Once again, I’m delighted to share here my summer reading recommendations for educators. As with previous years, I present these as a top ten list: these are my favorite ten educational titles I’ve read in the past school-year, 2015-16.
As you scroll down, you’ll also find below the top ten additional suggestions for the best free educational reports and e-books of the past year or so, and a smaller set of reading for pleasure suggestions.
For the past years’ recommendations/top ten lists, you can click the following for
Note: Asterisks attached to book titles indicates the book would be a worthy selection for a faculty summer reading list; asterisks by author names indicate (for full disclosure) that the author is someone I count as a friend—(though whether or not he or she views me the same way I cannot say).
Top Ten List
1/ Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why*. (2016) (21k12 2016 Book of the Year)
Paul Tough, a journalist affiliated with NYTimes Magazine, has very recently published a new companion volume to his bestselling and much celebrated 2012 title, How Children Succeed. In that book, he vividly demonstrated through observation, anecdote, and research-review the importance to school success of noncognitive skills such as grit and curiosity. This new title has been prepared to help provide a better answer to what he’s been asked in every public presentation about his former book: How do we teach children to develop these critically important qualities and attributes?
It’s not altogether easy to explain why I think this book is so very valuable, and worthy of my annual book of the year nod. It’s not long, just over 100 pages, and it’s not particularly original: it’s largely a rehashing of other people’s research and findings. And I should add, as someone who pays close attention to this topic, I don’t think every assertion made here is entirely accurate; I disagree, partially, with some of his conclusions, including one of his most central claims, that noncognitive skills cannot be taught directly.
But concision has its value: Tough’s beautifully written work carefully reviews the field and then surfaces just a very select, curated we might say, set of activities and initiatives we can do, both our society on the whole and our educational community in particular, to bolster students noncognitive skills in ways which will make a world of difference. Each of the critical findings or reforms is illustrated or exemplified with succinct descriptions of important actors in this arena, including some of my own favorite (and most admired) educators such as Camille Farrington, Bob Lenz, and Ron Berger.
Tough concludes with a message all educators would benefit from careful reflection: “Helping children in adversity to transcend their difficulties is hard and often painful work. It can be depressing, discouraging, even infuriating. But what the research shows is that it can also make a tremendous difference, not only in the lives of individual children and their families, but in our communities and nations as a whole. It is work we can all do, whether or not it is the profession we have chosen. The first step is to simply embrace the idea, as those researchers did, that we can do better.”
2/ Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. (2015) Robert Putnam. This book, of national and political import far beyond education, pairs well with Paul Tough’s new book. Both books unpack how deeply affected children are by the swiftly growing economic gulf of our society, showing the lasting, enormously detrimental effects of growing up in the instability and neglect poverty sometimes (not always) produces in the lives of children. They also both work to identify and suggest how we might change policy and practice to close the gap and greatly enhance the lives of children. And, both highlight the importance of developing children’s noncognitive skills to enhance their success. Putnam, unlike Tough, views the situation through lens both sociological and historical, and conveys how radically changed economic and social dynamics have become such that children of poverty are far more deeply disadvantaged than they were half a century ago.
One lasting message from Putnam is the power of extracurricular activities in supporting student social and emotional growth, and how devastating it has been to see public ed cut funding and demand fees for these programs. “When fees were introduced, one in every three sports-playing kids from homes with annual incomes of $60,000 or less dropped out because of the increased cost, as compared to one in ten kids from families with incomes over $60,000. Within a few decades America’s public schools have thrust the burden of extracurricular activity, and the resulting soft skills benefits, onto the family, reversing nearly a century of settled educational policy, with predicable results in terms of equality of access.” As someone who spends a lot of time in and around private and independent schools, schools which often ask how they might better serve all, not just a select set, of children in their community, I wonder whether by using their campus resources and coaching they might be able to step in to reduce this extracurricular opportunity gap in public education.
Putnam’s book is haunting, one which should be read by every educator and policymaker. After all, “for America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.”
3/ Engage, Empower, Energize: Leading Tomorrow’s Schools Today. (2014). Robert Dillon*. This book, one of two “book of the year” runners-up on this list, does two things very well. First, it carefully introduces and explains a dozen-odd set of key “moves” that a 21st century school leader should consider introducing to usher her or his school forward, and the selected moves here are just right— just what I too believe our students will most benefit from. They include project-based learning, citizen science, technology as tools, outdoor expeditions, systems thinking, and more.
