Learn Like a Pirate

I’m an annotator when I read. I always have a slew of colored pens in hand to underline and write notes in my books, especially non-fiction and even more especially teaching books. When I began digging into Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz I was doing so much underlining that I decided to write a blog post to outline all of my notes. That would have been a great plan, however, once I picked the book up, I read the whole entire thing in one sitting without my laptop. Oops 😉 So now I’m writing after I’ve finished the whole book and I can confidently say that it is a fantastic read. The book goes along with Dave Burgess’ book Teach Like a Pirate (which is equally inspiring.) Burgess and Solarz are the kind of teachers that I aspire to be.


In Burgess’ book, #tlap, he explains that we aren’t trying to be literal pirates, but embrace their daring and adventurous spirit.  Solarz expands on that by explaining how he empowers his students to learn an equally exciting way, embracing responsibility and ownership over their own learning. Burgess says it well in the foreword of #Learnlap, “The most daring maneuver a pirate captain can make is to be willing to hand over the wheel and let the crew steer the ship.”

Below are my notes from the book including excerpts directly from the text (cited with page numbers.) This outline is more for myself than anything else. The whole book is definitely worth reading, as there is only so much you can glean from my abridged blog post.

The overarching theme in the book is creating a tight knit family classroom community and relinquishing control over practically everything to the students.

Section 1: Student Lead Classrooms

What is a Student Lead Classroom? “A student lead classroom is one in which students make decisions and choices throughout the day without consulting the teacher” (pg 8-9). This concept would blow most teachers away. For decades the teacher has stood at the front of the room and talked AT the kids. The teacher was the star of the show. But Solarz has seen that, properly trained, the students can function perfectly well without the teacher being “on the stage.” He also says that, “student-led classrooms are only effective if students feel safe, appreciated, and connected to their teacher,” (pg 10) which is why the classroom community building is so crucial. 

It is one of the best feelings as a teacher reading a professional development book telling you some new tactic to try and being able to say Hey! I already do that in my classroom! J I have worked really hard this past year to relinquish control to my students more and more, so transitioning to Solarz methods shouldn’t be too foreign for me thankfully. (Many of my past blog posts have been about my desk-less classroom if you want to read more about my experience.)

Common Concerns About Student Lead Classrooms- First, some pirate-y encouragement: “Pirates don’t give up when the wind blows them off course; they adjust their sails and continue towards their destination!” (pg 14). It will be hard at first and you and your students will make mistakes, but teaching them (and yourself) to learn from those mistakes and not be shaken by them is a huge part of #learnlap. It makes me think of Ms. Frizzle 😉 


Section 2: Learn Like a Pirate

Peer Collaboration- “Two brains are better than one” (pg 38). This is another category that I feel I am well on my way to. My crazy desk-less classroom is specifically set up to encourage kids to work together. Now I just need to implement more of the Give Me Five. I don’t particularly love the phrase itself. I personally use a few others to get my students’ attention, so I’ll need to think about if I’ll use it or find another phrase to replace it, but I know for sure I need to include the concept. “When a student shouts ‘Give me five,’ everyone in the classroom (including the teacher) stops what they are doing, faces the speaker, and listens intently to their message” (pg 40). The students can stop the class and ask a question, issue a reminder, tell the class it’s time to transition, or even teach a mini-lesson WITHOUT asking the teacher’s permission first! I think this is so cool and I can’t wait to try it.

He also addresses working in partners. He always assigns them to allow students to learn to work with all different kinds of people. And he directly teaches kids HOW to work in partners (not divide and conquer, for example.) The emphasis is put on learning, not just getting the work done. He differentiates between working in partners  and working in responsibility partners (pg 53). Responsibility Partners are for when students  are working on something independently, but checking in with their partner to ensure they understand directions and stay on task. He also emphasizes conflict management strategies, which I desperately need to work on teaching my dramatic third graders.

Improvement Focus vs. Grade Focus- “When grades, rewards, or punishments are a child’s only motivation for doing well in school, he or she will find ways to work the system and miss the educational value of the lesson” (pg 80). I love the idea of downplaying grades and focus on learning and improving, but I worry about how admin and parents will react to this minimalist kind of grading. I’ll need to do some more research. Solarz really emphasizes the importance of student reflection. I’m just beginning to learn that, for myself as well. Keeping a blog is a great way for me to reflect on my teaching.

Responsibility– Third grade is a major transition year for students. We don’t hold their hands anymore and we really expect them to be responsible, and to not rely on their parents to bail them out and make excuses for them. So teaching kids to be responsible for themselves is something I firmly believe in. In his classroom he assigns a handful of jobs to students, but “if you create jobs for every task, you rob students of countless opportunities to take charge” (pg 108). Every other job that is not assigned is a collaborative responsibility that all students need to take upon themselves to make sure gets done. I do not have any jobs in my classroom and rely heavily on the collaborative responsibility concept.

Active Learning– In this section, Solarz gives several examples of lessons he teaches in his classroom that are more experiences and simulations than lessons. These are the kinds of lessons that kids will remember. He goes into debates, project based learning, technology, and reader’s theater.

Twenty-First Century Skills– These are life skills and Solarz has created a list of 34 skills in 11 categories that he believes students need in order to be successful in life. There is already a Partnership for Twenty First Century Learning in place just for this specific purpose. He sends home a 21st Century skills report card that goes home along with the students’ grades.

Empowerment– Passion Time! I’m excited to try this. Kids get to do projects about whatever they are interested in. “Having the freedom to do something they love every week makes them even more appreciative of their teachers” (pg 223).

“When teachers empower students, the result is a higher enjoyment of learning, which leads to more motivation to work hard, which often leads to stronger achievement in class” (235).

Our Purpose at Educators- “When we teach our students to ask permission before making decisions, expect them to wait for directions, and shame them when they make mistakes, students learn to obey rather than lead” (248). And that right there says it all.

learn-like-a-pirate-quoteThe thing I loved so much about Learn Like a Pirate and Teach Like a Pirate is that they were encouraging and inspirational unlike so many PD books nowadays that tell us everything we are doing wrong as teachers. I am so excited for school to start incorporating Piracy into my classroom!

Anyone else enjoy #tlap or #learnlap?





6 responses to “Learn Like a Pirate

  1. I have read #tlap and I have #learnlap on my reading list, but this post just moved it to the top of my stack!

  2. I can’t wait to start teaching like a pirate. I’m really excited about the “give me five” approach. Third grade is going to rock!

  3. Hi, Christie! Wow!! What a fantastic post. Thank you so much for your detailed notes on the book and for your kind words for Paul’s book…and mine, as well. It was an honor to publish Paul’s amazing ideas. Can’t wait to hear how the book impacts your class this next year!!

    • Hi Dave! Thanks for the reply! Your book and Paul’s book have really inspired me and my team. Thanks for writing and sharing all your stories! We really appreciate it!

  4. Hi Christie! I just wanted to say thank you for writing this thoughtful post! I think you captured most of the big ideas that I wanted readers to focus in on, and it sounds like your classroom is already very similar to mine! We ought to compare notes some time! Enjoy the rest of your summer break & I hope next year starts off without a hitch! 🙂

    • Hi Paul, Thanks for the reply! Social media never ceases to amaze me at how easily it connects people from all over. Your classroom sounds amazing. Thanks for writing your book to share it with everyone 🙂

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