Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.
a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

More literary nonfiction for students

dust jackets of 3 literary nonfiction novels read 2nd quarter 2019

It’s once again time to recommend some literary nonfiction that could be used with high school teens or adult students.  I look for books that:

  • Are well-written, but not stuffy
  • Have some images in them
  • Tie-in to academic work, current events, or students’ interests
  • Can often be found in libraries
  • Readily available discounted or secondhand

Here are my three recommendations from my second quarter nonfiction reading.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

After being beat in his attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole by a Norwegian, Sir Earnest Shackleton determined that the first expedition to cross Antarctica would be British.

South is Shackleton’s record of that heroic failure which played out in polar ice at the bottom of the world as other heroic British failures occurred in the trenches in France.

Shackleton’s record is riveting. Men suffered from cold and their own body heat, from malnutrition, injuries, and boredom.

The final third of the book, which Shackleton compiled from notes by members of separate party, lacks the impact of personal experience.

I wouldn’t recommend South as a book for all-class reading. (The paperback’s text is blurry like bad photocopies, and long paragraphs combine technical terms with British slang.)

South is, however, a book that a few students interested in science, history, geography, or psychology might dip into. The photos should interest just about anyone.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, ©2016 Skyhorse Publishing. 380 p. [paper]

The Disaster Profiteers

John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.

Mutter reached the conclusion,  “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.

The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.

Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.

The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.

The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer by John C. Mutter. ©2015 St. Martin’s Press. 281 p.

Profiles in Folly

Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.

Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.

The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.

Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.

There are no images in the book.

 Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions And Why They Went Wrong  by Alan Axelrod. ©2008. Sterling Publishing. 358 p. [paper]


I bought this quarter’s recommended books  at hamiltonbook.com for less than $8 apiece.

 

 

 

Recommended reading: Religious Literacy

I began last week suggesting literary nonfiction titles that teachers might find useful to have  of teens and adults read in various courses. Today’s recommendation, however, is a book for educators.

Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t is literary nonfiction aimed primarily at the education community, broadly interpreted to include not only public-school teachers and administrators but also school boards, college administrators, and legislators at the state and federal levels.

Prothero discusses the extent of Americans’ ignorance of religions (including their own) as a civic problem. Ignorance of The King James Bible, for example, renders students incapable of understanding allusions found in virtually every type of fiction and nonfiction.

Prothero argues that religious illiteracy is not only handicapping but downright dangerous. America’s foreign policy is being set by people who have little understanding of the pivotal role religion plays in other cultures’ attitudes and actions, he says.

He contends that Americans cannot confront the challenges facing the nation today—domestic as well as foreign— without an understanding of the role of religion in American and world history.

Prothero refutes popular misconceptions about what legally can and cannot be taught in public schools, and tackles the issue of whether a student can refuse to participate in the pledge of allegiance.

The book includes an 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” and a religious literacy quiz with answers.

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero (Harper One. ©2007. 296 p.)

Recommended literary nonfiction reading

3 literary nonfiction books

Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better.  When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.  

Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.

The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:

  • tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
  • good writing that wasn’t stuffy
  • books with at least some images in them
  • books that are widely available through libraries
  • books that are available new at under $10

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.

On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.

A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.

Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.

Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.

The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. (Chicago Review Press, ©2009. 264 p.) 

The Fever of 1721

The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.

By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.

The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.

From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.

The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ©2016. 350 p.) 

Passages to America

Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.

In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.

Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.

Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience.   Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.

Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.

Passages to America: Oral Histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island by Emmy E. Werner (Potomac Books. ©2009. 177 p.)

In case you’re curious

I bought all three of the books mentioned here at hamiltonbook.com. I got Passages to America in hardback, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The Fever of 1721 in paperback.

I have a couple more volumes of literary nonfiction to tell you about next week.

How are you using literary nonfiction?

I’d like to hear from English teachers, particularly those who teach grades 7-12 and dual-credit courses about how their schools are using literary fiction in their academic programs.
If you have experience using literary nonfiction in English class, or if you work in a school where other departments have taken the lead in using literary nonfiction, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Drop me a note via the contact form on yctwriting.com or send an email to me, linda [at] yctwriting.com

Literary nonfiction reading: The Warmth of Other Suns

During the fourth quarter of 2018, I dipped into a couple of nonfiction books that required more attention than I could give them at the time. The only one I read with anything like the attention it deserves is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of nonfiction book the folks who devised the Common Core State Standards had in mind for students to read: The Warmth of Other Suns is truly literary nonfiction.

