October 11, 2012

The Yearly Reread

I haven't been able to reread my favorite teaching/learning books this year. Someone who weighs about 13 lbs is taking up a disproportionate amount of my non-work time (and skimming my work time as well). Here they are:

While searching for a book to get my Lifespan II students thinking about what defines adulthood and the transition into it, I came across “Good Influence: Teaching the Wisdom of Adulthood” by Daniel Heischman. Heischman is the Executive Director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, and he has lots of experience with high school and college students and their families. This book helps reminds me why it is important to keep your high standards amidst pressure to make things easier, faster, and user-friendlier since capitulating to that pressure can undercut important educational and life lessons. The author also covers people's spiritual development. When I use this book in class some students love it for that reason and others are a bit allergic to for the same reason. Generally good conversation comes from reading this book. I wrote the author to let him know and to ask him if he would consider a similar book but for transitioning into another stage of life. We still need people around us to model how its done.

I found “Clueless in Academe” the summer before I took my first full time job teaching. I thought the title was fitting for me. Surely I’d be the clueless one… The title of book is referring as much to the cluelessness of faculty as to the cluelessness of the students. The author, Gerard Graff, contends that academia itself is impenetrable for a variety of reasons (some of which we revel in), and so college educators should expectstudents to have some trouble jumping in and engaging. (If you expect something it makes it much less frustrating.) In addition to giving the reader a way to reframe students’ apparent apathy, lack of awareness/motivation/engagement in higher education, Graff suggests ways teachers can invite students into the academic conversation so they can engage and make it a meaningful experience. Help learning how to argue! Who knew anyone would need help with that...In some contexts it comes quite naturally.

“Never a Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art of Performance” I found in a discount bin at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA. (Got to love used bookstores in the 5 College area of Massachusetts.) The book is by Jyl Lynn Felman who is an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Brandeis. If feminism, post-modernism, and a social justice and/or relational orientation rankle your sensibilities, consider this book a form of intellectual and emotional stretching. Flexibility is good right? If affect has no place in the classroom in your perspective this book will be quite a challenge. Felman is playful, serious, and engaging, but given the nature of her courses (i.e., Harmonies and Tensions: Blacks and Jews, Intro to Women’s Studies, etc.) she may be a lot more accessible to (some of) the humanities folks. I like her voice, her self reflection and her willingness to grapple with teaching as a relationship. And I want to take her classes.

The rest of the title is: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom. This book is by Daniel T. Willingham who is a professor of Psychology from University of Virginia. This is for the science-and-research nerds among us. The author is trying to cut through some popular ideas about education by finding the cognitive principle that either supports the idea, alters it, or refutes it. A few of the questions that the book addresses are: “Why do student remember everything that is on television and forget everything I say?” (Cognitive principle: ‘memory is the residue of thought’), “Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?” (Cognitive principle: ‘We understand new things in the context of things we already know.’), and “Is drilling worth it?” (Cognitive principle: Proficiency requires practice.) Willingham gives specific examples in each chapter for how the principle can structure assignments or classroom expectations. I actually typed up notes from the book on my ongoing quest to externalize my teaching decisions for student. You know, homework is not just irritation. It’s meant to be practice. [Anyone heard me say that? Now you know where I got it from. It makes sense doesn't it? Taking notes? Practice. Highlighting your book? Practice.]There is a context, rationale, and meaning for much of what we do, even when it isn’t apparent generally apparent.

By the way, if you have any recommendations don't hold out on me. :)