5 Books that Will Make You a Better Teacher

bookstowerI have a strange Chinese Wall when it comes to the books that I read.  I read fiction on my own time to de-stress and relax, and it’s usually in electronic form.

Non-fiction, however, is always a old-fashioned paper book.  I read about teaching and education policy and science.  I annotate and highlight and circle important quotes.  This is an important part of my professional learning.

As such, I want to share what I consider to be the most transformational nonfiction books that are guaranteed* to make you a better educator:

  1. Elements of Grading by Doug Reeves.  No matter how long you’ve been teaching, I promise you that your grading system can use some work.  Reeves walks you through the what and the why so that you can use them for what they need to be… and explain it to your colleagues.
  2. Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchart, Mark Church, Karin Morrison.   This book comes out of Harvard’s Project Zero and it clearly lays out ways that you can put student thinking (and therefore learning) center stage in your classroom.
  3. Kagan Cooperative Learning by Spencer Kagan.  The Kagans present an amazing array of group activities that can be used to break the ice, make groups more cohesive, and report out the learning happening in your class.
  4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.  This Duke professor presents real research (most of it his) in ways that help us understand the irrational nature of our minds.  Really practical knowledge for teachers.
  5. The Canon by Natalie Angier.  There is no better view of science than one that connects all of our research and knowledge, and Angier does that skillfully in this book.  It inspires me to help students see the strings that connect everything in the universe.

*Guarantee is only valid if you read the entire book, put all of it into practice, and never give up.


First Contact in Education

damoclesI recently read a short science fiction novel entitled “Damocles” that is authored by S.G. Redling and which Amazon has been pimping pretty hard on the screensaver of my wife’s Kindle with “Special Offers” (read: ads).  It’s a unique story of humankind’s first interactions with an alien race, with a twist: It takes place on the alien’s home planet.  Human explorers arrive, guided by information from a race of creatures that seems to have “seeded” humans on various worlds.

Spoiler Alert: First contact with this species does not go smoothly.

While reading this quick and enthralling story, I kept thinking about the parallels between the narrative of the book and the one that we experience with our students, particularly those from non-English-speaking families and from low-income homes.

The middle class nature of public school culture in America has been covered before, perhaps most widely by Ruby Payne.  Any educator who has worked with these communities knows that the primary struggle for these students is learning the approved way to do everything (I hesitate to make a judgment and call it the “right” way).  Throw in a language barrier and this acclimation becomes almost impossible.

We acknowledge that this is why so many affected teens join gangs of their peers.  This feeling of being with others who share their frustrations must be comforting for them.  For educators, an extra challenge comes when groups of yet-to-be-assimilated students constitute enough of a critical mass that they can resist the transition.  The result is often disastrous for classroom discipline and for overall student learning.

In “Damocles”, the main characters–including scientists from both races–form a powerful friendship that eventually allows the free flow of information between the two cultures.  It was interesting for me to see that the goal was not to convert one group to the other’s standards, but rather to exchange ideas, language, and customs to better understand each other.

Maybe this is the strategy that more of us should use when working with those “extraterrestrials” in our classroom.

Do you work hard to integrate students from other cultures (foreign or domestic) into your classroom, or do you seek a middle ground?


A Motivating Read [Book Review]

I often get asked about my reading habits by other teachers. Some want to know how I find the time to read–my answer includes bathrooms, lines at Walmart, and Instapaper–and others are curious about what I read. Recently, I spoke with a colleague about one of the most useful education books I’ve read in the last year: “Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges” by Larry Ferlazzo.

Those of you who peruse the interwebs may already be familiar with Larry and his award-winning resource-sharing blog. You may even remember that I mentioned Helping Students Motivate Themselves in a post about good education reads last summer. Now that I’ve had a chance to use some of his lesson ideas, I want to share a more in-depth review.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Ferlazzo focuses on several critical questions that teachers have been asking themselves since the dawn of time, like “How can you regain control of an out-of-control class?” and “What can you do to keep your students–and yourself–focused at the end of the year?”. For each question, he provides some relevant research data and some personal anecdotes, and then follows up with a lesson (or series of them) to address the issue. For some questions this means one lesson, but for others (and this is where he sets himself apart) Ferlazzo suggests a year-long series of repeated lessons to really make a concept stick with the students.

One example is his chapter entitled “How Can You Help Students See the Importance of Personal Responsibility?”. Here he provides several lessons that use current events and well-known people to make the point that successful individuals own up to their failures and don’t blame others. Students explore the way that they have felt in situations where they cast blame on someone else, or had that done to them. It’s a remarkably effective method of addressing an issue that would more often result in eye-rolling than real learning. Even more amazing is that he makes it work with high school students!

Later in that same chapter, Ferlazzo recommends an activity for building students’ self-esteem. They discuss the meaning of the word “value” and then identify their own personal values by choosing from a broad list. They write about why they find these things important–examples of these values include membership in a social group, religious values, and living in the moment–and how they have felt when they made choices that supported them. He suggests repeating this short writing activity at several points during the school year to both reinforce its importance and to allow students to track changes in their own motivation.

I find this sort of practical long-range lesson idea to be quite rare in the cookbook world of education books for teachers. He presents very easy lessons with very little preparation needed (the publisher’s website allows owners of the book to download his handouts) that have stimulated compelling discussions in my classroom. I highly recommend the book because you can do much of what he suggests without any major changes to your teaching style or lesson pacing.