Wilkerson tells the story of the migration of six million southern blacks to the North in the period between World War I and 1970 through the experiences of three of those people.

Ida Mae Gladney, an unremarkable black woman in rural Mississippi, migrated in 1937 to Chicago where she remained true to her traditional southern roots—family, church, hard work, neighborliness—and earned the respect of even the criminals and addicts who repudiated her values.

George Starling, denied the education he wanted in Florida, migrated to Harlem in 1945, where he took the only job he could find: working as a railway porter on routes that took him regularly back into the Jim Crow South. Lacking his work ethic, his family fell apart, becoming statistics in the sociological studies and inside stories in newspapers.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, already a doctor and former Army surgeon when he left Mississippi in 1953 to set up practice among the black community in California, found the only way he could attract patients was by pandering to the blacks’ ideas of what success meant—a white Cadillac and flashy clothes—and giving personal attention white doctors were too busy to provide.

Wilkerson interweaves the stories of these three individuals with the broader historical picture of race relations in the United States and the socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the twentieth century.

One thing Wilkerson doesn’t do is find scapegoats.

There are plenty of people who share in the blame for the causes of the Great Migration and plenty who share in the blame for its consequences, including those who participated in it.

Wilkerson writes clearly, using the most common terms that will accomplish her aims. Hers is a scholarly work without scholarly pretentiousness.

It is also a work of journalism.

Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, sent hours talking to people, visiting in their homes, eating with them, going to church with them, retracing the routes they took out of the South. From all she sees and hears, she selects telling details.

Isabel Wilkerson.The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Random House. ©2010. 622 p. ISBN:9780679444329

(FYI, during the third quarter of 2018, I was reading and writing reviews the bestselling novels of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, which  I’ll be posting at GreatPenformances  between Jan.12 and May 28 this year.)

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

A writing teacher’s reading around ELA

Reading nonfiction is probably the best—and certainly the easiest and cheapest—means of lifelong learning.

Such reading is obligatory for writing teachers.

We have to prepare our students to write in whatever fields they enter, and it’s hard to do that if unless we know what kinds of writing and what kinds of topics are used in other disciplines.

Below are brief summaries of my nonfiction reading for the third quarter of this year.

Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas

Trespassing Across America cover shows man with backpack balancing on a pipeline

Ken Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher in an oil camp in the Arctic Circle when he got the idea to walk the 1,700-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline. He wanted to see the land that the pipeline was going through and test his personal limits.

He wasn’t athletic, hadn’t hiked before, and, although he considered himself environmentally conscious, had no political agenda.

This literate but easy reading narrative by a guy who sounds as ordinary as most of the guys in my English classes ought to appeal to those guys.

His stress on the importance of being polite to people ought to appeal to teachers.

Rust: The Longest War by J. Waldman

Rust's cover features photos of rust by Alyssha Eve Csük

Ilgunas had his book organized for him by the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jonathan Waldman had to devise a way to organize his examination of rust, “the great destroyer,” “the pervasive menace,” “the evil.” He chose to organize it in terms of stories about men and women whose life work is fighting rust on surfaces as diverse as The Statue of Liberty, bridges, and beer cans.

To balance his narratives about rust fighters, Waldman tags along with Alyssha Eve Csük as she climbs over a chain link fence into the closed Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem PA to take photographs of rust. The granddaughter of a steelworker, Csük makes her living photographing rust, including the one on the book’s dust jacket.

Waldman can not only make technical material understandable, he makes it fascinating and often funny. Rust is a marvelous nonfiction book to make available to your students as an exemplar of expository narrative.

Jane Austen’s England by R. & L. Adkins

Cover of Jane Austen's England shows child-like drawings of ship, hanged man, a fire, a chimney sweep, a house, a horse-drawn carriage.

Roy and Lesley Adkins focus their panoramic history of Jane Austen’s England (she lived from 1775 to 1817) on domestic matters arranged by topic rather than chronology.

The topical approach makes the book convenient pick-up reading, which is fortunate because Jane Austen’s England won’t be many people’s choice for cover-to-cover reading.

However, chapter titles such as “Wedding Bells,” “Fashions and Filth,” and “Dark Deeds” might tempt a teenager to thumb its pages. Once inside, the content is quirky enough to get students to read a page or even a chapter.

The End of White Christian America

White on black, all-text cover of The End of White Christian America

In this unusually readable book of survey research, Robert P. Jones examines the impact of demographic and cultural changes since 1900 on current American religion and on American politics.

The first paperback version of The End of White Christian America (published  July, 2017) which I used, includes an afterward in which Jones discusses how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 fits into the pattern of changes he wrote about prior to the election.

