Tuesday, January 1, 2013

12 in '12

I will admit to being a less-than-avid reader (most of my bed-time reading is limited to short articles found in Sports Illustrated, Educational Leadership or in the Twitterverse or Blogosphere).  But with 2012 now in the rear view mirror, I would be remiss if I did not make notes for myself about some of the books I have read, so I am able to refer back to them if needed.  While these books do not represent all that I have read over the past year, they do make up the dozen most memorable for me (for both good and bad reasons).
Dr. Mel Levine is a widely respected author and his 2003 book, The Myth of Laziness, is one that resonated with me, largely because, like him, I feel that all people are born with a desire to be productive and successful.  Like many in education, I have used and heard descriptions of students as being "lazy" when they are not doing as well as we might expect.  Levine does a nice job of profiling case-study examples, and providing possible explanations for the substandard performance (output disorders, memory weaknesses, language production anxieties etc.).  He attempts to provide some strategies for supporting these struggling learners, and while the suggestions leave something to be desired (they appear a bit thin), acknowledging that the struggles are less a result of laziness than some other explanation is the important message for me.  To quote Dr. Levine, "When we call someone 'lazy', we condemn them as a human being".  This book does a decent job of explaining other factors contributing to underperfomance. 
This book, written almost 20 years ago (in 1995), was long overdue in my reading, but it felt as though the issues Ken Dryden referenced in In School, are the same as those we are concerned with today.  Extremely well-written and readable, the book serves as a documentary of a year in a suburban high school in Mississauga, Ontario.  Dryden tells the tales of high school life from the perspectives of both teacher and student, outlining the harsh realities faced in some difficult home lives as well as the chronic underfunding plaguing education (for more than two decades).  He does a good job of highlighting the successes of the students and the system, while recognizing that things need to be improved for greater success in the future.  Admittedly, he does not have the answers for how to improve the system, but does complete a nice narrative that engages readers and gets people talking and thinking. 
The wildly popular Ted Talk video led Simon Sinek to writing a book that has been largely celebrated in educational circles.  I found Start With Why to be a decent read that reminds us to change our "bottom line" from one of financial to one of purpose.  Profiling several of the more "successful" companies of recent times (Apple, Harley Davidson and Southwest Airlines), Sinek states, far too  repetitively for my liking, that these companies (and other successful people like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright brothers), all did what they did because of a WHY, not because they saw an opportunity to make money.  I enjoyed the book, and found some ideas very transferable to education, but found it far too repetitive and felt the Ted Talk video was a much more concise version of the same ideas.  The quote most frequently used by Sinek, "People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it", is an important reminder for those of us in education, just as it is for the business world.

Todd Whitaker is another extremely popular author in education circles, and while What Great Teachers Do Differently is not his first book, it is the first of his works that I have read.  A decent read that emphasizes many of the good things decent educators are already doing, I found it very reaffirming.  Whitaker writes of the need to put relationships first, care about people, be respectful, be positive and remember that we are teaching students, not subjects.  These are all great reminders, but certainly nothing we have not heard before.  One of the drawbacks of the book was that it does not offer suggestions for how to improve as we move into a new generation of teaching and learning (the 21st Century buzzword that has so many people confused or concerned).  While reaffirming and an important reminder of the things that matter, I found the book to be somewhat hollow if one is looking for new and creative ways of performing the important work of teachers.  
Another hugely popular You Tube video that prompted a book, What Teachers Make is slam-poet Taylor Mali's short snippets of experiences that led to the writing of the poem.  A poem that has equal numbers of supporters and critics, I found the book a great conversation starter with staff.  Like the poem, it is an inspiring, passionate and humorous look at teaching and the often inaccurate view many people have of the role.  There are several somewhat controversial statements within the book that get people talking, and while I do not agree with many of Mali's stances on things like, "How dare you waste my time with anything less than your best effort?", "sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence" and "no, you may not work in groups, no, you may not ask me a question", the opportunity to talk with people about their differing positions on things like homework, assessment, classroom mangagement and standardized testing have proven exceedingly valuable for our school.  The book, however, not unlike Sinek's Start With Why, pales in comparison to the Youtube video.  
Harvard Education Professor, Tony Wagner, wrote The Global Achievement Gap, an oft-cited book that looks at how students in the United States are falling behind students from other countries around the world.  While the book has a largely American focus, Wagner does mention the Seven Survival Skills for students that seem universal and synonymous with the 21st Century skills written about elsewhere (Critical thinking, Collaboration, Communication and Curiosity to name a few).  The book analyzes how/if the seven skills are being taught in several public schools in the U.S., looks at the issues of test-preparation that seem to be hampering any efforts of educational reform, discusses how to motivate today's learners, and then analyzes some small schools that seem to be getting it right.  The American focus of the book was a small drawback (since I feel that Canadian schools appear to be ahead of many American schools in terms of pedagogical practices), but of greater issue for me were the exemplars chosen by Wagner when he profiled the schools that were working.  High-Tech High, The Met and the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School are all small charter-type schools that have set up common principles based upon the Seven Survival Skills.  They have all had great success, and provide some very good ideas for how we can look at restructuring our schools, but Wagner does not describe how to implement the effective strategies of these schools in a more large-scale environment. 
Renowned BC keynote speaker, former school-based administrator, Tom Schimmer, spoke at the Richmond Administrator retreat in Whistler and as part of the preparation for his speaking engagement, we all got copies of his book, Ten Things that Matter from Assessment to Grading.  The book is a very engaging read that provides some good examples for how we need to look at doing things differently. Most of the ideas are not new, but Schimmer provides some easy-to-read examples of how we should be encouraging confidence in students, providing more descriptive feedback, differentiating instruction and assessing more accurately through use of Assessment For Learning strategies. 
Why School? by Will Richardson is a short e-book that looks at the ways school will need to be re-invented in the near future.  Richardson writes about how schools can no longer be disseminators of information and must be more concerned with helping students learn how to analyze and synthesize the information that is now so readily available.  Richardson asks the question, "How can we begin to move our schools to become places of more relevant, connected, creative learning?"  An important question that he attempts to answer by referencing the need to change our teaching strategies to incorporate more technology, our Assessment strategies away from content mastery to learning mastery, and change our curriculum from one that is delivered to one that is discovered.  Richardson does a good job of identifying the obstacles to significant change (policy-makers and their desire to reference data from test scores to demontrate whether or not our students are learning), but he recognizes that if we do not make the necessary changes, we are doing a great disservice to our students.  

