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If you’re like me, one of the joys of summer is the time it makes available to catch up and jump ahead on the reading list.  I know I spend each spring nearly as much time deciding what to read as I spend reading itself.

Drawing upon my own reading in the past twelve months,  I’m pleased to share here some summer reading recommendations for Summer 2014.

(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for

My annual lists are usually populated primarily by books published in the past year or so, but this year’s list is a bit broader, with about a third of its titles dating back over the past three or four years.   This is because as I worked this past year on preparing the OECD Test for Schools toolkit (see previous post), I did a deeper dive on two related topics, using data in schools and international benchmarking, and doing so brought me to some terrific, previously overlooked,  titles I am delighted to share on this list.

(Note: I write a monthly book recommendation column, “Sparks” for the L+D newsletter, and in some of the bits below, I’ve “self-plagiarized” a bit,  drawing upon and re-purposing from some of those pieces.)

The Top Ten 2014 Summer Reading Recommendation for 21st century educators (this year with indication on titles suitable for Beach Reading!)

(For those on a budget, Scroll to the bottom for five additional recommended freebies!).

berger   1. 2014 is only half over, but the front-runner for 2014’s  educational book of the year has to be Ron Berger’s Leaders of their Own Learning. This book elevates assessment to the its rightful place in the center, not the after-thought back-end, of learning, and to its rightful home in the heart and mind of each individual student.   For Berger, assessment is collaboration: “As students are given the tools to understand and assess their own strengths and challenges, their ability to take ownership increases.  In very concrete ways, students become leaders of their own learning- understanding learning targets, tracking their progress, using feedback to revise their work, and presenting their learning publicly-and partners with their teachers.”

The book is chock-full of action items and organizing lists for implementing this program, but especially wonderful are the charming, lovely, and sometimes even tear-inducing short essays with Berger which open each chapter: nobody writes as beautifully about children learning.

berger ethicPAIR THIS BOOK> Berger’s 2003 title, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship belongs in the Hall of Fame.  In this extended, almost-lyrical essay, Berger writes as both a master cabinet maker and as an elementary school teacher to testify that it is the work that matters, and that when this is our guide and foundation, we can see student work soar and sparkle spectacularly.

 

Make-Space-Cover-e1325835564910-730x7302.  Wonderfully eclectic and beautifully graphic, both how-to manual and philosophical essay, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration  published in 2012 was my singularly favorite read of 2013 and is my most frequently recommended book of the past year.   Co-authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, who are also co-directors of the “Environmental Collaborative” of the Stanford d. School (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), bring the intellectual animation and ingenuity of the d. School to life on these 250 pages.

third teacherHow_Buildings_Learn_(Stewart_Brand_book)_coverPAIR THIS BOOK> Make Space stands tall among a set of wonderful titles in this extremely fascinating genre, such as the comprehensive and highly visual survey of learning space enhancements, The Third Teacher (2010) and Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1995 treatise on the importance of adaptability and continuous evolution of space, How Buildings Learn.


Data-Wise-in-Action-DWIA__35995.1361422570.325.4003. Data Wise  (rev. 2103) and Data Wise in Action (2007) are comdata wisepanion titles
from the Harvard GSE and the its Data Wise project.  I think they are dynamite resources for any school administrator or teacher who wants to become more intentional, systematic, and action-oriented in using student assessment results meaningfully.    Every school collects data of various kinds, but very few school-folks, I fear, and I know I speak for my past-self as a principal, effectively use the ever-growing pile of numbers and statistics to make meaning and make change. In these titles, the path is clearly marked (in Data Wise) and effectively illustrated (in in Action).  The spirit of these books is very appealing, empowering and honoring the professionalism of teachers in an approach that is student-centered, inclusive, collaborative and reflective.  Highly recommended for all administrators and for those teachers interested in this subject and wanting see teaching to become not data-DRIVEN but data-WISE.  

 

sticks and stones4. Emily Bazelon, a legal journalist for Slate, writes from outside our ranks with highly attuned empathy, compelling storytelling, and great common sense to the enormously complex phenomenon in schools which we problematically reduce to the one-word characterization “bullying” in her 2013 title, Sticks and Stone: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.   Carefully recounting in great detail three notorious examples of bullying in schools, she calls it like she sees it, applying a careful definition—repeated and sustained physical or verbal abuse in a situation of unequal power—to each event and unpacks the complexity that lies behind the actions and decisions.  School-leaders are spared little mercy for their mistakes, but are offered sympathy as their situations escalate and misunderstandings accrue.   The book isn’t perfect: the promised-by-the-introduction section sharing solutions doesn’t bring the reader as far as one would have hoped, though the resource guide at the back is a useful tool.  PAIR THIS>  I’d suggest pairing this with the excellent anti-bullying report prepared for Harvard’s Berkman Center and the Born This Way foundation by danah boyd and Andover Headmaster John Palfrey: they are really great resources on this subject.  (Bazelon: BEACH READING!)

 

SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.125. This book isn’t by any means, the smartest book of the year: it disappoints on several fronts, but it’s still a worthy (and easy) read.   Ripley beautifully honors they student-eye perspective on high school,  illuminating international educational practices through the eyes of students she literally follows  around the world to Poland, Finland, and South Korea.  By reflection upon their authentic experiences she evaluates schooling: would that we all did the same more regularly. She cross references the anecdotal with authoritative PISA data to offer fascinating insights about comparative educational practice, and she doesn’t hesitate to proffer the strong opinions she has drawn from her research, controversial though they might be (against technology and athletics, for high stakes exit testing and national standards).   Very much worth reading as a conversation (or argument) starter and as an accessible introduction to international benchmarking and comparative educational studies. (BEACH READING!)

 

49398_Hargreaves_Global_Fourth_Way_72ppiRGB_150pixw6. Reading Ripley might entice some to go deeper into global educational studies, and there are some terrific, richer and wiser, books available.   Having read three of them recently, my pick among this trio is from Boston College professors Hargreaves and Shirley: The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence.    The authors explain what they mean by the fourth way of educational change, which includes broadening the range of learning beyond the basics, using data to inform teacher inquiry not “drive it,” testing by sampling, and teachers as the co-creators of curriculum, not the deliverers of it.  The discussion of the fourth way by itself is worthy of extended examination and discussion as a model for educational transformation—it is worth the while.

