Teaching Strategies

Ahoy! Meet Nancy Davis, the Pirate Teacher

May 7, 2015 Updated May 6, 2015

It took skin cancer and eye surgery for this second grade teacher to embrace play in her classroom — and her students couldn't be happier.

Nancy Davis, a teacher at Whitney Elementary School in Yakima, Washington, was diagnosed with skin cancer last spring. Over the summer, Davis bounced back from surgery ready to teach. It would be her 38th year in the classroom. There was only one problem: she had her eye sewn shut, and she’d need six more operations in the coming months. She didn’t want to scare her second graders with an eye patch — or have to explain, over and over, why it was there.

In the first two months of the school year, Captain Davis used her pirate persona to craft a different approach to discipline, and promote immersive, play-based learning. Her students played “stealthy pirates” when they walked the halls, worked to uncover buried treasure in class exercises, and learned the language and customs of an 18th-century ship.

In the process, Mrs. Davis says she had the most fun she’s ever had teaching, and she re-discovered the magic of working from a child’s perspective. Imagination and make-believe became essential components of the curriculum. Parents and colleagues took notice too. Students went home and turned their bunk beds into pirate ships. Engagement and attendance increased and students in other classes were eager to join.

“Anytime a teacher is being more playful in front of kids, she’s giving them permission to do the same,” said Jill Vialet, the CEO of Playworks, which works to improve recess around the country. “Play brings out the very best in every kid — it’s how they learn, how they experience the world, how they figure out who they are.”

This video is part of Medium's BRIGHT series on innovation in education. To see original video and text, click here.

Director/DP/Editor: Lena Jackson. Producers: Sarika Bansal and Keith Axline. Additional Photography: Clarence Ting. Line Producer/Sound: Rowan Moore Gerety.

Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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