Professional Development Opinion

Response: Part Three - Book Recommendations For Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 27, 2014 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

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?

In Part One of this three-part series, education writer and parent Melinda D. Anderson shared her book recommendations for teachers, as did educator/authors Kelly Gallagher, Cathy Vatterott and Vicki Davis. I also briefly shared my own suggestions.

In Part Two, Megan Allen, Erin Klein, Jeffrey Zoul and Mike Fisher contributed their responses to the question.

Today’s post is the final one in this series, and features recommendations from Grant Wiggins, John Norton, Barbara Blackburn, Amy Benjamin and Kevin Washburn, plus a zillion reader comments.

I also had a ten-minute conversation with Megan, Erin and Jeff on my weekly 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. Because of a technical delay, though, it won’t be online until Tuesday. Until that time, though, you can listen to previous guests on the show.

Response From Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins is the co-author of Understanding by Design, Educative Assessment and numerous other publications. He writes a blog titled Granted, and...~ thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins and is president of Authentic Education in Hopewell NJ. He can be reached at gwiggins@authenticeducation.org:

On brief classics of education

Education books are a mixed lot. Many are too simplistic in their attempt to be practical. Others are far too abstract, dense, and long with little or no usefulness to practitioners.

The Internet era has made matters worse: we all, myself included, are less willing now to slog through a 300-page non-fiction book on any topic.

Yet, there are a few books that so achieve the equipoise of thoughtfulness, brevity, and usefulness that they become classics; we are drawn to re-read them at various times in our career. I want to mention five that pass this test for me.

The first recommendation will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed my work: Ralph Tyler’s The Basic Principles of Curriculum & Instruction. This brief text, written 65 years ago, lays out in clear and concise prose the logic of ‘backward design’ from goals; it also provides tools and tips for honoring the idea.

The second recommendation is a classic from the 60’s that may be unfamiliar to younger teachers but which galvanized and focused many of us young teachers over 40 years ago: Teaching as a Subversive Activity. How can you not like a book that says we should develop learners’ crap detector?

All teachers of my generation know the name Madeleine Hunter. (Alas, her work became somewhat discredited by how it was implemented locally). Her brief little books - with built-in checks for understanding that gave you feedback, based on your answers! - on varied aspects of teaching were clear, concise, and helpful to countless millions of educators. Her book Teach for Transfer is one of her gems.

My fourth recommendation is math-specific but all teachers will profit from it: Georg Polya’s How to Solve It, another small jewel, designed to help teachers teach problem-solving. Though the examples are mostly mathematical, the methods apply to all content.

My last recommendation is John Dewey’s How We Think. The modern critical thinking movement is based on this text. Though Dewey’s prose is sometimes dense it is never opaque. Anyone interested in developing thoughtful students must read this book, many times. No book has influenced me more and is more dog-eared.

PS. I crowd-sourced a call for nominations for the best classic texts in education in my blog a few years back. You can see the list of the winners here.

Response From John Norton

John Norton is founder and co-editor of MiddleWeb, a website for middle level educators:

Day One and Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers (Rick Wormeli). A classic published more than a decade ago, it presents the core beliefs of a master middle school teacher who has since developed an international reputation for his teaching expertise.

Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Mike Rose). UCLA professor Mike Rose spent four years visiting schools around the U.S. and produced this wonderful and inspiring book about what K12 education might become. Twenty years later, his hopes are still possibilities.

Writing Sense: Integrated Reading and Writing Lessons for English Language Learners (Kendall & Khuon). The late Juli Kendall and her teaching partner Outey Khuon worked in an urban California school district where nearly 60 languages were spoken. This book, and the earlier “Making Sense,” represent their understanding about what works for ELL students.

The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (Elena Aguilar). The former Oakland CA teacher and principal coach writes with passion and eloquence about the best ways to help colleagues grow and excel.

Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Helping Teachers Develop as Leaders, 3rd edition (Katzenmeyer & Moller). This is the book that helped ignite the teacher leadership movement in America in the late 1990s. The 3rd edition appeared in 2009 and is still relevant and important for those who support teacher empowerment.

MiddleWeb has published nearly 300 reviews of professional education books and we post three new reviews each week, which are featured in MiddleWeb SmartBrief every Friday. All of our reviews are written by educators, and most books about teaching practice are appraised by active classroom teachers. We have a topical index of reviews, or visitors can browse our latest posts at our book review homepage.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership. She is also the author of 14 books, including the best seller, Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word. She can be reached through her website:

I’m only going to give you two--but they are ones you probably won’t get from anyone else.