The second thing this book does right is that before each expository chapter comes a paired fictionalized narrative chapter, allowing readers to envision what the day to day work of implementing these changes would actually look—and feel—like. For example, before explaining “learning beyond the classroom,” Dillon brings to us the experience of Principal Brad assisting his students to participate in a regional architecture competition: “Many of the students struggled throughout the project, but they all acknowledged that complex, authentic, messy work creates deep learning. Brad and the teachers had now built a model of structures, routines and procedures that other teachers and students could replicate in the future.”
4/ Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need*. (2015). Chris Lehmann* and Zac Chase. This is the other Book of the Year Runner-up on my list, and it is a close contender for the title; even writing these words makes me wonder if deserves to replace the Paul Tough title atop this post. In the spirit of the original “protestant,” Lehmann and Chase present their own 95 theses: 95 bite-size chapters of no more than 4 pages each, challenging the status quo of American educational practice and proposing alternatives. As a sample, consider such provocations as “What We Want for our Students, We Must Want for our Teachers,” “Understand what PBL really means,” “Be in the Room,” “No child should be on Silent,” and “Be Silly.”
This book is a terrific conversation starter, and could function well as a faculty summer read, because what you most want summer reading for teachers as a group to accomplish is not so much to deliver content as to stimulate reflection and conversation—which this does brilliantly. I used the book as an Edcamp session prompter, putting a bunch of quotes from it up on a wall, having attendees circulate and use stickies to select the most provocative, and then sitting to discuss those with the most votes. One example comes within a discussion of that term we hear far too often: “Classroom management.” Lehmann and Chase weigh in: “Control is a tempting mistress. In the absence of wisdom or the ability or will to structure motivating learning experiences for students, it is frequently the goal of many classroom teachers of all stripes. To build the schools we need, though, we must be authorities within a democracy.”
5/ The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness*. Todd Rose. Jaggedness, how traits and situations interact generate behavior, , not one or the other, so to be wary of overstating anything too emphatic about a person’s individual attributes as explanatory, and that there are no normal pathways—“there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome, and the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.”
For educators, there are many messages of great significance in Rose, among them to “replace grades with a measure of competency.” These new kinds of grades will, he urges, be pass-incomplete; institution agnostic; and professionally aligned with what the knowledge and skills will be used for in the students’ future.
As he concludes, “we no longer need to be limited by the constraints imposed on us by the Age of Average. We can break free of the tyranny of averagerianism by choosing to value individuality over conformity. We have a bright future before us, and it begins where the average ends.” (more on this book is available here)
6/ Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids*. Denise Pope and others. Huge fan here of Denise Pope: one of her previous books, Doing School, based on shadowing students in Palo Alto, has been a great influence on me, and I greatly appreciate her leadership in Challenge Success, the organization for which this new book is a bit of a bible and resource guide.
To retool school, Pope recommends actions she captures in the acronym SPACE: Students schedule and use of time, Projects and Problem Based Learning, Alternative and Authentic Assessment, Climate of Care, and Education.
At times, her treatment of some of these rich and deep issues feels a bit cursory, but that’s to be expected in an overview like this. The assessment chapter is great, and provides many rich examples of how we might rethink this important work, such as the innovation of a good friend of mine, Karen Strobel, Ph.D., at Castilleja School (CA). I also appreciate the attention given to standards-based grading and ending the use of zeros in calculating grade averages.
7/ Using Evidence of Student Learning To Improve Higher Education* (2015) Kuh and others. Admittedly this is a pretty wonky title, and perhaps some readers here will likely respond with little interest. But though written for higher education, this work is still entirely valuable to K-12 educators working to improve practice in what the title describes: using evidence for continuous improvement.
As the authors write, “Rather than taking account of genuine academic concerns and deploying assessment to inform change in pedagogy, [often] the activity is preoccupied with “doing” assessment rather than using assessment results. The specific need for evidence of student learning—the central question or questions—and the particular uses the results will inform—these basics must be defined up front, at the beginning of the assessment process, not after the fact.”
8/ Make Learning Personal*. (2015) Bray and McClaskey. Hat tip to Corinne Dedini at Online School for Girls for pointing me to this book; she and OSG are helping lead the way in rethinking how to better meaningfully personalize learning. For a bit more on this topic, see a recent post of mine here.