While professional reading does take up most of my leisure time, it is not the only type of reading I engage in. At the pleasure end of the spectrum, I did find some time to squeeze in a few light reads.
The Measure of a Man is a story of a man, a suit and a father, written by B.C. author and apprentice tailor J.J. Lee.  The story provides a brief history of the suit, and is interwoven with reflections upon the relationship between the author and his father (the original owner of the suit that Lee is tailoring).  Far from a fashionista, I found the historical information of the suit somewhat lacklustre, but the anecdotes of the tumultuous relationships within the family to be heartfelt and extremely captivating.  As a father and an educator, it was an eloquent reminder of the importance and long-lasting effects of relationships for young people.
While I appreciate Russell Peters, the comic, I was hugely disappointed in his biography, Call Me Russell.  I found the stories to shed very little light on his creative inspirations, and felt the book was a narcissistic recounting of Peters' sexual exploits and rise to stardom.  Peters writes of his adulation of his father and the close relationship he has with his brother/manager, but the book does not flow well, and while he does mention his struggles with ADHD, the book seems to hop around much like a young person who can not sit still.  A funny man, to be sure, but his biography was not all that humorous and, in my opinion, a fairly immature representation of all that he has accomplished. 
A big fan of John Grisham, I also enjoy a good baseball yarn (see Field of Dreams).  The very short  Calico Joe was enjoyable but left me wanting a little more.  It is the story of a young baseball fan and his father, a struggling professional pitcher who does not treat himself or his family well, and eventually confronts the next superstar in the game.  A bean-ball ends the fictitious career of Joe Castle, but becomes the background of  how the son of the pitcher tries to make amends with his father and between his father and Joe Castle later in life.  Heart-warming and very readable, the story felt a little thin.  I would have enjoyed greater character development on the part of the father and son, but also to see how their flawed relationship played on the son in the later relationships with his family.  Very easy to consume, the book was an enjoyable summer read, but I felt it could have been so much more (much less enthralling than Kinsella's Field of Dreams). 
One of the books of 2011, the Steve Jobs biography by Sir Walter Isaacson, was extremely captivating.  I got to enjoy the book while on my first-ever Caribbean cruise with the entire family (a group of nine) and the trip was so relaxing and gluttonous, I found myself completely engrossed in the book for hours at a time.  A very well-written, compelling story about a flawed genius, Jobs is portrayed as a hard nosed, artistic perfectionist who, despite demons that destroy relationships with so many around him, was able to redefine the technology, arts and music industries.  I do not consider myself an Apple person (I am more comfortable working with PC's), but must give both Steve Jobs and Walter Isaacson their due for their creations.  

These represent 12 of the more memorable books for me in the year 2012.  If you have any recommendations for future reading, I would be interested in hearing your selections.  If you differ with my reviews of any of the books listed above, please feel free to reply.

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