Education Opinion

4 Books That Encourage, Inspire, and Challenge Educators

By Joe Nathan — June 12, 2015 6 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan continue their discussion of good books for summer reading. They also debate how to assess a person’s work. Joe begins, and Deb responds.

Dear Deb,

Encouragement, inspiration, passion, perspective, challenge and controversy. That’s what I think the four books offer that are suggested below.

For educators seeking support and inspiration, I’d recommend two books: Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach and Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach. Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner edited both books.

Each book contains dozens of poems and one-page essays by educators explaining how the poem touches them. The contributors include district and charter educators, teacher union leaders, and college faculty. The authors skillfully describe challenges and rewards of teaching.

The third book, The Warmth of Other Suns appeared on many “best books of the year” lists for its extraordinary stories of six million African Americans who moved from the American South to the North between 1919 and 1970. The author, Isabel Wilkerson, has won the Pulitzer Prize for her writing. She conducted more than 1,200 interviews as part of her research for this book. Her stirring stories of individuals and families range from infuriating to inspirational.

Award winning, controversial and challenging educator Dr. Howard Fuller is one of many millions who moved north. I strongly recommend his book: No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform.

Fuller spent several years with his mother and grandmother in Louisiana. The family then moved to Milwaukee. His mother married, unfortunately to an alcoholic, abusive man. An outstanding athlete, Fuller was the only African American at the college he attended in Wisconsin.
Fuller has held an array of jobs. They include business agent for the union of maids, custodians and janitors at Duke University, insurance salesperson, community organizer, co-founder of Malcolm X Liberation University, Dean at Milwaukee Technical College, Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, Distinguished Professor at Marquette University and founder of Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Fuller has been beaten by police and jailed for his efforts. He uses the language, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” of Frederick Douglass and the civil rights movement, of which he has been a part for more than 50 years.

He cites you, Deb, and Ted Sizer, by name, as people who “helped me understand the difficulty of creating and sustaining a great school.”

Fuller has become one of the nation’s most eloquent, passionate promoters of chartered public schools and vouchers for students from low-income families. I agree with him re charters, and disagree about vouchers, which I don’t support. But I think that Fuller’s insights, involvement and ideas are very much worth considering.

Among those are his responses to those who insist that he is being “used” by conservative groups: “My criteria for accepting financial support is that it must allow the organizations with which I am most intimately involved to stay true to our mission...I find it a complete waste of time to debate which people and organizations are considered acceptable donors and which ones are not.”

Some disdain people like Fuller, or me, for our view of school choice as an extension of the civil rights movement. Critics should consider Fuller’s decades of working with and for low income, African American families to help improve housing, health care, employment and educational opportunities. After being involved in a vast array of efforts to empower and assist people with low incomes, Fuller has concluded: “education offers the best route out of poverty for individuals...for me, putting poor children on that path is today’s most urgent struggle.”

I know of no more provocative, passionate and powerful book for people who care about students from low-income families and the schools serving them.

Deborah Meier responds:

I’m impressed. You managed to winnow your suggestions down to three. While I immediately thought of a few more interesting musts--too many! Here’s a short taste of seven other worthies. Write them down--NOW!

Trusting What You Know, by Miriam Raider-Roth An important take on trust and learning that underlies the need for a very different kind of reform agenda than the one we’re now in the midst of. Five breathtaking case histories.

An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution, edited by M. McDermott, P. Roberts, R. Jensen and C. Smith. Good accounts of what’s happening around the country.

Schooling Beyond Measure by Alfie Kohn Wonderful collection--short, pithy, amusing and insightful.

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, by P.L.Thomas. Just out. A much needed defense of the use of good literature in school.

The Cage-Busing Teacher by Frederick Hess, tells the story from the “other side"--in short, we disagree. But not on everything. It’s worth reading.

Also: two somewhat oldies you might enjoy.

Colin Greer’s The Great School Legend--a reminder of what the past really looked like, Written (1972

Mismeasuring Our Lives, by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi is a recent’ish (2010) report about “why GDP doesn’t add up"; and how else we might measure the “good life.” A reminder that the purpose of good schooling is itself up for grabs.

On Howard Fuller, what we did in our youth should be applauded but doesn’t change my assessment of what he’s been about for the past 20 years--lining up unabashedly with those leading us to greater and greater inequality. Yes, we are missing a generation of civil rights leaders that the young are pining for.

Joe responds: Deb, many years ago I spent time listening to and learning from Saul Alinsky, a brilliant community organizer. He’s the author of Rules for Radicals. I learned many things from him, including the value of alliances and coalitions to help make the world a better, more just place. Whether it’s challenging the NCAA, or building a new inner city playground, or convincing legislators to approve a controversial law, I’ve seen the value of coalitions that sometimes include people with whom I disagree on some, or even many other issues.

So when I think about people, I look at what they’ve tried to do, and what they’ve accomplished. None of us are perfect, starting with me. I think we can learn from a variety of people, include those with whom we don’t always agree. While you and I don’t support vouchers for students from low-income families, as Howard does, I think the three of us, and lots of people who read this blog, have worked for many of the same things. This summer, I’ll read one of the books you suggest, and hope that you and others will read what Fuller wrote.

I think that Howard Fuller has lived a courageous life devoted to justice and expanded opportunity for folks who had been treated disgracefully by powerful people. I think his life, and his book, are remarkable.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.