The Thread that Runs So True -- a story of a mountain teacher in rural Kentucky and the challenges he faces. It was one of the first books I read about education, and it always reminds me of two things:

1. The passion of a teacher truly makes a difference.
2. As hard as my job is, it could always be worse (as I read of some of his challenges).

The Phantom Tollbooth
-- a children’s book. It is a reminder of the power of learning. It’s also a very hopeful book, full of humor and inspiration for teachers. For example, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s much harder to swim back.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge). You can visit her website:

Having resisted the temptation to recommend my own books, here are the five books that I believe every teacher will learn from, enjoy, and be able to interest students in, as well:

1. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: If you’ve ever heard anyone say that it takes 10,000 hours to master a difficult skill, they are quoting Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The thesis of this fascinating, anecdotal book is that small advantages, especially those that are experienced early in life, are more significant than we might think in determining those people who achieve extraordinary success. For example, early in the book, Gladwell points out the correlation between stand-out youth hockey players the fact that all of them happened to have birthdays clustering around the months of the year that made them the oldest players on their teams when they first started to play. The slight advantage that the slightly older boys had over their teammates rolled steadily into more than better skill on the ice. Success in hockey led to greater self-esteem, which, in turn led to more productive, confident attitudes in the long term. Malcolm Gladwell is noted for tilting the world a bit so that we see things in a new way.

2. Drive by Dan Pink: Like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, challenges our conventional thinking. Drive is about motivation, a subject every teacher can’t know enough about. This book posits that traditional notions of how to motivate people (money in the workplace, high grades in school) are not as strong as the three conditions that he trumpets: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Certainly, these are ingredients that we can mix into our offerings at school, and we probably don’t do so enough.

I’ve always felt that the grading system is a false god that we worship to our own detriment. Don’t we hate it when Is this on the test? is the only hint of curiosity that our students express? And don’t we know in our hearts that the relationship between students, teachers, schools, parents, and grades really amounts to a compliance game? No homework? You get a zero in the book. Late paper? Points off. Not paying attention? You’ll be sorry when the test comes along. Hard as it is to remove ourselves individually from an institutional paradigm in which we are so entrenched, when you read Drive, you’ll come away with fresh and doable ideas on how to motivate the students and professionals in your school.

3. The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley: Journalist Amanda Ripley investigated the question of why, oh why, American students fare so poorly against other industrialized nations whose fifteen-year-olds have taken the PISA test. That’s the test on which American students come in 32nd, or thereabouts, in the world, in reading and math. Informed by her own research as well as anecdotal reports from American students who spent a year of high school abroad, Ripley presents three different reasons for the outsized success of Finland, Poland, and South Korea. The solutions amount to a deep, systemic, cultural commitment to the value of education. This book won’t help you decide what to teach and how to teach it and what to do with your most nettlesome students tomorrow, but it will help you understand that you alone as a teacher can do only so much.

4. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. (Or, as I like to call it, Diane Ravitch Strikes Again, but This Time She’s on Our Side.) The book is subtitled How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. And, yes, this is that Diane Ravitch, the No Child Left Behind Diane Ravitch. But she’s sorry for all that now, hey, we tried it and it didn’t work, now let’s please, please stop. One can only hope that her voice will be taken more seriously even than others who are saying the same thing, seeing as how she strayed so deep into the dark side, really tried to make NCLB, along with its punitive, blame-and-shame policies, work. And it didn’t. The book is an eloquent, well-researched shoot-down of some of those storied “success story” schools that, in fact, cannot be replicated, or, worse, are chimerical successes after all. Read this one with a highliter, people.

5. Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success by Mike Krzyzewski with Jamie K. Spatola: If, like me, you are not conversant in college basketball, the name Mike Krzyzewski is not familiar to you. Coach K, as he is called, has been the coach of the Duke men’s basketball team since 1980. Besides being the winningest coach in NCAA history, Coach K is known for emphasizing communication skills and trust-building in organizations. This book is a collection of anecdotes and words of inspiration, each based on a single important word.

The words around which this very readable book is built are: adaptability, adversity, balance, belief, care, challenges, collective responsibility, commitment, communication, courage, crisis management, culture, dependability, empathy, enthusiasm, excellence, failure, family, friendship, fundamentals, giving back, guidance, imagination, integrity, learning, love, motivation, next play, ownership, passion, poise, pressure, pride, respect, selflessness, standards, talent, trust, will, and work.