The authors also tackle the fascinating and complex problem of whether innovation and improvemeallure_of_order-194x300nt are at odds or can be reconciled in the pursuit of excellence, and they then survey six surpassing shanghaidifferent case studies to exemplify the fourth way.  Some of the six they profile are a bit too familiar (Finland, Singapore) or fall a bit short in convincingly illuminating the Fourth Way in practice (California especially), but the sections on England (a particular school there), Ontario as a province, and especially the province of Alberta are inspiring and informative.  Bravo Alberta!

PAIR THIS> with Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai and or Mehta’s Allure of Order, both of which similarly scan the international landscape and draw fascinating and applicable insights for US education.

 

leadingOnline.225x225-757.  If you are reading this blog post, you are probably already someone practicing online learning and leadership, and so you’ll easily agree with me that it was great to see this past year three Jersey educators issue two excellent guides for the practice of digital and online leadership.  From Montclair Kimberly Academy, Richards and Valentine argue in their short, colorfully illustrated Leading Online:  “These days, leaders look out for their organizations by looking out of their organizations… they know you don’t have to leave school to leave school.”   And they know that no matter how powerful the technology, human decision-making is still demanded.   As they explain in a chapter entitled “Design for Spaces, Care for Spaces,” tools cannot reorganize, synthesize, or make meaning:  “these tasks fall to the leader.” PAIR THIS> with the following.

 

sheninger8. New Jersey high school principal Eric Sheninger offers Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, which comprehensively covers the terrain of his topic and his passion.  This is a how-to introduction, with chapters on communication, public relations, branding, professional growth and PD, and increasing student engagement. Sheninger recognizes the challenge of digital leadership, and recounts mistakes he has made.   He opposes the idea of cultivating buy-in, which he says “requires a salesman-like approach that might contain if-then rewards.  We have no mandates to use technology at [my school.]”   Instead, he urges “Embracement attained through empowerment and autonomy.”

 

smarter-than-you-think9. Wired magazine columnist Clive Thompson published last fall Smarter Than You Think, which will brighten your outlook and bring many ideas to mind about the future of learning in a digitally enhanced, connected world.  The “huge impact on our cognition” digital tools are making is grouped into three major categories: “they allow for prodigious external memory; … make it easier for us to find connections– between ideas, pictures, bits of news– that were previously invisible; … [and] encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing which has many surprising effects.” (BEACH READ!)

 

download10. Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st century, comes from what until recently Karen Cator’s excellent EdTEch shop at the US Department of Education—and it is free for download.  Available at the USDOE since Febraury 2013, it is confusingly still labeled a “draft,” but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile reading.  As the importance of non-cognitive factors for student success has surged back into consciousness these past several years, and most particularly that of what Duckworth calls grit,  many have been responding: OK, stipulated, but HOW?   Even Duckworth’s own TED talk offers next to no guidance on this question.

This DOE 100 page free resource, after reviewing terminology and fostering gritassessments, walks the readers through more than fifty intervention programs and methods for doing so, and then provides valuable recommendations for policy-makers, educational leaders, and parents for this work.   PAIR WITH>  Hoerr’s ASCD “Aria” sort book, Fostering Grit—though if you have time for only one, choose the DOE’s freebie.

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Bonus: Five more Freebies
As noted, number 10 on the list above is yours for free, and do remember that your summer reading doesn’t have to cost you the equivalent of a special restaurant  with your best friend.  Many excellent special reports and even full book titles are available for free as downloads.

 

nrc report cover1. One is the National Research Council’s comprehensive, evidence-based, rich and rewarding 200 page 2012 book, Education for Life and Work. It’s not the lightest reading, but it provides an excellent foundation in what is known already, what we must inquire into more thoroughly, and develop more completely, to advance true 21st century learning.

The NRC frames this “education for life and work” as “Deeper Learning:”
“Calls for such “21st century skills” as innovation, creativity, and creative problem-solving can also be seen as calls for deeper learning—helping students develop transferable knowledge that can be applied to solve new problems or respond effectively to new situations.”
photo2. The National Research Council has also helpfully summarized its research for educators, in the succinct and accessible Practitioner’s Guide.

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measuring 21st century competencies3. The Asia Society engaged researchers from the RAND corporation to prepare a really interesting and useful report which I think would be found valuable reading for all who are engaged in advancing 21st century learning.    Called “Measuring 21st century Competencies: Guidance for Educators,” it is about sixty pages in length, and after helpfully defining this set of competencies, and reviewing the key issues in testing and assessment generally, it reviews a wide array of techniques and tools for doing so.   Interestingly, it chooses one as being most worthy of a “deeper look,” the Mission Skills Assessment from the Index group, and the discussion it provides about this fast emerging tool, (full disclosure: one with which I have an association) is very informative about the future of non-cognitive assessment.

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PISA-2012-(vol4)--Cover-(eng)-miniature4. The OECD, based in Paris, owns and manages PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment—which makes news every three years for its “league tables” ranking national educational performance.  Less well known is that its team of educational researchers spends years reviewing the testing data and studying international educational practices to prepare fascinating reports on what works in education—and they are all free.  There are half a dozen or more I especially like, including the two Lessons for the US from PISA (2009) and (20012), but my top pick is the recent 2013 publication: PISA Results 2012:  What makes school successful.  Learn what these researchers have found about areas such as governance, school climate, student grouping, grade repetition, student-teacher ratio, teacher professional development, and much more.

 

SSATB  Who We Are » Think Tank » Think Tank Special Report 2013 (1)5. Forgive me tooting my own horn, but I’d add last to this list the “Special Report on the Future of Assessment” published last summer by SSAT, a 24 page review of the big ideas, leading thinkers, and innovative practices in non-cognitive assessment.    (Note, a second SSAT special report is due out in a few weeks.  Check back here or at the SSAT website to grab it when it is available).

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If you’re looking for even more “freebies” for 21st century learning reading, be sure also to check out the DML website of the MacArthur foundation.  They’ve teamed up with MIT press to publish a series of fascinating volumes such as Measuring What Matters Most and The Future of the Curriculum, and they’re all available for free download.

Enjoy your summer reading, and please: take a moment to use the comment box to share your suggestions for summer reading for 21st century educators.

I get asked this question often every spring, so I’d thought I’d offer a few thoughts here on the blog.

This list sticks to the (relatively) current, the books I’ve read or encountered since last May– obviously there are scores of fine books from years past every educator should consider for summer reading, but this is not that kind of list.

(If you are interested, here is my 2012 Summer Reading List. )

Asterisk by names are for “full disclosure;” they are friends and colleagues, so please recognize the potential of bias.

