Build like a Pirate: Finding your UP


“It is not the beauty of a building you should look at; its the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.”

~David Allan Coe


 Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask & Analyze, Transformation, Enthusiasm. That’s what Pirates have. Education was not my first career choice. I never loved school but I never hated it either. I was the student who tried his hardest in every subject but yet never felt I could accomplish the grades and success my peers seemed to show when it came to report cards or with the honor roll. Even worst, I had teachers who felt that if I didn’t match with the traditional way they taught I would fall behind the rest of my class. I felt every time I received a low grade or didn’t ace a project I was doomed to not being anything more than the kid who needed help. Then something changed my life for the better when I reached 5th grade. We had a new teacher join the school that year, Mrs. Larson. She was around my mother’s age at the time, had two young boys that were only a couple of years younger than me. I remember on the first day of school she was going over who she was and what we would be learning during the school year. The usual speech every teacher gives but then she said something that changed the way I would learn from then on: “We are going to make this fun and different.” While every student wants to hear that from your teacher back during the late 80s most of us didn’t know what “fun and different” would mean. That changed when she said we would be doing our first book report and had to use puppets.

“Puppets!” You have to keep in mind the usual 10/11 year old hears puppets and thinks that’s something they left behind as late as 2nd grade and not something you would be doing in the 5th grade classroom, let alone for a book report. Yet, that’s what Mrs. Larson wanted us to do and we had to read a Newberry Award winning book. Little did I know this puppet book report would be the first in many changes I would experience that year and what would over twenty years later highly influence how I teach now. She was the first teacher to inspire me to start Building Like a Pirate, but she would not be the last. As many of you know, I run a teacher’s blog known as: Dice UP the Classroom.When most people read the title of Dice UP the Classroom. Their immediate question is: “Why are the u and the p capitalized?” Well, the “U” is for Unconditional. When I say “unconditional” I mean: “unlike any other.” The “P” stands for: “passion”. Something I have learned about passion is that is drives you. Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate had an impact on me like no other. In early summer of 2014 I had reached a very low point in my short educational career. I wasn’t feeling inspiration, I wasn’t feeling motivation and most of all I wasn’t feeling any passion. Then I was online with Twitter and Barbara Gruener (@BarbaraGruener) told me that I needed to check out this book and if it didn’t reignite my passion in education, nothing would. Well, I jumped on my computer ordered a copy and after reading the first couple of pages, I could not put the book down. As soon as I finished it I ran to my iPad and created four different lessons using my favorite Apps. I remember my wife turning to me and asking if I was all right. I told her I was feeling great and then started showing her what I was doing. She then looked up at me and said: “My husband is back.”

I was back all right but my passion was also back. I had a professor during my undergraduate in college that told me that if you weren’t passionate about what you did, then you would never perform to your highest potential. While passion can drive us it has to be unconditional. Why does it have to be unconditional? Its my old 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Whitehurst  who taught me about what unconditional means in education. He was not only my science teacher he was also my basketball coach during 7th grade. During our nights of practice, running around the gym and practicing our free throws. He told us you had to have an unconditional love for what you did. You might not be the best player on the court but I remember him telling us if you have unconditional passion for what you are doing then you will always be a winner in the game and then he added: “And make sure you have fun.” If there was something that Mr. Whitehurst did in class, it was making things fun.  

Much like Mrs. Larson rolled out a different type of learning with using puppets for our book reports, I remember the first lesson that didn’t seem like what normal 7th grade students would do in science class. Mr. Whitehurst was doing the petri dish lesson, where you take different samples and see how much bacterial growth each sample produced. The first was air, the second was your fingers and the last two were choice. I’m not talking about there were several selections in the classroom to try and see what would produce more micro organisms. He told us to get out of our seats and find samples and then rub a cotton swab with them and place them on the dish. I remember half of the class asking where we could go. He said the only places we couldn’t go was in another classroom, the office or the gym. If we wanted to would could take a sample outside he just would have to go with two students at time due to security reasons. I have to admit we were all floored in this experience and traveled out we did. Taking samples from the drink fountain all the way to the bathrooms. I decided to use my retainer as one sample in which it turned yellow from not cleaning it lately. Mr. Whitehurst looked at it and replied: “We’ll go over why that swab just turned yellow next week.”

