You are here


Unwind, Recharge, Bounce Back

Summer reading to make you a better educator.

My recent critique of Tom Friedman's new book, The World is Flat, and the reverential treatment it gets from many school leaders generated a lot of mail. The column was as critical of educators desperate for marching orders from a non-educator as the simplistic fear-mongering in the book. Some readers have requested suggestions for alternative books worth reading this summer.

I have a number of colleagues who just love books about leadership. The problem is that most of the books seem to be written by people who have never led anything or would be poorly suited to manage a 7-Eleven. Here are some books written by actual educational leaders who have actually led educational institutions.

Most leadership books are written by people who would be poorly suited to manage a 7-Eleven.

In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, by Deborah Meier (Beacon Press, 2003). This is MacArthur award winner Deborah Meier's compelling argument for more democracy, collegiality and collaboration in our public schools. The book is a must-read by school leaders, union officials and parents.

Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and his Fight for a Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell (ASCD, originally published in 1989). This may be the first educational thriller ever written. After two rounds of successful school reinvention, an exhausted Dennis Littky decides to retreat to a home in the New Hampshire wilderness, chop wood and regroup. The local high school is a disaster and upon the retirement of the principal, the community begs a reluctant Littky to take over. The book chronicles in remarkable detail how Littky turned things around, engaged the community and made the school a national model of educational renewal within a couple of years. Kids are learning and graduating, discipline is no longer an issue, school spirit is up, the community is engaged, teachers are empowered and grant money is pouring in. The second half of the book describes what happened when two new board members were elected and fired Littky without cause.

The first half of this book would make one of the best education reform books ever, but the second half is a thrill ride through the dark side of public education. Anyone wishing to understand American education and the fragility of good ideas needs to read this book.

Things Need Not Be As They Seem

The Big Picture: Education is Everybody's Business, by Dennis Littky and Samantha Grabelle (ASCD, 2004). Easily the best book written about education reform in the past decade. Littky and his colleagues have not only created one successful school, but have mastered the impossible art of "scaling-up" and creating dozens of places for children to learn and grow.

In the Spirit Of The Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, by Lella Gandini, Lynn Hill, Louise Cadwell and Charles Schwall (Teachers College Press, 2005); In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning, by Carlina Rinaldi (Routledge, 2005). There is no more profound, mature or accomplished body of educational thought rooted in successful educational practice than the work of educators from Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Jefferson's Children, by Leon Botstein (Doubleday, 1997). The president of Bard College shares his vision, rooted in his actual efforts, to reinvigorate, rethink and reinvent high school and higher education.

Ed Tech

Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning, by Bob Johnstone (iUniverse, 2003). Learn the history of educational computing from WWII to laptops for every student.

The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (Basic Books, 1994) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1993); or The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (Longstreet Press, 1996), by Seymour Papert. If you haven't read the father of educational computing, you haven't really thought about learning in the 21st century.

Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, by Neil Gershenfeld (Basic Books, 2005). Explore what is perhaps the next digital revolution, desktop fabrication. Imagine e-mailing a bicycle or manufacturing just the technology you need when you need it.

Understanding the World of Our Students

Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids: (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven't Got a Clue), by Winn Schwartau (Interpact Press, 2001).

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Hardcover, 2005).

Business Books

If you must read business books, here are some relevant to education. They inspire you to act, not whine. The following books offer advice for bringing your ideas to life.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (Broadway, originally published in 2001) and Peopleware Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom Demarco (Dorset House Publishing Company, 1997). A respected management guru demonstrates how competition, fear, stress, humiliation and merit pay fail in the corporate sector just as such "strategies" are imposed on education.

Selling the Dream (Collins, 1992) and Rules for Revolutionaries (Collins, 1998), by Guy Kawasaki . Nobody does a better job of teaching you to share their dream, inspire others to embrace it and turn that vision into action than Guy Kawasaki. You, your management team and your high school students should read his books together.

The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization, by Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman (Currency, 2005). Learn practical strategies and fascinating vignettes from one of the world's leading design firms.

Buck Up, Suck Up ... and Come Back When you Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, by James Carville & Paul Begala (Simon & Shuster, 2003). This book contains practical homespun leadership advice from two architects of Bill Clinton's presidential elections.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.