47a4034799f5351cb17ed9d767db9afc*Ken Kay, founder of Partnership for 21st century skills and edleader21, joined by his close associate *Val Greenhill, published this book last summer and it is, I think, a highly valuable guide for educational leaders.  Kay and Greenhill recognize the extent to which leading learning in fast-changing times is a traveling on a journey which will never arrive finally at the destination, a journey that requires not only a vision and a strategy but a process of inclusion and an obligation for communication and collaboration.  See my full review here.

richardsonHighly accessible, succinct, and compelling, this book identifies great questions we should all be asking about education in the future (and the present), and offers a set of valuable steps we could all begin taking now to realign.    Why would you not take the 80 minutes and $3 to read this book this summer?

november who owns Using farming as metaphor for 21st century learning is funny to me, but November makes it work, and helps us to see what is new is old: that we’ve always learned best by doing things, taking care, working together, tackling real problems, generating meaningful solutions, producing and sharing.    And now, with the information, resources and tools available online, this practice is more available and more meaningful than ever before.   Great practical suggestions along with good inspiration.   I quibble with some details: November twice offers the idea we shouldn’t try to measure creativity because it will only dampen it, and cites only Dan Pink as support: I think there is more to say about the matter than dismissing it out of hand, but this minor matter doesn’t detract from the value of November’s book as a whole.

net smartRheingold: I’ve been raving about this book for a year, since I read in on vacation last July: I think it was certainly THE book of 2012, the one book every educator– including, by the way, everyone who is educating themselves, which ought to be, in the fast-changing 21st century, everyone– needs to read to understand the opportunities and the obligations to be a responsible, effective, digital citizen, collaborator, and contributor.  It’s a bit of a heavier lift than many of the other books on this list, but it is entirely worth the effort.   See full post/review here. (more…)

brookhart book“We still really don’t know how to assess problem-solving,” I heard a university professor of engineering say last week, and it resonated because it is so clear to me that while we all want to do more to educate our students in the work of solving complex problems and creative thinking, and we know the importance of assessment in driving this instruction, we nevertheless stumble in our clarity about what and how we ought to assess these things.

Most often the books I write about here are what might be viewed as the superstructure books– the writing about the future of learning and the most innovative practices for reinventing what and how we should be teaching.

Examples of this would be my reviews of Net Smart by Rheingold, Networked by Wellman and Rainey, Future Perfect by Johnson, and Zhao’s World Class Leaners. 

But sometimes it is useful to return to the foundations, and firm up our terms and concepts at more basic, but critical, levels— indeed, if we don’t do so, the superstructures will be that much more unwieldy.

This 2010 title, from ASCD, is exactly that, and I hope readers will forgive the “primer” nature of this post.   It would seem to me that schools which simply do the work to try to unify and make more consistent our language and practice around higher order thinking skills assessment will be well poised to then experiment, iterate, and innovate in this essential realm.

Brookhart begins by defining the core elements of what we mean by higher order thinking:

  • Transfer: relating learning to other elements beyond those they were taught to associate with it.
  • Critical thinking (judgment): reasonable, reflective thinking focused on what to believe or do, applying wise judgment and producing an informed critique.
  • Problem solving, including creative thinking: the non-automatic strategizing required for solving an open-ended problem, involving identifying problems, creating something new as a solution.

establishing three core components of what exactly effective assessment entails:

  1. Specify clearly and exactly what it is you want to assess.
  2. Design tasks or test items that require students to demonstrate this knowledge or skill.
  3. Decide what you will take as evidence of the degree to which students have shown this knowledge or skill.

and elaborating with three more principles of higher order thinking assessment:

  • Presenting something for students to think about, usually in the form of text, visuals, scenarios, resource material, problems.
  • Using novel material–material new to students, not covered in class and not subject to recall.
  • Distinguishing between level of difficult, easy versus hard, and level of thinking, lower order thinking/recall versus higher order thinking) and control for each separately. (more…)

livingstonAlthough I tend to write primarily here about current books and publications, I’m also spending a lot of time this year doing “deeper dives” in two fields: Best practices in 1-1 laptop programs and in Assessment.     Expect to see a few posts and commentaries here in coming weeks and months about books and articles from the past on these topics.

Livingston’s book was published by ISTE in 2006, and, to this reader’s eyes, continues to be a valuable resource and guide for schools undertaking 1-1 laptop initiatives– as, regular readers here know, I think should be occurring at every school.

The importance of this cause was reiterated for me recently in an inspiring post by my friend George Couros:

If you look around at most conferences, every teacher has some device that they use, whether it is a computer, tablet, or smartphone.  Go into the classroom though, and you will be lucky if you see that as the norm.

1:1 schools get so much attention because they are so unique, but should they be?  Shouldn’t that be the norm for our kids as it is outside of our world?  If you really think of it, doesn’t it seem strange that we are nowhere near the point where every kid having a device in school is just the norm?

Why?

Livingston reports that when legendary MIT researcher and programmer Seymour Papert was asked by the Maine Governor about the potential impact of lowering student to computer ratios to 3-1 or 2-1,  he responded, “in effect, nothing much.  ‘It only turns magic when it’s 1-1.‘”

Eleven takeaways and tips from Livingston:

1.  One of the valuable ways we can view and understand laptops and mobile devices in the classroom is as “digital assistants.”   This metaphor conveys that these are more than tools; the metaphor begins with the user as the operator, the mover and shaker, and the tool as strengthening the capacity of that operator.

the importance and usefulness of laptop computers for learning goes far beyond the single purpose implied by those who would call them “just a tool.”

It’s a device which facilitates a student’s thinking, analyzing, presenting, writing, reading, researching, revising, communicating, questioning, proposing, creating, surmising and publishing. (more…)

This free publication, dated to February 2012, is a valuable and economically efficient vehicle for enhancing the understanding of any faculty which is making the move toward PBL.   If it were me, I’d think about distributing it widely, making it available in a printed version for those who prefer reading that way, and use it as a faculty summer reading option or for part of a year-long faculty study of PBL.

Coming as it does as an addition to the existing literature on project-based learning, and most particularly the many resources available from BIE, both free and priced, the new book offers both reiteration, valuable as that is and well supported with examples, and a few new notes.  I thought it’d be most helpful to identify what it adds to the conversation, and most particularly where its emphases are different/additional to what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements (and, of course, which I think are especially important).

These differences/additions can be best summarized with four C’s:

Currency, Critique, Collaborative Colleagueship, and (Traditional) Components. 

1. Currency: The booklet opens with a helpful commentary on why PBL now.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma.

Firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness.

Surely all of us exmaining PBL would find many more reasons to add to the mix, most importantly that an embrace of PBL methodology follows naturally upon the previous embrace of teaching 21st century skills as our first and foremost “outcomes” priority.

2.  Critique.  BIE’s essential elements includes, importantly, one entitled “Revision and Reflection”  (though I’ve always been curious why in that order: wouldn’t one normally reflect before revising?). (more…)

[Cross -posted from original posting at Connected Principals.]

Sometimes we feel we are living on a pre-apocalyptic brink, and post-apocalyptic themes and memes are abundant in the media, such as the new TV show Revolution,  the Hunger Games, and the fear-mongering that happens around individual incidents in the Middle East presaging a coming Clash of Civilizations.    Clearly the continuing economic woes aren’t helping.   I fear our students sometimes absorb this: they are saturated in much of this media, and they have their own angst to reckon with regarding college/university admissions and, even more stress-fully, financing post-secondary education.

But there is reason for optimism, and Steven Johnson’s latest book, Future Perfect,  is a very fine tonic for our fears and road map toward a far more promising future.  The future may not be perfect, but there is, as his subtitle explains, a “Strong Case for Progress in a Networked Age,”  and we owe it to our own mentality and attitude, and for that of our students, to share this vision and to work toward it.

We have Wikipedia because the Internet and the Web have made it easy and cheap to share information, and because they allowed people to experiment with new models of collaboration while minimizing the risks of failure.

To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience.

That is why we are optimistic: because we know it can be done.  We know a whole world of pressing social problems can be improved by peer networks, digital or analog, local or global, animated by those core values of participation, equality and diversity. That is a future worth looking forward to.  Now is the time to invent it. 

I should make clear I am a Steven Johnson fan, and have been for a long time.   Reading his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You greatly influenced me, sharply revising my view about the potential positive effects of video and computer games (a revision for which my sons are very grateful, and I tell them they owe a great debt of gratitude to Johnson.)   I enjoyed his Ghost Map, and those who know me know that his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation has been hugely influential and inspirational to me.   Click here to read my suggested “take-aways” from that book for educators. 

This new book sets out to establish the principles of a what Johnson believes is a political and world-view, “peer progressivism,” which is built upon the power and opportunity of “peer networks.”   One important clarification he regularly reiterates here is that peer progressivism can occur without technology, and did do so brilliantly, but it is greatly amplified by the effects of networking technology.

To be a peer progressive is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies.  When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve the problem. (more…)

From the book:
“None of these technologies are isolated, or isolating, systems.   People are not hooked on gadgets– they are hooked on each other
.

The new media is the new neighborhood. 

This is the era of free agents and the spirit of personal agency. But it is not the World According to Me– it not a world autonomous and increasingly isolated individualists.  Rather, it is the World According to the Connected Me. 

The more people use the internet, the more friends they have, the more they see their friends, and the more socially diverse their networks.  

People’s lives offline and online are now integrated– it no longer makes sense to make a distinction.”

This new book, Networked: The New Social Operating System by Lee Rainie (of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) and Barry Wellman (of the University of Toronto’s NetLab),  to which I was directed by Howard Rheingold’s terrific Net Smart, is a refreshingly no-holds-barred,  full-throated advocacy for the power of the network to improve lives, learning, and society.

The book, sadly, is not a complete success;  at times its narrative flattens into research-report data drudgery, and sometimes its voice  speaks about contemporary digital lives to its readers as if we lived on Mars or in the 19th century:  much of what is explained requires little explanation.   And the two “interludes”- intended as richly described “days in the life” of a networked, wired young person– simply fail, I believe, to illuminate, inform or influence minds (more about this at bottom).

But, if you are caught up in the current intellectual debate about the value of online networking– if you are looking for helpful argumentation versus the Turkles and Carrs– this is a valuable book, collecting and sharing research based evidence and an idealistic vision for where we are headed as a society of increasingly networked individuals.  And if you are looking for guidance on how to be a more effective online citizen, or netizen, this book offers good guidance.

The title is Networked, but the argument is something a bit different: many of us are living now not in a networked society but lives of “networked individualism.”  Because it is as individuals we are networked– at the very same time that we are more connected, we are less group-defined, less tied to tight networks such as churches and small town communities.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor.

Small densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations.  A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups.

The networked operating system offers new ways to solve problems and meet needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to manuevre and more capacity to act on their own. (more…)

Across the breadth of the 21st century learning movement, the question of which critical skills and aptitudes we assess (and how we do so) looms large.

Very often we are discussing how to broaden what we assess beyond the narrowly defined cognitive skills which we are what are most frequently in our sights: reading comprehension and literacy, math and quantitative analysis.    We argue for assessing creativity, collaboration, and communication; we are looking for ways to evaluate student character: integrity, compassion, resilience, perseverence, grit, empathy.

Keith Stanovich, who is new to me I am afraid to say, offers a different tack in his highly acclaimed 2009 book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: the Psychology of Rational Thought, which won the 2010 Grawemeyer Award in Education.    Stanovich pleads with his readers, quite passionately I would say, to broaden our gaze beyond intelligence (the IQ g,  and SAT style testing, about which Stanovich says “has remained constant[ly] a stand-in for an  IQ test”) but not beyond the cognitive.   We must divide the cognitive into two quite distinct arenas, so distinct that it is easy to find abundant examples of individuals strong in one, but not the other: intelligence (IQ-g) and “Rational thought.”

Beyond asking us to recognize that there are two distinct cognitive domains, Stanovich makes the case that rational thought is the ugly step-sister of intelligence, neglected and overlooked by society, and yet is ultimately of equal or greater significance for the makings of success in all that we do, and hence deserving of a great leap forward in valuation by schools and employers.

In short, we have been valuing only the algorithmic mind and not the reflective mind.  This in part the result of historical accident.  We had measure of algorithmic-level processing efficiency long before we had measures of rational thought and the operation of reflective mind.

The lavish attention devoted to intelligence (raising it, praising it, worrying when it is low, etc.) seems wasteful in light of the fact that we choose to virtually ignore another set of mental skills with just as much social consequence– rational thinking mindware and procedures.

I simply do not think that society has weighed the consequences of its failure to focus on irrationality as a real social problem.    These skills and dispositions profoundly affect the world in which we live.

