Tag Archives: education

School Days in America

You can hear the pinewood burnin’/You can hear the school bell ring/Gotta get up near the teacher if you can/If you wanna learn anything… – Bob Dylan, “Floater (Too Much to Ask)”

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In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better by Richard DuFour (Solution Tree, $34.95, 256 pages)

Money Where the Mouth is

In the “old days,” Mr. Zimmerman’s conventional wisdom might have been considered the best advice going on how to do well in school. Conform, comply, raise your hand, turn in your work on time, please the teacher, memorize facts, get your “A” – and away we go. Some will go to college, some will not, and que sera sera. But times have changed. We know better now, and the stakes are too high to continue to proceed in a business as usual approach. Despite this, far too many schools and districts across the country – much less policy makers and elected officials, refuse to address culture, adjust practice, and change education policy in ways that establish systems and funding mechanisms to support a changing profession.

Imagine if you went to a doctor who butchered your knee instead of performing a simple scope? Yet, all too often emotion and nostalgia, not knowledge, drive decision making in public education; the system goes limping along. Then, when low results do not coincide with high expectations, it’s blame the teacher and fire the superintendent time.

The title of Rick DuFour’s latest book, In Praise of American Educators, is a tad deceiving. While he does indeed laud educators for their many accomplishments – such as record graduation rates – he also addresses the urgency for improvement. However, unlike many who criticize for profit or personal gain, DuFour actually offers a solution. Not surprisingly, that solution is Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

PLCs are not a structure or a program, but, rather, a way of life focused on professional collaboration and capacity building in which it is unacceptable for some students to fall short of mastery. Learning targets are clearly identified, student progress monitored in real time, and a system of interventions and enrichment for all students institutionalized. DuFour cites the top research from leaders in the filed, most notably Fullan, Hattie, Marzano, Hargraeves, Stiggins, McTighe, and Darling-Hammond.

For educators who have embraced DuFour’s work, many of the concepts will be familiar. But while the approach and presentation is unique and insightful at times, I don’t think this book was primarily written for educators. I think the intent of this book is to move a larger audience to both sensibility and action. Though many educators will read and enjoy this work, like Diane Ravitch’s mea culpa The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn’s Coherence, or Sir Kenneth Robinson’s classic TED talk, How to Escape Education’s Death Valley, the book’s greatest impact would be if those in positions of power and the general populace actually read it, and – even better yet, listened.

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DuFour is battling cancer. In the Acknowledgments section of the book he writes, “It is because of them (his professional colleagues) that I know the number of educators embracing PLCs will continue to grow and flourish long after I am gone.” For the good of the kids, and for the good of the country, let us hope he is right, as he has been so many times before. Oh, and thanks, Rick.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of the Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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The Book of Jobs

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster, $35.00, 656 pages)

“When Steve Jobs speaks, it is with the enthusiasm of seeing the future and making sure it works.”   Fortune magazine in the late 1970s

“I had a very lucky career, a very lucky life.   I’ve done all that I can do.”   Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson (originally entitled, iSteve: The Book of Jobs) is an engaging biography that’s unique in that it allows us to get to know the man even more than the ultra-legend.   This is the amazingly true story of the person who was given up for adoption at birth, and went on to run the most valuable company on the face of the earth.   Although his contemporary and life-long rival Bill Gates outgained him in personal wealth, Jobs succeeded in earning the respect of both computer technology experts and the average consumer as the developer and producer of increasingly better, always innovative products.

Jobs and Gates were two of the individuals – along with Steve Wozniak – who were more or less present at the creation of the personal computer (PC) age.   Jobs and “Woz” were original members of The Homebrew Computer Club, an informal association in Menlo Park that had a hundred or so members; a club that heard a presentation by a young Gates from the Seattle region.   The Whole Earth Catalog was then popular (some of you will need to ask your parents about it), and Jobs was to adopt its motto as one of his guideposts in life, “Stay hungry.   Stay foolish.”

As Isaacson finely illustrates in this account, Jobs was never afraid to make mistakes with his early and later Apple Computer products – he was to learn and absorb valuable lessons from each of his mistakes right up to the time of “Antennagate” with the iPhone (“Has Apple’s Self-Destruction Begun?” was one of the headlines critiquing Jobs’ decision-making early this year).   If Jobs had been a college football coach, he would likely have been one that rarely called for a punt on fourth down; he would have often elected to go for post-TD two-point conversions.   When it came to beating his competitors, Jobs wanted to “leave no doubt.”

