Category Archives: Book Reviews

Professional books reviewed by educators

Good but Incomplete Advice

Organization Made Easy! / Tools for Today’s Teachers
by Frank Buck
(Eye on Education/Routledge, 2010 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Fran Lo

There is a lot to like in Organization Made Easy! Many well-described concrete recommendations will help teachers handle paperwork effectively (though not student work – more on this later).

Many practical ideas will help teachers stay personally organized, using either paper resources like a calendar/daytimer or a smartphone/PDA. The author also provides useful ideas about managing email effectively (for example: drag the email into your Outlook calendar if a meeting is needed). He even provides specific tips for using Outlook for email, calendar, and task-list. I suspect one could adapt many of these ideas for Google tools.

Buck also offers good ideas about chunking your work – instead of shifting constantly from email to project to person with a question to email. I loved the section about organizing the way you keep files on your computer, which was both well-thought out and well-described. There was even a section about how to help students use their agendas/assignment books to stay organized. But key areas are absent or incomplete.

What’s missing in this book

The differences between elementary and secondary classrooms are not always recognized here, and the classroom examples are all elementary. For example, the suggested way to avoid wasting time passing out graded papers –  a pigeon-hole for each student – is workable only when you have 25 students. The author doesn’t suggest anything for secondary teachers with larger class sizes.

I had hoped for lots of good ideas for dealing with paper-grading, since as an English teacher I read several thousand writing pieces a year. Page 136 has six good ideas to reduce the need for grading. One (which I use myself and it has saved my sanity) is that you don’t have to grade everything.

But only three pages out of 160 address grading. Having expected at least a chapter, I was disappointed.

I was looking for ways to organize papers to work with an electronic grade book, but grade books are barely mentioned. I was looking for ideas for staying organized between my school computer and my home computer – a real chore for all of us –  but this isn’t addressed either.

I can’t help feeling that the author is writing from the office rather than the classroom. For example, he keeps urging his readers to delegate – to adults. I kept wondering which adults he thought I could delegate to. He also spends six pages on creating a tickler file to keep track of paperwork, and another four pages on in/ pending/out boxes.  These are dandy ideas, but too complex for the non-student-papers paperwork I have to deal with.  If I was a principal, though, I’d want systems like these.

Much of this book is practical and helpful, for both teachers and administrators. I’m glad I read it and I still recommend it. But if you’re looking for ways to manage all those papers you have to grade, this may not be the right book for you.

Fran Lo teaches English, Social Studies, and Computer Skills to middle schoolers in Connecticut, where she enjoys blending technology into her classes. One of her other hats is technology guru for teachers and staff.  Prior to teaching, she helped people cope with technology in small businesses, health care, and the financial industry.

Exciting Students about Math

Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies That Change Student Attitudes and Get Results
by Judy Willis, MD
(ASCD, 2010 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Cossondra George

I’ve always believed being good in math is more about attitude than aptitude, so the idea of this book appealed me. I hoped to gain ideas that would help me help my students learn to love math as much as I do. I was not disappointed.

From the last paragraph in the introduction: You and your students will even find an answer to the common question, “Why do we have to learn this?” The answer: “Because it makes our brains grow and we become smarter!”  — to the Appendix B: Brain Owner’s Manual — this book is chock full of useful, practical ideas for teachers to apply in their classrooms.

Many of Judy Willis’ ideas are familiar: connect math to real world application, encourage students to set their own learning goals, and find unique ways to motivate your students. For these been there/done that ideas, Willis offers her own takes on how to achieve these often seemingly unattainable goals. I love her idea of color coding ideas with green, yellow and red to show increased importance. I’ve always found giving students color to highlight notes to be valuable, but this color scheme would be a fantastic way to help students prioritize notes in any subject.

Willis brings a background in neurology to her classroom practice which influences how she teaches students to learn. She advocates actually teaching students how their brains work and how they connect new knowledge, and using that information to help them learn to learn more effectively. She suggests using “syn-naps” or brain breaks as one way to take new knowledge from simply being temporary learning to being stored as more permanently available meaning.

Many of her ideas reinforce what effective teachers already do – calling on multiple students before acknowledging whether an answer is correct, finding ways to make even a wrong answer useful in some way, and avoiding boredom by differentiating instruction to meet the needs of a variety of learners and abilities. But again, with each of these ideas, Willis manages to infuse her suggestions with unique twists to encourage the reader to reach beyond their own comfort zone to apply these in the classroom.