In those changes, Jones finds an explanation for why America’s white protestants have passed over candidates whose values matched their own, supporting instead candidates whose values seem a direct contradiction of theirs. The explanation is fear. With their declining numbers, white protestants see the loss of political clout and of their vision of America.

Explaining survey data so it is understandable and meaningful is an art. Jones is a master of it.  Students could learn a lot from this book about how to explain technical material for people who aren’t particularly techie.

Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Black cover with Failure and Stuart Firestein printed in green to indicate positive side to failure.

Failure is a book about how scientists do science, which author Stuart Firestein, himself a scientist, says isn’t the way the public thinks science happens.

Firestein’s thesis is that science is less rule-driven and methodical than the public supposes, and that “failures” advance science at least as much as successes.

Firestein is scholarly without being stuffy, but the topics he discusses are not for for folks whose science education ended with high school physics.

Failure is more a collection of essays than a book that must be read as sequential chapters, which makes it a good addition to a writing teacher’s classroom bookshelf for those few rare students (and perhaps some of the teacher’s colleagues) for whom this little book will be a pleasant challenge.

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth’s subtitle reveals his focus: Why the First World War Failed to End. 

Cover of the Vanquished is photo of soldier seated on ground,head on knees, hands on back of his neck, picture of misery.

While we think of WWI ending with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the process of negotiating peace treaties went on for five years. During those years, European nations already weakened by war, famine, and disease fell victim to revolutions, pogroms, and mass expulsions.

The conditions of those five years gave rise to new states and extreme political movements. All that was needed for the cumulative after-effects to ignite another world war was the fuel provided by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

While Gerwarth writes well, he’s not writing for an audience of high school and community college students. To appreciate his work requires more than a general knowledge of the WWI era and the ability to grasp sentences than can run 5-8 lines long.

I learned a great deal from his book, but I had to work at the learning.

My other reading

During the third quarter I also read at least two novels a week, most of them bestsellers of the 1970s. Reviews of those books will be posted at GreatPenformances.com before the year’s out, if they aren’t there already.

Summaries of my earlier nonfiction reading are posted on this blog. Here are links to the list for first quarter and the list for second quarter.

Reading around ELA, second quarter 2018

I started more nonfiction books than I finished this quarter. Two or three that I began turned out to be not what I was looking for or too much of what I was looking for. Those I set aside until I am less pressured.

The four I finished are an historical memoir, two books on education, and a book about self-directed learning in business settings. (If you’re interested in my fiction reading for the quarter, those reviews are posted at GreatPenformances.)

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Armenian Golgotha was written by Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian Apostolic Church priest who was in university in Berlin on Aug. 1, 1914 when Germany declared war against Russia and, by extension, on Russia’s allies.

photo of Grigoris Balakian on Armenian Golgotha cover

Less than a year later, Balakian was arrested in Constantinople along with other leaders of the Armenian community, as the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turks began to systematically eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey’s borders.

Thousands of Armenians died or were slaughtered over the next four years. Balakian survived, promising that he would tell the world what happened to his people as civilized nations averted their eyes.

I couldn’t read much of Armenian Golgotha at one time. Even in translation the memoir is harrowing. Pushing on despite feeling revulsion, one risks becoming deadened to the horror.

Translator Peter Balakian, nephew to Grigoris and a noted author in his own right, and the late Aris Sevag, a prolific writer on Armenian history, provide time charts, maps, and photographs. The paperback volume from Vintage Books, 2010, is beautifully laid out and printed on high quality paper, a stark contrast to the events it relates.

I highly recommend this memoir. You won’t enjoy it, but the whole point is that you dislike it enough to protest when history repeats itself.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

This is the third book I’ve read by Daniel T. Willingham, who writes about the implications of cognitive science for the classroom in a highly readable style not often associated with academics.

silhouette of child fleeing school desk is on cover of Why Don't Students Like School

Willingham starts out by saying, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

The rest of his book is devoted to exploring how classroom teachers can overcome their students’—and their own—disinclination to think. The content is not just thoughtful; it’s useful, too.

Unfortunately, nothing about the physical book makes for comfortable reading. It’s a good thing Willingham writes well, or I wouldn’t have gotten through the book. The typeface appears to have been chosen by someone whose hobby is engraving the Bible on the heads of pins, and the text is printed on cheap, thin paper that rapidly mellows to budget-apartment beige.

