On Teaching And How I Learned Not To Stab People With Scissors

When I was in kindergarten, Mrs. Wilson taught us how to pass scissors.

Gripping them by the blades, rather than the handle, she passed them, safety-side-first, to her teacher’s aide, Mrs. Martin. Mrs. Martin then turned them around and passed them back. Then they showed us the “wrong” way to do it. Mrs. Wilson took them by the handle and thrust the blade at Mrs. Martin. We oohed and tsked judgmentally at this act of unprovoked aggression.

“Do you see why that’s dangerous?” she asked us. Yes, we said. “What if you were carrying them that way and you fell?” We could die, we said. I pictured my classmates face-down on the floor, impaled on their purple Friskars scissors, blood staining the linoleum. In a few cases the images were sort of satisfying, but I put that out of my mind.

“Now we’ll practice,” Mrs. Wilson said. And we did. We went around the room, each one of us passing our blunt plastic scissors to a neighbor, handle-first. Then our neighbor would switch the scissors around, just as Mrs. Martin had, and pass them back. There were about 25 kids in my class that year. I don’t know how long that exercise took, maybe 15 minutes or so, but when I remembered it later, as an adult, it seemed like a long time to spend on such a basic task. Or at least it would have — except that I graduated from high school with those same 25 students, and throughout the rest of our school careers I cannot remember a single instance of misbehavior involving scissors. That 15 minutes in kindergarten not only saved Mrs. Wilson the headache of constant correction, it was a favor to every other teacher in the building.

What’s more, I don’t remember being insulted by the exercise. Had I understood her the first time? Yes. I was a girly swot in kindergarten, the kind of child who sat still and paid attention (usually). But I didn’t feel condescended to when she went around the room and made us all practice such an elementary skill. On the contrary, I felt proud. I was showing off my expertise in scissors-passing. Look at me. I’m awesome at this. Someone should give me my own TV show.

I thought about this incident much later, as I was staring, dejected, at the library at the afterschool program where I work. I had spent all day cleaning and arranging it –chapter books here, nature books there, we have twelve children’s dictionaries, really? — and, as proud as I was of my accomplishment, I knew that it was going to be a disaster area within three weeks. It happened every year. Books would be strewn everywhere, upside down and out of order, some of the pages ripped. I’d feel resentful of my job, resentful of the kids, resentful of Johannes Gutenberg and of literacy itself. Then I remembered Mrs. Wilson.

I enlisted the help of one of my favorite students, a bookworm who wanted order in the library as much as I did. On our first day of the new school year, we gathered the kids on the carpet in the library and she role-played the part of a messy student. She sauntered into the library and tossed a cheap paperback on top of the computers, where it fell behind the table and got caught in the electrical cords. Then she sauntered out. The kids laughed. “Was that the right way to do it?” I asked. No!, they cried. She tried again, this time shoving it spine-first into the dictionary section. “How about that?” I asked. No, they giggled. She tried one more time, putting it carefully in the dictionary section, spine out. “How about that?” I asked. This time they weren’t sure. There was disagreement in the ranks. I asked her to pull it out and put it where it belonged, in the chapter books section. Then we went around the room, and each of the kids practiced re-shelving books: neatly, spine out, in the correct section, right-side-up.

It took about half an hour. My library stayed clean the rest of the school year.

Most of the 49 techniques described in Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov’s study of excellent teachers and their classroom management practices, fall somewhere near Mrs. Wilson’s approach to scissors-passing. If you want your students to line up in a certain fashion, teach them exactly how to do it. The DVD that comes with the book shows one teacher timing his students with a stopwatch as they pass papers across the room; Lemov notes over and over that spending 20 minutes on a skill like this will save X hours throughout the year, as transitions become tighter and as the teacher spends less time reminding, repeating, and cajoling students to come to order.

What I love about this book — and judging from the other comments I’ve read about it, I am definitely not alone — is that it teaches classroom management as a series of specific, concrete skills that any teacher can learn. Lemov does not talk about abstract concepts like having “high expectations” or “well-planned lessons,” and he rejects the notion that teachers must have innate charisma. Though it helps to be a natural performer, anyone can learn to articulate expectations so clearly that students have no doubt what they are supposed to be doing at any given moment. His 49 steps include such minutiae as where to stand in the classroom, how to greet students at the door, and how loudly to speak in different situations. He spends considerable time on the art of calling on students who never volunteer.

But as much as I appreciated each individual technique, taken together they started to wear on me after a few chapters. Although he notes in the introduction that no teacher can or should use every method he describes, the DVD shows classroom after classroom run so efficiently that I started feeling claustrophobic. Students sit in neat rows. There are no extraneous materials on desks. Backpacks are put away. Kids are attentive to their posture. The teacher monitors their eye contact, which must be on the speaker at all times. Worksheets are passed out, and students fill in short answers as the teacher leads them on the overhead: item one, item two, item three. “Are you with me? I see someone’s eyes are elsewhere. We’ll wait.” Item four. Item five.