“The journey is the reward.”   Steve Jobs

While this book is not intended to be a comprehensive account of the PC and Silicon Valley, it gives us just enough information to understand where Apple fit in among its hardware, software and search technology alternatives such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Compaq, Google, Oracle, Adobe and others.   If you’ve read numerous histories of the era, you will likely be surprised to see how both Larry Ellison and Bill Gates come off as nothing less than gentlemen in this telling.   Ellison was especially close to Jobs, even offering to buy-out Apple Computer after Jobs’ ouster.   But Isaacson is not afraid to show us that Jobs was a human with flaws.   In addition to possessing a temper which he claimed to be unable to control, Jobs “tended to be generally dismissive of philanthropic endeavors.”   This was the case even though his wife founded College Track, an organization making efforts to help economically disadvantaged kids get into college.   Jobs never visited College Track’s after-school centers in the poor high schools where the program was (and is) located.

Like a hammer that sees everything in sight as a nail, Jobs also tended to view technology as the solution to every one of society’s difficult problems…  A very ill Jobs was to personally lecture President Obama on his view that all education should be digital and interactive (physical classrooms, teachers and whiteboards arguably being obsolete); though, in fairness, Bill Gates has made similar comments – some of which are quoted in Steve Jobs.

Isaacson clearly and comprehensively makes his case that  Jobs belongs up there with Edison and Ford as one of the greatest business leaders in American history.   He was a visionary, a big picture guy who could also master the smallest details.   He was a technological artist who was to identify with both fuzzy inventor-creators and detail-oriented engineers.   And he always understood that a sharp focus is the basic key to leadership, “Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time.”

“…he was a brilliant guy with great design taste and great engineering taste.”   Bill Gates

One of Jobs’ ultimate victories was the knowledge that his adopted father had become enormously proud of his successes and achievements.   This fine and detailed account, an initial draft of history, well makes the case that Jobs (creator of the most successful ever consumer product launches) was a man of whom the entire world was proud.   What he sought as his own less than humble legacy was to come true; he sought “…a legacy that would awe people.   A dual legacy, actually: building innovative products and building a lasting company.”

Steve Jobs – the man who saw the future and built it for us.  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer as a Nook Book download.   It is also available in hardcover form, as a Kindle Edition download, and in abridged and unabridged audiobook versions.

Note: According to this biography, Steve Jobs once met in the late 70s with a class of Stanford University students and showed them a prototype of a laptop computer.   He informed them that this was the type of PC that Apple would be building and selling in the 1980s.   And Apple did so.   Years later, he told a different class at Stanford that they would one day be using PCs “the size of a book.”   And now we have 7″, 8.9″, 9.4″, 9.7″ and 10.1″ tablet PCs. 

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Tomorrow Is A Long Time

Tomorrow’s a Long Time for Teen Lovers

Exposure: A Novel by Therese Fowler (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 384 pages)

Therese Fowler’s novel, Exposure, is the latest attempt to bring Romeo and Juliet to modern-day audiences.   In it two seemingly well-adjusted teens, Anthony and Amelia, fall for each other with Amelia shielding the relationship from her controlling father, Harlan, a wealthy automobile dealer.   The two attend a prep school in North Carolina where Anthony’s mother is an art teacher.   The young lovers are theater enthusiasts who meet during a school performance and conceal their intimate relationship.   They are hoping to head for the Big Apple after high school because Anthony aspires to attend NYU.

Anthony is described as an Adonis and Amelia as her father’s princess, on the cusp of womanhood and striving for her independence.   Nothing is easy, of course, and complicating their dream of running off to New York is the fact that her father, a colossal snob, will only accept the “right” man for her daughter.   That person is an equally well-bred snob, whom – in Harlan’s mind – Amelia will meet attending Duke University.

The relationship turns sexual soon enough and further complications ensue.   While on a family vacation, Amelia requests that Anthony send her naked pictures of himself, and he obliges.   Of course, Anthony is 18, and Amelia one year shy of “adulthood.”   Soon thereafter, Harlan discovers the pictures on her computer, setting off a chain of events that nearly destroys everyone in the story – the survivors’ lives are forever altered.

