Creating a Taxonomy

Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion is one of the main sources of inspiration for “The Art of Social Justice Teaching.” The book, which took the U.S. education world by storm four years ago, describes a “taxonomy” of 49 specific teaching practices used by “champion” teachers. The techniques are illustrated with videos, so new teachers can watch expert practitioners before trying the techniques themselves.

I find Teach Like a Champion disturbing in a number of ways. The book’s approach focuses on low-level rote learning and does not allow for much creativity or independent thinking. Some of the videos show white teachers making a room full of students of color comply with simple commands; very few show those same students engaged in high-level discussions or analysis. (For a good critique, see “This School Year, Don’t Teach Like a Champion,” a blog piece by a Chicago teacher.)

In addition, as Sam Chaltain argues in “How to Really Teach Like a Champion,” Lemov’s “disproportionate focus on the ‘diligent mastery of the tools of the craft’ is dangerous; it misleads future teachers into overvaluing the power of technique, and undervaluing the need to better understand themselves and the highly relational, nonlinear components of what they have signed up to do.”

At the same time, I admire Lemov for putting forth a critical insight– that good teaching is not a product of some kind of inborn talent but rather a set of teachable skills. And I think Lemov’s idea of creating a “taxonomy” of teaching techniques and illustrating them using video of real classrooms is brilliant.

At June Jordan School for Equity, we were inspired by Teach Like a Champion’s structure but unhappy with some of its content, so we decided to create our own teaching “taxonomy” paired with videos. Ours is focused on high school and has what we call a social justice lens. And while we describe technique, we attempt to ground our descriptions in the complex human elements that are the real essence of good teaching.

What follows is the latest version of our pedagogical framework. This is an outline we have been developing and refining since the 2007-08 school year (it became more concrete and accompanied by video after we read Teach Like a Champion in 2010). We offer this in the hope that you will give us your thoughtful feedback: We want to start a dialogue about what good teaching really looks like. Please join the conversation!


1) Warm Demander: develop your students as human beings first

  • Family & Culture: understand & honor the strengths of the community
  • Authenticity: model vulnerability and humility, be an ally, respect your students
  • Clear Boundaries: Show Strength, Listen & Affirm, Challenge & Offer a Choice
  • Growth Mindset: believe in the “impossible,” embrace failure

2) Safe Classroom Community:  protect your students in a potentially dangerous world

  • Prevention: clear expectations, talk about values, Teacher Voice, One Mic
  • Rituals: Mindfulness, Talking Circle, Strong Start, Strong Finish
  • Jedi Awareness & Control the Mood
  • Intervention: assume positive intent, keep it in perspective, deliberate escalation, when to stop the curriculum and when/how to remove students


3) Knowledge of Students: start where your students are, not where you want/imagine them to be

  • Prior Knowledge: what do students know? what are their experiences? (misconceptions?)
  • Student Voice: what do students care about? what do they think? (examples of activities like sort, chalk talk, dot voting, etc.)
  • Individual Needs: differentiation without tracking, adjusting instruction based on formative assessment
  • Choice: students should have real choices about how and what they learn (this does not mean we let students study whatever they want, but rather that students should be active in driving their own learning)

4) Students as Intellectuals: develop your students as a community of warrior-scholars

  • Inquiry: there is no “right answer,” questioning, evidence, students as sources of knowledge
  • Collective Accountability: classroom as intellectual community
  • Code Switching: academic language & discussion formats
  • Intellectual Challenge: high-level multicultural texts, complex problems, big ideas, less is more

5) Teacher as Coach:let your students do the work

  • Metacognition: students should know how they learn & how to self-assess
  • Academic Skills: binders, annotations, note-taking skills, etc.
  • Culture of Revision & Practice: models of excellent work, multiple revisions, guided practice
  • Team Work: heterogeneous groups, clear roles, focus on the process, address status

6) Social Justice Curriculum: teach a curriculum that helps students understand the real world

  • Clear Purpose: students know what they are doing and why it matters
  • Relevance: the curriculum helps explain the real world & oppression (social justice curriculum in math, science, humanities, arts, language, special education/life skills, multicultural curriculum, community connections, & cross-curricular connections)
  • Encourage Dissenting Opinions: critical thinking is the goal
  • Human Values: the curriculum is grounded in justice, fairness, dignity, & cultural strengths

A note on our sources of inspiration: Educators reading this outline will know that none of these ideas are new. Our influences range from Socrates and John Dewey to people who mentored us in creating June Jordan School for Equity, such as Linda Darling-Hammond and Deborah Meier. We have borrowed the term “warm demander” from Franita Ware and others; one of the best descriptions of that concept is found in Lisa Delpit’s book Multiplication Is for White People (which also addresses many other elements of the list above). Those of you who know about Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools will see much of their language in this list as well.


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