Professional Development Opinion

Response: Book Recommendations For Teachers -- Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 22, 2014 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

This week’s question-of-the-week is:

What are five important books you would recommend that teachers read, and why would you choose them?

“So many books and so little time to read them” is a refrain that echoes in my mind and, I suspect, in the minds of many other educators around the world. This three-part series is an attempt to provide information that might help teachers determine how to prioritize their limited time for reading in the face of lesson-planning, supporting extra-curricular activities at school, grading and, oh yeah, teaching in the classroom.

Today, in Part One of this three-part series, education writer and parent Melinda D. Anderson shares her recommendations, as do educator/authors Kelly Gallagher, Cathy Vatterott and Vicki Davis. Parts Two and Three will feature suggestions from many other contributors, including readers. Three of the upcoming guest responses will be from Megan Allen, Erin Klein and Jeffrey Zoul, who were all recent guests on my weekly ten minute BAM! Radio Network show. It was a very lively conversation that included ideas on how teachers can make time to read and the three shared specific examples of how reading the books on their list directly affected their teaching practice. That show will be live by the time Part Two in this series is published. In the meantime, you might want to listen to previous guests at the same link.

Though the question asked for a list of five books, I didn’t always remember to share that number when inviting guest responses, so you’ll find contributors sharing both smaller and greater numbers. Readers are also welcome to continue making their own recommendations which will be shared in Part Three.

If the book suggestions in this three-part series isn’t enough for you, scores of teachers from around the world annually share what education-related book they like the best at my resource-sharing blog. You can see their choices from the past six years here.

Before I turn the column over to my guests, I’m also going to briefly share my own recommendations:

* For overall practical classroom guidance: See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden

* For a grounding in important issues relative to student motivation: Drive by Daniel Pink

* For acquiring the skills necessary to teach reading effectively: Reading In The Wild by Donalyn Miller

* For acquiring the skills necessary to teach writing effectively: Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher

* For understanding education policy issues: The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein.

Response From Melinda D. Anderson

Melinda D. Anderson is a Washington, D.C.-based education writer and parent activist with special interest in race, class, educational equity and educational justice. She is a founding member of EduColor, an inclusive collective of educators, parents, students, writers and activists that cultivates and promotes diverse voices in the public education conversation and policymaking process. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter:

Parent’s Reading List: Books Every Teacher Should Read

Teachers have an abundance of advice for parents: things we should know and things we should never say. This reading list turns the tables and assigns some homework to teachers. For your enjoyment and elucidation, three books that I recommend every teacher read.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
By Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

Why You Should Read It: Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum brings clarity and focus to the concepts of racial identity and the role of race in the classroom that can be vexing and uncharted territory for many teachers. Tatum developed and taught a course on “The Psychology of Racism” that evolved into articles and speaking events and culminated in this book - written not for academics but for practical use by educators and parents. Provocatively titled, and grounded in Tatum’s research and years of educational experience, this is an easy, stimulating read that offers teachers a roadmap to better understanding race and culture.

Other’s People Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
By Lisa Delpit

Why You Should Read It: If you sense a theme, I like books that provoke thought and inspire change. In this case, Delpit yanks back the curtain and reveals how the critical factors of race, culture, power and privilege interplay in classrooms between primarily white teachers and “other people’s children” - namely, children of color. It is an eye-opening look at unconscious biases and challenges teachers and administrators to disrupt the stereotypes, prejudice and cultural assumptions that result in educational inequities. Delpit is interested not in casting blame, but resolving miscommunication, correcting mistaken beliefs, and fixing the problem.

The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other
By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Why You Should Read It: “Parents come to school bearing the haunts of their early experiences.” This insight alone is worth the price of this book, filled with practical insights to help teachers cultivate stronger bonds with their students’ first teachers. There’s no question that the parent-teacher relationship is a vital ingredient to student success. It’s also a complex relationship that can be unpredictable and fraught with difficulty. The gap between student diversity and teacher diversity is fast becoming a chasm and presents its own unique challenges to the parent-teacher partnership. In this book Lawrence-Lightfoot offers a framework for having these essential conversations.

Response From Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher teaches at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California, where he is in his 30th year. He is the author of several books on secondary literacy. Kelly’s next book, In the Best Interest of Students, will be released in early 2015 (Stenhouse). Follow Kelly on Twitter @KellyGToGo, and visit him at his website:

Recently, I was asked: “What are five books you recommend that ELA teachers read?” In an attempt to answer this question, I closed the door to my office, began pulling my favorite professional books off the shelves, and two hours later, I came to the conclusion that trying to narrow the list to a mere five books was an exercise in brain-numbing futility. Heck, I can name five books by Donald Graves alone that every teacher should read.

