Monday, May 30, 2011

Stimulating My Thinking

My school is searching for the perfect books to suggest for faculty and staff to read over the summer so I have been frantically trying to read things to suggest for everyone. Let me list some of them here and hope that other ideas will come our way.

Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms by Gloria Ladson-Billings was suggested by my daughter who is a mathematics teacher in a California high school. She was wise to suggest it for me. While talking more about inner city "at risk" classes than those of a private school in the mid-West, Ladson makes many valid points for every teacher. My favorite quote, "Apathy is not an option," sums up much of what she is suggesting we should all do to get to know each student as an individual, including the role of various cultures in our teaching and learning processes.

The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School by Linda F. Nathan may at first seem to have little to do with an elementary school in a mid-sized college town, but that misconception is quickly dispelled. Nathan speaks eloquently of what all schools can do and need to do to serve all students. She talks of three areas of focus:

  • Structuring a school to give guidelines for establishing a unifying framework and shared values.

  • Supporting teachers to help foster good teachers and the good administrators who support them.

  • Addressing inequality through how we and why we need to discuss racial issues.

Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman found its way to me shortly after I read The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson. This proved to be great timing for Cushman shares many of the same ideas as Robinson but applies them to how we reach students in ways that help to put those young learners into their element. I like the idea of finding ways to apply the concepts in real life situations.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle keeps appearing in my thoughts these days, perhaps because the new technologies are so ubiquitous in our lives today. This book deals first with the social and psychological impact of using interactive "caring" robots to replace human caregivers or to offer solace to people who are otherwise disengaged. Then it goes into the uses of our social networking capabilities from text messages to Facebook and more. Turkle is quite convincing in her arguments that we need to look carefully at where we are allowing these new technologies to take us.

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau is old enough that there will be an update from ten years later coming out later this year. Lareau presents a sociological study of home life and school success of upper elementary students of varied socio-economic and racial groups. It is important to teachers to think about how one's culture, especially, it appears, one's socio-economic status, affects their approach to working with teachers and the educational system. All parents want the best for their children, they simply have different backgrounds that define both what is wanted and how to seek it. Lareau does a good job of pointing out both the positive and negative effects of each differing approach to child rearing. This is a book that helps one remember that a child is more than the person who a teacher sees for six hours a day.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein looks at both the economic and behavioral side of how it is possible to shape decisions without taking away any of the choices. They dub this "libertarian paternalism", a term which took me awhile to understand enough to embrace or reject. While their topics of discussion range from Medicare benefit selection to same sex marriage, they also have much to offer that could be applied to life and helping students to make improved decisions. At the very least, it makes one more aware of the nudges that we encounter daily as well as how many things could be changed to offer more positive or productive nudging.

Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele is what I am reading right now. At the mid-point of the book, I am totally fascinated by the social psychological findings of how stereotypes affect student performance. Steele is quick to note that all of us are affected by stereotypes and that often those stereotypes can have negative effects on our performance. Does the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men make women more likely to do poorly at math? The studies suggest that it does. Similarly, race, age, class, and much more affect our self-perceptions and thus how we perform. I am optimistic that Steel will provide not only more insight into these differences in the second half of the book as well as some ways that teachers and society can help to counteract this stereotype threat.

These are a good start. I would love to hear what others are reading in these areas.

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