Teaching Opinion

Checking Out Books By Teachers Who Write

By David B. Cohen — December 20, 2016 7 min read
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When I set out to visit California teachers who would be included in my own book, I had some inspiring educators to visit along the way, people who had already (or were about to) accomplish what I was attempting. These teacher-authors were gracious enough to invite me to observe all of their classes for a day. In some cases, their hospitality extended beyond the campus to an afterschool stop in a local sweets shop or even to staying the night in someone’s home. I came away from each of these visits impressed, though not always for the same reasons I anticipated I would. You can learn more about those visits in Chapter 14 of Capturing the Spark: Inpsired Teaching, Thriving Schools.

In this post, I want to highlight the most recent books by those teacher-authors and encourage readers to buy a copy this holiday season to help support teachers who are sharing best practices and important insights from the classroom. And I want to emphasize that these authors are all classroom teachers, working daily in California high schools. So if you’re looking for a last-minute gift for a teacher, or ready to use up a gift card, here are some fine options.

Jeremy Adams is a history and government teacher in Bakersfield, Calif. The day I spent in his classes happened to be the first day of a new semester, and less than 48 hours after the 2015 State of the Union address, which he had attended in person. What an opportune time to observe a government teacher in action. His enthusiasm for the subject matter was amplified by his deep appreciation for our government’s institutions and history. That passion for teaching comes through in both of his books: the first book, Full Classrooms, Empty Selves (2012), is a more personal and pensive book, while the second, The Secrets of Timeless Teachers (2016), offers a more affirming analysis of the enduring qualities of great teaching and teachers. I enjoyed being able to attach my own observations of Jeremy to some of his writing. He suggests that students benefit from knowing their teachers, the inverse of our more frequent focus on making sure teachers know their students; in the book he encourages teachers to share relevant personal stories or anecdotes, and I’m sure many of his students will long remember his narration of his State of the Union experience.

What I came to realize while reading the book was that the reference to secrets had less to do with revealing otherwise unknown foundational elements of good teaching, and more to do with the assertion that excellent teaching has not changed dramatically over time, and that its impact is lasting. The assertions are backed up by examples as old as Socrates, and moreso by the dozens of citations in each chapter.

If there’s any downside to Secrets, it’s that it moves at such a readable pace, meaning that in each sitting I came away with a few more concerns about where my own teaching still needs to improve. But then again, recognition of what we dont’ know about what we know is among the hallmarks of timeless teaching, so maybe I’m going to be okay after all.

Jim Burke is an English teacher at Burlingame High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for most English teachers in the U.S., he’s also an author who needs no further introduction. The link above will take you to a listing of his many books about teaching English, and providing resources for educators. I don’t know Jim well, but I’ve known him for a long time, having crossed his path more than a few times through years as far back as an NCTE Conference in Chicago in 1995 or ‘96.

What impressed me most about being in Jim’s classroom, if this makes sense, is how ordinary it was considering what’s extraordinary about Jim. He could easily pull from his existing body of work and plan out every lesson every year using some very high quality Jim Burke material. Instead, I encountered a teacher trying out new ideas and new material, experimenting and searching for ways to keep learning fresh and relevant for his students. His latest book is not necessarily one to pick up at the conference books shop on your way to the airport; Uncharted Territory is an 896-page anthology (published by W. W. Norton), offering a variety of readings organized thematically for use in high school classes. I haven’t seen it yet, but the table of contents looks promising, and know that Jim’s work is grounded in ongoing teaching practice adds to my interest in the book.

My fellow EdWeek Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo (Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo) is another long-time acquaintance and prolific author of materials and resources for fellow teachers. If you know Larry’s blogging and podcasts, you know that in these formats he excels at bring together expert viewpoints to address specific, relevant, and important issues in teaching, often focused on topics with broad interdisciplinary application. When it comes to his books, he has identified a few key focus areas and shares more of his own practice, as opposed to the gathering approach in his blogs. His books have focused on parent engagement, student motivation, and teaching English language learners. Larry’s most recent book is Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners, co-authored with Katie Hull Sypnieski (one of Larry’s highly-skilled colleagues, whom I also had a chance to observe teaching). Larry will have a new book on student motivation coming out in 2017.

Jennifer Robertsteaches English at Point Loma High School in San Diego. I made her virtual acquaintance via Twitter, and was somewhat surprised to meet her in person at an EdCamp in the San Francisco Bay Area. That she would travel that far to attend an “unconference” shows what kind of teacher and learner she is. Along with Diane Neebe, Jen is the co-author of Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning. From the title you can tell that the audience for this book might be more select at any given time. But I can tell you from the combination of perspectives, having observed Jennifer’s teaching in a 1:1 classroom, and having just made the 1:1 transtion in my own teaching this year, Power Up is a book based on effective classroom practices, and worth reading and studying to address your own practical needs. While there’s plenty of bells and whistles to make student work more “fun” and interactive, what I appreciate most is that the book offers practical suggestions that are easy to implement to address existing problems. Sometimes new technology is attractive, but when it comes right down to it, it’s unclear how students are learning more or learning differently simply because the format and media change. Jennifer and Diana address that, but also offer ideas for how teachers can use technology to check the writing progress of a whole class, more thoroughly and in less time than we ever could without technology. That’s quite practical, and pretty cool!

Catlin Tucker is the final teacher on this list and another well known California English teacher and blogger. Her writing focuses more on the technology integration aspects of teaching, and what I find most impressive about Catlin is her consistency in framing technology use as a student-centered practice, amplifying student voice and multiplying the outlets available to students to make use of their learning, which in turn motivates more learning. To get an idea of how effectively Catlin advocates for student voice, in a mere five minutes, you can watch this video of her lightning talk at Stanford University last spring. I was in the audience for that talk, and in Catlin’s classroom several months prior to that. Just as I noted that Jim Burke’s class wasn’t full of his own material, I wouldn’t say Catlin’s class, on the day I observed, was saturated with technology. It was used significantly less than half of the time, though based on the classwork I observed, I could tell students had used certain tech tools to prepare for or advance certain work under discussion. The link above takes you to several of Catlin’s books, the most recent being Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change (co-authored with Tiffany Wycoff and Jason T. Green).

On behalf of my fellow teacher-authors, I encourage you to seek out the work of practicing classroom teachers as you look for your next books! Happy reading!

Photo: Jeremy Adams, by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools 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.