Great Books

May 01, 1995 23 min read
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Just about everyone who has ever stood in front of a blackboard can point to a book that changed the way he or she thought about schools or teaching or children. Those are the kinds of books we set out to find for this collection. We asked a wide range of educators--most of whom have appeared in Teacher Magazine as writers or subjects--to recommend a book they believe every teacher should read and to briefly explain why. Many of these people are teachers. Some teach teachers. Others are reformers and scholars. More than a few have written fine books of their own.

They came up with a diverse list: from a science-fiction novel and the writings of Gandhi to books about language and the moral lives of children. Some chose works about inspiring teachers or new ways of looking at what happens in the classroom. Others described books that opened their eyes for the first time to some aspect of how children think or learn. (One contributor even persuaded us to let him recommend two.) Several of the books on the list are newly published; a few are classics. Two are out of print and may be available only through a library. We conclude with a list of the recommended titles, their publishers, their suggested list prices, and a phone number to order them. Enjoy.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association:

Lateral Thinking, by Edward de Bono.

About 10 years ago, upon the recommendation of researcher Grant Wiggins, I read Edward de Bono’s book. It was an important experience for me, reaffirming what I have suspected all along: that there is more than one way to think.

The author lays out the differences between what he calls “vertical thinking’’ and “lateral thinking.’' Vertical thinking, he argues, is logical thinking, asking, “How can we improve on something?’' Lateral thinking instead poses the question, “What else could we have done other than this?’' Vertical thinking is incremental and safe. Lateral thinking is more akin to creativity, insight, and humor. It is more risky, but the payoff can be much greater.

In this era of education reform, there is not enough bold thinking. What passes for restructuring is often just remodeling. Lateral thinking can change that. In fact, only lateral thinking can help us reunite teaching and learning. Until then, we are at risk of remaining permanently perched on the eve of revolution.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, interim dean of the graduate school of education and human development at George Washington University and former president of the National Education Association:

The Moral Life of Children, by Robert Coles.

I read this book about five years ago as a graduate student, and I now use it in classes I teach at George Washington University. I think it’s a very rich book for teachers, one that can help them better understand children, how kids perceive and interpret things, and how they form their moral views of life. Much of what children bring to the classroom influences how they view themselves, how they view life in general, and the role they’re going to play in that life. It’s important for teachers to understand not only the complexity of their students’ lives but also the moral statements they make in response to what they are taught.

Children today receive all kinds of moral signals; many of them carry conflicting messages. Children too often receive little guidance in trying to figure out which signals are important and which ones to ignore. What or who helps them make these choices?

The Moral Life of Children is based on case studies. Coles traveled throughout the country, talking to children about how they develop values--a moral life.

He talked to migrant children and found that they are very much aware of how transient their lives are. He talked to children in the deep South who had gone through desegregation. He talked to children living in poverty in Appalachia and to children living in affluent communities. One of the things that struck me about the vignettes was how wise and enduring kids are at an early age.

Children trust teachers. They believe us. In many instances, we’re the most stable things in their lives. They come to school to learn from us, but perhaps it is time that we take time to learn from them. Part of what Coles is saying is that we, as teachers, need to spend some time talking to children and learning who they are as moral human beings, as well as who they are as students, eager--or not so eager--to learn about reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Theodore Sizer, author, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform:

The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons From a Small School in Harlem, by Deborah Meier.

Keep an eye out for The Power of Their Ideas, which was just published. Deborah Meier not only thinks reform and talks reform but also does reform. Indeed, she has been at it for more than 20 years.

For those of us who know Debbie well, the book is exquisitely in her own voice. She writes as vividly as she talks. Many wonderful Meierisms are there. Especially nice is her quiet questioning of some of the sacred cows of educationdom (for example, what makes something “academic,’' and does that make it “good’’?) and an unvarnished, even passionate, advocacy of democracy. Real democracy, not just the popular rhetorical kind.

Behind Meier’s words is an extraordinary track record. She and her colleagues in East Harlem started several public elementary schools during the 1970s and a secondary school in the mid-1980s--itself no mean feat. But the powerful story is in the graduates of those schools, in the power of their ideas. It is the students who shine; and in their shining, they cast a warm and grateful light on Meier and her colleagues, who believed them and believed in them.