If your eyes are up to the challenge, you’ll find useful information in a refreshingly human delivery in Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

All Learning Is Self-Directed by Daniel R. Tobin

On front cover, figures run toward learning

Published by ASTD in 2000, this paperback by Daniel R. Tobin is geared toward leaders of large organizations who even then were shedding their training function and attempting to shift the those responsibilities to employees.

Although the book is geared toward businesses, Tobin’s main points apply to schools as well.

Tobin argues that although employees have to do their own learning—learning isn’t something someone else can do for you—the organization must take responsibility for

  • identifying its needs,
  • creating an environment that values learning,
  • encouraging diverse types of learning situations, and
  • facilitating employees’ ability to take engage in learning experiences.

Tobin’s text shows its age, but his general points are still valid and worth consideration in today’s public schools.

Someone Has to Fail by David F. Labaree

Someone Has to Fail (Harvard University Press, 2010) is a historical sketch of American education with David F. Larabee’s running commentary about the winners and losers in each successive reform from the early years of the republic to the present.

The book’s subtitle is The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which sums up Labaree’s assessment of the present state of education in America.

In group photo, one student's face is hidden by the word FAIL.

Larabee, a professor of education at Stamford University, asserts that American schools have historically done a lousy job of educating students, but they have been more successful at schooling students. Credentials mean only that students are trainable, Larabee says; credentials don’t imply that even those with advanced degrees have job skills.

He also says that America does not need—and has never needed—large numbers of people who have mastered the academic curriculum. What America needs, Larabee says, can be obtained by going to school quite apart from learning curriculum:

What school teaches that students need

School teaches [students] how to juggle priorities, how to interact effectively with both peers and superiors, and how to manipulate an institutional context in a way that serves their own individual ends. The best preparation for life, in short, may not come from getting an education but from doing school.

Larabee’s book is stuffy and highly repetitious. Moreover, his argument that schooling per se is valuable even if the schooled acquire neither knowledge or skills seems quaint. If businesses below Amazon-size ever really happy having to train highly credential employees for their first jobs, they aren’t any more. Even the rationale being given for combining the federal Departments of Education and Labor is that education should be focused on skill development for the workplace.

Nevertheless, I recommend taking a look at what Laramee has to say about America’s compulsion to treat every social problem by applying a poultice of education. I suspect that tendency won’t disappear regardless of changes  at the Cabinet level and it is an impulse that makes itself felt right down to the school janitor.

Reading around ELA, first quarter 2018

Last week I wrote about why teachers, particularly English teachers, professional development depends on their reading around their field instead of just in their field.

I practice what I preach.

My 2018 first quarter fiction reading

dust jackets of some of the fiction I'm reading in 2018

My reading for the first quarter of 2018 was a unusually light on nonfiction. There’s a reason for that.

In 2007 I began posting contemporary reviews of bestselling novels at least 50 years old on a blog, GreatPenformances. I went a bit beyond my original scope, finishing posting reviews of bestsellers 1900-1969 last fall.

After a few weeks rest, I decided to finish up reviewing all the bestsellers of the twentieth century. My reviews published in first three months of 2018 included all but one of the bestsellers of 1970, 1971, and 1972. The full list of my first quarter fiction reading is here.

My 2018 first quarter nonfiction reading

I read five nonfiction books during the quarter, beginning with Todd Whitaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most.

Whitaker’s underlying premise is that great teachers have high emotional intelligence, although I don’t believe Whitaker uses that term.

9 butterflies (8 identical, 1 different) on cover of What GreatTeachers Do Differently

Whitaker provides this-is-how-it’s-done scenarios from great teachers which less great teachers can adopt.

What Great Teachers Do Differently is very short and it’s easy reading. I read it in the dentist’s chair while waiting for a crown to be made.

Except for a small icon representing the brain, the dust jacket of The Reading Mind is all words.

Another book I read was Daniel T. Willingham’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.

If you’ve ever wondered why some of your junior high students can’t read, Willingham’s book might provide some clues. He delves into what happens in the brain when people perform the action we call reading. It turns out reading is a lot more complicated than teachers are led to believe in elementary education courses.

Willingham is a cognitive scientist rather than a "professional educator." He writes clearly and with wit about complex subjects, but The Reading Mind  is not a book you’ll read while the dentist makes you a crown.

That said, however, I consider The Reading Mind must-reading for English teachers.

Willingham not only goes into how people become readers (as opposed to how they learn to decode letters), but also into related issues such as whether the distractions of online reading are making people stupid and how to get teenagers to read books.

spine of book When Can You Trust the Experts

I liked Willingham’s The Reading Mind so much that I bought another of his books (and put other ones on my Alibris wishlist.)

When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education is a book for everyone in education. 

