Gifts for Education Wonks and Others

Because I believe that books are a great gift for those interested in public education, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions, with the caveat that I do not have time to read most of the hundred-plus education-related books that come to me during the year.

2014 has been a good year for books about education. Two made the prestigious New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of the Year. Not surprisingly, they are two of my top four.

1. The must-read book of 2014 is Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. She writes well and has a great story to tell. If you are at all like me, you’ll find yourself thinking, “I didn’t know that” quite often. She draws compelling parallels between things that have happened recently or are happening now and events and people from the distant past, reminding us that, if we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. The Teacher Wars made the Times’s list. {{1}} (Doubleday)

2. Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), by Elizabeth Green, also made the list of 100 Notable Books. It’s an engaging tour of the worlds of teaching and teacher training, with an exceptionally talented young reporter as the tour guide. (W.W. Norton)

3. Speaking of Fourth Grade: What Listening to Kids Tells Us about School in America, by Inda Schaenen, is an eye-opening read because Ms. Schaenen does what reporters and writers don’t do enough of: she interviews young children. The author is a teacher who took a year off and interviewed 166 fourth graders–(white, black, brown; urban, suburban, rural; wealthy, middle class, poor; and Christian, Jewish, Muslim) across the state of Missouri, where she teaches {{2}}. She has arranged the book according to the questions she asked: What is your school like? What’s the purpose of school? How do kids here treat each other? How do adults here treat kids? How do you feel about standardized tests? Do you ever feel bored? If so, when? And so on…. I think you will find it engaging and illuminating. (The New Press)

4. Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach is the most poignant book that has come across my desk in a long time. The editors, Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, asked teachers to explain how their favorite poems have affected their teaching. Full disclosure: When I was asked to provide a blurb for the jacket, I did so with pleasure. This is what I submitted: “I am having trouble finding the right words to describe my feelings about this book. I opened it at random and was drawn in. Hours–and a few tears–later I emerged, feeling stronger personally and more optimistic about education’s future. I wish I could afford to buy copies of “Teaching With Heart” for all the teachers I have interviewed in my 40 years of reporting. My budget can’t handle that. Instead, I recommend that all of us non-teachers buy copies of this inspiring book for teachers we know. You will probably want one for yourself too. {{3}}” (Jossey-Bass)

Other education books from 2014 that you might enjoy:

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Danah Boyd, comes highly recommended by Greg Toppo of USA Today;

Fear and Learning in America – Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education: John Kuhn, a veteran school superintendent in Texas, criticizes the ‘test and punish’ policies of Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and others;

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix our Schools. The aforementioned Mr. Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, defends his record and argues for policies that he believes will transform public education;

Strugglers Into Strivers: What the Military Can Teach Us About How Young People Learn and Grow, by the always thoughtful Hugh Price, former president of the Urban League;

How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, is a book that Greg Toppo and I believe will astound you;

Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz, has made waves in higher education;

The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel, confirms the positive effect of learning to defer gratification;

Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel is one of New York Times reporter Motoko Rich’s recommendations.

While these books are available on Amazon, I urge you to patronize your local bookseller this holiday season (and throughout the year). Happy Holidays.


[[1]]1. If there’s a revised edition, I will ask Ms. Goldstein to change an entry about me: Although I wrote about the Teacher Corps in my doctoral dissertation, I did not serve in the Teacher Corps.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson this summer, graduated from the high school where she taught.[[2]]

[[3]]3. They used the last four sentences on the book jacket.[[3]]

10 thoughts on “Gifts for Education Wonks and Others

  1. “More Than a Score” edited by Jesse Hagopian (Haymarket Books) just came out. Essentially it is more than 25 short chapters by teachers, parents, students and others about the rapidly growing testing resistance and reform movement. Not a weak chapter in it, many very strong and engaging (disclosure, I wrote on chapter and will leave it to others to comment on its quality). If you think there is too much testing and want to do something about it, or even understand why this movement is exploding, this is ‘the’ book for you.


  2. “Every School:” One Citizen’s Guide for Transforming Education. This is a book I wrote as a result of my years on the Seattle School Board and what I have learned about the system since I departed the Board. It describes the current system, provides three major ideas that need to be implemented before other reforms with work, and then concludes with suggestions for system change and a call to action. The target audience is Governors and State Legislators, but anyone interested in systemic reform will find this book useful.


    • I just received my copy this morning, so its exclusion from my list should not be interpreted as a comment about its quality.


  3. Someone reminded me that I overlooked Sam Chaltain’s “Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice.” I should simply repeat here what I said on its cover: ““This is an important book. Our School is vibrant and alive. Sam Chaltain’s keen insights and warm, readable prose invite readers to experience the complex, challenging, often frustrating, and occasionally triumphant lives of four caring teachers and their students. I urge you to accept the invitation.” (Teachers College Press)


    • While Chaltain’s book is nominally about the charter/public system what I took from it was how unsustainable teaching has become. It has haunted me a bit as I look at what my children’s teachers are doing in our DCPS elementary.


  4. Following Don Nielsen’s lead above, let me also list my book for parents of struggling readers: “Help! My Child Isn’t Reading Yet — What Should I Do?” I’ve written it based on my experiences “navigating the system,” as parents say, for my two dyslexic children. Four out of ten children struggle with learning to read, and half of those are dyslexic (NICHD). Parents are essentially left on their own to figure out how to get help for their struggling readers, so my book provides a road-map for them to follow.

    Thank you Mr. Nielsen for your book — I look forward to reading it! And many thanks to John Merrow for compiling your list, and for staying on this education “beat!”

    Susan Crawford,
    Director, The Right to Read Project


  5. Three of my “Best of 2014” (in no particular order):
    1) Jose Vilson – This is Not a Test
    2) Larissa Pahomov – Authentic Learning in the Digital Age
    3) Meenoo Rami – Thrive


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