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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Read Outside the Box

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There is no end to the possibilities for an educator's summer reading.

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If you could read one book this summer, what would it be? What one book would help you do a better job of leading your school? Should it be a book written for principals or teachers, or should it be a book that was not written with educators in mind?
The ideal, of course, is to read both kinds of books. We should be reading about learning and leadership, and we should be pushing our boundaries to think differently about the world and our role in it. Many books have relevance for us even if they're not targeted to educators. (I'm not including novelist Dan Brown's newest book, Inferno [Random House, 2013], or some other "questionable" book, no matter how much fun they may be to read.)
It would be nice to read multiple books on a variety of topics, but part of the summer is already gone, and it won't be long before you're back in the office every day, opening boxes, polishing schedules, and meeting with teachers and families. Where did that summer go? What if you only have time for one book? What should you choose?
In trying to get a handle on what that one book should be, I sent an e-mail to about 50 friends, some K–12 educators and some not, and asked "What one book would you suggest for a principal to read this summer?" Their responses were thoughtful, provocative, and varied, so much so that they made me want to enroll in a speed-reading course!
Not surprisingly, the educators suggested different books than did the non-educators, although there was some overlap in their recommendations. Many of the recommendations from educators focused on ways to support students and lead schools. Those outside K–12 education—professors, an editor, a stockbroker, a writer, a minister, a community volunteer, a couple of consultants, and a politician—suggested titles that focus more generically on human growth and development. I'll share my own recommendation at the end of this article, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to highlight a few books that my friends recommended.

An Education Focus

Not all of the books recommended by educators focused on schools, but schools and students were a recurring theme. Suggested books with this emphasis included Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life by Thomas Armstrong (ASCD, 2012); Leading Change in Your School by Doug Reeves (ASCD, 2009); Mindset by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2007); and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
These books don't have a common focus, but they share the idea that we need to take charge of our educational settings and strategies. Whether it's how a classroom operates or how a school is led, the way we think about intellect or how we view student growth, it's not sufficient to simply do things the way that they've been done before.

A Leadership Focus

It's not surprising that quite a few people, both educators and non-educators, mentioned books on leadership. Colin Powell's book, It Worked for Me (Harper, 2012), is filled with principles and strategies that draw from his military experiences. I read this book last fall and found it quite good.
Jim Collins's latest book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperCollins, 2011), was another suggestion. Collins's books always resonate with me. He takes the not-so-obvious and makes it obvious, clear, and pursuable.

The Power of Introverts

A couple of people mentioned the recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Random House, 2012). I've just finished reading this book (on the recommendation of quite a few introverts), and I concur that it should be high on your to-read list. Cain points out how so much of what we do—from how we organize people to how we interact with others—assumes that people work and learn best in highly interactive groups, but, in fact, this is not the best setting for everyone. Quiet has caused me to reflect on my leadership style and reminded me that I need to think of introversion and extroversion as another aspect of human diversity.

How We Think

I referred to Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) in my November 2012 "Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership, in which I wrote about the importance of planning how meetings end. It was fun to see the book suggested by a couple of people.
Kahneman pulls in lots of research to show how we solve problems and the various factors that affect our thinking. It's filled with worthwhile data and ideas. I often find myself musing on how his findings might work for me in my school.

Lessons from Lincoln

Another book recommended by both educators and non-educators describes an earlier and even more contentious period than today. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster, 2005), the basis for Stephen Spielberg's recent film, recounts Abraham Lincoln's presidency during the American Civil War. Goodwin uses Lincoln's work with his cabinet to study leadership and power. It was wonderful even before Daniel Day-Lewis stepped into the role.
Learning from Lincoln by Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins (ASCD, 2010) applies Lincoln's legacy to school leadership. The authors identify qualities and skills that explain Lincoln's effectiveness as a leader and that can be useful to principals in trying to lead their schools.

Education Around the World

It's a flat world, and we need to be cognizant of what's happening beyond our own borders. With that in mind, people from all roles suggested books that compare and contrast education in the United States with that in other countries. Yong Zhao's books, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Corwin, 2012) and Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization (ASCD, 2009), were among those recommendations. I've read them both and found them thought-provoking.
As I write, I'm midway through Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley's book, The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change (Corwin, 2009), and I'm finding it interesting and relevant to the question of what schools in different nations can learn from one another.

What About Technology?

I was surprised that more people didn't recommend technologically oriented books. Perhaps the people who are heavily into technology aren't reading books? In any case, a couple of people recommended The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing Our Brains (Norton, 2010) by Nicholas Carr, and I've begun reading it. Already, I've read enough to be concerned about how my screen time is affecting how I think and solve problems. I've worked at making my memos shorter and am turning off my computer during the day so I can read without the interruptions of e-mails.

A Powerful Novel (or Two)

One educator recommended Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (J. B. Lippincott, 1960), and I found her rationale to be powerful. She said,
This book changes who you are. If we could model ourselves after Atticus Finch and lead our classrooms in this vein, we could change the world. He was gentle, yet firm. He provided structure for his children but still let them explore. He was accepting of all people, not just those that looked like him or were of the same socioeconomic standing. He let his children learn from their mistakes, not be shamed by them. After reading this again, I realized he is not only the man I want my son to grow up to be, but the kind of teacher that I want to be.
Clearly, I need to reread this.
If fiction is your arena, I just reread Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (Chapman and Hall, 1859), and it is far, far better than I remember. I recommend it.

Learning Beyond Books

A few responses were intriguing despite the fact that they didn't answer my question (or perhaps because they didn't do so). A retired educator suggested that principals watch a series of free videos of their choice at Khan Academy or enroll in a massive open online course (MOOC). He pointed out, correctly, I think, that online instruction is an educational tsunami that is headed our way.
A professor of education responded to my question with, "I have an alternative suggestion. Suggest they read a national newspaper such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal daily in paper or online. I think this is important to be a successful educator."

My Recommendation

So with suggestions ranging from Quiet to Atticus Finch, from a MOOC to a newspaper, what is my suggestion for the one book to read this summer? Drum roll, please!
It's a hard choice, but I recommend How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. In this book, which was recommended by both educators and non-educators, Tough makes a powerful case for the noncognitive curriculum and leads us to think differently about how we prepare students for an uncertain world. A quote from the book captures this quite well:
In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions of the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. (p. xv)
I've read Tough's book and am confident that you will find it both interesting and useful. That's a good combination!
I hope that these suggestions motivate you to find the time to plunge into at least one book. I'd be pleased to hear what you read and what you thought!
Good books aren't just for summer, in this video, learn more about Tom Hoerr's schoolwide book club.
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Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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