Sunday, August 24, 2014

My 10 Favorite Books About Teaching (So Far)....

I've only been a teacher for five years, but in that time I've been offered--handed, recommended, told to read--at least a dozen different educational textbooks, all of them supposedly written to make me a much more effective and engaging teacher. (Keep in mind, this happened after I graduated from college.) These massive, technical tomes came tattooed with their authors' accreditations, were filled with erudite prose and complex vocabularies, and bore titles that seemed just as long as many of their chapters:  The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, and Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning, among others.

I'll be honest, I've never read a single one.

Sure, I may skim the pages for a while, maybe even read the first paragraph or two of a chapter that is specific to my subject area, but inevitably the reading becomes too weighty for my tastes. The writers, almost all of them career or tenured professors with very little experience beyond their lecture halls, write as though their ideas are educational ambrosia and should be treated as such. What's more, they attempt to prove their points through charts, graphs, and statistics they have gathered over years of firsthand observations and analysis--a pursuit that is as misguided as it is counterproductive. To take data from a select few schools and attempt to apply those results to tens of millions of students across the country, regardless of the inherent individuality of every child and district, is downright dangerous. It would be like visiting a half-dozen zoos, observing the animals from a distance, and then writing a textbook on animal studies.

Instead, I find inspiration in other books, some of them quite unusual. And now, as the new school year approaches--my sixth--I find myself returning to many of them again, as part of a yearly ritual marking the end of summer vacation. None of them are based in statistics, nor are they part of the ridiculous sub-genre of memoirs in which a lowly but good-hearted teacher draws out the inner beauty of scorned misfits. In fact, most of them are straightforward in their messages about teaching, even when those messages aren't pretty. I don't claim that these books work for everyone, but they've helped me understand myself and my role in the classroom in ways that no textbook ever could, and for that they deserve at least a little recognition on my part.

10.  Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay and David Funk.
This is the unquestioned champion of books for teachers, and with good reason:  it exorcises the demons of pedagogical past, including the persistent adage that teachers should "never smile until Christmas," and instead advocates for love, compassion, understanding, and patience. From a distance this would seem like common sense, but sadly there are thousands of teachers who are trained to see the classroom as a battleground between all-knowing adults and inferior students. To them, teaching is about control instead of education, fear instead of encouragement. Fay and Funk understand that there will be conflict in any classroom, but they also know that our fallback responses--yelling, threats of detention, embarrassment--are cruel, counterproductive, and only lead to more problems. Instead, they want teachers to see their students for who they are and will be--adults in training, you might say--and as individuals who benefit from calm correction and discipline rather than anger and punishment.

Quote:  "One of our strongest desires is to be loved for who we are, not for how we perform. The most influential love is unconditional. If we have the sense that our magic people--those involved in our caretaking and learning--love us unconditionally, we feel established as being worthy in our own right, regardless of our abilities, behavior, or other characteristics." (128-129)

9.  Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell.
In the first education class I ever had, our professor--a wonderful and encouraging woman named Karen Bircher--read us chapters from this book, the memoir of a first-year teacher in the inner city. Esme's problems were many, they sometimes came from beyond her classroom, and they often consumed her. To those of us just dipping our toes into the vast ocean of capital-e Education, this was a startling idea--that we might fail, fail publicly, and fail miserably. But presented in such straightforward prose, and by a teacher whose love for her students and profession overshadowed all else, it was the best introduction we could have asked for, even if few of us actually realized it at the time.

Quote:  “This is my destiny, to have this group of children before me. As they were growing, aging to be fifth graders, I was training, and now we meet, in this unique place and time. The moment felt holy.” (26)

8.  Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie.
It's dull title and lackluster cover disguise just how indispensable this book has been to me. Where Teaching With Love & Logic focuses on how to bring compassion and cooperation into the classroom, Mackenzie's book focuses on how to establish order without disrespecting your students or making creativity, trust, and self-expression impossible. The advice--based entirely on scenarios Mackenzie himself lays out--is simply stated and explained without condescension or exception, and Mackenzie's differentiation between punishment and discipline is one of the most important distinctions any teacher needs to make, and one that many don't.

