Part Two: A Truly Inspirational Book List for Teachers

The second article of my two-part series on terrific books for teachers.

By Barry Nitikman

Posted

stack of books with apple on top

As a continuation from my previous article listing great books for teachers,  I have provided three more books below that I think would be beneficial to explore.

Mathematical Fun, Games and Puzzles by Jack Frohlichstein

I realize that this may seem like a strange choice at first glance. However, the truth is, I can’t even tell you how many great ideas, activities, games, and just pure math fun (and engagement) that I’ve gotten from this book written many years ago by a middle school math instructor. You will find the material is appropriate for kids at many different levels; as early as 4th grade (or a really capable 3rd grader), all the way up to high school math. You can purchase it on Amazon.com for as little as a few pennies. I’m on my third copy (at least), and have given a couple away.

When I found this book, I immediately found dozens of ideas I could use in 4th/5th grade math classes, especially, but not exclusively, for my more capable kids. Even though I’ve gone through the book’s 305 pages seemingly dozens upon dozens of times, and even though I’ve got post-its stuck in probably 15 different places for discoveries that I’ll get to as soon as I have the time, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of all it has to offer.

Here are just a few of the terrific items you’ll find:

  • Math Strategy Games: This is what originally sparked my interest in strategy-based math games, which are difficult to find, and that add so much interest and intrigue to math study for kids. You’ll find the 100 game, and several others that will really pique your interest and make you say “I can’t wait to try this with my kids!” I used these as the basis for many presentations to teachers over the years, and have gotten nothing but positive feedback from teachers everywhere.
  • Math Tricks and Puzzles: The book contains many classic math magic tricks. They include: figure out anyone’s birthdate; the magic-guess-my-number cards that everyone knows from their childhood; the 21-card trickand many others. 
  • Challenging Conceptual Math Problems: This really sparked my interest in doing meaningful problems of the week, as opposed to just the MENSA brain-twister-puzzle-type things I’d previously used. In my opinion, those have their value, but pale in comparison to the kinds of problems offered in this book. And it got me enthused about teaching higher-level math problem solving, where the method of solving the problem is not obvious; learners have to figure out a strategy.
  • Math Curiosities: Interesting algorithms, methods, and approaches; strange math oddities; historical math happenings and discoveries; you name it. Just fascinating stuff on every page of this terrific book. Get it! No, get TWO, and give one to a colleague. It’ll set you back about a dime, plus postage. If you paid $100 for it, it would still be worth it.

If you like math, or even if math intimidates you a little, this book will convince you that math is fun! And, like me, I’m quite sure you’ll have 100 moments during your reading where you’ll think “I can’t wait to try this with my kids!” Guaranteed.

The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark

Ron Clark is an award-winning educator who founded the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia several years ago. His approach to education is high-pizazz, super high-energy, dynamic education, coupled with a very rigorous set of expectations for his students in terms of behavior, engagement, and personal character. If you check the reviews in Amazon and other places, you will see overwhelmingly positive, glowing reviews of his books and his work in general. You will also see strong criticism, mostly from those who see him as some sort of huckster or snake oil salesman. These people doubt Clark's accomplishments, his positive effect on kids, or argue that the approach he uses would require kids to work twelve-hour days.

All I can say is, people can believe what they wish, but his academy—which has a very large minority population—has had unqualified success. While studying with Ron Clark, kids travel to many places—including overseas. Former pupils and parents alike are unabashed supporters of the school, and as a teacher, you will find enough inspiration in his books to last you quite a while. Ron Clark is incapable of giving up or seeing any obstacle as insurmountable. This book, just as with Teach Like a Champion (see my first article), should be considered a resource, and you can take from it what works for you.

There are so many techniques, ideas and motivating stories in both of these books that it would be impossible to list them. So what I’ll do is list a few of these by category, just to give you an idea. The tips, strategies, and philosophies are organized into sections for parents or teachers, and also for other areas, such as “Beyond the Classroom.” Suffice to say that these will only scratch the surface. You will find a multitude of inspiring ideas in these two books.

It is my belief that when you finish this book, you will have one overall thought: "With some ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance, I can do anything with my class." Whenever you have the thought (and who hasn’t?), “I’d love to do that with my kids, but there’s no way I could get it happening,” or “I could never afford that,” you will be ashamed, because Clark lets nothing stand in the way of a great experience for his kids. He even had their live images displayed on 50-story buildings in Times Square while they were on a school trip to New York City. Clark will make you feel that you can and must do something to make a difference.  