Map Readers and Explorers

Willis suggests students are grouped into two types of learners: Map Readers and Explorers. I love this notion! How less intimidating than ‘visual’ or ‘auditory’ or ‘kinesthetic’ learners – categories I never seemed to manage to pigeonhole even myself into appropriately. But being a map reader — someone who likes to pour over instructions, be directed specifically, and is logical and orderly — makes sense to me. As does the other extreme  — being an explorer who uses the imagination, does things first then reads instructions later, and responds well to choices. I can see the differences in those personality types and how students who fit those categories would learn differently and need different exposure to new information.

I also love that Willis advocates the use of small wipe boards! I’ve always loved using erasable slates with students, for the same reasons she suggests: all students are engaged with their own “device,” and the small whiteboards promote quick  and easy feedback for all students.

Overall, I was impressed with this book. It gave me much to think about. I saw things I do well,  and other things where I thought, “DUH! I should have drawn that same conclusion.” There were other good ideas I had never considered.

Willis hits a home run when it comes to helping teachers get students excited about math. And maybe even learning to love it.

Cossondra George is a middle/high school special education and math teacher. She enjoys writing about her teaching experiences and has had several articles featured in Education Week’s Teacher including Making Math Meaningful for All.  George engages students using technology and has been active in helping other teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. She also blogs about her teaching days at Middle School, Day by Day from a Teacher’s Point of View.

RTI: More theory than practice



RTI Strategies that Work in the 3-6 Classroom
By Eli Johnson & Michelle Karns
(Eye on Education, 2012  Learn more)

Reviewed by Lori Trisler

Johnson and Karns identify 25 key strategies for Response to Intervention (RTI). They have very good research to back up their strategies. This book brings many research topics into one place.

The most helpful portions of this book were the “Question Aloud Guiding Questions” (p. 91) for math and the “Structured Group Discussion Sentence Frames” (p. 133) for speaking intervention strategies. These were very concrete strategies that I could implement immediately with students.

The first chapter focuses on the research regarding the 25 strategies for RTI. It was an overwhelming read for a classroom teacher. Then the beginning of each chapter returns to the research already discussed. I prefer one or the other.

A Lack of Specificity

As a classroom teacher, I was looking for some very specific suggestions on how to improve my teaching and students’ learning. The authors’ steps were numbered and easy to read. However, they lacked specificity. More examples of how these steps were applied in the classroom along with student examples  would have been helpful. My fifth graders would not have come up with the vocabulary that was used as an example for the “Academic Language Graphic Organizer.”

Old Ideas Recycled

Though I had wanted something new, I was disappointed that several of the book’s strategies are things that we’ve been doing for years. The “Academic Language Graphic Organizer” is just one example. We’ve been doing the Frayer Model for years, and this organizer is just in a different shape. We’ve been using signal words to teach text structure. RTI needs to be about a different way of doing things. If students understood the first time we teach something, they wouldn’t need RTI.

Teaching math comes more naturally to me than teaching reading. The strategies the authors gave for reading would have to be more specific to be helpful to me. After reading several pages of the “Brick and Mortar Words” intervention, I understand why specific academic language needs to be explicitly taught.  I still don’t see how I would apply that knowledge in my classroom.

More Emphasis on Understanding Needed

I have to disagree with the examples of “Fraction Chants” in the section on Fabulous Fractions. We’re educating teachers to “teach for understanding.” We don’t want students to “Just invert the second and multiply.” I suspect that many elementary teachers would be just as frustrated by the suggestions in the math section as I was with the reading section.  One bullet point is “Fractions can be viewed as portions of a number line.” Teachers don’t intuitively understand what that means and what they should do with it.  Teachers, like students, need to be shown what to do.

Much of this book is practical if you want to know the “why” behind RTI. If you’re looking for very specific ways to improve your teaching, this may not be the book for you.

Lori Trisler is starting her 17th year as an educator.  She received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Wichita State University.  At this point she is teaching 5th grade having taught middle school math for six years.  She has presented workshops at her state’s math conference.  She is currently part of a team that is presenting workshops to teachers in her district on the changes that the Common Core will be bringing to mathematics instruction. 


Learn with Storyboards


Get Graphic! Using Storyboards to Write and Draw Picture Books, Graphic Novels, or Comic Strips
by Mark Thurman and Emily Hearn
Pembroke, 2010 – Learn more

by Laura Reasoner Jones, NBCT

As a person who works with upper elementary students to both organize their written work and to use photography and video to create stories, I was eager to see this book, and I was not disappointed.