Tweet me @amybenjamin1 to give me some of your own books-for-teachers faves.

Response From Kevin Washburn

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school:

It is necessary to begin this post with a disclaimer: I find most books written specifically for educators to lack value. It’s not that I don’t like books written by teachers. In fact, if teacher appears in the author’s bio, I am more inclined to explore a book. The problem is not that educators write books; it’s that many such authors write with an idiosyncratic perspective. A teacher finds something that works, an administrator suggests writing a book about it, and a publisher puts it out as the next “miracle pill” for education’s woes. The research base is often limited to the author’s classroom experiences, and even the theoretical basis for the recommendations is vague.

At this point, you may be wondering why I agreed to write this post. Here’s why: most of the books that have dramatically influenced my teaching have not been written by colleagues. (By colleagues I mean other K-12 educators.) My experience suggests that the greater insights about teaching and learning may be in books authored by individuals from other disciplines. I hope that this list may spark more multi-disciplinary thinking about our important practice as teachers.

So, with that background, here are my current “influential five":

1. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman.
Why read it: to understand the role attention plays in learning and how easily it can be hijacked, leaving gaps in an individual’s construction of new learning
One quote: “A conversation that starts with a person’s dreams and hopes can lead to a learning path yielding that vision” (p. 173).

2. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Why read it: to learn about creativity from a true, practicing creative
One quote: “Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them...Art is a vast democracy of habit” (p. 165)

3. The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam
Why read it: to understand the role visually representing ideas plays in learning and thinking
One quote: “If looking is the semipassive process of collecting visual inputs, then seeing is the active process of selecting those visual inputs that matter most, and then recognizing the pattern-making components within them” (p. 36-37).

4. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman
Why read it: in addition to one of the cleverest dust covers ever, the book explains the difference between the brain’s mirroring and mentalizing systems, which may play a role in effective teaching
One quote: “In essence, our brains are built to practice thinking about the social world and our place in it” (p. 22).

5. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
Why read it: to explore critical thinking without feeling like you are reading a textbook
One quote: “In other words, be skeptical of yourself and of your own mind” (p. 56).

Ask me tomorrow and I guarantee the list will be different.

Happy reading!

Suggestions From Readers


by Daniel Pink - Not only does it provide inspiration, it addresses great ideas on motivation.

Subjects Matter
by Hill, Daniels, and Zemelman - Because reading does matter outside of the language arts classroom!

America’s Unseen Kids
by Foster and Nosol - A great reminder about what else students might be dealing with.

Day One and Beyond by Rick Wormeli - Well, you are a new teacher. Wormeli provides wonderful advice and perspective.

Comprehension & Collaboration by Daniels & Harvey - A nice guide to approaching inquiry-based learning in a well-organized, collaborative environment.


Two books that provide much needed perspective on the role of technology in our society, and by implication, in education:

1) The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov

2) To Save Everything, Click: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov

Both of these books critique the assumptions (usually unexplored) that drive everything from Big Data (any edu implications here?) to Gamification (I can’t seem to justify such a mindset tackling Shakespeare!).
Too many educators are far too giddy about the latest app, the newest edtech promise, to newest “solution"; and too few educators seriously question their own assumptions or worse, nonthinking, about the ramifications of being “all in” with technology permeating pedagogy.

Important reads, whether one agrees with Morozov or not. Personally, I see his critique as the seminal issue facing education’s future, and at large, the whole of society.

Tracy Collins:

Fiction comes to my mind first. Some may be surprised, but I’d recommend Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It has some brilliant metaphors on education system, punishment and motivation. I don’t think there are teachers who’ve never read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, for me it is a good example of book that helps you understand teenagers. To understand students better I always recommend Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham to my colleagues. Pedagogy of Hope by Paulo Freire is just inspiring in my opinion. An try to read some modern fiction to keep up with the youth.

Dang Ren Bo:

Just two days ago, I read a book called CLIL, which was a very informative read. Content and Language Integrated Learning kind of rides the fence between traditional language teaching models and the freer, fully content-oriented model, where students are expected to acquire language organically.

The book provides a method of breaking down units to identify different modes of language -- content language, language for learning, etc. It also goes through a couple of possible scenarios for getting this model started at your school.

It’s a pretty easy read if you’re already familiar with the concepts, and shouldn’t take you more than a Saturday afternoon.

Many readers contributed via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect their recommendations:

Thanks to Grant, John, Barbara, Amy and Kevin, and to readers, for their contributions!

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