a true gem.

My goal is to convince you to acquire and read these books. To that end, this article will focus on the first book on my list.

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov

This book is being actively used in some school districts and teaching programs, and for good reason. It is not a teaching method, but rather, as the book title implies, a series of techniques. The overall philosophy is to educate teachers to teach efficiently and effectively, with a relentless focus on the productive use of time.

The author, Doug Lemov, is managing director of Uncommon Schools in the New York/New Jersey area, where the challenges that teachers face are tremendous. His fourteen charter schools have achieved excellent results, especially in terms of high test scores, for a population that often has great difficulty achieving at the same rate as their counterparts in suburban schools. The book follows a very simple premise: identify outstanding teachers who get great results, often with the most difficult demographic, and study what they do. That is about as empirical and straightforward a premise as one could imagine, and it has resulted in a wonderful collection of effective strategies. In addition to the text, the book also includes a video which shows examples of many of the techniques in action by gifted teachers.

Teach Like a Champion has garnered tremendous praise, but also some criticism. The criticism stems from educators who deem it “old-school” and/or “robotic.” They argue, among other things, that it does not lend itself to modern theories of more student-centered approaches to education; nor does it allow enough opportunity for creativity. I believe that these objections stem from the fact that they don’t see it as a collection of effective techniques, but rather as the entirety of someone’s teaching—which it decidedly is not. The techniques contained here do not preclude vivid, powerful, creative learning; indeed, they facilitate it by ensuring that teaching is done in an effective and time-efficient manner. I have specialized in teaching gifted elementary kids for many years, and I focus heavily on project-oriented, exploratory, open-ended, creative activities for my class. I would characterize my approach as the farthest thing from old-fashioned, stodgy, bookwork-centered teaching. But the fact is, the success of any teacher is dependent upon his/her ability to control the learning environment in such a way that it facilitates organized, productive work. I don’t think it’s a contradiction to say that strong organization is necessary to achieve real freedom to be creative. Almost any teacher will find these techniques invaluable. I’ve been teaching many years, and I immediately put some of these ideas into practice. Here are some examples of techniques taught in the book:

Begin With the End

I chose to put this first because it may be the most important concept in the book. The idea here is to plan the outcome or objective of the lesson first, and work backward from there. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often a teacher will think in terms of “This is a great activity the kids always enjoy,” or “I’m going to use that really cool lesson Mr. Jones always uses.” Often, they neglect to consider the most basic and critical question of all: What exactly do I want my class to get from this lesson, and what is the most effective and efficient way for them to achieve this? Teachers need to think ruthlessly in terms of time, efficiency, and effectiveness. A manipulative activity or game may be the most fun approach, but the question to ask is: What is the most effective way to approach the objective? This concept immediately made me think of Vincent Bugliosi, the legendary Los Angeles prosecutor, and his classic book on the OJ Simpson case. He pointed out that many attorneys start from the beginning and work toward the end. When the case concludes, they write their summation. Bugliosi works backward: he creates his summation first, looks for the most effective ways to prove the case, and then presents it convincingly. To me, that illustrates a great approach for teachers presenting a lesson. But Lemov doesn’t just present this approach, he offers much detail and guidance about all aspects of the planning process.

The Hook

When I was in teaching school, this was known as the “Anticipatory Set.” The idea is that you need to introduce the coming lesson in such a way that you grab the class’s attention and hold it. It’s important to intrigue your learners by offering something a little more stimulating than “We’re going to work on prepositions now.” In this work, Lemov offers various ideas for hooking the class:

  • Media
  • Anecdotes
  • Challenges
  • Props
  • Short stories

Circulate

For many veteran teachers, this is obvious—teachers need to move about the room. However, Lemov’s approach and rationale is more refined. The idea is that the teacher owns the room, and that he needs to have access to all corners of it. This means ensuring that there are no places where the desks are too tight to work around, or backpacks need to be moved. By circulating frequently, the teacher does not draw attention when he needs to do an intervention to get a student behaving or back on-task. Mr. Lemov points out that if a teacher only moves within the main body of the room when there is a problem, then it signals the class that there is a problem. This is unnecessary, and can interfere your ability to handle problems without interrupting the flow of the lesson.

Cold Call

This is deceptively simple, yet also sophisticated: call on people at your discretion, not just according to who has their hand raised. It is a general strategy that has wide benefits. Using this strategy gets your learners accustomed to the idea that they are likely to be called on at any time. This means that they need to pay attention, stay engaged in the lesson, and be prepared to respond. Lemov refers to this as “an engagement strategy, not a discipline strategy.” He labels it “the single most powerful technique in the book,” and offers a good deal of guidance as to how it should be implemented.

Without Apology

This is one of those techniques that made me feel a little sheepish, causing me to change my approach instantly. The idea is not to apologize for schoolwork or classroom management. Eliminate statements such as, “Look I know this isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but let’s get through it,” or “This is just one of those things you guys need to master.” Lemov says, “A belief that content is boring is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I couldn’t agree more.

Far more effective suggestions are offered:

  • “Lots of people don’t understand this until they get to college, but you’ll know it now. Cool.”
  • “This will really help you succeed.”
  • “A lot of people are afraid of this stuff, so after you’ve mastered it, you’ll know more than most adults!”
  • “There’s a great story behind this!”

Props

These are shout-outs, or types of recognition and praise, you can give kids in class in a fun and meaningful way. The ideas for effectively recognizing positives allows you to add lots of enthusiasm and smiles to your school day, without adding more than a few seconds to class time. These are great! I use them all the time and the kids love them. One of my favorite props is: “Two-stomps for…”

Passing Out Materials

This is by far one of the most important strategies in the book, and one that will have an immediate impact on your classroom efficiency. You will learn how to teach your class exactly how to pass out or turn in papers and other materials. Lemov makes the case that the time invested to teach this system at the beginning of the year produces lasting, positive benefits. The passing out/in of papers and materials happens several times a day. Using this system, you will save five (or more) minutes a day. Over weeks, months, and semesters, that adds up! To sum it all up, Teach Like a Champion contains wonderful techniques that can have a dramatic effect on almost anyone’s teaching, and would be an especially critical guide for less-experienced teachers. However, I taught for 14 years when I first acquired the book, and I can assure you that it was still very powerful for me!