As illustration to open the book, Stanovich offers a very engaging discussion comparing Presidents, quoting in an opening epigram George W. Bush in a wonderfully revealing personal self-assessment:

I’m also not very analytical.  You know I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things. (more…)

Like most of my friends and colleagues in the 21st century learning arena, I hold high regard for Yong Zhao.   It is an enormous asset for our movement to have his global perspective and all that he brings from his expertise in Chinese education as a comparison and a warning for developments in US education, and beyond his tremendous knowledge base, it is just wonderful how enthusiatic and passionate he is about unleashing students and celebrating their diverse and creative spirits.

I’ve written about Zhao here before, praising his previous book Catching Up or Leading the Way, and I was grateful to have him join my pages on one occasion, as he added commentary to a sharp debate I was having in several posts and comment sections with Bob Compton regarding his film, Two Million Minutes, the 21st century solution.  (Scroll down to comment number 9.)

This new book carries forward many of the themes of the previous, and indeed, in one section, about the curious pattern of US and Chinese education each seeking to emulate the other,  it feels particularly repetitive.   That said, it is an incredibly important discussion about which Zhao has deep insight, and he has brought it up to date with many new supporting details.

One of those new details regards the bizarre laws the Chinese national government is putting into place sharply limiting, to the point of fines, the number of days and hours students can be in school, in an effort to circumscribe the obsessed workaholic-ism that overcomes so many Chinese students and ultimately, the argument goes, curtails their creativity, happiness, and self-confidence.   In an effort to evade these strict prohibitions, one school, the story is told, bussed its students to a different city to live in dorms and undertake an extra two weeks of study.

What stands out in the new book are three important messages.  First, the Common Core is deeply flawed and detrimental to what ought to be our society’s primary objective for education, to develop creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens.   Second, entrepreneurship is, in of itself, the single best descriptor for that objective, and Zhao takes care to define it and imbue it with his enthusiasm.

Third, and most fully, we can describe the ideal educations for developing this most important objective, and it is a combination of the What: student autonomy and voice; the How, Product-Oriented Learning; and the Where: Globally, in every way we can.

Throughout my reading of World Class Learners, I find myself more conflicted than I expected.    From Zhao’s perspective, and it is a sound one, the US is deeply at risk of having already gone too far, and now accelerating toward, making the deep, fundamental mistake of Chinese education, centralizing it around a narrow set of high, content-oriented, academic standards which are tested in extremely high stakes assessments.   Because of that, he seeks to push back, push back hard against the entire agenda, and he is right to do so.

But at times, this reader fears he takes a bit of a step too far.  We want to free our students from such centralized high pressure testing and we do want to celebrate, honor and affirm our students extraordinary diversity of talents and ambitions, but we also want them to learn deeply, richly, masterfully, an array of essential skills and we believe they will do best in content rich subjects.   I am not suggesting Zhao, whom I’d like to count as a friend, speaks against academic excellence, but whether by design or inadvertently, his book allows too frequently the inference that he is not as concerned as I am about strong academic accomplishment. (more…)

It is easy to say that we want our schools to adopt a 21st century learning program; it is only a little bit harder to describe what that program looks like.    The real work, we all know, is in the execution.   Ken Kay and Val Greenhill, the team who led (Ken was Founding President) the Partnership for 21st century skills (P21) recognized this a couple years ago, and shifted the focus of their important work from calling for this transformation and from describing a program to, instead, supporting the leaders who are executing it in their districts and schools, in a new organization called EdLeader21.

In doing so, they are working with, supporting and learning from, an assemblage of some of the very most interesting and exciting school superintendents in the country, including Pam Moran, Jared Cotton, Jim Merrill, and, right here in Tucson, Mary Kamerzall.    With the benefit of this experience, they have now written a very valuable, very informative book, about which the only significant criticism is that it leaves the reader with an angst for more– more such information, more detail, specifics and examples: when is the sequel coming?   I’ll throw in a few notes here about the areas I most hope to hear more about.

Full disclosure time:  I enjoyed greatly my one year experience with edleader21, and have been an advocate for that organization.   I know Ken and Val personally, and am delighted to be neighbors of a sort with them here in Tucson (in fact, I am writing this in a central Tucson Starbucks, and I keep looking over my shoulder in case one or the other of them walks up behind me).   The complimentary copy of the book I am reviewing was sent to me as a kind courtesy on their part, with a warm and generous inscription.

Ken and I co-presented at NAIS in February, 2011, in a session entitled 21st century learning at NAIS Schools: Leading and Networking for Progress.  (My own remarks for that session were a slightly condensed version of a post I published also in February, 2011, 7 Steps for Leading in 21st century Learning.)

This new book expands upon a series Ken published last summer (2011) on Edutopia, a 7 part series on becoming a 21st century school district.

Ken and Val’s first step is, of course, the essential and universal first step:Adopt your vision” (just as my version of the seven steps commences with “Develop your vision (and Keep developing it.”)   The discussion here is rich and invigorating; it will energize readers.

There is no single version for 21st century student success that is the same in every school or district.   Lasting success always comes down to leaders like you.   For the vision to make an actual difference in students’ lives, it must come from and be embraced by the leaders of the school and district.  A vision that is born of genuine, authentic, passionate leadership is never simple, never cookie-cutter, and never easy.  But it is necessary.

Especially resonant for me is this quote from Virginia Beach Superintendent Jim Merrill:

I have finally found the thing in education that truly motivates me and it’s this 21st century education initiative.   This is why I am supposed to be a leader in this field.

The overview of the 8 key “perspectives” which are bringing so many to this appreciation for the importance of a shift in teaching and learning is excellent; I learned a great deal.   There is a powerful graph showing the change in workforce categories coming into our century, and good stats from a 2010 report that more than half of companies surveyed do measure the 4Cs in their performance review.

John Bransford, the renowned learning expert: is helpfully quoted:

in the US today we tell our kids the same thing 100 times and on the 101st time, we ask them if they can remember what we told them the first hundred times when in the 21st century the coin of the realm is if they can look at material they have never seen before and know what to do with it.

This first step/chapter, by itself, would be highly worthwhile reading for boards, education students, and others.   (more…)

Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, two rural Colorado public school secondary chemistry teachers, have launched something over the past five or six years that is truly significant and lasting, I believe, and this fine, short, accessible book is a great vehicle for their program.  I commend the authors, and recommend the book highly.

Bergmann and Sams utilize a fine tone in the book.  Throughout, they maintain their passion about serving students, of putting kids at the front of every decision and ensuring the technology choices follow the learning goals.    They are open-minded, experimental, and truly innovative in all the right ways.  They iterate, they experiment, they make mistakes and learn from them.     They take care to offer clarity of direction, to be nuanced and open-minded, allowing for nuance and for variety.    I appreciate their repeated expression to the effect that there is no “the flipped classroom,” only many flipped classrooms.

