Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best Education Books of 2016

Time once again for my annual listing of the best books on education that I read in the past year. My selections are, of course, limited by the books that I chose to read and the time I had for reading them, but I think you will find both informative and entertaining reading in these pages. My thanks to these authors and to all the writers who champion the causes of public education and sound literacy instruction - your voices are needed now more than ever.

I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids, by Kyle Schwartz. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Schwartz, a fourth grade teacher at Doull Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, asked her students to complete the statement that is the title of this wonderful book and the children's responses changed everything for her as a teacher. When she shared the lesson with others it became a Twitter sensation with the hashtag #iwishmyteacherknew.

As might be expected, student responses to this question were eyeopening for Schwartz who had been teaching for just 4 years when she presented the lesson. She learned stories of absent parents, homelessness, no pencils for doing homework and sadness over parents being deported to Mexico.

In the book, Schwartz takes the insights she gained from the exercise and expands it into a study about the importance of community in the school and classroom. She takes an admirably holistic view of the children and their needs, talents and resources. One aspect of the book I found particularly compelling was the Resources and Barriers Chart. It can be tempting to look at children of poverty only from the perspective of what they do not have. Schwartz helps us see how all children have resources and we need to build on those resources to help them learn. In this view, speaking Spanish at home becomes a resource, being physically active is a resource, showing interest in current events is a resource and these are resources that can be used to combat barriers like having difficulty paying attention or struggles with time management. 

Schwartz also gives excellent advice for teachers who work in a community where students are highly mobile. After telling the heart-breaking story of Ronaldo, the bright, eager student who had to leave school because his father was deported, Schwartz builds on the lessons learned to create Welcome Kits and Transition Mementos for children coming into or leaving her classroom. Other chapters discuss supporting students in trauma, grief and loss, building structures to develop student self-efficacy, and creating a culture that develops character.

What I admire most about this book is that Schwartz has taken one good lesson and one key insight and expanded it into a richer understanding of how we can build a classroom community against the apparent barriers of poverty, trauma and transition.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'All Too, by Christopher Emdin. Beacon Press.

Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, is out to explode the mythology of the hero teacher riding in on his/her white horse to save urban youth by teaching like a champion. He calls this very white, savior mentality what it truly is - colonialism. He argues that we will fail to make a difference in urban schools, filled with children of color, if we fail to recognize that their reality is not our reality. Indeed we need to start from an understanding of the reality of these children and teach them with a focus on that reality. Emdin calls his approach "reality pedagogy." 

Reading this book gave me a better understanding of why the achievement gap has been so intractable a problem for educators. We are applying a white, middle-class pedagogy to a non-white, non-middle-class culture. Until we, as educators, dig in and understand fully the culture of the children we are trying to teach, the achievement gap will continue, but what we really need to understand is that this achievement gap is in many ways an "instruction gap." It is not that white teachers who teach in the hood do not care, it is that they care in ways that are not productive for the children they are teaching.

While I was reading this book, I could not help but think of the work of Larry Sipe, late professor of literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. Sipe studied minority children's interactions with read-aloud and found that children of color interact with text in very different ways from white, middle class kids. They tended to not sit quietly and listen and then raise their hands when they wanted to comment, but rather to enjoy a book as a kind of call and response activity where they engaged with the book, calling out and interacting as the book was being read and sometimes even expanding and innovating on the story. This type of behavior, a normal part of these students' cultures, might not be tolerated by teachers seeking orderly dialogue and so Sipe posited that the way that minority children learn may be disadvantaged in the classroom.

I often tell my prospective teacher students that they will know what to teach if they follow the child, observing closely what the child needs. Emdin takes this insight to a whole new level. In order to teach urban youth well, we must fully understand and embrace the rich culture they bring to school, which is their greatest ally in learning.

Whether you teach in an urban environment or not, read this book to gain a better understanding of what teaching will need to look like in our increasingly diverse society. Old models of teaching simply will not suffice.

Education and the Commercial Mindset, by Samuel E. Abrams. Harvard University Press.

Abrams is a veteran public school teacher and administrator and currently the Director of the Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In this book, Abrams takes a detailed look at the school privatization movement through two notable privatization experiments: Edison Schools and KIPP Charter Schools.