In the vision of these educators Bray and McClaskey, making learning personal is not at all about kids staring at screens working their way through an individualized glorified workbook. It’s about how to use UDL principles and a major shift in the role of the teacher toward “putting the learning back in the learners’ hands.” The authors comprehensively capture and distill many of the important previous treatments of this topic, so the book is a bit encyclopedic in its range and resources. I particularly value the section entitled “Wow: teacher and learner roles are changing,” in which three phases of personalization are described, with valuable attention to assessment (in stage three: “Learners design assessment strategies and showcase evidence of learning through exhibitions that involve their parents, peers, teachers and communities), and mastery (stage three: “grades or tests are not learners’ focus. Learners progress when they master a concept and reflect on their learning as they learn.”)
9/ Off the Clock: Moving Education from Time to Competency. Bramante and Colby. (2012) This is a 2012 publication, so not so current—and it’s a bit clunky in narrative, with awkward transitions between the two authors, distracting personal recollections of New Hampshire state politics from a decade ago, and infelicitous compositions. To offset all that—and still make this 2016 list—it would have to have strong content— and it does.
Creating a competency-based credit and grading system is an enormous task, and perhaps it takes an amateur from outside the profession to believe it is even possible. Bramante was that outsider, Colby his ed-pro collaborator, and between the two of them they’ve done fascinating work in NH. Something as fundamental as determining the meaning of mastery requires enormous attention: “So what is mastery? Does mastery in engineering mean rocket science level? Does mastery in music mean a virtuoso? Does master in French mean the skills of an interpreter? No. The world mastery must be accompanied by “of required competencies.” Mastery is an advanced level of proficiency in a learner’s ability to apply skills and knowledge.”
Consider skipping or skimming the first few chapters, but spend time carefully considering the implications of chapters on “Time vs. Mastery,” “Competency-Based Learning,” “Teacher vs. Educator,” and “Selling the concept: creating Public Demand.”
10/ Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. (2016) Angela Duckworth. I’ve written very positively about Professor Duckworth’s keynotes in the past, and certainly her subject is a very important one, worthy of the attention she has brought to it. This book is a valuable introduction to the topic of a character quality, or set of qualities, that most educators will immediately recognize is indeed of great import to student success. Importantly, she is herself quick to acknowledge that grit is just one among a set of near-equal noncognitive skills: “In the end, the plurality of character operates against any one virtue being uniquely important.”
Helpfully, she establishes emphatically that “grit” is entirely malleable, and offers some moderately useful guidance educators everywhere can use to better cultivate this kind of character in students. At times, it feels as if her intent to make this information available to a very wide audience has resulted in a too-far “dumbing down” effect, with exaggeratedly simplified language and personal anecdotes that feel forced, trying to heard to please readers by making the author relatable. But all that being said, it’s worth a read—and can be a resource when working to strengthen students’ perseverance and passion. (I’ve written about Grit in much greater length here.)
There are always a few titles that, though not quite making the top ten, deserve shout-outs from my year’s reading. Here are four.
The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity (2015). George Couros. George, who co-founded with Patrick Larkin in 2011 the Connected Principals blog to which I used to post frequently, has done a great job in this book of sharing his enthusiasm for 21st century learning and putting forward smart, concrete strategies school-leaders can use for strengthening student learning. It’s great to see that George’s warm and animated personality, and deep caring and compassion for students and teachers alike, comes through in the book just as well as it does in his tweeting and blogging.
Shame of Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. (2006). Jonathan Kozol. Like many educators in every sector, I hold Kozol high as the conscience of our profession, always calling us to try to move our work evermore toward better educating all America’s and the world’s, children, not just a subset. His 1990s title Savage Inequalities has long haunted me, and after having an amazing opportunity to dine side by side with Kozol in March, I’ve been working through other titles in his amazing body of work.
Assessment That Works: A National Call, A Twenty-First-Century Response. (2015). Peggy Maki. As much as it may surprise, there’s fascinating work around authentic assessment happening in higher ed, and there’s much to learn from their innovation and the discipline which those educators are seeking to improve practice. This short book, almost more of a report, reviews the way the excellent VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics are being implemented in a myriad of ways across many types of postsecondary institutions.
Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. (2015). Starr Sackstein. So many teachers seek to step away from the letter grade prison, either to escape it altogether or at least diminish its detrimental effects. In this easy-to-read short book, practicing teacher Sackstein offers thoughtful “hacks” every educator can use to improve feedback, use portfolios, support students in self-grading, and more. Good stuff.
Books are great, but educational readers know that sometimes reports and white papers offer some of the most accessible, succinct, and actionable information available, and most of the time they are freely available online. Here’s a short set of some of the best from the past year or two.
- The Politics of Collaborative Expertise. (2015). John Hattie is the author of Visible Learning and is quite the guru of evidence-based practice; here he instructs readers that within-school variability in student learning is larger than we might think—and that the best way to narrow this gap and improve all student learning is for teachers within a school to better learn together and improve together.