As most teachers and parents know, getting a child to sit down and plan before starting a project is usually more difficult than getting the project completed. This book, with its entertaining style and engaging graphics, can lead a student through the planning process easily and thoroughly. Each chapter opens with a short guide for adults, and then talks directly to the students.

Get Graphic! begins by encouraging the student to read and discover what she likes, so that her creation will be pleasing to the future reader. Most kids will skip over this, of course, but it is there for their perusal and for the adult working with them. Then the authors jump right into plot development and art, illustrating how to show emotion with stick figures and facial expressions. And then they recommend (shocker!) research, under the guise of making the characters and backgrounds more believable.

A great deal of time in spent on drawing—the part most kids want to do. And this book with its many clear explanatory drawings makes that part seem simple, which is great for our reluctant artists. Thurman and Hearn make drawing scenes from different points of view look easy, or at least easier, to this non-artist. I particularly like the manner in which they give the theory behind the different points of view for drawings. For example, close-up-views are the most emotional part of the story. They also help us understand how to portray action and perspective.

Slow Down and Organize

As they guide the student through the creation process, the authors emphasize organization and creating drafts, traits we all want to see in our kids. They provide storyboard examples and templates that made me want to get out some markers and start something—very tempting! In my experience, storyboarding is one of the hardest things for elementary students to do—they want to rush to the end and see the finished product, and they are invariably disappointed. This book can go a long way toward stemming those impulses as it encourages and rewards carefully planning and execution while keeping interest high.

Other chapters in the book include detailed instructions on how to assemble books, making and using collage illustrations, using collages of letters and finding and using patterned papers, styles of lettering and making covers. I also appreciated the vocabulary pages titled “The Way an Artist Speaks”—we always need this but seldom find it in books for both teachers and students.

Writing the story comes last, as it should in a well-planned student effort. By the time you and your students have worked your way to this point, writing is almost effortless—all the planning and preparation is done.

As a technology specialist and elementary teacher, I would highly recommend Get Graphic! for all K-12 students—in content areas, art, and in supplemental programs using technology to create visual products.

And most of all, who could resist a book that has as its very first chapter title “Read, Read, Read!”

Laura Reasoner Jones is a National Board Certified Teacher in early childhood education and also holds a master’s degree in library media. She is a technology specialist in a northern Virginia public elementary school and also supports STEM careers clubs for girls.

How to Stop Wasting Minds

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It
Ronald A. Wolk
ASCD, 2011 – Learn more

by Renee Moore, NBCT

In a wonderfully well-timed blessing, I received a copy of Ronald Wolk’s important book about American education policy, Wasting Minds. Wolk is the founder and former longtime editor of Education Week and Teacher Magazine. His well-grounded and thoughtful reflections on the condition of U.S. education, and most important, the change in direction needed to insure a better future, echo those of many others who believe the current reform agenda is misguided. This growing consensus, small though it is at present, bodes well for our nation and our children. Without a vision, the people perish.

Wolk’s contribution to this discussion is particularly helpful because it is so succinctly and directly stated. He divides the book into two parts: faulty assumptions and new visions. He begins with a highly accurate analysis of the problems with our current systems of education, based on his long history of documenting education reform efforts. Wolk rightly notes that because of our tendency to switch too quickly from one reform attempt to the next, we have very little longitudinal information on the outcomes of these prior efforts.

His primary assertion, and one with which I strongly agree, is that “we will make real progress only when we realize our problem in education is not mainly one of performance but one of design” (p. 25). In the current education reform push, we are trying to put better “parts” into an archaic machine engineered to produce what is no longer needed.

Furthermore, education inequality is not just a byproduct of this system but is, in fact embedded, into its very structure. Failure to recognize this has led us to this dangerously circular reasoning: That we can close achievement gaps or significantly improve the quality of education for historically underserved populations of students without completely redesigning the school systems that serve them.

Wolk cites numerous court cases from around the country and the Supreme Court that have declared, “If students are required to meet high academic standards to be promoted or to graduate, then public schools are obligated to provide them with an education that is adequate for them to accomplish that” (p. 89).

Wolk also points out that as we have pushed further and further into reliance on standardized testing, we have moved farther from what knowledge students actually need to succeed in modern life. Employers, as well as colleges, are increasingly pointing out that the skills they need public school graduates to have are not the ones we are measuring in the current state standardized testing. What the expanding role of testing has done is suck tremendous amounts of much-needed resources from school systems. Wolk cites two major studies that put that cost nationally between $500 million and $22 billion.