They also write with humility, acknowledging their limits and their errors.   I wished at times they would tell us more– not just that they realized they had made a mistake but telling us more in detail about the difficulties they encountered.     I appreciated their inclusion of the voices of other teachers and some students, but it felt a little disappointing that it was a fairly small circle of voices– the same three or four teachers, again and again.

There is a way in which this is two books in one, or two separate techniques bundled into one package.   They recognize this– I am not pointing out anything they don’t acknowledge.  But it makes the book just a tiny bit clumsy, with some redundancies in the second part as they explain their second technique.

The first technique is what Bergman and Sams call, to their amusement and mine, the “traditional flip.”  Traditional, that is, in that it maintains the same course curriculum and syllabus, with the class moving through that syllabus altogether, but with lectures captured on video and assigned for homework, and the classroom then the time and place for study problems, labs and PBL, and teacher individual support.

The second part of the book offers two chapters on the second and current iteration of Sams and Bergmann, which they advocate as the superior of the two techniques, Flip Mastery.   Here, students progress by mastery, if and when they are ready and have demonstrated that they are.   Mastery as a course program has its own pros and cons separate from flipping, but surely they are correct that if you are committed to a mastery approach, flipping offers a great deal of value.   I’m taking a bit of a pass here on evaluating the mastery element, and keeping my focus instead on the “traditional flip.”   You can’t help but wonder whether our fine authors wouldn’t have done better to save the Flip Mastery technique for a second book.

Appreciations:

1.  The “Why You Should Flip chapter” is great: compelling and exuberant: it really covers the range, and shares some great thinking about what we can accomplish with this technique.   (Also helpful are the reasons why not to flip, including  “because some guys who got a book published told you to.”)

15 (!) reasons, in total, are shared.   My favorites include:

“Flipping increases student-teacher interaction.”  

This is the promise of “blended instruction,” which is my preference also.   I don’t want to lose the power of the teacher and student, in person and inter-personally, advancing learning upon the platform of relationships and genuine connections.   Lecturing during the precious time teachers and students are together seems such a loss when the lecturing can be outsourced to digital video and the classroom can become laboratory, seminar room, studio and tutorial. (more…)

Choosing what I believe is the Book of the Year is always a fun task —what new book each year most informs, illuminates, and influences me?     2008 the nod went to Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap (Godin’s Tribes the close runner-up), 2009 Perkins’ Making Learning Whole,  and 2010 was the year of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (with Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus close behind.)  In 2011 John Seely Brown’s New Culture of Learning took my prize.  (Christensen’s Innovators DNA and McGonigal’s Reality is Broken were also contenders.)

2012 is only half over, and it isn’t impossible that my current nominee will be toppled, but I don’t think it likely.   Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is terrific: ambitious in scope but humble in tone; enthusiastic about opportunities but tempered by the recognition of the risks and downsides;  sweeping in its broad-brushed depiction of our new era of empowerment and participation while specific in its suggestions of precise techniques and initiatives we can take to best leverage our staggeringly new connectivity.

It should be said that this valuable book is a bit more work than most of the other titles mentioned above.   Johnson’s book was popular in airports, published by mainstream presses and written in a very general non-fiction manner, intended for wider audiences and reasonably easily read on a cross-country flight.   Brown’s book is breezy and accessible, with large font and charming anecdotes, easily able to be read over a 90 minute flight.   Rheingold, by contrast, is published by MIT press, with smaller font size and a greater seriousness— it isn’t an academic monograph, but will take more concentrated and extended attention than the others.

As I noted already in my previous post, Rheingold deserves great credit for his carefully nuanced balance of enthusiasm and sobriety about digital engagement and connected-ness, for which I am so appreciative.    Digital media is (or are, if you prefer) a great gift to us and to our abilities to form community, to collaborate and create, and to gather information and to contribute information, to participate and contribute to the wider world in ways we never had before.

Used mindfully, how can digital media help us grow smarter?  My years of study and experience have led me to conclude that humans are humans because we invent thinking and communicating tools that enable us to do bigger, more powerful things together. (more…)

Also see Summer Reading 2011: Recommended reading for Educators and other

Reality is Brokenby Jane McGonigal.   When we see an exodus from one nation or continent to another, sociologists, political scientists and historians seek to understand why people are leaving, and what is drawing them to that new environment.   McGonigal, in this fascinating and extremely energetic read, seeks to explain why so many hundreds of millions are moving, are undertaking an exodus of their own, from the “real-world” into the world of interactive, multi-player gaming.   This is less an advertisement for the virtues of a gaming life as it is an exploration of what motivates, what engages, what enriches, what fulfills the human psyche, and how we can learn from gaming to enrich regular, everyday life.   Clearly we must find better ways to find the sweet spot for learners and workers between what is too easy and what is too difficult; we must find better ways for learners and workers to track their progress and develop a sense of genuine accomplishment– and this book helps us understand why we should and how we can do so.  “Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves… Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.”

Now You See Itby Cathy Davidson.  I’ve been critical of this book-- I think that in her passion to evangelize a life of connectivity, interactivity, multi-media and multi-tasking, author Davidson is too quick to dismiss the value of focused concentration.   Surely there is a place for all these things, each in their rightful time.   But this is among the very best of recent writing which seeks to help us understand the virtues of learning in a multi-media environment and the value of synergizing from wide, divergent, streams of information.   Her discussions of specific learning environments which maximize such resources are both informative and inspiring.  “Are we teaching them in a way that will prepare them for a world of learning and for human relationships in which they interweave their interests into the vast, decentralized, yet entirely interconnected content online?   The answer more often that not is no.  I believe that many kids today are doing a better job preparing themselves for their futures than we have done providing them with the institutions to help them.” 

Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools by Milton Chen.   At times, this book underwhelms:  its narrative style is a bit flat and it functions as something of a primer for those not already immersed in the field.  It is a useful overview of the educational crossroads we are at, and it is a wonderfully optimistic view of the opportunities presenting themselves for reinventing education to better serve students and communities.  “Until every student has a his or her own computer, the benefits of using them on a regular, ongoing basis are undercut…. Providing 1:1 access in classrooms doesn’t address the larger issue of 24/7 use.  Students as “knowledge workers” need to work and learn around the clock.”

