Education Opinion

The End of Your Career Book Club, Part III: Influence, Inspiration and Instruction

By Nancy Flanagan — July 11, 2013 6 min read
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Thanks to all those who read through my list and Claudia Swisher‘s list of books that shaped our beliefs and careers--and commented or shared their own seminal works. It’s good to see overlap; we are not alone!

This third and final blog is our dialogue about favorite books. If you haven’t read the previous two blogs, they’re right below, here and here. Once again, we invite you to jump right in with your own selections, or perhaps critiques of recommended books.

Nancy says:

Great list, Claudia! The first thing I noticed was that most of your books were practice-based, a great collection for someone who teaches in the secondary language arts field, and many of mine were about the bigger education stage, where practice meets policy, leadership and power. I have only a small collection of books that deal with teaching music; there aren’t that many music education books out there, and most are cookbooks full of techniques for tuning the french horns or conducting 20th century literature. Useful, but not inspiring or influential.

I was pleased to see Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle on your list--I loved it when I read it, even though I never taught anything remotely close to a reading workshop. She understood the middle school mind, the place where kids want most to be treated as mature, independent learners rather than compliant automatons. And--just because some teachers are fortunate enough to enjoy reasonable class sizes, autonomous curriculum development and time to think about what matters most, doesn’t mean teachers with large classes and standardized parameters can’t adapt good practice in that direction.

Lots of people, including me, love Parker Palmer’s work. I went to a Courage to Teach workshop a few years back, and it was a gentle, reflective, deep experience. I was on the planning team for this conference, and read the evaluations afterward, which were divided into two distinct camps: #1) I really needed this reminder of why I do what I do! and #2) With all the problems we have in public education, why are we sitting around navel-gazing? (I was in Camp #1.)

Csikszentmihalyi was on my short list, too. As a music teacher, flow--total absorption in playing (interesting that we play music, no?)--was always a goal. You don’t get it very often, with 12-year old musicians, but a good music teacher frequently includes easy, just-for-pleasure music. If all you do is hack away at technical challenges, every rehearsal, kids lose heart. And we already know that I’m all about heart.

Ravitch’s Death and Life is a terrific book. By the time I read it, it was simply confirmation--well-organized, full of facts and in one spot--of what I already believed was true. It fleshed out my educational world view a bit (the chapter on the Billionaire Boys, for example). It’s a book I recommend, often, to friends who are just starting to look around and see what’s happening to public education. I read Myths of Standardized Tests before hosting a Save Our Schools webinar on testing--and agree that all state legislators ought to understand that tests have zero magical powers and plenty of destructive side effects.

I liked Roxanna Elden’s book, too--a lot. And it reminded me that I should have mentioned Kelly Flynn’s The Teachers Lounge (Uncensored), a no-holds-barred collection of real school stories from which Flynn wrings important truths.

Going to look up Frank Smith and read some Mem Fox (a name I hear often from elementary-school teacher buddies) and Kelly Gallagher. And Teachers Have it Easy is on my to-read list.

Speaking of which--I’m at 76 books in 2013, on my Goodreads list. How many for you, Claudia?

Thanks for your nice words. I still think you had the best teaching job of all--reading with teenagers, all day long. The comments your students leave on your blogs and posts tell me that you have had an amazing impact on their lives. The value of your teaching won’t be fully understood and appreciated for decades--and that’s the way it should be.

Claudia writes:

Before I even glanced at Nancy’s list of books I knew I would learn something new. There would be new titles, titles about teacher leadership and the profession we both love. I figured there would be a music book on the list and I absolutely knew I would find books I’d be ordering from Amazon right away.

Neil Postman! My copy was dog-eared and not-so-gently thumbed through. But, you know what? It’s been so long since I read it (I was back in school in the early 70’s, ready to re-enter the profession), I need to read this one again!

Schoolteacher...don’t know this one at all! One of those ‘Nancy finds’ that will be added to my list. I wonder if the time between the publication of the second edition in 2006 and now will show any progress in the profession.

Herb Kohl. Haven’t read On Teaching, that I remember, but I have read 36 Children and Should We Kill Babar? I appreciate his voice for sure, and will add Nancy’s to my list.

Change Forces...See, I KNEW there would be books on this list about the profession and changes from within. Nancy’s so passionate about education and preserving it for the next generation. I’m kind of put off by her warning “turgid, difficult to read.” I AM a retired teacher...I don’t have to read hard stuff if I don’t want to. I’ll bet Nancy could summarize this one and recommend an easier one for me.

Manufactured Crisis! Oh yes! My copy is on the bottom shelf of my book case. I tried so hard to begin conversations about this book and the manufactured crisis as I was reading, and after. Sadly, no one wanted to hear...they thought I was Chicken Little, when I was really the canary in the mine. I wonder how depressed I’ll feel if I reread this one?

Other People’s Children! According to my goodreads.com page, I read this one first. What an eye-opening look at Teach for America and the harm they do to ‘other people’s children.’ I would like to make every young person contemplating TFA read this and then re-examine his or her own motives.

Sleeping Giant - oh, man. It goes on the list too. As I transition from classroom teacher to rabble-rouser, I need to learn...to mine the collective wisdom of where we’ve been and how we got to where we are now. This is a brand new book for me, and one I need to read!

Agenda, Alternatives, and Public Policy
- I’ve only begun to engage in conversations with lawmakers about legislation, and a line in Nancy’s review rings so true to me: “often-brief window of opportunity.” We don’t learn about proposed legislation until it’s on its way to becoming law. By then, we ARE too late to really impact the direction...if we ever had a chance. I have contacted Legislators and asked to help read bills with them over the summer, while we CAN impact legislation. I’ll put this one at the top of the list, since I may well be able to use information very soon.

Drive - Not surprised to see Daniel Pink here. I thought Nancy might choose A Whole New Mind, since it is concerned with human creativity, and she lives in the world of the arts. I read this one too and feel like I did the best I could to incorporate his three concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I had a great conversation on goodreads with a friend about whether this book was applicable in education. I hold it is. If all learning was grounded in these concepts, schools would be vibrant places for learning.

So, what did I learn from this exercise? I loved putting my own long career into a framework of books that have influenced, guided, and affirmed me. It was such fun stacking the books, then restacking, then finally choosing.

But the big payoff for me was learning about Nancy’s picks. I always learn when I ‘talk’ with Nancy. I knew she would have books on her list that would be helpful for me as I look toward my next ‘job’. I very much want to help parents comprehend the speeding locomotive of ‘reforms’ headed straight for their children, and I want to assist parent in framing and directing their stories to policy makers. I see several books that need to go into my ‘data banks’ as I try to build credibility for this second career. I met Nancy when she came to Oklahoma as a presenter to NBCT candidate support providers. I have been learning from her for years now, and look forward to many more years of private instruction.

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.