Teach Like a Champion Author Tackles Reading in New Book
Common-core frame could prove divisive
About five years ago, the chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools charter network offered up a lofty charge during a routine staff meeting: "Figure out" reading instruction.
Doug Lemov, a managing director for the network of 44 urban schools, was quickly gaining fame nationally as an instructional guru, having recently published a popular, practical teaching guide called Teach Like a Champion. So he and two colleagues—the chief academic officer of the charter network’s professional development arm, Erica Woolway, and its director of professional development, Colleen Driggs—set out to determine what the best reading teachers in their schools were doing.
As the project got going, the rubber also hit the road on a major education policy change. The Common Core State Standards were officially released, and nearly all states rapidly adopted them. The standards, which the three educators support wholeheartedly, became a frame for Reading Reconsidered, the book that would come out of their half-decade of work.
Scheduled for a February release by publisher Jossey-Bass, the book is aimed mainly at middle and high school English teachers and reading specialists, though the authors emphasize there's something in there for anyone teaching literacy. The nearly 500-page manuscript is divided into eight major reading topics, including text selection, close reading, nonfiction, and vocabulary.
"Our philosophy about guidance to teachers is tools, not programs or systems," said co-author Lemov. "It's really hard to change everything you do. ... We're happy if [teachers] take 10 ideas and throw away the rest."
Potential for Controversy
Many of the ideas in the book seem to be inarguably good practice—for example, the notion that students should read both silently and aloud, as well as hear text read to them. But there's a good chance at least some parts of it, such as a call for schools to resurrect literary canons, will prove polarizing. Teach Like a Champion also received criticism, with some educators claiming it was too reductive about what makes for good teaching. Nonetheless, the book became a long-running best-seller, with many districts opting to purchase it in bulk.
The new book hinges on the common-core standards, which are a subject of controversy in and of themselves. And some of the authors' recommendations, including an appeal for students to spend time reading archaic texts, may seem like a threat to teachers' autonomy.
In writing the book, the team took a similar approach to the one Lemov had taken with Teach Like a Champion—visiting high-performing teachers across the Uncommon Schools, observing their classrooms, interviewing them, and piloting the tactics they saw those teachers using.
While general classroom management techniques are often visible and quantifiable, reading instruction, the authors note, is a beast of its own. Teachers could conceivably take a tip from Teach Like a Champion—for example, the technique of "cold calling" on students who don't have their hands raised—and "look at the video and process it several times and be ready to turnkey it in the classroom," said Woolway. "But teaching reading, it's just so much more complex."
The new book, Lemov said, bridges the middle ground between the general teaching tactics in Teach Like a Champion and the content-specific teaching knowledge that English teachers get, for instance, by having read thousands of novels on their own.
Choosing the Right Texts
This book looks at domain-specific teaching knowledge—that is, answering questions like, "How do I make nonfiction accessible to my students?" and "What kinds of questions should I ask during a close-reading lesson?"
The techniques are informed by the work of well-known researchers, including educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, University of Pittsburgh education professor emerita Isabel L. Beck, and E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the author of several books on cultural literacy, the authors say.
The tactics emerged from conversations with high-performing teachers about how they prepare for class time—what they include in their lesson plans and how they choose reading materials. "So much of reading is what you do before you enter the classroom," said Lemov.
A key insight for the authors was that text selection matters. "It's kind of become understood that reading is a set of questions you ask about text, and teachers have come to believe it doesn't matter what you read," said Lemov. But the authors argue that students need to be exposed to a broad array of complex reading material—classic texts, texts with nonlinear time sequences, texts with an unreliable narrator, etc.—to build knowledge and reading skills critical for the higher education setting.
"If you've never read a document written before 1800 and expect to walk into [a college] environment and survive, that's a questionable endeavor," said Lemov.
And while the authors acknowledge that the idea of having a literary canon, or set of agreed upon "best" books to read, is out of fashion, they say individual schools should consider it. Some Uncommon Schools campuses are now coordinating all of the books their students read.
A schoolwide canon has several benefits, the authors say, such as allowing for shared discourse. "When a student makes a reference to a similarity between a scene her class has just read and a scene in another book, the power of that moment is magnified a hundredfold if everyone has also read that other book," the book states.
Having a canon also helps with lesson planning. "We as teachers can have deep fundamental conversations not only about Animal Farm, but about how you introduce the third chapter and unlock the mystery at the end of the chapter," said Lemov.
Creating Cultural Literacy
And reading shared texts can help students build cultural capital, the authors argue. "Members of the middle and upper-middle classes often take for granted knowledge that marks them as educated and sophisticated. They can hear a reference to Hamlet or Dickens or Zora Neale Hurston ... and join the conversation," they write. "A culture of reading that doesn't consider this cultural importance has a disparate impact on those who are less likely to acquire cultural knowledge by other means. It is their best chance to be included in the secret conversations of opportunity."
But the idea of dictating the books students read is anathema to many educators.
"Mandating a text for an entire grade level or school undermines teachers' autonomy, and may not be reflective of the needs, interests, or abilities of the children they serve from year to year," Donalyn Miller, a veteran language arts teacher and the author of The Book Whisperer, a well-received pedagogical book that advocates using free-choice to inspire young readers, said in an interview. "Thought leaders in progressive English education would universally question this."
Amy Rasmussen, an Advanced Placement English language teacher in the Lewisville, Texas, school district, said the goals Lemov and his co-authors say can be accomplished via a literary canon——having students read a broad array of materials, share discourse, and build cultural capital—can also be achieved with short texts. She would rather students read poems, articles, and excerpts together as a class, but choose their own novels. "We kill the love of reading when we spend six or more weeks on a novel that half the class is not interested in," she said. "They're going to fake their way through it, so we've lost valuable time trying to help them become readers."
Lemov and his co-authors do support reading for enjoyment, but they also clearly see a more academic end goal for reading instruction: being prepared for the demands of college.
In fact, the word college is sprinkled generously throughout the book. The authors describe close reading, a central tenet of the common-core standards, as "the tool that allows students to read text that is over their heads—one of the fundamental experiences of attending (or preparing for) college." Students need practice with informational texts, they write, because "what many students must read in college is nonfiction—often complex and dense nonfiction."
Lemov believes in using challenging texts and pushing readers beyond their comfort zones, in part because he knows it's necessary preparation for the college experience. "One of the most common things you'll hear in any classroom is, if you open a book and there are more than five words you don't know on a page, that book is too hard for you and put it back down," he said. "I think we pretty explicitly set out to push back on that."
Vol. 35, Issue 18, Page 6Published in Print: January 20, 2016, as Book Highlights Practical Guidance for Teaching Reading