Tag Archives: learning

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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Le Freak

Think Like a Freak (nook book)

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J Dubner (William Morrow, $28.99, 268 pages)

The key to learning is feedback.

The two Freakonomics authors are at it again! Levitt and Dubner have synthesized their ability to think in unconventional ways into nine chapters of charming, breezy and sometimes fascinating tutorials. This book is extensively annotated which adds to its credibility.

After a quick primer on how a freak thinks – unconventionally, to say the least, Levitt and Dubner launch into the basics of problem solving using their techniques. Basically, it comes down to teaching folks how to fish rather than feeding them answers. Of course, the approach is based on data, and the authors are well qualified to present the material as Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Dubner is a journalist and media personality based in New York City.

Readers are provided with the basics of change through a look back in history to determine the root causes of present day conditions and beliefs. The text contains many witty accounts worded in a conversational tone. This reviewer likens Think Like a Freak to a survey book or a series of clever lectures along the lines of the highly entertaining PBS TV show, Connections with James Burke.

Some of the examples cited by Levitt and Dubner are widely known such as one about the awesome web purveyor of shoes and fashion, Zappos. Zappos is willing to pay employees to quit if they aren’t on board with the company’s mission of providing outstanding customer service. Although this practice has been referenced elsewhere, Levitt and Dubner give it their own spin.

The most surprising chapter is the last – The Upside of Quitting. It may be worth the price of the book. Readers will have to be the judge of that. No, you won’t find a spoiler here!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Connection

What the Dog Saw and other adventures by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books; $16.99; 410 pages)

Learning is so much fun when Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) is the instructor.   Gladwell’s calm but engaging style is the common thread in this anthology composed of nineteen essays previously published in the New Yorker magazine.   There is just enough cohesion among the essays to  make for smooth transitions.   Yes, Gladwell cites some facts and studies used by other authors; however, his use of the material takes on a new look when seen through his question and answer format.

This reviewer was fascinated by the piece titled, “The Ketchup Conundrum.”   The reader is presented with the statements, “Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties.   Why has ketchup stayed the same?”   This is a condiment that dominates most others, whether it’s in a booth at a burger joint or on a family’s kitchen table.   One brand in particular rises above the rest in taste tests, and that’s Heinz.   Gladwell provides a charming history of ketchup along with the various challenges that have been made to the Heinz dominance of the field.   After reading the essay, I felt compelled to buy a bottle of Heinz for my own taste test.   Mind you, our household is rarely the scene of actual cooking so I had to be creative in using my purchase.   Happily, the flavor of Heinz blends perfectly with cottage cheese resulting in a pseudo-macaroni and cheese flavor without the carbs.

The preceding example is indicative of the connections that can be made to the everyday life of the reader.   This anthology is by no means a heavy-duty literary work; rather, it prompts conversations with family and friends.   Isn’t that what knowledge does?

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.

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At the Zoo

Did Not Survive: A Zoo Mystery by Ann Littlewood (Poisoned Pen Press; $14.95; 250 pages)

This second novel from former zookeeper Ann Littlewood, pits human nature against the honesty of zoo animals for a compelling read.   A fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest provides the location for a unique spin on an age-old tale of a heroine in peril.   The main character is Iris Oakley who is not only a recently widowed zoo employee, but also pregnant with her deceased husband’s baby.

In this story there are actually two heroines in peril, Iris Oakley and an aged elephant named Damrey.   Damrey has been a favorite of local families who visit her at the zoo.   Author Littlewood makes a case for the depth of knowledge required of zoo personnel.   It’s not just sweeping up after the animals and making sure they have their favorite foods.   Behavior, instincts and training are well documented for a wide range of the zoo’s inhabitants.   There are births and deaths that tear at the hearts of the staff.

Littlewood opens the mystery with the death of the zoo superintendent, a fellow who was good at his job but not well liked.   He’s discovered in Damrey’s enclosure being menaced by the very agitated elephant.   Iris is the first on the scene and it falls to her to assist in determining who is responsible for the super’s death.

Along the way we get to know the elephants.   They have not been part of her job until the discovery of the body in their enclosure.   Her regular charges are the big cats; however, pregnant women must not empty cat pans, big or small.   Iris is a remarkable character who captured this reviewer’s sympathies.

Well recommended. Let’s hope Ms. Littlewood keeps writing about what she knows so well as she provides entertainment bundled with fascinating learning.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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