Education Opinion

The End of Your Career Book Club: Ten Books That Shaped My Teaching Life, Part II

By Nancy Flanagan — July 09, 2013 5 min read
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Now it’s Claudia Swisher’s turn. Claudia started teaching in 1967. She’s been a school librarian, a remedial reading teacher, and a classroom teacher, for 39 years, in three states, seven schools, and for ten principals, teaching four of her first five years on emergency permits. Here are here ten most influential books.

Just as I was cleaning out my last classroom for the last time, my friend Nancy Flanagan gave me an assignment: identify my ten most influential professional books, and give my evidence. What fun! I stacked up about 15 books immediately and then started the process of choosing my final ten. I see most of them as putting into words something I didn’t even know I needed to know. Giving me permission to be more authentic about my own work. Every author is fierce and passionate about children and how they learn.

So, roughly in the order I read them:

Reading Without Nonsense by Frank Smith - Smith is a psycholinguist who created the framework for reading instruction that was the backbone of my work at Indiana University. I still use the concepts of reading as prediction and asking questions. “Reading is asking questions of printed text” and, in my mind, trusting students will succeed. Smith’s fierceness encouraged me to help children build on their strengths. In the margin on one page I have written the name of a student I recognized in Smith’s words.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer - I had never read anyone before Palmer who talked about the importance of relationships in teaching, and of the importance of the identity and integrity of the teacher in the classroom. His words gave me inspiration to teach who I really was, and not like the teacher down the hall. “I am a teacher at heart and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy.” I was hooked in the first sentence.

In the Middle by Nancie Atwell - I had to read this twice to appreciate the wisdom. The first time, I fought the concept of a reading-writing workshop in class. I kept telling myself, ‘of course it works for her; she teaches in a private school. Years later, after I’d established my own class, Reading for Pleasure, I realized one can pull off reading workshops in public high schools too. I had internalized her lessons, but I had to respond to my students and my community. She was a classroom teacher ahead of her time.

Radical Reflections by Mem Fox - What a fierce woman and teacher. She reminded me we can’t truly be teachers of reading and writing until we read and write with our students. She loves words and language and stories and inspires us all. The concept that we must ‘ache with caring’ over our writing took my breath away. She seems on fire with ideas and passion. I want to be her!

Free Voluntary Reading by Stephen Krashen - Here it is. All the research for my own class. All the validation. When I read this the first time, I remember nodding enthusiastically, “Yes! Yes!” I made handouts of some of the more important quotes and used them as ammunition when critics would try to hit me and my class as ‘blow-offs.’ Here was the research, the copious research, that gave legitimacy to my class and my classroom practices. Like Fox, Krashen burns with intensity and passion.

Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - I watched some kids get so engrossed in their reading that they literally forgot where they were. I’ve had that happen to me as well. I didn’t know, until I read this book, that there is a mental and emotional state called “flow” when the world conspires to put us into the world of our books and transports us. I was so excited to have the term for what some lucky students had experienced! It’s Flow. I wanted to write about that, but, alas, I wasted my time teaching and Jeffery Wilhelm and Nancie Atwell beat me to the punch. Ah, well...

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher - What a book. Gallagher has credibility with me because he is a classroom teacher. He understands teaching English Language Arts to a bunch of less-than-enthusiastic teens. He speaks with authority when he tells us the dangers of overteaching a work, and underteaching it. I’ve been guilty of both. And I have committed ‘readicide’ - that act of killing the love of reading and learning. I got to read an advance reader copy online and participate in a discussion about the book. Learned a lot.

The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Oh, man. I quite literally spent most of my time yelling at this book, “We knew this! We tried to warn you! We told you so!” This book, I think, was a turning point in my career from quiet teacher minding my own business, not rocking the boat, that ‘managed’ teacher Nancy Flanagan speaks of, to angry, vocal critic of what’s going on in our public schools. Diane Ravitch publically admitted to the world she was wrong...she showed me what was at stake, and she helped me find MY voice. When I met her, we agreed we’re both old, we have mouths, and we know how to use them. But I don’t think I would have had the courage without her book.

If Not Now by Jeanne Henry. A former student and student teacher who teaches a Reading for Pleasure-type class at the college level recommended this. While it’s not ground-breaking, to me it was a revelation that what I do CAN work in other settings. So often people tell me my class was successful on the strength of my own personality. But others can make this concept work too. I felt like a friend was talking directly to me.

The Myths of Standardized Tests by Phillip Harris, Bruce Smith and Joan Harris. I participated in an online discussion about this book and had my mind blown by a comment by one of the authors. He told us ANY test prep work is essentially cheating...because test prep changes the dynamics of the testing setting. I have used that line often in my conversations. It gets very quiet. I went back through the book and copied out all the lines explaining the myths...I wish I was rich enough to buy a copy for every Legislator in Oklahoma. Evidence is solid and the tone is very professional. This helped me evolve as a voice against current education reform. I am armed with facts.

And because I cannot follow directions, I need to at least add five more. My Honorable Mentions:

Teachers Have it Easy by Daniel Moulthrop, Dave Eggers, Ninive Clements Calegari
Fires in the Bathroom by Kathleen Cushman
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden
Schools Cannot do it Alone by Jamie Vollmer


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.