Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.16.13How to Teach Like a Champion “on an Island” (Video)

on an islandA teacher, “Jenny,” recently wrote to me with a very real-world question:

I am currently reading TLAC with great interest, and I would like to implement these techniques in my classes. The only schools I know of that use these techniques, though, are charter schools where the techniques are embedded into the entire school culture.  Unfortunately, I do not teach in such an environment.  Most teachers, even the veterans and those considered “good teachers” allow for a very different kind of classroom environment where students put their heads down, absent-mindedly beat on their desks with their hands and pencils, and spend most of class completely unengaged, racking up “warning” after “warning.” I worry that students will find it extremely foreign to have to track the speaker, for instance, in my classroom, when they aren’t even expected to track the teacher in most of their other classes.  

Can these techniques work when they aren’t part of a school-wide roll-out? 


My colleagues and I refer to this challenge as doing TLaC “on an island,” that is on your own without a set of school-based systems and a school-wide culture to support you.  It’s definitely more challenging than working at an Uncommon School, say. But I know it can be done because I’ve seen teachers do it, both after reading TLaC and of course among the teachers I’ve had the pleasure of observing who taught me the techniques in the first place—many of them were district school teachers as well.

Anyway, I sent Jenny some quick thoughts including the following:

First I think that when you start to roll out some changes you make the changes transparent with students.  That is you explain to them that “things are going to be a little different in my class and [importantly] here’s why?  And here’s how that will look and here’s how you should react.”

Here’s an example from Colleen Driggs’ class where she’s explaining how and why she’s going to Cold Call.  I think this kind of thing is really important—I mean of course kids are skeptical, but if they really know it’s because you care about them—in an all-about-helping-you-succeed-even-if-that-means-pushing-you—kind of way, it will work.

Also I think it’s important to do fewer things better. Start with a couple of things. Make them as routinized and embedded as possible and try to use them every day to acculturate deeply.  Make sure to include lots of joy and academic rigor with the routines.

Finally, use practice!  I’d recommend that you practice both the techniques and the roll outs before you do them live in your classroom.  AND I’d pre-practice with your kids:  “So, guys, when you do something that gets in the way of our learning, or others learning, I may give you a consequence.  If I do, you might feel upset. If you do here’s how you should handle it… good let’s practice that now, Maria, I just told you you’re off task because you were talking to Imani and I took away some scholar dollars [or whatever your consequence is]. You think I’m wrong and that you weren’t talking.  Show me how you’d handle that?  Good!  Now let’s all try coming back to order when I give you a reminder that it’s time to come to attention. [They practice]. That was pretty good.  But actually it could be a little quicker. Let’s try again.  [They practice].  Good! If you can do that, and work hard at learning I can help you do great things!”

I hope that advice helps but generally my assumption is that the insight of great teachers will always be better than my own advice—that’s kind of the premise behind the book, after all.  So… who can give “Jenny” some advice? How were you successful doing TLaC on an island? What did you do first? What lessons did you learn?

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13 Responses to “How to Teach Like a Champion “on an Island” (Video)”

  1. joboly
    April 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Be prepared for students to inform you, with or without veracity, that other teachers are mocking your tactics or otherwise undermining you. Remember that the techniques require only your credibility, not the approval of any of your colleagues, and hold the line.

  2. Amy
    April 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Don’t try to do everything at once. Try a few techniques. Later introduce more. It is overwhelming to students and teachers to make so many changes at once. It’s much better to have success with a few areas than do many and give up after it doesn’t work well.

  3. April 17, 2013 at 1:02 am

    I think it’s really key to make it clear that your rules are the important ones in the classroom (or, if you prefer, “in our classroom, it’s our rules”). Make it clear from the get-go that you expect more, and that you’re glad you do. When the kids tell you that you’re tougher, or meaner, say “thank you for the compliment!” cheerily, and move on.

    It’s also important to recognize that it can be done. I’ve seen it happen.

    In fact, I’ve never been in a 100% high functioning school. I’ve been in schools that have lots of effective islands, though.

  4. Lydia
    April 17, 2013 at 1:03 am

    Although creating a culture of high academic expectations is important and not to be ignored, building a safe and positive classroom climate of behavioral expectations and relationships will help to foster a positive academic culture. If teaching on an “island,” it is possible to build a classroom of high academic AND behavioral expectations if a teacher can manage to develop student trust and loyalty, they will do anything to meet or surpass the bar that teacher sets…regardless of what teachers’ class they come from before or go to after. It is important to teach students the why and how things are done in the classroom.