Here are a few examples and highlights from this book:

  • Define your expectations and then raise the bar; the more you expect, the better the results will be: Having high expectations (not just paying lip service to the idea, really meaning it), being explicit about what those expectations are, and rigorously holding your class to them, is one of the greatest gifts teachers can give to their students.
  • Get to know your students in nonacademic settings: Granted, this is not always possible, and for some teachers virtually impossible. However, you’d be surprised at how the simplest efforts in this regard can pay off so richly. Both parent and child will respond positively. “Wow, Ms. Smith came to my game! She really does care about me; it isn’t just school to her.” Over the years, when it was possible, I’ve tried to attend my kids’ baseball games, soccer matches, and plays. I can assure anyone that after you go out of your way to get to Rafael’s soccer match, the relationship between you and his family is different. You are no longer just Rafael’s teacher, but someone who cares. It is not easy to do this, but if you can manage it, it pays off tremendously.
  • Use music to excite, motivate, and inspire: This is known to most teachers, I would assume, but never underestimate how much engagement, excitement, and meaning can be added to a lesson through the use of music. Most kids love to sing, as long as they don’t feel self-conscious, and they love to make a bunch of rhythmic noise by banging on something. Use your imagination and have fun.
  • Create moments that will have a lasting impact on children’s lives: One of the many examples used in the book was the aforementioned night in Times Square where the kids on an NYC field trip were shocked and exhilarated to see their own images displayed on huge neon screens. Clark's point in bringing up this illustration is not that you can always do incredible things like this; but rather, that really inspiring, moving, unforgettable moments can be created in kids’ lives by teachers and administrators who see no barriers to what can be done, and who will simply not take no for an answer. You will probably never have your kids’ pictures displayed on Times Square skyscrapers, but it is also highly unlikely that after reading this book, you will ever say something like “I’d love to do that, but where would we ever find a way to do it?” You are much more likely to find yourself saying, "If Clark could get the kids on neon screens, I know I can find a way to do this.”
  • Stay connected by having parents on speed dial: Clark means this literally. He encourages teachers to give out their cell numbers, and parents’ phone numbers are programmed into every teacher’s class phone. While I am certain that many teachers/schools would not want to go to this extreme, his overall point is that there needs to be regular, open communication between teacher and parent, whether the child is doing well or having a particular problem or issue. I couldn’t agree more. Contacting parents, even just to say that “Junior did a great job on his math test!” is a powerful way to show them that you truly care about their child, and that Junior is not just a kid in your class. Almost all parents genuinely appreciate consistent and timely teacher contact. The last place a parent wants to be is in the dark.

There are 101 points in this book—too many to list individually. However, just to get an idea, here are some of the other topics that Clark covers (and each one at some depth):

  • Not every child deserves a cookie.    
  • Make it happen. Don’t give excuses; find solutions!    
  • Push yourself to be innovative beyond your imagination.
  • Love what your students love, whether it’s iCarly, Twilight, or the NFL.
  • Show them how to study; don’t expect it to come naturally.    
  • Realize that even very good children will sometimes lie.     
  • Teach children to embrace their personalities and present themselves with confidence in all situations.
  • There are 85 more tips similar to these!

At the same time I’m recommending this book, I should also put in a plug for Clark’s other two books, The Essential 55, and The Excellent 11. Both are full of great ideas and inspiration, and very easy to read and reference. It's the kind of book you can just open to whatever interests you, and believe me, there will be plenty.

Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder

I’ll close my short and quirky list of recommended books with this classic by Tracy Kidder, which is entirely different than the other books I mentioned. This is not a how-to book, nor does it contain explicit strategies and techniques for teaching excellence. It is simply a wonderful book about what it means to be a teacher, and the challenges that caring, dedicated teachers face in their lives. Some of these challenges they conquer, and others they simply cannot; challenges that are beyond the scope of their passion and ability to solve.

This is a wonderful book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, about a school year in a fifth grade classroom in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Kidder spent the entire year observing a truly great teacher, Mrs. Chris Zajack, as she attempted to get the very best out of a very challenging class. This is a great book for anyone, but especially for teachers. It is a must-read. If you check out the reviews on Amazon.com, you will find many reviews by people who either were inspired by the book to go into teaching as a profession, or teachers who were motivated and heartened to continue as a result of reading it. A marvelous book that will stay with you for a long, long time. In fact, I believe that all of the books I recommended in these articles will stay imbedded in your heart and mind for many years to come.