You Should Read...

Cover image from
Building a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green

My teacher bookshelf is, to use the words of an educator I admire, too often "aspirational." It's rare that I find the time and inclination to read books on teaching when I'm working hard at it ten or twelve hours every weekday (and several hours on weekends too). But this book made me go "Yes!" and "Huh!" and "How?" and "Finally!" many, many times as I read it. In short, it's worth it, and I think all educators should read it immediately. Here are four reasons why.

Reason #1: Green respects teachers and credits us for the hard work it takes to practice our craft. Right from the beginning, she describes in detail the intricate mental processes that a teacher engages in while executing a lesson. She describes several lesson segments in near-novelistic terms, noting how, in any given lesson, proficient teachers must balance discipline, academic rigor, and developmentally appropriate content and approaches, all while considering social concerns like knowing who should be allowed or encouraged to contribute to the discussion and when. “Teachers not only had to think; they had to think about other people’s thinking. They were an army of everyday epistemologists, forced to consider what it meant to know something and then reproduce that transformation in their students. Teaching was more than story time on the rug. It was the highest form of knowing.” (39) I love this quote. Teaching is the highest form of knowing. You must know your subject inside and out and blindfolded, and then you have to make it accessible to as many different brains as there are in your classroom.

Reason #2: She shows equanimity and thoughtfulness in her exploration of educational "fads." Behaviorism, accountability, the charter school movement, teacher evaluation, the Common Core. Green interviews many of the people at the center of all of these developments in education, providing historical context for all of them. She crafts a mosaic of what it means to "build" a teacher, piece by piece, and all the pieces have a place. No one approach is foolproof, and they all inform each other. One critique that I have of this book, however, is that her exploration of the Common Core is superficial compared with the depth to which she discusses the other topics. I wish she had clarified the origins of the Common Core and defined it in more detail.

Reason #3: She made me want to re-learn math. The descriptions of elementary-level math classes in this book blew my mind. One problem per lesson? Eight-year-olds debating conjectures? I wish I'd learned math this way--as something open to argument, something to intuit, hypothesize about, elaborate upon and define. Instead, I memorized series upon series of meaningless steps that reduced me to tears on many occasions. As an adult, I felt this same desperate frustration again when faced with the math portion of the GRE--and shame and bewilderment that the U.S. consistently ranks far below many other countries in basic math skills. I was amazed to discover while reading this book that the Japanese methods of teaching math are actually modeled on American ideas; our failure is in our lack of communication among educators and a reluctance to support meaningful professional development.

Reason #4: It's chock-a-block with ideas. Page 119 contrasts the "I, We, You" model of teaching with the "You, Y'all, We" model. Page 141 discusses how teachers can do a quick check for understanding by having students write class summaries, share them and vote on the best one, and come up with a title for the lesson. Page 185 (and beyond) explores how immediate error correction may or may not be a best practice. Page 226 describes how a teacher engages a distracted student by increasing rigor, not reverting to traditional disciplinary action. Page 284 introduces high-leverage teaching practices, which "[require] diligence, care, thought and a certain amount of courage. But they [have] outsize impact" (286). (See for more information on high-leverage practices.)

And here's what will keep me up at night: Green discusses math in depth, and English education to a lesser extent. Foreign language education is discussed only in the context of adult education, when one of Green's focus educators (Magdalene Lampert) traveled to Italy and took Italian classes that reminded her of the way she taught elementary school math. “The class… always start[ed] with some kind of problem (how do you order off a menu? or how do you make a complaint politely?); then moving onto hypotheses made by students, which the teacher wrote up on the board; and finally, ending in a discussion.” (248) I'm totally nonplussed. How does this work, really? How does this model create a coherent language learning experience? What would this look like in a novice-level classroom full of eighth or ninth graders? I'm all for integrating hypothesizing and problem-solving into foreign language classes (I think it works great when discussing culture). But for language? How? Why? That's what I'll be mulling over in the coming weeks, especially as I get ready to go to the ACTFL conference in November.


  1. A friend of mine lent me this book but I haven't even begun to read it. I'll take it up to Mohonk with me.


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