Quote:  “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy, and children trained with anarchy do not learn respect for rules or authority or how to handle their freedom responsibly. They think primarily of themselves and develop an exaggerated sense of their own power and control. The examples of a failed experiment are all around us.” (35-36)

7.  Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
I read Teacher Man during my first snow day. In two hours. Without once putting it down. To this day I'm not sure what drew me to the book in the first place--possibly because it was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and contained the word "Teacher" in its title--but regardless of the reasons, the epiphanies were instantaneous. Here was a man whose thick Irish accent made understanding his lessons difficult, if not downright impossible, and who preferred telling long stories of his depressing childhood to actually following the set curriculum. But in his capacity as a teacher of creative writing, he allowed his students to explore ideas they had never considered before and to understand themselves in new ways, none of which were possible in classes where teachers followed the rules and all accents were local. The book's best chapter, a fifteen-page memory of music and cookbooks, encompasses every fragile and fleeting emotion that comes with teaching, from the way teachers compare themselves to one another in fits of self-pity to innocent on-the-spot assignments that blossom unexpectedly into something heartfelt and unforgettable.

Quote:  "The classroom is a place of high drama. You'll never know what you've done to, or for, the hundreds coming and going. You see them leaving the classroom: dreamy, flat, sneering, admiring, smiling, puzzled. After a few years you develop antennae. You can tell when you've reached them or alienated them. It's chemistry. It's psychology. It's animal instinct. You are with the kids and, as long as you want to be a teacher, there's no escape. Don't expect help from the people who've escaped the classroom, the higher-ups. They're busy going to lunch and thinking higher thoughts. It's you and the kids. So. there's the bell. See you later. Find what you love and do it." (155)

6.   Gunn's Golden Rules:  Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work by Tim Gunn.
Tim Gunn, who co-hosts Project Runway, is the consummate teacher. He watches over his students as they study and execute some of their first designs, offering both compliments and criticism when deserved, and encourages them to believe in their own skills and ideas, even when it seems like no one else does. His motto "Make it work," intended to push designers toward success in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, can be applied to almost every situation--a cry of strength and perseverance above the tempestuous din of life. And while there are some aspects of Gunn's books that are difficult to transfer from design school to high school, the very nature of Gunn as a teacher--stern but caring, honest but respectful--makes this book invaluable.

Quote:  "I will always be there in the wings saying, 'You need to be good to people. You need to take your work seriously. You need to have integrity. You need to work with what you've got.'” (3)

5.  The Epic of Gilgamesh by Unknown
King Gilgamesh is the first true literary hero:  the builder of an empire, antagonist of the gods, defender of his slain friend, and traveller in search of a greater truth. He is also a complete and unapologetic asshole--something nobody likes to point out, especially in classrooms where students are told to revere classic literature without question. When I was first taught Gilgamesh in college, my professor fawned over its stunning passages, its rich characters, and how its many symbols and motifs would be mirrored by other works of art for millennia to come. Only when I was responsible for teaching it myself did I read beyond the adulation and discover the truth of King Gilgamesh:  his raping of virgin brides, his unparalleled ego, and a quest so selfish and blind that it takes him away from his kingdom--and endangers his people--for what could be years. But Gilgamesh does learn his lesson at the end, when he returns home a beaten-down and defeated old man; there, just beyond the walls to his kingdom, he is told that he need not seek out eternal life when he's already built himself a legacy that will endure long after he's passed away--his empire, where people flourish. The Epic of Gilgamesh is first and foremost a reminder to always be honest to your students, even if it means disparaging something that is almost universally respected, and to understand that our own legacies--as teachers--have nothing to do with lesson plans, state standards, or test scores.

Quote:  "O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; he has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. He has given unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back. But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun.'"

4.  Why Are All the Good Teachers Crazy? by Frank Stepnowski.
Frank Stepnowski is an imposing figure in the most literal sense of the word. Every photograph of him shows a bald-headed, thick-armed, Marine-like figure, his massive biceps covered in tattoos. Rarely is he smiling. And yet, his thoughts on education--his stories about teaching--are funny, absurd, vulgar, and some of the most brutally honest there are, and it becomes apparent almost immediately that Stepnowski's love for his students is boundless. From teaching in a run-down trailer behind the actual school to sitting with his administrator while he sells lemonade to raise money and even acting out a bizarre improvised skit intended to shock racist neighbors, Stepnowski is one of those teachers who goes to extremes--the proverbial ends of the Earth--to not only educate his students but make sure they know just how much he cares about them. The book's most unforgettable moment? When an incarcerated father shows up to his son's graduation in handcuffs, confronts Stepnowski, and thanks him for helping "my son become a man."

