Life in Schools (McLaren)

This is a mammoth book of ideas. At times, it got too jargon-heavy, and I had trouble following it. Mostly, though, I found it inspiring. It’s nothing short of a call for a revolution, not just in schools but in society. McLaren, persuasively I think, argues that we cannot separate schools from society and that focusing only on schools is to address a symptom, not a cause. The main cause, McLaren asserts, is capitalism. McLaren seeks a transformation to socialism, one that may very well begin in the classroom.

McLaren bravely includes a journal he published as a young teacher, Cries from the Corridor, to demonstrate how he was once quite prone to the instincts of generally well-meaning teachers. Still, I wondered about the format here. It might have been nice to have his annotations on his younger self in the margins of this section.

I think it’s a book teachers should have on their shelves. As for the jargon-heavy parts, just treat them like Russian names in a novel, and, well, you won’t be far wrong.

a YouTube clip of McLaren

Blindspot (Banaji and Greenwald)

Look, I’m no scientist, and I’m not a researcher, but these two make a credible case that we all have blindspots, often aren’t aware of them, act on them (even as babies), and even have them (also called “mindbugs” here) about ourselves. Thus far, there seem to be things we can do to combat them short-term, but nothing has, as of yet, proven durable.

The book is readable for a non-scientist, but not entirely engaging. I think I accepted the argument before it even began. I have blindspots, some of which I don’t recognize, many of which I act on (including in the classroom which is what I’d like to address), and I have them about myself. I am, I am sure, an “uncomfortable egalitarian.” That makes me who the intended audience is for this book. Do people disagree with their conclusions?

The authors suggest that there may soon come a device that will alert us of our blindspots before we make a decision just as cars now come with similar features to help us avoid accidents. That prospect makes me nervous.

Project Implicit – Take a test! Find your blindspots!

The Art of Critical Pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell)

This is an extremely compelling book. The authors articulate a vision for the use of critical pedagogy in K-12 classrooms in such a way that it is intertwined with the teaching of the skills necessary for students to navigate the world they are simultaneously trying to change. After they present their rationale for critical pedagogy, they provide several good examples of how they’ve executed it. The authors are aware they are standing on the shoulders of others, educators and other sources for inspiration, and they pay them – particularly Freire – the proper tribute. In that way, this is a ‘gateway’ book because reading it will lead you to others. (I’ve already ordered the two books mentioned in the preface.) I appreciated their constant attention that the development of this approach needs to begin in teacher training, and I was thunderstruck with the accuracy of their claim that public education is not failing. It is, they argue, doing exactly what it was designed to do – create a permanent underclass. An invigorating and challenging read – one I’ll keep close at hand.

Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk

Duncan-Andrade founded and is currently Board Chair of this school

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (Esquith)

It is hard to know the truth of what led to the end of Esquith’s career. A brief Google search indicates that there are almost as many theories as there are websites. I admit, though, that my bias is that “something is rotten” here, and that it’s not Esquith. The book is good. His arrogance shows through often, and he is unsubtle when he criticizes his own administration. Neither of these things probably earned him many friends.

Still, he clearly sacrificed a great deal of time, money and energy to do the best work he could. Some of his reasoning is circular – ‘I think we should study this and therefore we should because I am the arbiter of such things’ – well, then, he’s far from alone.

There is a great deal here to support – that he has very high expectations, is clear. He mocks the errors of his younger teacher self. He realizes the reality of standardized tests and how, in the end, they are so very unimportant.

If he did what he stands accused of doing, then he deserves to end his career in disgrace and to lose his freedom. But if he didn’t, oh, if he didn’t. . .

an account of Esquith’s firing from Diane Ravitch’s blog

Hobart Shakespeareans

Hobart Shakespeareans – Trailer

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Robinson and Aronica)

At times, this book seemed more like an overview of a topic than an argument for any kind of revolution. And Robinson is perhaps a bit too fond of something I’ve noticed in many polished speakers – he reduces things to certain numbers and often uses alliteration (the 5 C’s, for example). Still, there’s much to be learned here, and I was always grateful when Robinson offered the names of other texts to pursue and / or schools / programs to investigate, so I could go into more depth if I wanted to.

It’s hard to imagine at this point who genuinely disagrees with what’s here. I think the two more important questions are how to generate the kind of political will necessary to “scale up” from some of the exemplars Robinson provides and how to manage the transition in the least disruptive way possible.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Russakoff)

I understand the instinct. The short-term window. The bipartisan creation story. The big money. I even understand the top-down approach. It takes time to engage constituents and, to be honest, constituents are often under-informed about the issues in play. Would a community conversation have helped alleviate the issue of siblings being assigned to separate schools? But would it have made for better teachers?

Still, the top-down, outsider-led, system-focused, charter school-fueld approach does not seem to have improved the situation as much as it has just changed them.  Russakoff’s narrative provides compelling insights into what’s succeeding and what’s not in the Newark schools, and begins to articulate how difficult this issue is in the country at large, even when forces like Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg align.

Russakoff introduces the idea of community schools, which hold tremendous appeal, but the 10,000 foot view shows the sources of some potential frustration. Priscilla Chan (Zuckerberg’s wife) is apparently creating a wonderful community school, but it’s one school, resting largely on the shoulders of one individual with remarkable access to funds. Ras Baraka, the mayor who followed Booker, is doing more to engage the community, but what’s happening to students while he is engaging the public?

This is a solidly written and important book.

Courageous Conversations About Race (Singleton & Linton)

This was not a great book to read alone. While there were reflection opportunities, the book and, as I understand it, the very process requires conversation. It’s a useful resource book for me, but I think it’s one where either the school is all-in and everyone reads it, or it’s not going to have the desired impact.

I get nervous when educators put numbers on things. The 6 agreements, etc.. Still, I get the point of the process for both individuals and a group. I wasn’t too impressed with the limited research the authors provided to demonstrate that their system works. And i was disappointed, in the end, that the authors dictate that the Principal should be leading the work. I guess I’ve transformed into more of a grassroots guy.

It also seems like an exhausting and consuming process and, as far as I could could tell, there was no real consideration of how to incorporate new teachers the next year. Having started at a school once in the second year of their work, I definitely felt the absence of what I’d missed – the newly common vocabulary.