Recommended Books From 2011

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance – Atul Gewande:  Gewande is the rare combination of top surgeon and entertaining writer.  He is brutally honest about medicine and the difficulties inherent in his trade. He is also obsessed with improving his own performance and of his whole profession. Not only is it illuminating but it parallels well with the difficulties of working in schools – except that, in our case, things only occasionally end in death.

Charter Schools: Hope or Hype? – Bruckley & Schnieder: A mind-bogglingly deep overview of research on charter schools culminating in the conclusion that: While charter schools are well-liked and popular when they first open – even if they perform poorly – over time this enthusiasm wanes until it matches similar local schools. Achievement in such schools works on the same bell curve as for traditional schools once demographics are accounted for and the only thing positive that can be truly asserted is that they have a greater focus on ‘being nice’ than does the average US public school.

The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good– Matthew Crawford: Defending the importance of teaching ‘trades’ in school, Crawford intelligently explains why working as a motorcycle mechanic has been more satisfying than his work as Director of a political think tank.  He notes how swathes of office work has become akin to ‘factory work’ with college graduates doing professional jobs requiring little cognitive engagement and that surpress their autonomy. Furthermore, while office jobs are being outsourced, no-one can employ a virtual plumber when their washing machine goes kaput making trades a more savvy economical move too.

He also makes the argument that fixing something you didn’t create – whether as a doctor mending a punctured lung, or a builder repairing a roof – means being attentive, patient, considerate and tenacious.  Trades also encourage an ethos of self-reliance and a care for the environment. In Crawford’s eyes these are the most important things a school could teach; I’m not sure I agree, but it certainly made me think.

Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher – Barbara Veltri:  Having spent 10 years working as a mentor to Teach For America (TFA) participants (sister to the UK’s TeachFirst programme), Veltri uncovers the TFA process to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.  Starting with the admissions procedure, through the fabled ‘6 week Institute’ and across the 2 year programme Veltri talks about the many people she mentored, the situations they found themselves and her recommendations for making the programme more stable. Veltri is far from positive about TFA itself, and  I found some parts laborious but for the TFA novice it definitely explains the programme clearly – warts and all.

Building Academic Language– Jeff Zweirs (£14.44):  Teaching across humanities and social sciences I must teach students two things: first, there is the content students must understand; then second, is the skill of reformulating that content so that a third person can understand it – whether through an essay, exam answer or some other format.  It is all too easy to focus on the content and ignore the skill of re-explaining.  Zweirs’ book gives lots of practical ways to develop the language skills necessary to demonstrate one’s knowledge while also developing the content.  This is not an either/or book. Zweirs isn’t saying that students must develop ‘skills’ – what he does say is that as students are learning words about a topic, it is useful to think about how they acquire those words and how they will start putting them into sentences that make sense.