Quote:  "I did Shakespeare with my guys just because everyone else said it was impossible, and when they said they wanted to learn biology, I hit the books and relearned biology so I could teach it to them. Of course, many teachers would say, 'I'm not going to spend all that time learning new material, or relearning old material, I'm sticking to what I do every year because that's what I get paid for.' That's why you suck." (230)

3.  The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.
Do yourself a favor:  skip the book and just watch the YouTube video. Honestly. There's nothing wrong with the book, per se, but the video is exceptionally better, and you get the added bonus of seeing Pausch himself delivering his lecture to a standing-room-only crowd on the Carnegie Mellon campus. Given when Pausch retired from his teaching post because of pancreatic cancer, it's more than just reflections on a life well-lived:  it's a manifesto on how to be a good teacher. Throughout his career, Pausch pushed his students to go further than even they thought they could go, to imagine what was once considered unimaginable, and to have fun...a word that seems to have all but disappeared from classrooms across the country. And why shouldn't learning be fun? (As Pausch himself says, "I'm dying, and I'm having fun.") The precocious, ever-curious ten-year-old in Randy Pausch never faded with age, as they often do with so many other adults, and that allowed him to understand his students better than many of them understood themselves. When he passed away, we lost more than a fantastic human being, a devoted husband and father--we lost a man who woke up every morning, saw the world for the promising and beautiful place it truly is, and devoted himself to making other people see this, too.

Quote:  "Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people."

2.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
There is no greater teacher in all of literature than Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer who stands up against the people of his town to defend a man falsely accused of rape--a challenge that even he admits will not be won. But he does it anyway, and for no other reason than because it's the right thing to do--an idea that, sad to say, seems almost foreign to many people. In the process Atticus earns the respect of those around him, including his children, and exposes not just the ugliness of human nature but also its unexpected beauty. Those lessons--about standing up for the oppressed, being confident in your morality, choosing what's right over what's popular--are perfect for children and teenagers alike, but they're relevant to teachers, as well. We often forget, as we stand in front of our classes or mark up stacks of paper or mindlessly enter grades into the computer, that we're teaching the next generation, and it's our duty to help make them into the kinds of adults we want them to be.

Quote: “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em.” (96)

1.  Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire:  the Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith.
To be honest, any Rafe Esquith book would suffice here--the man's wisdom is endless, and even when he's repeating stories he's told in other books, the message seems fresh. But I prefer Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire because it's the first of Esquith's books that I read--something left behind by a previous teacher at my school--and to this day it remains my favorite. An elementary teacher for more than 30 years, Esquith has received worldwide recognition for taking students who live in difficult circumstances--almost all of them live below the poverty line and do not speak English as their first language--and raising their test scores beyond those of the average fifth-grader. At the same time, he teaches them skills they will need in order to succeed beyond school, skills that no curriculum or set of standards has ever given priority, like independence, responsibility, accountability, and self-control. Every student in his classroom is given a job, which underscores the social importance of having one as an adult, and every student must also "pay" for their desk and chair--the first of Esquith's many lessons in personal finance and responsible spending. They stage an unabridged Shakespeare play every year, and in the Bard's original English; create time-consuming works of art, which teaches them the importance of patience; and travel to Washington, D.C., where they are responsible enough to stay in a hotel without any additional supervision. In Esquith, we find someone who has balanced the two opposing forces of public education--the needs of the government and the needs of student--with such skill that everyone benefits, including his students and himself. (Even so, Esquith is also honest about his profession, expressing his belief that all teachers are subpart their first few years, so they should learn more and improve rather than beat themselves up or quit; that family is the most important factor in a child's life, not their teacher, though teachers are certainly important; and that some students are bad students. Very few pedagogical textbooks would ever admit to any of these.)

There are days when I watch videos of Esquith or listen to radio interviews with him and wait for the proverbial other shoe to drop--the day we find out he's not the great educator we've all been told he is, that's it's all been a grand sham. This is not a condemnation of Esquith; instead, it is an indictment of an education system in which a teacher who can accomplish so much seems like an impossibility rather than a reality.

Quote:  "Whether your kids are giving an elaborate concert or putting on the tiniest of skits, we adults need to get the hell out of their way." (109)