Reading Update

I have been reading up a storm lately! Here are synopses of three books from my 2014 reading list that I’ve tackled in the last few weeks.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions 
(Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana)

This very accessible (and quick) read lays out the “Question Formulation Technique,” a process designed to get kids honing their critical thinking skills while laying the groundwork for the learning that they will pursue in relation to a particular topic. The authors suggest that rather than teachers wracking their brains to develop robust framing questions, students can be tasked with brainstorming these inquiries. The process is simple and I am looking forward to trying it out with my students this fall. I am particularly drawn to the steps of the process where students think about open versus closed questions and then have to prioritize questions. I am always interested in trying to teach critical thinking skills and this seems like a viable strategy for doing just that in a simple way that directly relates to and even drives the curriculum and content we’ll be exploring.

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom (Jennifer Bryan)

I read several sections of this book during a course that I took on gender and sexuality and have been itching to read the rest for the better part of a year. This book ought to be required reading for all educators. Part informational guide to gender and sexuality and part handbook for addressing these topics in school settings with students of any age, this book is the best resource on gender and sexuality in education that I have seen. The book operates from the (I believe accurate) premise that gender and sexuality are always a part of the schooling experience, whether or not we choose to acknowledge this explicitly. It contains many practical examples for how to discuss these topics and how to best support all students as they work on the task of crafting this essential aspect of their identity. It left me with many great ideas to implement right away in my classroom.

There Are No Children Here (Alex Kotlowitz)

I could not put this book down this week. In my opinion, this book belongs right next to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities on the shelf of books that all human beings should read. This book, written in the ’90s by Alex Kotlowitz (one of my favorite contributors to the wonderful podcast “This American Life”), chronicles the lives of two young boys growing up in a project in the inner city of Chicago. This book both enthralled and incensed me — at points I could not believe that what I was reading could possibly be true. I expect that things may have slightly improved since this book was written, but I am certain that many of the same issues unfortunately still exist. I became so attached to the characters in this book and I am eager to try to find out what happened to them after the story ended. You should absolutely read this book!


Reign of Error

I have always been an advocate for the power of public schools — it is why I chose to work at a small, rural public school and not a fancy private or charter school. I strongly believe that it is public schools that offer the best chance for cultivating and realizing a democratic society. Unfortunately, that narrative is not heard often enough in an education climate that seems obsessed with ranking and denigrating public schools while trumpeting the outstanding successes of a few charter schools. (Disclaimer: I actually do have experience in a charter school — I completed an internship at a charter school last year.) I adamantly believe that if we’d be willing or want some students to experience a particular type of instruction or program, then it ought to be something that we would be willing to give to all students.

Because I hold these views, reading Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error left me vigorously nodding my head and finally seeing data and research to back up these views that I have always instinctively possessed. The work is insightful and timely and I hope that it will be widely read by those who advocate for the practices which this work vehemently condemns — practices that do not have the best interests of our children at heart.

The position that I most appreciated was her insistent assertion that schools serve the communities in which they are located and thus must reflect the wishes of that community, not of a talking head far removed from that local environment. Thus, in order for schools to change, the community ought to be the one to initiate that process, not simply decrees and legislation that does not take into account a specific context. This resonates so strongly with my experience in a district in the midst of a transition to a standards-based system of education — the community is currently not adequately informed, which is leading to distrust of the public schools and ensures that these changes will not be reinforced or celebrated by those in the community. While the hand of communication and input has been extended, there seems to be little take up — but the absence of response should not taken as acceptance and certainly not considered “dialogue.”

As I continue to struggle to build connections and relationships with parents and to counter anitsocial messages that some of my students are receiving at home, I am also reminded daily of another of Ravitch’s key claims — that the family and community contributes far more to student achievement than schools and teachers. In fact, the data that she cites suggests that school factors may only be responsible for about 1/3 of the discrepancies in achievement between students. This has been one of the hardest truths to stumble upon this year — that despite my efforts, there will always be significant factors beyond my and my students’ control that will aid or hinder their educational experience. Thus, I strongly agree with Ravitch’s assertion that schools cannot simply proceed as though poverty does not exist, but that approaches to improve the economic stability of families must work in tandem with efforts to improve our schools.

In sum, this book provides a timely critique of standardized tests, efforts to blame school failure on teachers, charter schools, and efforts to privatize education. Teachers looking to gain a sense of the current pulse of the education field ought to consider this work essential reading.