This warm, quiet, and questioning book is just the read for the end of the school year.

Diane Ravitch, author, senior research scholar at New York University, and former assistant U.S. secretary of education:

Educational Wastelands, by Arthur Bestor.

Although it is a classic of American education, Bestor’s Educational Wastelands is seldom assigned in schools of education because it challenges conventional wisdom. Bestor was edu-cated in the best progressive schools, but his book is a scathing critique of progressive practices in the public schools. It was written more than 40 years ago but remains as timely now as when it first appeared. It is probably hard to find but certainly worth the effort.

Nancie Atwell, teacher, author, and founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine:

Sounds From the Heart: Learning To Listen To Girls, by Maureen Barbieri.

This book should be read by anyone who cares about adolescent girls and how they learn, but especially by teachers of grades 6-12. Nothing I have read has had a greater impact on my awareness of the importance of teaching girls in ways that honor and nourish their voices. We know from the work of such researchers as Carol Gilligan that adolescent girls feel enormous pressure to abandon their selves--to be quiet and nice, to go underground with their true thoughts and feelings, to be less than who they really are.

This book is Barbieri’s eloquent story of how she and her female students used literacy to help them realize their potential. As they write, read, research, and talk together, Barbieri makes room for the girls to ask questions, take risks, and reveal themselves.

She works hard to develop curricula that support young women and keep their voices alive at the very moment when they are at risk of disappearing. In her book, we see glimpses of a thoughtful teacher at work, read samples of exceptional student writing, and begin to understand how issues surrounding the social and intellectual development of teenage girls can play themselves out in positive ways in a classroom.

This is a book of enormous love and hope, one that has made me rethink my own teaching of adolescents and the role I might play in helping my girls become strong, self-confident women.

Mike Rose, author and professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles:

Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal, by Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir; and The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould.

I chose two books that have been around for a while. There’s a reason I’m attracted to both: Each, in its own way, goes to the heart of what it means to teach and learn in a democracy.

I like Schooling for All because it offers such a powerful defense of universal public schooling. The authors are political scientists, and they take us through some historical case studies--particularly of schools in Chicago and San Francisco--and demonstrate, in a pretty sophisticated way, the interaction of class, race, and politics in urban schools. But the book is not just a history. All the historical analysis is in the service of a passionate argument for quality public education for all Americans. I hope teachers will come away from it with a richer historical understanding of both the importance of public education and the threats to it, as well as a reinvigorated belief in the importance of decent universal public education.

In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould surveys theories of intelligence from the 19th century on and dismantles them to show how preposterous they were. He looks at everything from craniology to IQ tests. In a very accessible way, Gould systematically takes apart the assumptions behind these theories of intelligence to show how racist or sexist or just downright loopy they were. More than anything I have read before or since, this book dramatically influenced the way I think about measures of intelligence. It made me very uneasy as to the kind of standard measures of intelligence we rely on today and to their terrible misuse.

If all of these theories were so prominent in their time, and championed not just by cranks but by university professors and scientists, that should make us very uncomfortable with the current measures of intelligence we invest so much faith in. If we’re really serious about creating an educational system that is unique to a democracy, we need to have a profound historical commitment to universal public schooling. Furthermore, we need to be distrustful of any theories of mind that set out to sort and separate and rank the citizens in this democracy.

Colman McCarthy, syndicated columnist with The Washington Post and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Teaching Peace:

The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by Mohandas K. Gandhi.

As a teacher of courses on nonviolence, I’m ever amazed by how few students have read books by the great peacemakers. OK, they’re kids. They’re overwhelmed with Beowulf and the Bard, they watch too much television, and they have after-school practice.

But what about their teachers? Why are so few of them familiar with the writings of Gandhi, A.J. Muste, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Dorothy Day, John Woolman, Thich Nhat Hahn, Scott Nearing, Peter Kropotkin, Thomas Merton, and Mulford Sibley, just for starters. If peace is what every nation says it seeks and if peace is what every heart longs for, why aren’t we devouring the literature of peacemaking? Why aren’t we teaching it in our schools?

If teachers want to get started on a spring and summer reading program, I suggest they dive into the works of Gandhi. He wrote more than 90 books. Start now, and you’ll be finished in 20 years--if you read fast. Then go on to Day, Muste, Merton, Addams . . . . Well, you get the idea--the peacemaking idea, let’s hope.

