One of my favorite bloggers/thinkers, Benjamin Doxdator, recently wrote a post about reading. On the topic of professional growth, Benjamin notes that “While we will find a strong push for teachers to take risks by blogging or tweeting more, we also need encouragement and support to read more widely.” In that spirit, I wrote this post to share the books that have informed my personal pedagogy. Who I am as a teacher is a direct reflection of what I read, and this post is a celebration of influences. It’s also a chance to flesh out an analogy about how my mind operates.
My evolution as an educator and my life as a reader have always been intertwined. When I worked at a charter school, I positioned myself as a technocrat. Steeped in the language of meritocracy, grit, and strategies, I limited myself to reading only test prep booklets and the works of Doug Lemov and Paul Tough. On the rare occasions I did allow myself to travel outside the literature of quantified pedagogy, I stuck to the books of my teacher training. These include the classic works of scholar-practitioners like Jim Burke, Nancy Atwell, and Lucy Calkins.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was functioning as a closed system. I could only teach as far as my knowledge would let me. This insular pattern didn’t change until the summer of 2015 when Amazon’s algorithm suggested I might be interested in reading Maja Wilson’s amazing book Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. On a lark I purchased it. The book was a revelation. Wilson’s blistering critique singlehandedly changed the way I think about education. Not only did it introduce me to many of the themes that would come to define my pedagogy, standardization, accountability, and composition, it was a blast to read. It was also the first time I emailed an author, a trend that continues to this day.
From that point forward I was hooked on books about education. I yearned to learn everything I could about what I was doing in the classroom, why I was doing it, and whether or not I should continue it. It’s difficult to believe that only two years have passed since I read Wilson’s book. I’ve come to rely on books as my primary vessel for evolution. I’ve come to know the issues that matter to me as an educator and as a human being.
The Mind as a Farm
I’ve written about education analogies before. But I can’t seem to think of a fitting analogy for my reading process. The analogy of a farm is the closest I’ve come. The contents of my mind represent a gigantic field. The pliable soil seems to be accepting of all seeds. Seeds represent the various concepts, ideas, and facts that I try to cultivate. For every book I read, I toss a seed into the loamy mulch. The contents of the seed determine where I plant it, and every seed has its place. My garden has a plot devoted to education history, to critical pedagogy, to composition pedagogy, and so forth. If you looked at the garden of my mind from a helicopter, you would see small islands of vegetation amidst a sea of brown soil.
My hope is that, over time, as the roots of each plot grow rhizomatically, they become interconnected. The more I read, the farther the roots of that particular plot extend. Right now my garden contains very few connections. But this is starting to change. For instance, when I consider the 80s and the rise of standards and accountability, I also think about the conservative turn of the 1970s. Roots are comingling.
This requires continuous work. I can’t spend too much time tending to a single plot, or the others will become desiccated and perish. After I read a book on composition pedagogy, I scamper to the education history plot before hightailing it to the critical pedagogy plot on the other side of the field. Undergirding this analogy is fear. If I don’t stop moving and dividing my attention among multiple plots of land, parts of my farm will shrivel up and die.
The remainder of this post explores the crops currently growing on the farm of my brain.
Regardless of what I’m writing, reading or speaking about, the above books are never far from my consciousness. The Teacher Wars introduced me to the rich field of education history. Through The Allure of Order, an in-depth analysis of the three major education reform movements of the modern era, I became obsessed with issues of rationalization, reform, and accountability. The Struggle for the American Curriculum and The One Best System opened me up to the wonders of curriculum studies and the interplay between culture and education.
The most influential book from The Core is De-testing and De-grading Schools. I have wonderful memories of the first time I read the essays in the collection. It was electric. I paced back and forth while reading them. I emailed most of the authors, eager to find out more. And, to my amazement, some of them even wrote back. It was like discovering the coolest club ever. I could subsist forever on these books alone. They inform everything I do.