It’s no child left behind, for sure, but it’s also no child racing ahead. I didn’t see any examples of thoughtful conversation between teacher and student, much less among students themselves, and there was very little time for reflection. It was skill, assess, skill, assess, skill, skill, skill, assess. Woe to the child whose mind wanders now and then, and woe also to the child who’s ready to skip ahead. Every kid is literally on the same page, every second of every class. In the book, Lemov often notes that skills learned well the first time leave more time for engagement with the material later — time discussing Hamlet’s motives or the causes of the Civil War, for example — but I saw almost none of that in the DVD, and couldn’t tell from the book where there would be space for it. Eyes on me. We’re waiting. Item six.

I am not one of those hippie New Agey teachers who believes classrooms should be free-for-alls and all learning should happen inductively. In fact one of the reasons I like Lemov’s book is that it goes well with one of my favorite education books, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. Delpit argues that ALL classrooms have rules and expectations, whether or not they are articulated, and that classrooms where the culture remains implicit favor white middle-class students, since they already know the unspoken rules. She advocates making expectations very explicit, e.g. if you want a student to shut the door, tell them to shut the door. Don’t say, “Would you like to shut the door?”, which some students will interpret as the question that it is. No, I’m fine with it being open, they think, and so they don’t. Now the teacher is angry and the student is confused. I have seen versions of this interaction so many times in classroom situations, including situations where I have been the confused student myself. (Did I miss something? How come everyone knows this but me? I must not belong here…)

So I appreciate Lemov’s exhortation to delineate the exact parameters of acceptable behavior, leaving no room for error or misunderstanding. Like Mrs. Wilson with her scissors, there is no option to fail or get distracted. Everyone can learn this and everyone will.

But I also wonder what gets left out. He notes at the beginning of the book that teachers must know their lessons cold, but otherwise doesn’t spend much time talking about content. Most of the examples in the book, as well as the examples on the DVD, are of teachers teaching lessons with one right answer. Find the verb, the predicate, the area of the triangle, the meaning of this vocabulary word, the location of a river on a map. If this had been my first introduction to teaching, I’d have chosen a different career. It’s not surprising that students in the classrooms he’s chosen to highlight score well on tests, because these are skills that are easy to assess on a standardized exam. But those requiring more creativity and deeper reflection would not make the cut. They’re messy. They’re inefficient.

Ultimately, the question I have to ask is whether I’d want my own child in a class run this way. And the answer is a tentative yes: for some classes, for some of the day, especially in the early years, when discrete skills need to be mastered. But not all day. I would hope that she’d have the space to learn to monitor her own behavior, even in the absence of constant vigilance. And not in every class, especially as she gets older. Over time, I’d hope that the ideas themselves would become intrinsically interesting, that she would get annoyed at having her engagement with them micromanaged, and that her teachers would know when to step back.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of good ideas in here (despite the corny title). It’s a book I wish I’d had ten years ago, and one I’d recommend to any new teacher. At the same time, though, it’s one of those books that’s been heavily hyped in a climate of NCLB, and that always makes me nervous. Did I like it? Yes. Would I want to see it be the next and only model of what classrooms should look like? Ummm, not without further discussion…

(Photo, “Stabbing Weapons At The Beach” by YazNotJaz)


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  1. hijabman says:

    Runa :)

    hijabman.com is expanding its scope to include just about everything under the sun. a resource center for everything– not just islam-proper. We’d love if you started contributing! :)

  2. Leila says:

    It is exactly that kind of no child left behind policy, or teaching to the lowest common denominator, that motivates me to homeschool. But I do agree with making expectations explicit. Good post!

  3. Purvis says:

    Yay! Kufigirl is back on hijabman.com! This article was very well-timed for me because I am halfway through my 12-week student teaching assignment. I am learning how important it is to give explicit instructions to students, and to have lots of procedures in order to manage a classroom. Yet I struggle with how to make the content (math) more interesting and interactive, and not all lecturing and exercises. You’ve also brought up another topic that is relevant, and that is racial diversity in the classroom. I have heard it said that 80% of teachers in the US are white and female, and that leads to there being a ton of teachers who don’t relate to their minority students, particularly male students of color. I will definitely check out these two books.

  4. Mark says:

    The videos only show small snapshots of the class. I’m familiar with what happens at Uncommon Schools and even in kindergarten students are having peer to peer academic discussions. Read the section of the book on Ratio.

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