Perhaps most importantly for me, Ferlazzo’s lessons from Helping Students Motivate Themselves develop metacognition and student awareness of the skills that they need to be successful in life. It’s hard to imagine a more important 21st Century Skill than that.

Anybody else read it and want to share your opinion? That’s what the comments are here for!


Looking for Something to Read this Summer?

Despite my year-round teaching schedule, it seems natural to catch up on my reading (both fun fiction and work nonfiction) during the summer months.  I spend a lot of my limited free time enjoying (and annotating) various professional and personal books.  Here’s my recommended list:

Helping Students Motivate Themselves” by Larry Ferlazzo

This new book does a great job of taking Ferlazzo’s lessons from his own classroom and making them feasible for any teacher.  His activities that are designed to teach self-control are particularly awesome.


Ahead of the Curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning” edited by Doug Reeves

What? You thought that I might not mention a grading book?  Ha!  This collection of essays by assessment experts gives a nice cross-section of the current thinking on assessment and grading.  I especially recommend that chapters by Ken O’Connor and Bob Marzano.


Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life” by Carl Zimmer

This beautifully written book, like so many science books written by Zimmer, is appropriate for any level of science fan.  It’s as close to fiction as you’ll find in this list of recommendations.


Have you read any of these?  Have strong opinions that you are dying to share?  Put ’em in a comment!


Book Review: 21st Century Skills

As regular Scripted Spontaneity readers know, next week I’ll be hosting and moderating an asynchronous discussion on Voicethread about a new book that has really got me thinking.  It’s called 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn, and I think what I like best about it is that it isn’t really one story.  It’s an anthology of essays by experts in various fields discussing how they connect with the idea of 21st Century Skills.  Under the umbrella of its central theme are fourteen diverse and engaging chapters that address every level from policy maker to classroom teacher.

The list of contributors to the book really reads like a “Who’s Who” of educational thinking today.  Howard Gardner (of multiple intelligences fame) describes the five types of minds that are needed for this new era.  Ed reform heavyweight Linda Darling-Hammond discusses national education policy changes that are needed to bring these skills to the forefront.  Rick and Becky DuFour make a strong argument for the role that PLCs can play in implementing 21st Century Skills, especially as teachers become models of critical thinking.  Will Richardson, author of the first educational technology book that I ever read (a dog-eared copy of which is still on my classroom bookshelf), explains the impact of a future in which education is increasingly global and self-driven:

“Instead of learning from others who have the credentials to “teach” in this new networked world, we learn with others whom we seek (and who seek us) on our own and with whom we often share nothing more than a passion for knowing.”

One of my personal heroes, Alan November, writes a powerful chapter about the dangers of assuming that more technology means more information.  Like several other of the contributors to 21st Century Skills, November stresses the need to develop a “global work ethic”.  This idea is what has got me really thinking about the changes that await my students.  What can I do now to help them think of themselves as global citizens and to compete with job-seekers from all over the world? Alan lays out a clear and convincing strategy.

Add to that chapters from Doug Reeves (on reforming assessment), John Barell (about the role of Problem-Based Learning), Jay McTighe and Elliot Seif (the Understanding by Design guys), David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson (experts on cooperative learning), and even Bob Pearlman writing about design of our school buildings, and you end up with one book that tells many stories.  In the end, these stories make it clear that huge changes are needed if we are to ready our children for the challenges that await them.  The way forward is mapped out, leaving all of us in the education business with the choice of whether to follow it.

If all of this has you interested, consider dropping by next week for our Voicethread conversation with several of the book’s contributors.  You can download a non-printable PDF copy of the book to prepare for the discussion by clicking here.  Come back early next week for some simple Voicethread beginner’s advice and more details about how you can participate in the conversation.


21st Century Skills: A Conversation

Reading to the Kindergarten Students
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kathy Cassidy

It seems that every day I read another article or blog post about twenty-first century skills, their merits, and the hype that surrounds them.  Some question the significance of skills that have been championed for decades, and others cringe at the use of buzzwords like “twenty-first century” and “digital natives”.  I have found myself on both sides of this issue, and seeking more information about it.

I just finished reading a new anthology that has opened my eyes to some of the biggest issues related to this idea, and really pushed my thinking on the topic.  It’s called “21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Student Learn”, and it includes chapters from the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Will Richardson, and Howard Gardner.  PLC experts, Rick and Becky DuFour have contributed and so have Problem-Based Learning guru John Barell and cooperative learning experts David and Roger Johnson.  You can find out more about the book at the publisher’s page here.  I am lucky enough to be moderating an online conversation with several of the well-known contributors. It’s sure to be both informative and a bit contentious.

Since we all have some sort of opinion about the future of education, I encourage you to bring your views and expertise and join the discussion June 16-19 on Voicethread.  Check back here for more information in the coming weeks.


Join me to discuss the DuFours latest book

My good friend and fellow edublogger, Bill Ferriter, is hosting a Voicethread discussion with Rick and Becky DuFour around their newest book “Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever It Takes”.  The conversation takes place May 19-21, so there’s plenty of time to pick up a copy of the book and join me and many other education folks on Voicethread.

You can find out more on Bill’s blog, The Tempered Radical, by clicking here.