As I do every June on the blog here, it is my pleasure to offer a suggested summer reading list for educators. This annual list also doubles as my top ten list of best book titles from the previous (school) year, in this case, 2014-15.
(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for
It’s never easy making this list, reducing a year’s worth of reading to only ten titles. I’ve added a few honorable mentions to round things out. Nor is it easy, as I do ever year, to name a book of the year, the singular standout, and this year saw a very tight competition between the number one and number two titles.
Unlike in some previous lists, this year’s top ten exclusively come from books published in the last sixteen months or so, all of them 2014 or 2015 titles. As I did last year, I’ve also added toward the bottom some recommended free reports which can be found online in pdf, and some recommended fiction reading.
I should make note that I can’t claim this list to be entirely free from bias. As I’ve become a bit of a writer myself in the past seven years, I’ve come to know many others writers in education—and it’s become impossible to stand entirely apart from those relationships as I prepare my recommendations. Counting the honorable mention titles, five books here are authored by people I know well and/or have worked with in various capacities, and one other, the top title, is by someone I’ve met a few times. Full disclosure.
Note: After the first two titles, the remaining are listed in no particular order.
#1 (Book of the Year): Transforming Schools: Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessments, and Common Core Standards, by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston.
Bob Lenz has long been a leader in both thought and action for Project-Based learning and for transformative educational program design in the Bay Area, and it’s terrific to get this book from him now, which should expand his voice nationally and internationally. His network of Envision schools in San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, at one of which I visited and shadowed a student at in 2008, are places which live up to the two-fold promise of the book’s title: they transform the lives of students, and in their example, show the way on how to transform schools.
The book speaks effectively to both classroom teachers and school/district leaders, more so than many other books of this type. The chapter on PBL, the book’s longest, stands out as one of the best succinct explanations of best practice. Particularly for teachers in more traditional schools, the section which promises that yes indeed, “PBL can start in your classroom” offers plenty of actionable, bite-size practical steps. The chapter also effectively empowers educators to respond to PBL skeptics, and addresses the coverage, rigor, and demographic fallacies—all of which I encounter frequently in my own work.
One of the most frequent debates I’ve had in the past half-decade about PBL is whether it can be effectively implemented incrementally. Some representatives of deeper learning argue, in my experience, vigorously that it can’t—it is an all or nothing proposition. Lenz, however, will have none of that—he sees it as the work of our entire century, not something that should or can be done overnight. And he offers useful advice on how to take first steps for principals and district leaders: ensuring “at least one deep learning experience per year; developing a graduate profile for your school; spearheading one structural change.”
Helpfully, because let’s not ever underestimate how hard it is to execute on the promise of deeper learning, Lenz ends his inspirational call for school transformation with a note of humility and frank acknowledgement of the challenge. “Don’t mistake our passion for overconfidence. Our failures have been many. Our vision is still evolving. Our schools are works in progress. The successes we’ve had can be frustratingly impermanent. The quality of our PBL ebbs and flows. School culture can feel healthy, and then you turn to the next thing and it falters. The work is hard, and it’s never done.”
#2: (Runner Up, Book of the Year). Learning To Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk with Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Pal LeMahieu.
It was tough deciding whether it should replace the Lenz as number one, but that the Lenz speaks a bit more widely to educators of all stripes helped it to its first position. But for school leaders (at all levels), strategic planners, and consultants who work on helping schools get better, this may become a bible of sorts for a long time to come.
Bryk, who is President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, launches the inquiry by pointing out that despite tremendous initiative, our schools aren’t actually doing a good job of improvement. But instead of jumping to the offering of solutions—so tempting!— by suggesting that what we really need is more (or less testing), or more, or less, pedagogical innovation, he turns his attention instead to the growing (but to me, previously largely unfamiliar) field of improvement science. What we need as educational transformers to become better at is not what is needed for improvement, but how improvement actually can be brought to life.