Thursday, July 17, 2014

Steal Like a Teacher to Teach Like One [Inspired by "Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon]

A cruise around the internet and in many print publications wields a cascade of resources for teachers, all of which promise that using them will result in classroom success. Lately, I've been pondering a question:

What does it mean to teach like a teacher? 

This question entered my mind as I read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (2012 Workman Publishing) and thought about its implications for teaching and learning. 

The book begins 
Interesting. But what does "all advice is autobiographical" have to do with teaching? 

The cacophony of advice given to teachers these days comes not from teachers but from corporations. The most often named one is Pearson, of course. 

"Nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas," says Kleon. This is true for teaching, too. 

Advice from experienced teachers comes from our autobiographical experiences in the classroom and often from what we've learned by constructing our own lesson plans and curriculum. Teaching as a profession is in danger of losing a generation of teachers who entered the profession before the onslaught of prefab teaching units and the internet. 

"You are a mashup of what you let into your life," says Kleon. For teachers this is important because taking the path of least resistance, choosing unimaginative curriculum from corporations rather than "stealing" from real teachers  in real classrooms turns us into corporate cogs rather than artistic teachers. 

Kleon quotes Steve Jobs in his TED talk: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Permit me to re-imagine Jobs's epiphany: Good teachers copy. Great teachers steal. And we know from whom to steal. 

For example, when I began teaching 33 years ago, I regularly asked students to read about current events. I taught them to summarize using these readings and discussions. Somehow I diverted, sadly, from that course. Then in 2009 I read Kelly Gallagher's book Readicide and discovered the "Article of the Week" idea. Gallagher gets credited often for this idea, but I first learned about it from my high school speech/debate/drama teacher, Nydia May Jenkins. 

Miss J. is really my first teaching mentor because she's been my muse over the years, and as a young teacher I stole from her by using the handouts I had collected as her student. 

Find what's worth stealing, and find it from teachers, not from corporations. We're told that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Kleon says it isn't imitation that's flattery; "transformation is flattery." 

When we steal like a teacher, we take ideas and inspiration from our network of colleagues, whether they are in our building or in our professional organizations or online. We also eschew the "canned" curriculum, the fodder of mass-produced bland curriculum that tastes like melba toast to our students and makes us feel less like a gourmet chef than like Chef Boyardee. Lets face it: Food out of a can tastes more like a MRE than like a meal in a five-star restaurant. 

When I post teaching ideas and lessons on this blog, I'm sharing a narrative, the autobiographical story of my teaching life. That's my bottom line. What's the bottom line for Pearson and other companies hocking canned curriculum? 


  1. When an American Idol hopeful has done a particularly good job with a famous song, you'll often hear one of the judges applaud the way the singer 'made it his/her own.' In the same way, teachers read Gallagher and others, searching for the seed ideas- but good ones - that they can bring into their classrooms and 'make their own' by infusing our own narrative into the lesson plan. My guess is that even Pearson 'steals' from the real experts, but in trying to make the lesson work for all, they extract the narrative entirely. Great food for thought, Glenda.

    1. In his book and in the TED talk, Kleon talks about the Beatles beginning as a cover band and only writing songs to guarantee another band didn't play their set. It's a great story. I also like the way he talks about the difference between copying and plagiarizing vs. modeling, although that's not the word he uses.

  2. As every class of children we teach is unique, I think we all need to evolve lessons to adjust for these differences. What works with one class doesn't always work with another but unfortunately the same rings true in the U.K. where schools are just buying in schemes (Pearson is big over here too) and are expecting teachers to follow them. Unfortunately, individuality is being frowned upon in teachers so what message does this send to our students? I love finding lessons from other teachers that have inspired their class and resonate with my own - that's why others who see me teach and believe in children developing as individuals tell me how much they love my lessons and my creativity and also why I've been in trouble with so many at the top who say I am not towing the line! That's why it's so good to connect with others around the world who do understand where I am coming from and that I am not alone.