As I began perusing my old books, I kept running into titles that had profoundly changed my teaching practices--many of which I had not revisited in quite some time. Spending time with them again was like a reunion of sorts, a return to all these brilliant educators who have shaped my thinking as a teacher (and more importantly, shaped my students’ thinking). Some of these books are known by almost all teachers-- Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, or Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, for example. But for every one of these iconic books, I also found myself holding a title in my hand and thinking, “More teachers should know this book. This book is underappreciated.”

So, I have taken the liberty to change the original focus of this blog post. Below, instead, you will find thirteen underappreciated but essential books for ELA teachers. Looking at the list of titles, I realize that many of them may have sold well and to call them “underappreciated” seems odd. But I am categorizing them as “underappreciated” because I think each of these books is great and that there still may be teachers out there who do not know them; therefore, the use of “underappreciated” seems appropriate to me.

Here (in alphabetical order) are thirteen underappreciated, essential books that every ELA teacher should read:

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart

It seems odd that I start this list with a book about the teaching of math, but the concerns addressed in this book apply to all content areas. Why are so many kids turned off to math? Lockhart argues that the current methods used to teach mathematics contribute greatly to the rise in math phobia. Instead, Lockhart says, the teaching of math is an opportunity to foster creativity, a chance to develop our students’ imaginations. This book, if I may say so, is sort of a math version of Readicide.

How the Brain Learns by David Sousa

Sousa, an expert on brain development, presents a research-based rationale for why and when certain instructional strategies should be considered. Our brains are “novelty seekers,” and Sousa’s book is full of suggestions to make your classroom conducive to learning. Sousa opened my eyes to the effects past experiences have on learning, as well as to the importance motivation plays in the learning process.

How Writing Shapes Thinking by Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee

The act of writing is generative--it generates new thinking. If we want our students to deepen their thinking, they need to be doing a lot more writing. Not only does more writing equal better thinking, but, as Langer and Appleby note, different kinds of writing produce different kinds of thinking. For example, the kind of thinking generated when a student writes a summary is different than the kind of thinking that is generated when a student writes an analysis. Written in 1987, this book remains relevant.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This is a good companion read to the Sousa book mentioned above. Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, explains how the reading brain has developed in human beings over the past 5,000 years. Wolf explains the modern-day dangers of “word poverty,” and the implications word poverty has on our instruction.

Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Bribing students with points, stickers, and/or candy may work in the short run, but as Kohn argues, this type of motivation has deleterious effects. “Do this and you’ll get that” actually harms students in the long run. Instead, Kohn makes the argument that teachers should work to strengthen intrinsic motivation in our students. This book is not just a valuable read for teachers--it has real value for parents of young children as well.

Response and Analysis by Robert Probst

At a time where the CCSS have devalued the importance of a reader’s prior knowledge and personal experiences, now is a good time to revisit this book. In it, Probst outlines methods that lead to student-driven interpretation and analysis. An important read for anyone who teaches literature.

Shades of Meaning by Donna Santman

This book illustrates how to teach readers the skills and strategies of comprehension and interpretation within the framework of a reading workshop. As Santman says, “I never teach my students about the text, but rather a strategy for reading the text.” A great book to help teach critical reading skills, and though it is written with middle school in mind, it is applicable to grades 4-12.

Strategic Reading by Jeff Wilhelm, Tanya Baker, and Julie Hackett

One of my favorite books on the teaching of reading. This book helped me to see the importance of making the reading process visible to my students, and like the Santman book, focuses on teaching students how to learn.

Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks

Giving students an argumentative prompt and having the entire class answer the same question is not really teaching argument. It is teaching students to answer your question. Hillock’s idea that meaningful argument arises from inquiry completely changed the way I approach this genre in my classroom, and given that argumentative writing is clearly the favorite CCSS discourse, this book should be widely read.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

Good teaching involves much more than technique. It involves the heart, and in this book Palmer discusses the importance of staying passionate while working in a system that often works to harden teachers. A good book to return to when the hardships of teaching begin to weigh upon you.

The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau

I have probably learned more about reading from Sheridan Blau than from anyone else on the planet, and this book explores serious questions for teachers of reading: How do you get students to understand the importance of confusion? How do you motivate students to read the hard stuff? How should you deal with contradictory interpretations? A rich and thoughtful book.

With Rigor For All by Carol Jago

In an age where curriculum is being dumbed down, where difficult great books are being set aside in favor of lighter, trendier selections, Jago’s argument that great books should be taught to all kids is more important than ever. This edition is filled with specific strategies to get help your students find the greatness in books, but it’s Jago’s rationale behind the use of these strategies that I find compelling. (The section where she explains the reasons why great books matter should be required reading for any teacher or administrator overly focused on test prep).

Well Spoken by Erik Palmer

Because they are often not tested, listening and speaking have become the forgotten language arts. This book is filled with numerous ideas to elevate our students’ listening and speaking skills. I particularly like how Palmer’s approach to the writing of a speech mirrors the practices found in writing effective essays--that students must be first taught to identify the speaker’s purpose and the intended audience and work outward from there.

