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Best and Worst Ed-Books of 2014: An Oddball List

I didn't read many books on education this year. It was a big year, with several titles getting high-profile lit-media exposure from Deeply Respected Reviewers, and lots of discussions on social media about who liked and recommended what. I found a lot of that conversation troubling, however.

There are reviewers (both formal and casual) who judge a book entirely by one aspect: Does the author agree with me?

Not: Have I learned something new from this book? Has it pushed on any of my perspectives? Does it present its case in an engaging or unique way? Or even: Did this book raise my blood pressure? Because that can be useful.

Then there's the "my friend wrote this book, therefore I must like it" syndrome. I have a stack of those (unread, partially read--and just marinating) next to the couch where I lounge while reading--sitting on top of the ed-books I simply can't finish without getting a frustration headache (The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way has been there for about a year now).

So--I have only five titles to share. They fall into three categories:

  1. Books you should read and own.
  2. Books that everyone else loved and I thought were problematic. To say the least.
  3. Books that inspired, enlightened or delighted me.

Category 1:

  • Go out and buy 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten Public Education (Glass & Berliner), right now. Not because it's filled with new thinking--but because it's the best and most detailed debunking manual for all the rhetorical excess and baloney-based claims in the education reform discourse. Succinct, with carefully curated research to back up arguments and counterclaims. More defense/deterrent than literature, but an essential handbook for everyone who cares deeply about preserving and improving public education.
  • The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession (Goldstein) is, hands-down, the best resource available for putting what's happened to the (semi-) profession of teaching into historical context. I have half a PhD in Education Policy--and Dana Goldstein does more in one volume to illuminate teaching in America than any dozen books I was assigned as a first-year doc student. Lucid, meticulously researched and written in a respectful tone, Goldstein's lovingly crafted book also breaks new ground--speculating about how feminizing the occupation of teaching may have bent public perception of what should be intellectual work, and even suggesting how "teaching missionaries" like TFA may have gotten a toehold in social reform.

Category 2:

Diversion: In my Top Ten Book List (all categories) for 2014, Ten Years in the Tub (Hornby) rests happily at the top. Ten Years is a month-by-month review (mostly reprinted from The Believer) of the stuff Nick Hornby's reading. Hornby is a prodigious but erratic reader and one of the things I like best about his review-ish synopses is the fact that he lists books he bought but didn't read, and books he started and abandoned, in addition to books read. Because that's important information (see paragraph four, above). Hornby also refuses to trash authors and books (unless they're anonymous). He takes exception to books, he lists what he sees as their failings and errors, he equivocates-- but he does so in a way that does not identify him as Self-Righteous Twit. Taking a leaf from Hornby, then:

Then, Green shifts focus to Doug Lemov who--like millions of novice teachers throughout history, a qualification Green seems unaware of--carefully observed what worked well in his classroom. Lemov (a teacherpreneur if there ever was one) then "wrote the book" on teaching behaviors that make one a "champion."  

After ordaining Lemov, his school and his work as energizing and groundbreaking, Green decides that--oops--perhaps rigid obedience to authority, complete with T-shirt rewards and humiliation as punishment, might not yield the learning results (independence, curiosity, creativity) we're seeking. She's right about that--but it's a core pedagogical principle, one that, again, millions of practitioners have uncovered through experience, in their own practice. What goes around comes around.

In the end, Green's book--while honest and well-researched--tells us more about Green and the ed-folks she pals around with than how to build a better teacher.

Category 3: 

  • I just finished The Monsters of Education Technology (Watters). Whoo! It's a collection of Audrey Watters's talks and presentations on interrelated issues around education technology. She repeats bits of overlapping content, as you might if you were traveling around the country keynoting tech conferences, but the resulting publication is stronger for it--it's easier to see how ed-technology is not a collection of zippy tools and hotshot memes, but a tangled, embedded systemic shift in perception: To a man with a computer, every problem is data.  It's all there--the dangers of rampant data collection, the sexism, the philosophy buried beneath the advert-hype, the utter lack of substantive change in pedagogical thinking. Supposedly, Watters is writing a book on teaching machines, but for my money, this is all the book she needed to rock my edu-thinking.
  • And the best book I read this year? Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher (Keizer). Grindingly honest yet tenderly reflective, Garrett Keizer shares the month-by-month internal monologue of a teaching veteran who has moved on to a full-blown career in writing, but returns for a  final year in the classroom, mostly for the health insurance (a reason that explains much more about American values than most books about education).

It is immediately apparent that Keizer has no patience with phone-it-in teaching or soppy testimonies from those who romanticize the work. He's scrupulously prepared and diligent with all his students, and when he makes mistakes, he owns up to them. It's a story that's no less engaging for its pedestrian familiarity--anyone who's been in the classroom will recognize the ordinary but crucial relationship-building and the tap-dance of keeping those relationships based on human regard, rather than control mechanisms.

The best parts of the narrative, however, are Keizer's asides: incisive commentary on changes in education practice, reflections on students' complacency toward bitter injustice in the "real world," his struggle to stay engaged with his students when he's out sick with the flu. His description of how iPad Apps overrun an ordinary teaching strategy--technology wins, every time, but it changes intent and outcomes--is priceless.

My favorite passage is Keizer's description of why he assigned ordinary 10th graders a research paper, making a monumental effort to teach the complex skill of research and producing new thought, content and credible text from existing knowledge. It's the best rationale I've ever considered for pushing so-called digital natives to go old school in thinking critically about what's important knowledge and what's superfluous. The writing is crisp and delicious. Very highly recommended, for teachers and anyone interested in genuinely transforming education.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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