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.   Failure is a bit of a buzz-concept in our present moment– I heard about it this very morning on NPR in a piece about Silicon Valley– but that is ok: it is a great thing to celebrate.   This book goes far beyond the buzz– it delves into many an example from scientific research and corporate success (and failure), and demonstrates that far, far too often, success is sharply limited by our bias for risk-avoidance. In leadership, “it is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it.”  Another lesson: “variation– taking a pluralistic approach to encouraging new innovations– is essential to the innovative enterprise.”

Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin.  Godin never disappoints. We all wonder how he manages to be so prolific, iconoclastic, original and inspirational, but once again he delivers a compelling, passionate, inspiring call to arms: we must make schools relevant, compelling, and connected to engage and prepare our students.   “Amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no  longer rewarded most for work as compliant cogs.  Instead, our chaotic world is  open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths. That’s the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but  to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.”

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.  Although this book is a bit slight– it is as if four or five New Yorker articles were stitched together, and it betrays its roots in journalism–  this is a swift and enjoyable read through current thinking, research, and practice in the field of creativity.  “Group creativity is becoming more necessary because we live in a world of very hard problems: all the low hanging fruit is already gone. Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together.”

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner & Bringing Innovation to School by Suzie Boss.

As my regular readers know, this topic is my professional obsession, and this spring we have two brand new titles (the Boss book is due out next month) by, I am pleased to report, two friends of mine.  Together, they break ground in being among the first books available to study closely and offer counsel on how we must and how we can design and execute learning environments which will inspire, inform, and shape future innovators, those of our students who will emerge from our schools independent and inquisitive thinkers and creative and masterful problem-solvers.   We all are dependent upon these future innovators, and let’s hope that there are many of them; in the meantime, those of us who educate and who parent have our work cut out for us in creating them and bringing innovation to our schools.  Read these books in tandem: the first, Wagner’s, is a bit broader in scope and somewhat tilted toward university settings; the second more practical and entirely situated in K-12 teaching and learning.  (My lengthy review of the Wagner is here.)

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: How can you not read the biography of the year about one of the most fascinating figures of our lifetime, a mercurial figure who accomplished greatness of design, commerce, and ingenuity with an ego and a self-obsession both infuriating and appalling.   This could be a great American novel, a Great Gatsby of our times, the story of rise and fall and redemption of dizzying heights and depths.  Jobs, this book makes clear,  is both a terrible person and a phenomenal inspiration, and I couldn’t put it down.   A terrific, rich, summer read.  “He didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future… Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details.  Jobs did both, relentlessly.”   My full post on the book is here. 

Truth Beauty Goodness Reframed by Howard Gardner.  This isn’t a beach read– and it can’t be described as un-put-downable.  But I have to hand it to Gardner, who demonstrates an ambitious aspiration to be a philosopher in our time, to rise to these heights and speak to Plato and Aristotle, and update ancient wisdom to our digital and relativist age.  Can this great trinity of virtues be relevant to us today?  Yes– and they need to be.   We need to determine how to preserve and perpetuate an appreciation for, even a devotion to, Truth, Beauty, and most of all, Goodness, and though it is a bit of a slog a times, and though I disagree with quite a few of the specific fears Gardner has of both digital communities and relativist worldviews,  this book is very genuinely a valuable guide to our thinking and our judgments. “An entire curriculum [can be constructed] around [just] three topics: Darwinian evolution, the music of Mozart, and the Holocaust of World War II. These topics were not chosen casually. Rather, evolution was selected explicitly as an example of scientific truth; Mozart, as an example of artistic beauty; the Holocaust, as a historical instance of human evil (the sharpest contrast to good).”

The Innovator’s DNA by Clayton Christensen.   This is a great tour of two things: what are innovators made of, and what are the qualities of innovative leadership– or more to the point, effective leadership of innovative organizations.   Entirely read-able, not more than a couple of hours in total, one walks away with both great encouragement and greater confidence that it doesn’t take a Steve Jobs to become an innovator or lead innovation.  Christensen is a tremendous resource– a never-slowing fountain of information– for understanding and advancing innovation throughout our society. “In the most innovative companies, senior executives didn’t just delegate innovation; their own hands were deep in the innovation process… Their focus was innovation, so they actively engaged in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, which had a powerful imprinting effect on their organization and team…If top executives want innovation, they need to stop pointing fingers at someone else and take a hard look at themselves.”  My full post on the book is here. 

Academically Adrift  by Arum and Roksa.   This isn’t an entirely smooth read: it is written as an academic monograph and won’t be your most pleasurable summer read.   But it is an important work on an incredibly important topic: are students learning what they most need to learn; how can we tell; and what can we do about the fact that too many of them are not?   Even though it is addressed to college educators, its content is entirely applicable to secondary educators.   “Studying and doing homework has stronger and more widespread positive effects than any other measure.”

What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media by Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann.  An all-star group of writers from the educational blogosphere I inhabit offer a wide array of suggestions and introductions to various Web 2.0 tools and social media practices.   Most who pick up this book will find some sections more useful than others– but that is in the nature of a compendium like this.   As anyone visiting this site is likely to recognize already, the educational landscape is being reshaped, dramatically, by these technologies, and this volume is a valuable  tour guide to the frontier. I especially appreciated Chris Lehmann’s perspective, and his humility, about the topic of 1:1 laptop computing. “The most challenging part about 1:1 computing is that, despite twenty years of 1:1 schools all over the world, we are just at the very early days of this movement.  Whatever solutions your school comes to today will evolve as technology continues to evolve.  We are learning more every day about what it means to be in a networked world, and how we create schools that reflect our changing world is an ever-evolving process.   The only thing you can be certain of is more change.”

FICTION

11/22/63 by Stephen King.  Time travel and presidential assassination figure into this good-old-fashioned fat novel by the master of suspense, but don’t be deceived: this is neither a Sci-Fi nor a political novel, but an un-put-downable romantic love story,  the story of a man out of place who finds and creates a better life for himself.  A great summer read which will happily last you a week of page-turning delight. “If there is love, smallpox scars are as pretty as dimples. I’ll love your face no matter what is looks like. Because it’s yours.”