William Ayers, author and associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines.

I was captivated this year by Ernest Gaines’ riveting portrait of a teacher locked in solidarity and struggle with a resistant student. He wrestles as well with his own doubts and fears about himself as a teacher and a person. This is no ordinary teaching assignment: The teacher, an ambitious young man in the segregated South, has been tapped by his elderly aunt’s best friend to teach her godson, a convicted murderer, “to be a man before he dies.’'

A Lesson Before Dying is a teacher’s tale. While the novel’s circumstances are extreme, the interaction is familiar, recognizable. Every teacher knows the irony of teaching what we ourselves neither fully know nor understand. We can each remember moments of intense self-reflection, consciousness shifts, and personal growth brought on by our attempts to teach.

Many teachers also know what it means to teach against oppression, opposition, and obstinacy. Against a history of evil. When the sheriff in this story compares education to agitation, the teacher to the organizer “trying to put something in his head against his will,’' one is reminded of Frederick Douglass’ master exploding in anger when he discovers that his wife has taught the young Douglass to read: “It will unfit him to be a slave.’'

Education, of course, is an excruciating paradox because of its association with schools. That’s because education is about opening doors, opening minds, opening possibilities. School is too often about sorting and punishing, grading and ranking. Education is unconditional--it asks nothing in return. School demands obedience and conformity as a precondition to attendance. Education is surprising and unruly and disorderly, while the first and fundamental law of school is to follow orders. An educator unleashes the unpredictable, while a schoolteacher is expected to begin an unhealthy obsession with classroom management.

The critical message of the teacher to the student is this: You can change your life. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, the teacher invites you to a second chance, another round, perhaps a different conclusion. The teacher posits possibility, openness, and alternative. The teacher points to what could be but is not yet. And the teacher beckons you to change your path. So there is but one basic rule: to reach. This book reminds us of that.

Vivian Gussin Paley, author, kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, and MacArthur fellow:

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, by Lisa Delpit.

Delpit poses an urgent question in her new book, Other People’s Children, one that we teachers need to think about when we have time to be alone with our thoughts: “Why do we have such a hard time making school a happy place for poor children and children of color?’'

She suggests some answers with honesty and passion. Perhaps, she tells us, it is because most classrooms are dominated by a white perspective, and the teachers behave as if children who are “other’’ have no perspective of their own. Some of the voices in this book helped me forget my own for a while, helped me reach across the gulf between cultures. I hope other teachers will have a similar reaction.

Steven Drummond, associate editor of Education Week and a former teacher:

Death at an Early Age, by Jonathan Kozol.

When you start out learning to be a teacher, someone should hand you a copy of this book and say, “Here, read this.’' I was inspired by its honesty and its anger, its powerful sense of teaching as a mission, and its outrage at teachers and principals who no longer cared whether they made a difference.

The book, Kozol’s first, tells a great story: his experiences as a young teacher in the segregated Boston public schools in 1964. Assigned to one of the run-down schools most black students attended, he took over a 4th grade class that had seen 13 substitute teachers that year. He soon saw how the stagnant, crumbling schools blunted any hope for the future of the young lives imprisoned in them.

His attempts to challenge and excite his students met with hostility and contempt from administrators and other teachers who were worn out, incompetent, or bigoted. Eventually he was fired, for teaching a poem by Langston Hughes that wasn’t on the school’s approved list.

With force and with passion, this book reminds teachers that they must constantly question both themselves and the way their schools work. And it challenges every teacher to defy things that are done because they’ve always been done that way--not because they are best for children.

Deborah Meier, author, founder of the Central Park East schools in New York City, a fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and MacArthur fellow:

Stirring the Chalkdust: Tales of Teachers Changing Classroom Practice, by Patricia A. Wasley.

Summertime is when I read novels--the pile I’ve been putting aside all year and the unexpected book I find in my small-town library. But it’s also the time I reread a few professional books that touched me in particular ways as I rushed through them during the school year. In this latter category is Stirring the Chalkdust.

Wasley describes five reform situations--four individual teachers and one team of educators all involved in work with the Coalition of Essential Schools. The contexts vary--some are accounts of growth within changed schools, some of efforts to change an entire traditional school building, and others of efforts to create space for doing their own “small’’ thing. These aren’t interviews but in-depth pictures of a process that took place over nearly five years.

