Teaching is hard work. It doesn’t seem reasonable that teachers should be required, in addition to all the lesson planning, grading, communicating with parents, committee work, and the million other things the job requires, to also have to read to improve their teaching. After a while, it gets tiring reviewing the latest in a series of fad approaches and solutions to the endless set of problems that modern education seems to face. The good news is there are books that manage to get at some of the lasting things that make for good teaching without the reader having to endure all the latest buzzwords or acronyms.
When I made a list of my favorite books about teaching, I was struck by the remarkable mix of fiction and nonfiction, including memoir, biography, theory, practice, and everything in between (even a picture book). I am not sure if you will like all of these books, but I can tell you that I do, and that each of them, in their own way, helps me strengthen my own teaching. Well then, without further ado:
- Frindle, by Andrew Clements (Aladdin Press, 1998). Fifth-grader Nick Allen is a perennial time waster. When he gets assigned a paper to find out how a word gets added to the dictionary, he decides to embark upon a campaign to add the word frindle (a synonym for pen that he has coined himself) to the dictionary. When you read it, watch how his teacher, Mrs. Granger, responds to Nick’s campaign. Her actions seem to be working against Nick’s learning at first, but if they read all the way to the end, teachers will learn something about how to motivate class clowns like Nick. This is supposed to be a work of fiction aimed at middle schoolers, but I think every teacher ought to read it too.
- Between Memory and Vision: The Case for Faith-Based Schooling, by Steven C. Vryhof (Eerdmans, 2004). Vryhof makes two arguments here: first, that Christian schooling has remarkable and unique advantages over the current version of public schooling available in North America; and second, that Christian schooling needs to develop a clear vision for the future that opens the doors to a wider community, addresses issues of social justice, and encourages students to engage in helping a world that desperately needs them. This is a good book for challenging Christian teachers think about what kind of teaching they are being called to.
- The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). This funny and sometimes poignant novel tells about Holling Hoodhood, who is in seventh grade and seems to do everything wrong. His mishaps result in him learning about Vietnam, prejudice, cream puffs, mosquitoes, and a lot more. What is amazing about this book from a teaching perspective, though, is that it shows how good teaching can tie class content (Shakespeare and more) into what is going on in the rest of the world and what is going on in students’ lives.
- The Headmaster: Frank l. Boyden of Deerfield, by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992). Part biography and part tribute, McPhee’s book describes Boyden, a remarkable teacher, coach, and administrator who built Deerfield Academy from nothing and remained involved in its day-to-day operation long after most people would have retired. McPhee describes a truly innovative school where the headmaster’s desk is in the hallway, every child who wants to play extracurricular sports is automatically on a team, and there are no written rules—just a verbal injunction at the beginning of the year that students should behave themselves. Boyden is a real character we might learn something from.
- Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr’s Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis (G.T. Labs Publishing, 2004). This graphic novel not only explains some fairly complicated ideas from physics, but also manages to capture the thrill and excitement of discovery and learning. Science teachers and nonscience teachers alike will find something they love in this book. My own favorite part is when Bohr and his friends run into Albert Einstein.
- Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). There are some books where I find myself nodding in agreement throughout. There are others where I find myself shaking my head in disagreement as I read. I enjoy both kinds. Alfie Kohn’s book, however, tends to prompt me to equal amounts of nodding and shaking. He causes the reader to question the behaviorist philosophy that has so completely pervaded our schools, causing us to think that rewarding students with candy or tokens or gold stars is the best way to motivate them. Kohn points out that our students are not dogs or pigeons to be trained, but rather they are human beings (I would say children of God) and so should be treated differently. At other points in the book, he argues that verbal praise can rob a student of autonomy, and I find myself shaking my head. At its best though, it helps me to think about why I teach the way I do.
- That Book Woman, by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum, 2008). This picture book tells the story of the packhorse librarians of the 1930s, who carried library books into the Appalachian Mountains to deliver literacy to isolated communities. I confess to getting a little choked up whenever I read it. It reminds me that, as a teacher, I am not subjecting my students to painful imprisonment each day, but am actually giving them a gift that they will come to value and treasure.
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss (Gotham Books, 2003). This book is entirely about punctuation and grammar. It is also, paradoxically, an exciting and fun book to read. Lynne Truss feels called to go out into the world and correct all the horrible punctuation marks she encounters. Along the way, she helps us learn why some punctuation rules are the way they are. This is a painless way to improve our punctuation and grammar (which, as teachers, we are expected to know).
- Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick (DayBue Publishing, 2004). Look, just go get this book. It takes place in a school. It is about what schools can be at their best. But who cares about that? It is a funny, sad, and wonderful story. You need to read it. Now. I am serious.
- Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Harpercollins, 1972). A few years ago we started hearing about integrated units and problem-based learning as if these were new and exciting developments. DeJong’s story tells of a group of Dutch schoolchildren who take on a daunting project and end up enlisting their entire community to help. It will start you thinking about what your kids could do if an idea really caught fire.
So those are my ten. Don’t see your favorite on the list? Disagree with some of my choices? Fair enough. Send reviews of your own favorite books to CEJ. I bet they’ll print them.