    Teach them techniques a few at a time. Tell them SLANT-ing is something special they are getting to do in your class that they might not get to do in other teachers’ classes. But, help them to understand, that they will become so good at it in your class, and you will expect them to do it all the time, it will become second nature to them in other classes. Eventually, don’t be surprised if your colleagues take note of your successes and want to follow suit. 😉

  5. Nicole
    April 17, 2013 at 1:18 am

    In your opinion, what would be the most important techniques to start with when ‘teaching on an island’?

    • Kevin
      May 29, 2013 at 2:53 am

      Cold calling and SLANT are what I started with.

  6. Kevin
    May 29, 2013 at 3:28 am

    This happened to me during dismissal time. I think my response was to nod at the student telling me this and then turning to praise a student who had worked hard that day.

    As a TLAC “islander” I also had to learn to do this without any support from the administration. In the beginning I naively filled out disciplinary forms with infractions such as “disrespect to classmates (not listening)” “missing homework” “dull pencils” and “improperly entering the classroom” only to get them back with scrawled notes to ‘contact the parent’ (I already had and annotated that on the form) if I ever got them back at all.

    After a couple weeks I learned that the admins were looking for specific infractions – sex, violence, or drugs – and those were the only situations they would take the time to act on. I kept a few discipline forms in my desk in case any of those happened and used only 1 this year.

    Reflecting now at the end of the year I’m sad to say its been a lonely experience.

    • Doug Lemov
      May 29, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      a hard year for sure but it gets better! one thing that often works is having “in house” consequences for small beahviors eg disrespect to classmates (not listening)” “missing homework” “dull pencils” and “improperly entering the classroom” … usually for me you start by copying a paragraph that i’ve written about the topic (“why i need a sharp pencil”) and then writing a response to a question or two (how will you ensure that you have a sharp pencil ready for class everyday. the key is how i manage it. if there’s a comma out of place or a word missing you start over. You’re not done til i tell you you’re done even if it means you stay after class etc. sometimes i say, if you don’t bring it back ot me done and signed by mom you get to start over again tomorrow…. important to show kids that you have tools at the ready to keep them working hard and being productive in class… that you take it seriously and care enough to have prepped something. There are kids out there who can probably recite the gum chewing paragraph by memory (just to be safe, then, i included LOTS of good vocab words in there. 🙂

      • Aspiring Champ
        December 22, 2014 at 4:49 pm

        Thanks for your advice about explaining new techniques before you use them, and starting with a few things rather than rolling them all out at once. One of the TLAC techniques I’d like to introduce to my classes when I start a new job as a teacher in January is the “threshold” technique, but I am deliberating about whether or not to use it because it will be new to the kids and potentially awkward to introduce when they haven’t yet entered your classroom. What would you recommend? I am particularly concerned about the handshake!

        • Doug Lemov
          January 7, 2015 at 3:22 pm

          Thanks for your question. IF you try it, i’d suggest practicing first. and i guess i would try it. but what about telling the kids about it the day before INSIDE the classroom. that way you can say- i’m gonna ask you to shake my hand. This is a gesture of respect to you (and from you) just like if we were were teammates, say, and we met on the street, we’d show our respect with a shake or a hand slap or something. Starting tomorrow i’m going to ask you to do that and i wanted to explain why now. Then you could even practice the threshold inside the classroom the first time and THEN the next day try it in the hall. Anyway, thanks for your comment and let me know how it goes!

    • fearcutsdeeper
      September 13, 2013 at 2:02 am

      I disagree, I don’t see refusing to discipline students for minor things as not supporting teachers. Most schools across the country the admin is only going to deal with disciplinary issues that are suspend-able offenses or severe chronic behavioral problems.

      In my experience asking an admin to step in and discipline children was very dis-empowering for both me and my students. It taught my students that I didn’t give meaningful consequences and it taught my admin that I wasn’t good at discipline if I was calling him to solve my problems. Minor problems like homework, dull pencils and the like should be enforced in the classroom.

      • Melissa M. Wells
        May 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        And I disagree with you. The statement that most admins only want to deal with suspend-able offenses is a very general and broad statement. If fact, in all of the schools I have worked with, this is not the case. The admin is there to support the teachers with issues such as homework or not being prepared for class. Those “minor” issue are major issues when it comes to a student being successful in a classroom.
        Yes, it is up to you to initially be the enforcer in the classroom. However, if the steps you have taken, REPEATEDLY, are not working, then it is time for an administrator to step in. Our 6th grade has a behavior/responsibility plan that includes a series of interactions with student and parents alike, before they reach the admin intervention. And to be honest, isn’t it really usually just a few student who continue with this behavior after you begin with the consequences, Sometimes, the intervention with a principal is jsut want that student my need. It has nothing to do with the fact that my consequences are not tough enough.

        • fearcutsdeeper
          May 26, 2014 at 5:31 pm

          I was responding to Kevin’s examples of failure to hand in homework or having a dull pencil.

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