There stands my list of thirteen underappreciated books for ELA teachers--which raise new questions: “Which titles did I overlook? What books should be added to this list?” With these questions in mind, I now invite you to nominate other influential yet underappreciated books. Once the conversation on this posting runs its course, I will post a final list on kellygallagher.org.

Response From Cathy Vatterott

Cathy Vatterott is an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. After she presented at several educational conferences, participants began referring to her as the “homework lady.” Vatterott is the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs (ASCD, 2009):

I believe teachers benefit from reading thought-provoking books that attempt to “subvert the dominant paradigm.” Each book I chose challenges teachers to reexamine the status quo, question what we think we know, and imagine how things could be different.

Delivering on the promise: The education revolution (2009) by DeLorenzo, Battino, Schreiber, and Gaddy Carrio, shares one district’s transformation from a time-based to performance based system that yielded remarkable results for students. With revolutionary approaches to curriculum, instruction, assessment, and student ownership of learning, this book sparks new perspectives on standards-based learning.

How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character (2012) by Paul Tough, is the most inspirational book I have read in a long time. Tough shows us the science behind why some children from poverty struggle in school and how success is more about mindset than ability. The key lies with teachers-- in developing persistence, a growth mindset, and “learned optimism” in students. The stories of how teachers have helped even the most disadvantaged children to succeed are powerful and uplifting.

I found the next two books influential in subverting the dominant paradigm about student motivation. Both books are convincing antidotes for the “behaviorist soup” we have been swimming in for too long. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, by Daniel Pink, dispels many ingrained beliefs about motivation, reveals the ineffectiveness of carrots and sticks, and shows how mastery, autonomy, and purpose are the fuel of intrinsic motivation.

Fires in the mind: What kids can tell us about motivation and mastery (2010) by Kathleen Cushman, poignantly told through the voices of students, reinforces many of the insights of Drive. It’s a compelling picture of what gets students excited about learning, the critical role of adult encouragement, and how many typical classroom practices actually discourage learning.

Being a passionate advocate for homework reform, I must unapologetically recommend my book, Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Although most teachers have never been trained in the effective use of homework, their homework beliefs are unwavering and their practices strongly entrenched. This book helps teachers explore the emotional topic of homework in light of research and within the context of today’s families. Neither pro- nor anti-homework, it suggests a balanced approach to changing outdated homework practices.

Too often teachers look for recipes rather than inspiration. Hopefully these books will inspire creative changes.

Response From Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full time classroom teacher in Camilla, Georgia and author of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, Reinventing Writing and Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds. You can hear her bi-weekly show “Every Classroom Matters” on the Bam Radio Network:

At the beginning of every football season, Vince Lombardi would hold up a football and say “this is a football.” He was a master and yet a fanatic for fundamentals. While amazing teachers add flourish, you’ll find rock solid fundamentals under everything they do. The books I’ve chosen are based on research and the classroom changing impact each of them have in my classroom as I read and reread them.

The First Days of School by Harry Wong

Procedures are at the core of what we do. We must start strong the first day of school. But as a teacher we can reboot and restart any day. When I have big picture problems I examine my procedures first and then my response to the problem second. Every widespread problem in my classroom comes back to one of these two issues. Harry Wong’s book is an essential read for every teacher.

Fred Jones’ Tools for Teachers

Fred Jones has some masterful ways to help teachers have the appropriate body language for handling situations of all kinds. Do you know when you smile as you handle behavior problems that you’re sending mixed messages? Great teachers can and should be able to handle most problems without saying a word. And remember that when you argue, you’ve already lost. Students respond to how we treat others and they’re always watching. This book is the essential guidebook for teacher behavior and more.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

When looking at student success, those students who are metacognitive become much more successful over their lifetimes than those who do not. Dweck shares her research into the growth versus fixed mindset. Learn how to foster a way of thinking that makes a tremendous amount of difference in one’s life. Once you read this book, you’ll even see your own learning differently.

What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd Whitaker

You’ll see common themes with the other books I’ve recommended, but I love this book because it is so short and impactful. If you’re an administrator trying to foster these behaviors in your teachers, you should use Whitaker’s 10 Minute In-Service with your teachers in staff meetings.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

Dave’s book was a pivotal one for me because it changed everything about how I design student learning experiences. There is no other book I’ve seen that approaches the presentation aspect of teaching like this one does. I keep this book open on my desk as I plan my week. It is full of ideas and makes me a more exciting teacher.

I can name many more important books that have shaped me as a teacher. Leaders are readers. While we get tired, still make time to read and improve your practice.

What are your favorite 5 books for educators? Please share in the comments or on your own blog. Let’s get out there and read. Move forward every single day!

Thanks to Melinda, Kelly, Cathy and Vicki for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, readers’ thoughts will be included in Part Three.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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