Edison was one of the first companies into the school privatization game. Led by media mogul, Chris Whittle, the company started out as an experiment in private education for public school students, morphed into a troubled school management organization and finally died a quick death in the face of disappointing educational results and a rising tide of community opposition. It is a compelling story that plays out against a background of outsiders experimenting with educational designs on the predominantly poor children in urban areas like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ultimately, Edison could not deliver on its promises of profits to its investors or improved academic performance for its clients. The company died an ignominious death and Whittle left in 2015.

The KIPP Charter chain is a different story, but just as compelling for those worried about the privatization of public education. KIPP schools are non-profits who receive public funds to provide education to public school students, mostly in urban areas. As Abrams shows, KIPP schools also receive considerable funding from wealthy donors who wish to invest in school privatization. This money allows KIPP schools to spend more than $3,500 more per pupil than the public schools. KIPP is known for its harsh discipline practices, its compliance oriented school environment and its test-score focused curriculum. KIPP"s success has attracted a great deal of attention, but Abrams asks us to consider what the costs are of this success to the kind of citizens we really want to produce in schools.

This is a must read for those who wish to get a richer understanding of the privatization movement well-beyond what we generally read in the newspapers, magazines and TV reports. Diane Ravitch wrote a full-blown review of the book for The New York Review of Books.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, by Steve Nelson. Garn Press.

Steve Nelson is the Head of School of the exclusive private Calhoun School in New York City. Nelson's book may seem like an odd choice for this blog which seeks to champion public education, but Nelson's book gives us a clear-eyed, thoughtful and well-written account of what Temple University Professor, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek calls "school the way it should be." This is what Nelson has achieved in this book, shown us school they way it should be for all children, rich or poor; black brown, or white; urban, suburban, or rural. 

Nelson shows us that it is actually the current education reformers who are the conservatives, seeking to maintain a system of public schools that was designed to spit out compliant factory workers 150 years ago and is now designed to educate a compliant work force subservient to the privileged 1%.

Nelson's vision of a progressive education is one that has never been tried on a large scale, no matter what you have read about the 1960s and 70s. A progressive education, he says, is one that follows two main principles:
  • To stir in each child a continuous commitment to be thoughtfully engaged in the ongoing evolution of our democratic republic and to exercise his/her individual and collective responsibilities within a global community.
  • To allow all children to grow into deeply satisfying and ethical lives.
Nelson's child centered vision of school and schooling is certainly idealistic. But it is important for all of us to have a clear understanding of the ideal, so that we have a worthy target to shoot at in the service of children.

After you read this book, you may find yourself looking at your students, your curriculum, and your instruction a little differently.

Who's Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More, by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. Stenhouse.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are among my literacy instruction heroes. Not only do they maintain a terrific blog on literacy Think Tank for the 21st Century, but they are prolific writers of wonderful books, filled with keen insight and an orientation toward a balanced literacy approach. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing their book, Reading Wellness, and this year they are back with another very helpful book, Who's Doing the Work?

For all teachers of literacy our goal is to help children become skilled, strategic independent readers of fiction and non-fiction texts of all shapes and varieties. In their new book, Burkins and Yaris show that sometimes in our zeal to scaffold student literacy development, we are overly helpful of students, turning them into readers who are dependent on teacher intervention rather than independent readers. 

Organizing their book around the key elements of balanced literacy, read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading, Burkins and Yaris clearly and methodically show us how to scaffold literacy in a way that leads to independence rather than dependence. Dividing instruction into conventional practice and next generation practice, the authors first show us what is and then suggest what should be. This very useful construct provides, if I may say it, the scaffold for the teacher to learn how to move from the conventional to the next generation smoothly and effectively. Useful charts comparing conventional and next generation instruction clearly drive home the key points of each chapter.

What the authors are really asking is that we all fine tune our practice to make sure that the gradual release of responsibility so important to creating student independence happens in each component of balanced literacy instruction. This is a book that all teachers in grades K-8 will want to have on their professional reading shelf and will find themselves referring to often.

These are my choices for best books on education 2016. Of course, there were many fine books from the past year that I did not get to. What books would you add to the list? Please add your comments below or on my Facebook page.

Looking forward to much great reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

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