Summer 2019 Reading List

Summer 2019 Reading List


While the phrase “summer vacation” might be somewhat of a misnomer for educators (and especially for those in leadership roles), the summer months nevertheless provide ample opportunities for reading and reflecting. What you read over the summer has the power to transform the upcoming school year — here are a few recommendations to help spark powerful ideas about teaching, learning, and organizational strategy.

What do a computer scientist, a hip-hop artist, and an educational researcher have in common? Although this trio of texts may seem like an unusual assemblage — a pair of educational researchers on learning, a Georgetown computer science professor on productivity, and a hip hop drummer on creativity — together, they offer a shared vision for the learning and work that our schools need.

    Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
    By Cal Newport
    304 pp. Grand Central. January 5, 2016.
    Available on Amazon

    The Quest to Remake the American High School
    By Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine
    464 pp. Harvard UP. April 9, 2019.
    Available on Amazon

    By Questlove
    288 pp. Ecco. April 24, 2018.
    Available on Amazon

In Deep Work, Cal Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus, without distraction, on a cognitively demanding task.” While the ability to engage in deep work is a key skill for being productive, it also has important emotional benefits: participating in the challenge and flow of deep work allows us to feel a sense of mastery, motivation and fulfillment. So what’s preventing us from performing deep work all of the time? The distractions of the internet is an obvious culprit, but a less intuitive trap is what Newport calls “shallow work.” We might feel productive after checking off quick and easy tasks from our to-do lists, but the more time that we spend on these superficial tasks, the less likely we are to carve out the time and focus required for work that keeps us truly engaged and makes a significant impact.

In In Search of Deeper Learning, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine tackle a similar question: why are our students not engaged in “deep, hands-on, minds-on learning?” The authors spent six years studying a cohort of 30 public and private high schools that are widely regarded as highly effective and innovative institutions. They found that while these schools might be acclaimed, students are not participating in learning experiences driven by inquiry and engagement. Rather, students spend the bulk of the academic day engaged in what Newport might describe as shallow work: taking notes on lectures, filling out worksheets, studying for standardized multiple-choice tests — in other words, tasks that appear to be productive, but don’t actually involve high levels of cognitive demands, and therefore don’t advance the work of learning in a truly meaningful way. (And, echoing Newport’s criticism of shallow work, these students end up bored by school instead of curious and excited.) On the bright side, Mehta and Fine identified contexts that foster deep learning and they set out to deconstruct the conditions for success. Here’s where the book really sings: showcasing, in transcript format, examples of classroom instruction or extra-curricular projects that make visible the qualities that the authors found most conducive towards deeper learning: purpose, mastery, identity, and creativity. Educational leaders, teachers, and parents will find this book illuminating, resonant, and practical. Do not miss it.

Identity, mastery, and creativity are also evident in Questlove’s Creative Quest. Questlove, bandleader of the critically-acclaimed hip-hop group The Roots, offers both a personal meditation on and a handbook for creative work. One of Questlove’s key observations about his creative process is that it is, in large part, defined by distraction — not in the sense of how social media feeds might serve as a distraction for Newport’s deep worker, but rather, the notion that one should always be eager to encounter ideas from unlikely sources. Questlove details his omnivorous appetite for devouring a wide range of creative media that, in turn, influences his often genre-defying creative output. The economist Tim Harford, in his recent TED Talk on creativity, offers a similar idea in his notion of “slow-motion multitasking:” the most creative thinkers tend to work simultaneously on multiple projects over long periods of time. Importantly, in the work of these thinkers, their projects tend to differ wildly from each other in subject matter. For Harford, working in a variety of areas is a way to “cross-train your mind,” which in turn leads to cognitive flexibility and powerful insights. The challenge, then, is for schools to provide opportunities for their students (and faculty) to have the breadth advocated by Questlove and Harford and the depth advocated by Newport, Mehta, and Fine.

    By Theodore Sizer
    274 pp. Mariner. September 1, 2004.
    Available on Amazon

Every summer I offer an “oldie but goodie” for summer reading. Last year it was Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire. This year it is Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer. I owe Ted Sizer an enormous debt. It was in my first undergraduate class on educational policy with Ted Sizer in 1985 that I became profoundly interested in pedagogy and educational policy. First published in 1984, the issues raised by  Horace’s Compromise continue to provide fertile ground for reflection and action. Sizer, a former head of Phillips Academy and a longtime professor of education at Brown, details how school reform efforts have failed to bring about the changes that reformers have sought. He argues that the hope for our education system does not lie in increasing standardization but, rather, in student-centered pedagogy and culture, coupled with teacher autonomy that fosters collaboration and learning among adults. Read this either before or after you read Fine and Mehta’s book and note the throughlines!

    What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms
    By Joe Feldman
    296 pp. Corwin. October 15, 2018.
    Available on Amazon

In recent years, both public and private schools have increasingly demonstrated a willingness to rethink long-held assumptions about grading practices (the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a well-known example). In Grading for Equity, Feldman shows how standard grading practices perpetuate inequalities, short-circuit deep learning, and ultimately fail our students. Using research on both the historic roots of grading systems and the psychological impact of different grading practices on students, Feldman not only offers detailed critiques but also outlines specific ways forward — including ways to minimize bias, increase student motivation, and cultivate more caring classroom environments.