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.  I never miss a Perrotta; this one is unusual for him in that it involves a supernatural event, but that event takes place prior to the story itself– it is really outside the narrative– and the book is set where all his books are: in our all-too-realistic world, or at least my world: suburban middle class America in the early 21st century, where we are all seeking meaning and significance in a non-heroic age.   Determining what we live for haunts all Perotta’s characters, each of whom, ultimately, as in every existentialist fiction, has to find his or her own answer. “There’s not some finite amount of pain inside us. Our bodies and minds just keep manufacturing more of it. (67)”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Read it in a sitting– probably won’t take you much more than an hour– and ponder its curious, elusive conclusion.   What don’t we know, what don’t we understand, about our own lives?  Are we all living a lie– or a least a big muddled misunderstanding, all the time?  Realizing we are living in ambiguity is another existential truth that fiction like Barnes’ reveals.  “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan.   Full disclosure: this is a novel about a 20th anniversary reunion of a group of college friends at their alma mater by a college friend of mine at that same university: of course I enjoyed it immensely.  But, I recommend it not just for the nostalgia of college days but for two other fascinating aspects.  First, it uncovers brilliantly the way we all put on masks for public consumption, and the difficult and sometimes destructive duality of our public and privata personae, a topic especially significant in our current social media era.  Second, the story of parenting tweens and teens today is hilariously, compassionately, and empathetically conveyed here– and it is something  all of us inside and outside of education it can stand to be more appreciative of and sensitive to.

The Darlings by Cristina Alger, The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, and Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian.  Call me voyeuristic, but I can’t get enough of literature of the crash of ’08; I am a rubber-necker to this crash as much as any highway driver is to an automobile smash-up.  Last summer I recommended Union Atlantic and The Cookbook Collector (which is actually about the dot-bomb crash of 2000, but reads as another take on economic meltdowns in our era).   The Darlings is a Madoff story: what happens when the house of cards, enormous wealth built on a charade, crashes upon people who have become all-too-comfortable: how will they react and what will happen to their integrity?  Integrity is also at stake in The Privileges, where yet another Upper East Side family seeks to stay the same as they become first insanely wealthy and then have to envision losing it all.   In Three Stages the scene shift to San Francisco immediately after the crash, but once again, integrity is shaken as affluence is sought and protected, and characters reconcile themselves to our intensely challenging societal come-uppance.  All three are easy-reading, swiftly told tales of hubris, featuring characters lovable and despicable, and all three ultimately are reduced to the characters’  challenging struggle to sustain what matters most in the end: family and love.

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont.  This I can only barely recommended.  I love novels set in school, especially private schools, and I love stories of sailing– indeed, I should be a perfect match for this story, because like this character, I too was on an affluent prep school sailing team as a 14 year old.   But this is a tale of of adolescent ennui, aimlessness, and depression, and, sadly, it is humorless and unredemptive:  these spoiled young people do nothing to draw us in– and they change hardly at all.   Worst of all are the private school administrators in this story, who are burned out, bored, and concerned only with their own status and the status, and financial prospects, of their school– so disheartening to read about my own profession.   But this debut novel does remind us about the intensity of adolescent melodrama and what is swirling beneath the surface of our students each and every day.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  I loved this novel, and think that the Pulitzer committee robbed Harback by not awarding it the prize, it being an outstanding short-list candidate.   It is a such a meaty, great-American-novel of the heartland: of baseball, the American tradition; of university life; of literature and its legacy; of love and loss and mid-life crisis.   We savor the games on the diamond– and marvel at the fielding skills so artfully depicted.  We are challenged by the college President: he is a protagonist who draws us into his journey from loneliness to love even as he does wrong and makes serious mistakes: how do we reconcile responsibility and romance?    And we are challenged by the psychology of perfection: what it is to not make a mistake, and to then, not not make mistakes?   It is tough stuff, maintaining our judgment, our confidence, our moral responsibility and our quest for fulfillment as life comes at us, day by day by day.   A must-read, I think, with a great deal to discuss and debate.  “The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.   This isn’t as good as Patchett’s masterpiece,  Bel Canto, and I  have to warn that I completely dropped it at one point: there is a seemingly endless pit stop at a port city in Brazil where nothing happens for  nearly 100 pages.  But arriving up-river, in this revisiting of Heart of Darkness in the 21st century where scientists and doctors wrestle with the inherent conflicts of discovery and exploitation, the narrative speeds up and I was hooked.    Motherhood is at stake here as biology and philosophy, and Patchett explores the interior realm of being female, the physical and the metaphysical both,  and the choice of bearing, or not bearing, children,  with sympathy and with suspense.

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason.   This is something of a guilty pleasure: an R-rated raunchy romp in an era and setting deliciously similar to that great indulgent treat of last winter, Downton Abbey.   I can’t wait for its seemingly promised sequel, and can’t help but wonder if it will make it to the screen.   Horatio Alger would roll over in his grave if he were to know how this pleasure-seeker finds his way to impress and delight his employers and manage his way toward success and fulfillment.   Read it at the beach, because your blushing can be mistaken for the beginning of a sunburn.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Like the Red Book, this novel takes me back to college in the mid ’80’s, in more ways than one.  Like these characters, I was fascinated by my sophomore year discovery of post-structuralism and deconstruction, and wondered how to incorporate into my philosophy not just of literature and history, but of society and of life.  I also, in college, watched up close and personally, the staggering cyclical wave of the intense bipolarity of a roommate.   Perhaps the narrative means to intertwine post-structuralism and bi-polarism– how does each comment on the other, or am I making the mistake of making metaphor of illness?  The bipolarism I saw, and which is evident in this protagonist’s charismatic boyfriend, is more than metaphor.   This book too is ultimately a romance: how do we know in our twenties how to love, and how we learn how to love when we there is so much still to learn about life?    “But, like anyone in love, Madeleine believed that her own relationship was different from every other relationship, immune from typical problems.” Eugenides is a great American novelist, one among a small set of our contemporaries likely to read in the next century, but this isn’t his magnum opus.  I’m partial to his stunning debut, now nearly two decades ago, The Virgin Suicides, which, if you haven’t read yet, deserves to be on your list this summer or any summer.

The Submission by Amy Waldman.  This wasn’t on the short-list, in contrast to Art of Fielding, but this is what really should have won the 2011 Pulitzer.  Imagine a Muslim architect winning the architectural competition for the 9/11 memorial, and imagine the passions that would be unleashed.  This is a rich, complicated, surprising novel, with commentary upon art and architecture, pride and prejudice, media and mobs, politics and personality, and ultimately, about resignation and reconciliation.   We all have so much to learn about what it means to submit– and we can learn from much Mo Khan and Amy Waldman. “There were in life rarely, if ever, “right” decisions, never perfect ones, only the best to be made under the circumstances.”

Also see Summer Reading 2011: Recommended reading for Educators and others

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