Mr. Whitehurst was always thinking on his feet, he followed on student reaction when one of us even showed the small bit of being perplexed. Looking back now I do believe I would have gone into education sooner if I would have focused on what Mr. Whitehurst showed to his students during those years, unconditional passion. It was not to say he was alone, just down the hall was my math teacher, Mrs. White and I will tell you the truth, she was not an easy teacher by any means but did she have unconditional passion for teaching math to her students even when she wanted to assign three extra pages of homework during a four day weekend? Oh you bet. Did my wood shop teacher come in each day and made us want to learn a new type of way to create a wind spinner? Yes, he did and there wasn’t a day when we didn’t see how passionate our teachers were when they were teaching and how different they made it. Mrs. White might have given out extra homework on days we wanted to relax at home, but she created games and mnemonic devices around those same lessons that made us understand better. My shop teacher was able to create comic book strips and had us read safety rules and procedures about the shop like a comedic play. My shop teacher even had us form a shop student council when half of us had no interest in leadership structure, we just wanted to build stuff.

It was these teachers that showed me that having that passion that would never waiver if their students were unwilling, unruly or even require more time with other students that were keys into unlocking my own UP in education years later. They didn’t follow the same paint by the numbers that some people fall into. They wanted to inject their own passions into their teaching style and that’s what made their classrooms a joy to learn in. Passions I always love injecting into my lessons and projects for teachers and students are: technology, theatre, storytelling, creativity and of course dice. However, it’s these passions that fuel my own unconditional passion for teaching and education. They go hand in hand much as my shop teacher loved reading his Sunday Morning Comic Strips that allowed him to teach how to perform the best practices when it came to safety in the workshop. Or how Mrs. White’s love of games allowed those of us who weren’t the best at math to understand how to reduce a fraction or understand the concepts of mixed numbers. They create the structure that gave them their UP for their classrooms and much like Mrs. Larson showed me in 5th grade how you can Build Like a Pirate in a new and in a very exciting way.


  1. Write down your passions, what do you love to do?



Do you love to create crafts? Teach students about reducing numbers. Have them create a pine cone in different size strips going from large to small from the top to the bottom. Have them write down the number 10 and then have them reduce by twos. The next strip of paper is 8, the next is 6 and so on.


Love dominos? Have students build a robot but have to create the house with the dominos and showing how to reduce fractions in the process.


  1. Show that Unconditional Passion don’t just think it. Students and fellow teachers can see that you might be passionate about it but show they you are passionate about it. Any teacher can get excited over a lesson or project but when you show that passion as you teach your lesson, I can guarantee your students and peers are going to feel that same passion.



Mrs. Larson had us create mobiles on another book report we had to write. She showed us how she made one with her sons and as she explained it you could feel how passionate she was about the book report. We as a 5th grade class felt that passion and almost half of us created our mobiles right after we finished reading our books. We were finished with them days before the report was even due instead of the night or two before it was due.


  1. Let your students find their Unconditional Passions.

Many times we as teachers get so passionate about what we teach we don’t leave students enough time to be passionate about their learning. There is a saying: “If you give instruction on how to do something and have thirty students turn in the same project. That’s not a lesson, that’s a recipe.” Its true. Sure 1+1=2 and no matter how many times you spin it, when you add one to one you get two as an answer. However, a student can show it in their own way.



I had a student who had injured their dominant hand once and was unable to write but had brought their reading tablet to read in class during silent reading once. The student love to use that tablet for everything. So what did they do? They did used their tablet with their other hand not to simply type out the answers to a math or story project. They instead they used an App to create stickers of their answers and assembled them to solve the equation. They got every answer right using stars and puppies and sneakers. This student loved using tech when they could and they injected it right into their learning without being told to write with their non-dominant hand or just type the answers on a simple word processing application. That right there was showing their unconditional passion in learning and they got the idea because their teacher showed their UP during the lesson.


Unconditional Passion is a very powerful tool when used in the classroom not just for the teachers, but for the students as well. The trick is awaking your UP in what you do. When I read Teach Like a Pirate it was like I got a wake up call, but it wasn’t because Dave Burgess showed me something I didn’t already know. He showed me how to look into what I loved to do and try it with something I loved to do but in a different way. That’s why the first letter in pirate is for “passion”. If you can find your passion for what you do and love it unconditionally, you will awaken it in ways you never could have imagined. Once your passion is awaken it begins to lay the foundation of who you are as a person and what you create from it. Foundations aren’t built from the top to the bottom, they are built from the bottom up. Pirates are not born and they aren’t made, they are swing in as themselves and awaken their passions as they land. Who a pirate becomes is by the way they build themselves up and then bring others on their journey to adventure.

  Mrs. Larson didn’t just decide she was passionate about puppets one day, she realized she was passionate about teaching and that she wanted to make it an adventure in learning for her students. How she started to build on that passion is what lead her to that fateful book report assignment to our class that day. She then in turn showed us how to build on our passions and how to take charge of our own learning during the school year and beyond. In fact, I know for many of friends who became teachers years later, it was Mrs. Larson who opened that door for them and showed them how to lay the foundation for whom they would become and what type of teacher they would be. I know she did with me.



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