Willingham approaches the problem of fake science from the point of view of a scientist who is an otherwise normal human being as capable of being misled by clever marketers as anyone else.

He explains the difference between good science what today would probably be called fake science. Then Willingham explains a shortcut to analyzing whether the science behind an educational product or procedure is reliable.

I particularly recommend When Can You Trust the Experts for anyone involved in or concerned about funding for education programs (school administrators, school boards, community anti-tax curmudgeons) and those whose remand includes teaching media literacy (ELA teachers, librarians).

Dust jacket image on Switched shows an electrical switch.

The fourth nonfiction book I read this quarter is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It is a book about selling, specifically about selling ideas.

Switch is chock full of stories about real people’s experiences effecting change through the way they framed the problem.

If you want to know how to get your students to write better, or how to get your school board to change a policy, or how to make yourself exercise regularly, the Health brothers will help you.

Switch is easier reading than either of the Willingham books, but you won’t be embarrassed to be caught reading it. Both brothers are academics (Stanford and Duke) so they provide notes to sources as well as recommended reading.

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East  by Eugene Rogan, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at  the University of Oxford my most recent nonfiction reading.

Novels set in Britain during and after World War I—a war that touched virtually every family and community in Britain—got me interested in the history of that period.

Photo of Turkish soldiers raising their flag in Galipoli in 1915 is on the cover of The Fall of the Ottomans

Most histories of WWI dealt almost exclusively with the war in Europe, but Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War piqued my interest in learning more about what happened in the Middle East during the first world war.

I found Rogan’s book in a military history book catalog from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller, a favorite source for books I’d never run across in my everyday life.

Rogan is good writer who knows the value of narrative. His preface opens with his personal story of how taking a wrong turn while going to pay his respects at the grave of a great uncle killed at Gallipoli brought him face to face with the extent of Turkish involvement in World War I.

The Fall of the Ottomans would not have been difficult reading except that I knew very little of Middle Eastern history outside of the Old Testament. I had to read Rogan’s preface and first chapter twice before I felt comfortable enough with the terminology and names to continue reading.  Maps in the book were a huge help.

The Fall of the Ottomans is a book I’ll probably read again before I read the next title on my history book shelf.

Enough about my reading. What have you been reading?

Gleanings from my summer nonfiction reading list

After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.

I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.

Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.

I’ll skip over  Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it  here and here.

FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.

Happiness for All by Carol Graham

foreclosed home in poor condition
Residents lost house and hope.

The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.

Carol Graham’s book isn’t easy reading—I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.

Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills”  and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.

This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.

Carol Graham. 2017. Happiness for All.  Princeton University Press.

Glass House by Brian Alexander

Lancaster, Ohio, seen through shattered glass
A company’s demise is killing its town.

This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds more formidable than Carol Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.

Brian Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio,  a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.

He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail  of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)

Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.

This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.

Highly recommended reading.

Brian Alexander. 2017.Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by St. Martins Press.

The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins

Soldier among crosses on WWI battlefield
Red, white and black: the colors of the war.

In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.

The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.

That doesn’t mean the text is dry.

Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers.  He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis.  For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.

Philip Jenkins. 2014. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper One.

Great War Britain by Lucinda Gosling

canteen waitress serves soldiers
Happy side of home front war

This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.

When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.

Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.

Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names  would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.

Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.

I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.

Lucinda Gosling. 2014. Great War Britain: The First World War at Home.The History Press.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

title printed over duct tape
Duct tape is sticky stuff

Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.

The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.

The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”

Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.

Most of us ought to read it every year.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Random House.

The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

two ball shapes and metallic bar
Lots of detail in simple design.

John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT.  His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.

Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.

If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.

If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented.  It would be an instructive exercise.

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. John Maeda. 2006. MIT Press.

Grouped by Paul Adams

Groups of eight figures loosely linked by small thread
Eight-member groups are loosely linked.

Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.

He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.

Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.

The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.

Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.

Highly recommended.

Paul Adams. 2012. Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web. New Riders.

Hug Your Haters by Jay Baer

angry emojii within heart symbol
PR aid for schools?

Jay Baer is a marketing guy,  but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.

Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for  business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business  treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation.  Baer shows how to deal with both groups.

Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.

There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school.  If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.

Highly recommended.

Jay Baer. 2016. Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Portfolio/Penguin.

Logotype by Michael Evamy

logotype in white on magenta background
It’s easy to spot the logotype book.

A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol.  For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.

This is an entire 336-page book  of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.

This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.

Michael Evamy. 2016. Logotype. Lawrence King Publishing.