It’s a book to read again--more slowly and carefully. In the course of a tough year, I didn’t always want to be reminded how difficult it is for teachers caught in the middle of change. Now, I need to stop and listen. We want kids to study history and yet we so rarely read our own. Maybe that’s part of the reason change is so hard!

This is a compassionate, honest, detailed, and highly readable account of some brave colleagues doing important work.

Fred Goodman, professor of education and a coordinator of the Master’s With Certification program at the University of Michigan:

Ways With Words, by Shirley Brice Heath.

Ways With Words is frequently the book I suggest my incoming students read before they get here--that’s how important I think it is. I read it about four years ago, and it shocked me. Heath studied how young boys and girls--black and white--in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas used words. I was raised to think words were used only to communicate. She alerted me to the idea that in some settings, words are used--among other things--to insult people.

Almost everything teachers do in the classroom, they do with words. How their students may have been taught to use words is something teachers need to think about. My ways with words aren’t necessarily the same as somebody else’s, and teachers should consider how their students have grown up with certain words at home and what they expect when they hear those words. This book unprovincialized me about language.

Lisa Delpit, author, Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Educational Leadership at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and MacArthur fellow:

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison.

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to choose one book I thought all teachers should read, given the plethora of works that have influenced my teaching by such authors as Jackie Jordan Irvine, Herb Kohl, bell hooks, Mike Rose, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Keith Gilyard, Vivian Paley, Bill Ayers, Cornel West, and many others. I finally settled on what probably seems an unusual choice: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by British author Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison was in her early 60s when she wrote this amazing science-fiction novel, which was originally published in 1962. I was in my late 20s and living in the villages of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific when I read it.

I was just learning what it meant to search for a common bond between myself and people whose lives and world were very different from my own. The book details the life of a spacewoman who is a “communicator’’ for scientific teams exploring the universe. Her job is to establish communication with the very different life forms the team encounters on far-flung planets. To do so, she must be willing not only to observe, study, and analyze but also to let go of a part of herself in order to let the logic of those she wishes to communicate with enter her consciousness. In many ways, she has to re-create herself to include the other.

The processes she describes so beautifully--and the difficulties inherent in the activity--put words to what I found I had to do in order to learn from my research setting in Papua New Guinea. It also mimics what I believe teachers must experience before they can really know, and therefore teach, their students. As a Native Alaskan teacher once told me, “To teach you, I must become you.’'

For us to learn to teach, particularly in communities and cultures that are not our own, we must engage in some very hard work. This book, I believe, gives some insight into the process.

Grace McEntee, senior associate with the Coalition of Essential Schools in Providence, R.I.:

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

This book is about experiences that are both all-encompassing and stretching to the person who is undergoing them. Such moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is being stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Csikszentmihalyi writes about experiences that you have had yourself, such as skiing--where you think of nothing else but skiing. All of your attention is on that next mogul as you fly down the mountain, right at the edge of your ability. I see teaching as being like this. When you’re in a class and it’s going well, nothing else matters besides that class: You’re stretching as a teacher, and your students are stretching. That for me is a flow experience.

This book offers a new way of looking at work and at hard things that we do. It’s a way of looking at life so that hard tasks become wonderful challenges.

Joan Riedl, Minneapolis-based consultant, author, and former teacher:

Marva Collins’ Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin.

I read this book for the first time in 1986 and have returned to it often. Marva Collins’ powerful ideas about teaching, learning, children, and school systems affirmed what I have always believed to be true: that if we want self-reliance to thrive, there must be a significant readjustment in the traditional top-down, hierarchical power structure at all levels of the educational organization.

This book has had a tremendous impact on my professional growth and helped me develop a new approach to teaching and learning in my classroom, with self-reliant learning as the pivotal point. Collins’ strong convictions encouraged me to be bold, and I became a teacher who turned the traditional power pyramid upside down in my classroom.

Marva Collins’ Way is a story of how an educator’s belief in her own and her students’ abilities powerfully enhanced the lives of many young people. Collins sums up her basic message when she says: “The first thing we are going to do here, children, is an awful lot of believing in ourselves. You can’t just sit in a seat and grow smart.’'

