Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones.
There’s nothing wrong with this book, in fact there’s a lot right with it. I wanted something different from what I got, hoping for something less (here’s all the things to know, and something more specific). So in a lot of ways, this book is too general for what I wanted from it. It focuses a few key principles for literacy and teaching. I think in general most of what he presents here is (hopefully) gleaned from a few weeks in a classroom: don’t be a snob about pop culture because it can get kids reading, don’t overwhelm kids with reading (especially making the mistake that you’re an English teacher because you love English), etc etc.
The single best thing in this book and something that is not only not talked about enough, it’s pointedly ignored is resisting the notion of the “super teacher” meme. Don’t be on, because you can’t be. You’re going to fail, a lot, and it’s more important to have a framework to process, deal with, and think through (or drink through) that failure because otherwise you’ll burn out by not feeling good enough. I get overwhelmed when I look at cool great things other teachers do, missing that they also had to figure out all the little steps to make it happen or that it came with a lot of missteps and mostly that they’re other people. So on the one hand it’s important to frame your sanity around this notion you can’t be perfect, it’s important politically to understand that people demand too much from teachers and so finding yourself in a position where you have to given literally more than you have to break even is a real possibility. At least understanding your limits and human limits will help you know when you’re failing or when the system is failing.
The Pocket Instructor.
This book was not the most useful book at all. For one, it’s just a list of activities. I think through the next school year I will flip through this and think about some specific moments in classrooms I am interested in, but a book like this maybe helps to explain the failure of college teaching for me. I taught college for a few years before anyone taught me how to teach. And I taught college for a few years before anyone taught me how to plan for teaching. This book is full of interesting ideas for activities, but if you use this as a replacement for understanding curriculum and curriculum, you’re filling time, but you’re not using that time as strongly as you possibly could be. Without clear goals at the course level and without clear goals unit by unit and without the right kinds of assessment and reflection, you end up with a course like a lot of my undergrad courses, talking about books and then a paper. The frustration of not having assignments that did anything than replicate the basic kinds of discussions we had in class or dealing with discussion questions and that’s all, well, those classes suck. I think this book should be used as a handbook to support a more rigorous system of planning. Then it could work to fill in those goals with relevant activities that students can use to develop learning.
What’s the Big Idea?
This is the book that more new English teachers should be reading. It doesn’t get into everything you’ll be doing as a teacher–Jim Burke has other books for that, but it does really help with understanding how to put together units. Curriculum is really frustrating to deal with for a lot of reasons. In some cases you have opaque standards and a “pacing chart” that tells you how much time you should be spending with the broad strokes (vocab, fiction, nonfiction, writing, research) but doesn’t help you understand what to do day by day. Or there are required texts, but they don’t really get much beyond: teach this book. Or worse, there’s a heavily scripted (and boring) one size fits all system.
So what this book does is help to shape broad units around big questions. This sounds simple, sure, but it really really does help to put a shape around the weird kinds of crap you have to cover in an English class. I am not saying other classes are easier to teach–I am not, but I do think that English is a lot like biology. It’s a lot of reading and writing and discovery through thinking, but you can cover a lot of different topics in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different orders….you’re dealing with process and form as well as content, so it’s hard to figure out how to order it and plan out how much of what. This book does help provide a structure (but not too much structure) to that process.