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The Best Books I Read in 2017

For the past decade, I have tried to read 100 books each year. I have reached the stage in life where--not to put too fine a point on it--I am operating on a "so many books, so little time" basis. 

Which means I give myself permission to read voraciously for pleasure, and generally only read professional books that explore big ideas about education and policy, rather than books about practice. I'm still visiting classrooms, but am no longer planning lessons, keeping records or putting on holiday performances (shout-out to Every Music Teacher in America!)--so there's a treasure trove of books about classroom management and lesson design and authentic assessment out there that I no longer need to read, to keep my head in the game.

The best book I read in 2017 is hard to categorize, however.  Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School is part manifesto, part empathetic observation, and partly a series of case studies of four "trouble-making" children who will immediately be familiar to any classroom veteran. The author, Carla Shalaby, writes respectfully about public schools and public school teachers, unlike many education writers, who turn teachers into strategy-armed heroes or clueless villains in describing what happens in classrooms. If you only had the right skill set, the thinking goes, your classroom could be efficient, and your students headed to college.

The preface in Troublemakers--which, alone, is worth the price of the book--takes issue with the idea that we can "fix" children and their behavior, through discrete techniques and tricks. Shalaby honors students' individuality while acknowledging that dealing fairly with quirky and annoying manifestations of personal needs is a dilemma--perhaps THE dilemma--that all teachers face. It's the kind of book that makes teachers re-think habitual practices, while reflecting on the bigger picture of just where our national "accountability" mindset has led us.

It was in the endnote--On Mushrooms, Mold and Mice--that Shalaby had this reader in tears. She describes the bravery of Detroit teachers who took to the streets in defense of their students, and the humiliating conditions under which they attend school.

Why are there no mushrooms, mold or mice where wealthy white children go to school? Freedom demands a collective effort to engage the young people of Detroit in building a new world, for themselves and us, in which we do not permit human beings to be poisoned in the first place.

Highly recommended.

There are two other education books on my Top Ten list this year: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better  by Daniel Koretz, a man who understands assessment as widely acknowledged technical expert, as well as wise authority on what our national love affair with data is doing to our schools and our children.  A stunningly good, meticulously researched perspective.

And--Teacher Tom's First Book: Teaching and Learning from Preschoolers--a compilation of Tom Hobson's best blogs. The blogs range from hilarious to tender, little insightful stories into our youngest citizens, but what I like best is when Hobson extrapolates, turning his collection of small examples into powerful policy observations.

Since things seem to come in tens, at the end of the year, here are my remaining Top Ten books. Some were published in 2017, others are oldies but goodies that made it to the top of the pile this year. For the second year in a row, there are five fiction and five nonfiction books.

Here are the books that knocked my socks off in 2017.

First, the remaining two non-fiction books:

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder I read this early in 2017, spooked, and have been watching it come true ever since. Sober and earnest, this is a book to keep handy as events unfold.

Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family by Daniel Bergner The story of opera singer Ryan Speedo Green, who came up--slow and painfully--from the least likely background ever to produce a star at the Met. Interesting revelations about vocal pedagogy as well as the price you pay when you leave your past behind.

And the five fiction gems--all of which include distinctive fictional teachers, scenes set in schools or centered around unusual children.

The Plover by Brian Doyle A seafaring language fest with a damaged child who is underestimated by everyone, until...  The worst part of reading this book was knowing that Brian Doyle will not be writing more books.

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo I'm a charter member of the Richard Russo fan club, but missed this one when it was published a decade ago. Like a long (very long) visit with an old friend, reminiscing on how the past shapes us.

Benediction by Kent Haruf  The most ordinary of stories--a death, from cancer--told in gorgeous, elegiac language.  

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston The only book I ever began re-reading immediately after finishing the last page. Beautifully constructed, if you get past the first quartile, which only makes sense after you finish.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett  I love pretty much everything Ann Patchett writes, and this tale of what happens when a minor infidelity eventually upends two families is utterly delicious.

My current tally for 2017 is 96 books. What should I read in 2018?

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