The irony of this story is that while Collins was trying to build self-reliant students, her biggest obstacle was a school system that thrived on uniformity, complacency, and dependency. I believe Collins’ story can be an inspiration to teachers everywhere.

As Janet Hagberg said in her book Real Power: “The pace of change and the pressure on organizations to find ways to innovate are stronger [now], and it will take leaders of immense courage, who operate beyond the cultural norms, to move us into the 21st century. True leadership begins with the willingness to be someone other than who the world wants us to be.’'

Pat Bolanos, founding principal of The Key School and The Key Renaissance School in Indianapolis:

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge.

The aspect of this book that spoke to me when I first read it in 1991 fits in with what I had experienced with my colleagues when we designed The Key School: collaborative professional development.

Senge talks about taking a personal vision, which every educator should have, and then expanding that into a shared vision, where educators learn from each other. This concept--it’s called “team learning’'--is vital to any teacher or group of teachers who wish to improve their practice and their school as a whole. The central message of this book is that we need to think systemically in all we do if we are going to change or restructure an organization. Teachers need to be part of the design team and not just the people who implement its plan.

The book explains exactly what systemic thinking entails. If you’re part of a group that is successful and moving along fine, this book explains why that is happening. If you’re part of a group that’s coming up against obstacles and whose efforts are being stalled, Senge offers suggestions that will allow you to move forward. He shows what needs to be done to make the school culture a successful place where everyone wants to learn.

Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas County (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association:

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.

Enduring educational archetypes flow all through Siddhartha. There is the eternal quest for truth and meaning, a man looking outward for something he already possesses within, the power struggle between a father and his son, a teacher who knows that wisdom can be learned but not taught, and the realization that love means never having to say you’re sorry.

In this novel, the tormented Herman Hesse seeks to teach us that “the truth may set you free, but first it will make you miserable.’' A valuable lesson that, if true, probably cannot be taught.


Death at an Early Age, by Jonathan Kozol. (Dutton, 1985.) Available in paperback, $10.95; to order, call: (212) 366-2000.

Educational Wastelands, by Arthur Bestor. (University of Illinois, 1953.) Available in paperback, $11.95; to order, call: (800) 545-4703.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge. (Doubleday, 1990.) Available in paperback, $18.50; to order, call: (800) 323-9872.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Harper & Row, 1990.) Available in paperback, $13; to order, call: (800) 242-7737.

Lateral Thinking, by Edward de Bono. (Harper & Row, 1970.) Available in paperback, $13; to order, call: (800) 242-7737.

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. (Knopf, 1993.) Available in paperback, $11; to order, call: (800) 733-3000.

Marva Collins’ Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin. (Tarcher, 1990.) Available in paperback, $9.95; to order, call: (800) 788-6262.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison. (New English Library, London, 1976.) Out of print; contact your local library.

The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould. (Norton, 1993.) Available in paperback, $9.95; to order, call: (800) 233-4830.

The Moral Life of Children, by Robert Coles. (Houghton-Mifflin, 1991.) Available in paperback, $10.95; to order, call: (800) 225-3362.

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, by Lisa Delpit. (The New Press, 1995.) Available in hardcover, $23; to order, call: (800) 233-4830.

The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons From a Small School in Harlem, by Deborah Meier. (Beacon Press, 1995.) Available in hardback, $20; to order, call: (617) 742-2110, ext. 596.

Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal, by Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir. (Basic Books, 1988.) Out of print; contact your local library.

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. (New Directions, 1951.) Available in paperback, $5.95; to order, call: (212) 255-0230.

Sounds From the Heart: Learning To Listen To Girls, by Maureen Barbieri. (Heinemann, 1995.) Available in paperback, $18; to order, call: (800) 541-2086.

Stirring the Chalkdust: Tales of Teachers Changing Classroom Practice, by Patricia A. Wasley. (Teachers College Press, 1994.) Available in paperback, $20.95; to order, call: (800) 575-6566.

The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by Mohandas K. Gandhi. (Dover, 1983.) Available in paperback, $7.95; to order, call: (800) 223-3130.

Ways With Words, by Shirley Brice Heath. (Cambridge, 1983.) Available in paperback, $24.95; to order, call: (800) 872-7423.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Great Books


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