- The Science of Learning. (2015) Deans for Impact. Written for higher ed, this short and superb free report is of great value for K-12 educators, and particularly perhaps secondary teachers who might think that because they are subject specialists, quasi-professorial, they need no instruction in the science of learning. How students best learn is a topic everyone opines on all the time, so what’s so great here is the effort to concisely cut through opinion and bring instead the latest in evidence-based understanding to questions like How do students understand new ideas?; How do students learn and retain new information?; How do students solve problems?; and how How does learning transfer to new situations? This report could stimulate several months worth of faculty meetings and teacher action research.
- Equal Opportunity for Deeper Learning. (2015) Noguera and Darling-Hammond. Paul Tough calls for deeper learning for helping students succeed, and in this report, Noguera and Darling-Hammond explain how this can happen in every school system. As they say, we have to work harder to develop and implement the “policy, practice, and research to support the development of pedagogy for deeper learning in schools serving students who have been placed at risk of school failure.”
- Future Ready Learning: the National Education Technology Plan 2016. Such a rich resource, this 100 page report reviews important developments and forecasts what’s emerging in educational technology globally. The sections on teaching with tech, and the fast-changing arena of technology accelerated assessment of learning, are particularly good. For more on my thoughts about this report, click here.
- Multimetric Accountability. (2016) David Griffith, ASCD. Addressing a passion of mine, this highly accessible overview points the way to how we can reinvent accountability of schools and educators by collecting data about a far wider array of what we know matters in school. Through a series of case studies, we can see how authentic assessment and the use of data about student SEL growth can be used to improve schools meaningfully.
- Social and Emotional Learning: Opportunities for Massachusetts, Lessons for the Nation. 2015. Rennie Center. District leaders, inspired by Duckworth, Tough, and others, are seeking more and better ways to strengthen SEL education in their schools, and this useful report offers great suggestions. For more of my thoughts on on this report and the one above, click here.
- Inside Mastery Based High Schools. Springpoint. Few topics boil my blood about contemporary educational practice than the inane and often thoughtless way we perpetuate the grading and crediting systems of yesteryear. This report showcases a wide array of schools and districts which are leading the way to what I believe will become the way we all grade and credit twenty years from now.
- Redesign U Mastery Learning. Inspirational examples, as provided immediately above, are one thing schools need to make the move to mastery learning, but we also need road maps, design guides, and resource banks for our work. This website helpfully provides all the above.
Reports and ebooks I authored or contributed to.
In the past twelve months, four page e-books and special reports which I wrote or contributed to have been published. Click on the links below on any titles which might interest you.
Reading for Fun
Reading professionally is important, but summer reading should always include a bunch of pleasure too. Here’s a quick list of recent titles recommended for the beach or the couch!
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Pride and Prejudice is my very favorite novel, and Sittenfeld is a favorite among contemporary writers: her Prep is a terrific school novel. So I was anticipating liking this book, her project to set P&P in our own time, only to become a bit unsure over the course of the first 100 pages or so: it seemed almost as if it were trying too hard, the story clumsy and the jokes tired. But I don’t know what happened: a quarter of the way through it changed into something entirely engrossing, and I was utterly hooked, racing ahead to see what would happen next between magazine editor “Liz” and neurologist Darcy, (even though I sort-of knew already, of course). Highly recommended, enormously pleasurable.
Aurora. Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps someday we will be technologically sophisticated enough to colonize earth-like planets in other solar systems– but don’t be on it. The complexities are enormous, and not just scientifically but psychologically and politically as well. This novel imagines such an expedition, and it’s utterly fascinating to watch how generations come to grips with their missions, embroiled in turbulence and mayhem on their giant ships, and struggle with whether they might better return to what is and always will be, really, our best and only home.
The Invention of Nature. Andrea Wulf. This is a delicious biography of an staggeringly accomplished 18th and 19th century scientist, adventurer, and writer, Alexander von Humboldt. His activities make for exciting reading, but his legacy deserves careful consideration: more perhaps than other figure he led science to the recognition of the web of life, the interdependence of nature which requires us to care for our planet in its every facet.
The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Something in me just adores a juicy NYC novel, and this fits the bill, allowing readers to peer deeply into the lives of writers, artists, parents, teenagers, editors, agents, lawyers, and others all trying to figure out how to make it work in 2016 New York City.
Enjoy your summer! May it be full of activities for both growth and recreation.