Writing about Writing
In the summer of 2015 I picked up a battered copy of Peter Elbow’s 1973 landmark text Writing Without Teachers. So enamored was I with Elbow’s notions of freewriting and peer response that I dedicated the 2015-16 school year to putting his ideas into practice. At the time, I didn’t realize that composition pedagogy was a distinct thing. People taught writing differently, but that was about as deep as I got. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine recommended A Guide to Composition Pedagogies that I began to understand the complexity of the field. I inhaled it slowly, but thoroughly. I comprehended few of the book’s references, but I figured you have to start somewhere.
Determined to build this new schema, I trolled through the book’s alluring bibliographies, hunting down cheap copies of anything that seemed interesting. I’ve only read about half of the books pictured above. Like I said in the introduction, I don’t like to spend too long on a single topic. I have some of the basics down (early universities and grammar schools focused more on speaking than writing; writing gained more emphasis during the 19th century as written standardized tests blossomed; the birth of The Writing Project and the process movement in the 70s and 80s pushed a more authentic approach; the 80s-2000s have been a variegated patchwork of back-to-basics instruction and choice-driven workshop models), but that’s about it. Luckily, I’m in no rush.
Critical Pedagogy and Theory
The more I read about critical pedagogy, the more powerful it becomes. Critical pedagogy is another massive field, combining knowledge from philosophy, critical race theory, feminism, sociology, and economics. For me, critical pedagogy recognizes that education typically functions as a form of cultural domination. The idea that schools celebrate certain dispositions and knowledge bases blew my mind the first time I encountered it. Therefore, I’m hesitant to brand myself as a critical pedagogue. I’m just not there yet in terms of the required scholarship and dispositions.
In terms of theory, the Apple and Biesta books were exhilarating reads. But without the background knowledge of critical theory and philosophy to back them up, it’s tough for me to justify the cost/benefit ratio required of reading more of their books at the current time. So I’ve mainly been sticking to a newer crop of critical pedagogy books. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Pose, Wobble, Flow combine radical pedagogy with the lived reality of teachers on the ground. They keep the heavy theory in the background, focusing instead on what we can do to dismantle systems of oppression while at the same time keeping our jobs.
In the last couple months, accountability has become one of my favorite topics to read about. It encompasses everything I’m interested in: history, theory, assessment, standardization, and teacher power. Reading about accountability has helped me think about standardized testing beyond the typical opt out rhetoric.
By the time I entered the teaching field in 2008, testing had become entrenched in K-12 schooling. I blamed conservatives. Or, more specifically, I blamed George W. Bush. I naively assumed No Child Left Behind was a partisan creation, and that Republicans had a monopoly on standards-based reform and accountability politics. Now I know that’s just not true. For instance, the Clinton administration pushed Goals 2000, a set of national education goals focused on “high standards” and measurable improvement. I put scare quotes around high standards because my accountability readings have also helped me think through the complex process and history of education standards. There’s so much to learn, and trying to discuss accountability feels like a fish trying to describe the water.
When the 2016-17 school year started, I vowed to myself that I would only read young adult fiction. Since I teach middle school, it makes sense that I prioritize books that I can recommend to my students. This much-needed course correction has started to pay off in my daily interactions with students. I’m slowly growing my knowledge and getting to a place where I can say, “Liked that book? Then you’ll love this one!” In my mind, middle grades and young adult literature exist on their own farm, separate from everything else. I approach this reading in the same way. I consciously shift genres often, rarely reading sequels or books on similar themes back to back.
The books pictured above are my stockpile for summer, the next time I see myself reading non-fiction with any seriousness. I like to leaf through them in the minutes before I fall asleep at night, allowing myself a brief flirtation with the books to come.
My journal as a reader has altered who I am inside and outside of the classroom. I want to visit museums of education and take tours of old school houses. I feel a sense of connection to the educators who came before me, and a desire to do what’s right.
So, what are you reading? Any good recommendations?