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3 Book Suggestions for Collegial Conversations

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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I love trading opinions with friends about what we read for pleasure. Good books, strong coffee, and rainy-day conversations are an unbeatable combination. But when it comes to my professional bookshelf, I seem to keep my margin notes and musings to myself.

After taking part in a recent online book study as part of Connected Educator month, however, I'm reminded that reading together inspires thinking together. And thinking sets the stage for action as we look for opportunities to put compelling, carefully considered ideas into practice.

Read Together, Think Together

These three books can lend to fruitful conversations with your colleagues:

Book suggestion #1: Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need

Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Penn., and Zac Chase, former SLA teacher, have teamed up to write a book that's clearly intended to spark professional dialogue. The book offers 95 theses about teaching and learning. A few of my favorites:

  • "Citizenship is more important than the workforce."
  • "Disrupt disruption."
  • "Teach kids before subjects."
  • "Have an excess of good will."

The authors expand on these one-liners with a combination of personal anecdotes, classroom vignettes, and hard truths. They are equally comfortable quoting John Dewey or Kurt Vonnegut as they make a case for education that is kind, brave, joyful, and community-minded.

In a section called "Embrace your best teacher self," for instance, we learn about Lehmann as a 25-year-old newbie who looked young enough to be mistaken for a high school student. He insisted on being called "Mr. Lehmann" to remind students that he was their teacher -- and to remind himself to live up to their expectations of him. Bringing your best self to school is a recurring theme in the book.

Chase shares his own novice teaching story in "Success is the best weapon." He describes how he managed to gently shift the culture of his teaching team by nurturing change in small ways in his own classroom, and then letting success speak for itself.

After each thesis, Lehmann and Chase offer suggested steps to take readers from theory to practice. For example: Draft a theory of learning in which you articulate, "How do students learn best?"

With humor, insight, and occasional flashes of frustration (i.e., "We need to change the way we teach math"), the authors help us imagine our own vision of teaching and learning that builds on the best traditions of progressive education.

Book suggestion #2: Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools

Ron Ritchhart, senior research associate with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, keeps his focus squarely on the classroom as he dives deeply into thinking about thinking.

I've been discussing this book in recent weeks in a CEM Book Group with colleagues who share an interest in project-based learning (PBL). Although Ritchhart does not focus specifically on PBL, he guides readers to reflect on the characteristics of classroom culture that promote curiosity, student voice, and other non-negotiables for quality project experiences.

One chapter, for example, discusses the importance of teacher modeling -- or what Ritchhart calls, "seeing ourselves through our students' eyes." Acknowledging that modeling "is almost a hidden dimension of teaching," he challenges teachers to consider how they model "who we are as thinkers and learners." Classroom vignettes help us see implicit modeling in action and help us watch how students respond when teachers share their own thinking in authentic ways.

With chapters that focus on learning environments, use of time, and choice of language, Ritchhart prompts us to turn a magnifying glass on classroom practices. He offers action steps at the end of each chapter to help teachers think about thinking in specific ways. I can imagine teachers in a professional learning community or more informal peer structure deciding to work through these suggestions together, and then reflecting about outcomes and observations.

Book suggestion #3: Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools

Barbara Cervone, founder and president of What Kids Can Do, and education writer Kathleen Cushman are long-time champions of powerful learning experiences for adolescents. In their newest book, they take readers inside American high schools that emphasize social and emotional learning (SEL) alongside academics, nurturing both hearts and minds.

The authors focus on six key elements common to schools that emphasize social and emotional learning. All are worth considering, but I found my attention drawn to two in particular.

In discussing "a curriculum of connection and engagement," the authors describe project-based learning experiences at their best. What's important for PBL -- from a social and emotional learning perspective -- is the focus on addressing authentic audience needs, the emphasis on student choice, the use of peer learning, and the emphasis on service.

Student agency is another element critical to social and emotional learning. Here, too, I connected to PBL as the authors described learning that enabled students to "find their voice," "push past fear," and "grow into something bigger."

Not surprisingly, the authors weave student voices throughout their five high school profiles. Readers will find plenty of food for thought, and discussion, as they compare and contrast these stories with the experiences of the students they see every day. Cervone and Cushman argue that an emphasis on social and emotional learning serves all children well by enriching student learning, aspiration, and engagement across the entire spectrum of students.

Which books have you and your peers buzzing? Please share your reflections in the comments section below.

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