Anthony’s mother has tacitly approved of the relationship, often recalling her youth.   She eventually ends up trapped in the mire herself.   Amelia’s mother, who probably could have prevented the unraveling, is incapable of standing up to her husband as Harlan self-righteously declares all-out war on the boy.

Fowler does well early on to intersperses character development with the plot.   The story boldly tackles a contemporary issue – sexting.   The legal and education systems are dumbfounded as to how to deal with this matter.   Concurrently, teens seem ignorant of the magnitude and implications of their actions, while many parents appear relatively oblivious as to the extent of the problem.

Some might question how big of a deal sexting is in the first place, but this reviewer speculates that those people would quickly change their minds if compromising photographs of their 13-year-old daughter were circulating around school.

A minor critique is that the dialogue seems a bit forced at times.   The rest of the storytelling is strong.   Exposure is a worthwhile and relevant tale about the perils of growing up in a modern digital age where the standards of morality are ever changing.   Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the state of Wisconsin.   A review copy was provided by the publisher. Exposure will be released on May 3, 2011.   “Provocative, timely, and compelling…”   Meg Waite Clayton

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A Room of Our Own

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; $28.95: 448 pages)

Veteran author Bill Bryson delights in skewering the arrogant rich in England and the United States, particularly the folks who lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this quirky survey book.   His litany of the vast number of servants, silverware and foodstuffs at meals makes this point.   The premise of the book is that an individual home is an excellent jumping off point to a wide variety of subjects.   Bryson happens to live in a former church rectory that was built in 1851.   While his home is not typical of most, it is clearly an excellent basis for an historical survey.   This is a loosely structured stroll through many centuries and cultures with Bryson as the tour guide.   He was born in the United States and educated here; however, his manner of speaking is clearly influenced by his long-time residence in England.

The notion of inventiveness and progress being a function of opportunity and dedication to an idea is a thread that runs through many chapters, each of which focuses on a particular room or area of his home.   The associations are reminiscent of the Public Broadcast System series, Connections, narrated by James Burke.   The tangents developed within each chapter tend to take the reader a bit far afield from the room being featured.   The basement, for example, correlates to the notion of a sturdy underpinning for the home which evolves into an explanation of the evolution of construction, culminating in the Eiffel Tower.   This is clearly a case of going from the mundane to the sublime in a matter of pages.

Conversely, the study, a room which might easily provide a scenario related to reading, education and leisure time, instead becomes the scene of mice and extermination.   The chapter is clearly the most disconcerting as it focuses on the vermin and critters with which we share our homes.   Bryson seems to delight in the mind-numbing and chilling statistics for mouse and rat populations of the past and present.   He concludes the chapter with the smallest living creatures in our homes and on our persons, namely insects and microbes.

Underlying the premise is a charming and unexpected feature.   Many of the chapters draw attention to the unsung heroes who were the real inventors as opposed to the persons who made vast sums of money and achieved fame.   Included for good measure are the names of men who almost got it right but for a twist or turn in their path have not even made it to footnote status in history.

At Home is worth the reader’s effort, but the author may remind the reader of an entertaining college professor who expects a fair amount of retention of his lecture points.   It is a safe choice for history buffs along with the reminder that the accuracy of any non-fiction book is subject to a point-in-time qualifier.   Some conclusions by the author appear to be made to the advantage of his effort to make clever connections.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   At Home will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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Close Encounters

Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind by Phillip Done (Center Street, $22.99, 336 pages)

Phillip Done (rhymes with phone) is a veteran third-grade teacher with 25 years of experience in the classroom.   Done charms the reader with his take on “teacherhood,” a word he has coined.   He uses the school year, beginning with August, to frame relevant vignettes featuring classroom activities from the teacher’s perspective.  

In this book he keeps it real, uncomplicated and genuinely funny.   His breezy, fast-paced style draws the reader into a world that is full of energy, wonder and discovery.   Third graders are quick to seize the moment and tell jokes and riddles.   Done willingly goes along feigning surprise and breaking up with laughter even though he’s heard the jokes over and over again.

Some of the most innocent statements by the children are hilarious, such as this after school exchange when a teacher on duty with Done calls out, “Mindy, aren’t you a bus rider?”   “No,” she shouts back, “I’m a street-walker.”

All is not fun and games as the author deftly proves he can get the reader to laugh and cry at the same time.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano and is reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind is the follow-up to Phillip Done’s first book, 32 Third-Graders and One Class Bunny.

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