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Each June, the faculty and staff gather for two days after graduation to discuss the year past and plan for the year ahead.  During these days full of workshops and department meetings, we typically revisit topics raised in the August and January In-Services.  This year, we focused on our upcoming school accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and worked on building a closer-knit resident life program through team-building activities.  In both sessions, we learned more about our colleagues and our school.  In department meetings, faculty reviewed assessment tools and worked on redesigning elements of their curricula.  All in all, it was a full two days of work, and it pointed us toward summer work to be completed before August.

At the end of the two days, as has become my habit, I offered the faculty and staff a glimpse at some of my summer reading.  While I read some fiction for recreation, I typically pick a handful of non-fiction works that I think will help me become more informed and thoughtful about the future of education and how to better serve our students.  Here are five titles over which I plan to geek out this summer (I list them in alphabetical order by author and quote heavily from Amazon book synopses and reviews):

1.     The Social Profit Handbook—David Grant

First suggested to me by Sharon Academy Headmaster Michael Livingston, The Social Profit Handbook “offers those who lead, govern, and support mission-driven organizations and businesses new ways to assess their impact in order to improve future work rather than merely judge past performance.” 

Differentiating financial profit and social profit, the book provides ideas about how to measure success in the not-for-profit world—something very pertinent in a year in which we are writing our NEASC Self-Study! As one reviewer said, “The Social Profit Handbook presents assessment and evaluation not as ends in themselves but as the path toward achieving what matters most in the social sector. The result: more benefits to society and stronger, more unified, more effective organizations prepared to make the world a better place.”

My hope is to learn more about how we can use Grant’s tools and processes to improve our habits of reflection and data-based decision making.

2.     Creating Cultures of Thinking—Ron Ritchart

Having read and used Ritchart’s Intellectual Character for years, and having read Making Thinking Visible last year, I am excited to see what practical ideas this book has for furthering our culture of inquiry and innovation—the theme with which we started the year.  The Amazon synopsis of the book says, “As educators, parents, and citizens, we must settle for nothing less than environments that bring out the best in people, take learning to the next level, allow for great discoveries, and propel both the individual and the group forward into a lifetime of learning. This is something all teachers want and all students deserve.”

Ron Ritchart is a long-time proponent of the primacy of creating a culture of thinking in education. According to one reviewer, “With the techniques and rich classroom vignettes throughout this book, Ritchart shows that creating a culture of thinking is not about just adhering to a particular set of practices or a general expectation that people should be involved in thinking. A culture of thinking produces the feelings, energy, and even joy that can propel learning forward and motivate us to do what at times can be hard and challenging mental work.”

We have seen this kind of culture arise at various times across our curricula, especially in our Capstone program, and I am eager to see what practical insights Ritchart can add to our efforts to strengthen this aspect of our academic culture.

3.     Smartest Kids in the World—Amanda Ripley

Trying to discover why students in some countries are, as a whole, outperforming students from the United States, Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley documents the journeys of three American teenagers who leave their American schools to learn overseas for a year: one each in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

According to Amazon’s overview, “Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.”

Though I am leery of a sample size of three, I appreciate the insights gained through stories, and I am especially interested to find out what the book says about rigorous teaching, parental involvement, and student engagement.

4.     Creative Schools—Ken Robinson

I have heard Ken Robinson speak twice in person and have read his books on creativity, and each time I encounter his ideas, I am motivated to change the way I teach and the way we engage students in learning.  He is a provocateur to be sure, but he is one that is pushing educators in a direction that—in the age of the Maker Culture, Design Thinking, and Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind—I believe is excitingly promising.

According to Amazon, Robinson promises a way to dramatically improve American education: “He argues for an end to our outmoded industrial educational system and proposes a highly personalized, organic approach that draws on today’s unprecedented technological and professional resources to engage all students, develop their love of learning, and enable them to face the real challenges of the twenty-first century. Filled with anecdotes, observations and recommendations from professionals on the front line of transformative education, case histories, and groundbreaking research—and written with Robinson’s trademark wit and engaging style—Creative Schools will inspire teachers, parents, and policy makers alike to rethink the real nature and purpose of education.”

On the other end of the spectrum from Ritchart, I don’t expect Sir Ken to give me practical pointers; instead I expect him to challenge the way I see schooling and, perhaps, to distinguish it from education.

5.     In Defense of Liberal Education—Fareed Zakaria

This final selection comes from my increasing belief that, as legislators and labor leaders push for more STEM courses and for technical centers to produce more workers for the global economy, we are in danger of losing the heart of what has made American education great and what holds its greatest promise for success in this century.  I am referring to the liberal arts, and as a graduate of Providence College and a strong proponent of the liberal arts, I believe they are under attack.  Amazon cites these examples: “The governors of Florida, Texas, and North Carolina have all pledged that they will not spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts, and they seem to have an unlikely ally in President Obama. While at a General Electric plant in early 2014, Obama remarked, ‘I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’ These messages are hitting home: majors like English and history, once very popular and highly respected, are in steep decline.”

In response, according to Amazon, “Zakaria eloquently expounds on the virtues of a liberal arts education―how to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly, and how to think analytically. He turns our leaders' vocational argument on its head. American routine manufacturing jobs continue to get automated or outsourced, and specific vocational knowledge is often outdated within a few years. Engineering is a great profession, but key value-added skills you will also need are creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling, and, more than anything, the ability to continually learn and enjoy learning ―precisely the gifts of a liberal education.”

I switched from engineering to a double major in English and Humanities in my junior year at PC (something uniquely possible at a liberal arts school, by the way), so I get exactly what this book promotes regarding the value of creativity, communication, and enthusiasm for learning in all professions.  I am not sure if I will read these books in this order, but I suspect, after having my worldview and paradigms challenged by the other four, I will end with this one as it provides me with more arguments to further my crusade for the liberal arts.

Though I know that our faculty have a wide array of reading, travels, courses, and workshops planned, I suspect some of them will join me in reading one or more of these books.  My hope is that some of you might join us, if not in reading these books, in some other educational endeavor so we might all live up to our motto—semper discens—always learning.

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