A realistic view of teaching’s place in ed reform

Wolk’s bold questioning extends to another almost religiously held view in today’s reform conversation: putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. He calls this goal good but impossible. His logic is that in a field as large as teaching, there will continue to be a range of quality, and although we should work harder to eliminate those who clearly do not belong in a classroom, the rest should not only be distributed across schools but, more important, receive ongoing support toward continuous improvement.

Despite some misconceptions about the reach of collective bargaining agreements, Wolk correctly observes that teachers actually have very little control over most of the key aspects of our classroom work and school operations. He asks, “How can anyone believe that the goal of placing a ‘good’ teacher in every classroom can be achieved without changing the conditions in which teachers work—the way schools are structured and operated?” (p. 62). The sad truth is if we did have a highly qualified teacher right now to put in every classroom in the United States, many of them who don’t quit or aren’t run out for refusing to toe the standardized line may well end up burned out, frustrated, and mediocre.

Summarizing the paradox that has plagued teaching in the United States throughout its history, Wolk concludes, “Although we refer to teaching as a profession, not much about the job is professional. Professionals like doctors and lawyers set their own performance standards, hold their members accountable for meeting those standards, determine to a large degree . . . their own working conditions, and receive compensation perceived to be commensurate with their professional contributions to society” (p. 59). These professional characteristics are denied to the vast majority of U.S. schoolteachers.

Wolk’s solution: a system redesign

Most impressive, however, are Wolk’s suggestions about what we need to do to correct many of these problems, and primary on that list is a compelling argument to redesign education around more individualized student learning. This closely parallels the vision of my teacher leader colleagues in our book Teaching 2030.

Teachers will more and more become what Wolk calls “advisors who guide students in educating themselves” (p. 101). On the surface, this seems like a radical, and to some even irresponsible, conception of teachers’ work. In reality, students and their families are already rapidly moving toward a much more personalized approach to shaping their own learning. Certainly, the incredible growth and influence of social media tools is one driving force in that shift. Another is the growing realization that children do not learn all things at the same pace and in the same way, and that we do them a great disservice when we try to force them into such fast-food-style learning patterns.

Of all Wolk’s recommendations, the idea of letting students (and their parents) direct their own learning is the one that may make some in education and policy most uncomfortable. An important aspect of system redesign that would support this is greater use of performance-based assessments. He lists several of the most common reasons more schools and districts have not embraced such assessments. Curiously, two that he does not mention are the higher cost and the more insidious philosophical view that education really should be indoctrination (and that view is held on the left and the right of the political spectrum); therefore, assessment should simply be regurgitation.

In line with his vision of the future, Wolk argues as I have, that we need to do away with the practice of dividing children by age into grade levels, making our learning systems truly integrated and seamless from prekindergarten through college.

Ronald Wolk may prove to be one of many prophets crying in the wilderness of education reform, but as Barnett Berry notes in his prologue to Teaching 2030, “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.”

Renee Moore is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a Milken National Educator award winner, and a former Carnegie Fellow & Mississippi Teacher of the Year. She blogs at TeachMoore.

RTI: Instruction First

Enhancing RTI: How to Ensure Success with Effective Classroom Instruction & Intervention
By Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
ASCD, 2010Learn more

by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT

It’s easy to get lured into Enhancing RTI: How to Ensure Success with Effective Classroom Instruction and Intervention, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.

Within the first few pages, the reader is asked to “choose an adventure” that begins with a brief profile of Adam, “a fifth grader in a public school somewhere in the United States.” His educational experience is put in the hands of the reader, as we decide which learning conditions will serve Adam best. It isn’t too difficult to figure out — so long as the reader has moved beyond the traditional teacher-centered, “students as passive learners”, mentality.

Authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey combine their expertise to share knowledge and practical ways teachers can plan the learning experience within positive cycles of instruction. “This cycle—from assessment to instruction—enables teachers to observe students’ responsiveness to the targeted interventions and to proceed with instruction that is supported by ever-evolving performance data.”

Throughout Enhancing RTI, the authors make a clear and comprehensive case for the value and necessity of not only adopting an RTI mindset, but a strengthened model of RTI, so students can succeed. And their backgrounds and in-depth experience in the area of literacy add to the book’s practical approach.

One of the many valuable points the authors make clear is the distinction between intervention and instruction. As I read, I was reminded of the many discussions I’ve had with colleagues who have felt that RTI is all about providing interventions to those students who struggle. This book reminds teachers that the thrust of RTI is really all about high quality core instruction at the whole class level before students struggle.

The authors introduce readers to a powered up model of RTI that shines a spotlight on formative assessment and high quality core instruction. The focus is on effective whole-class instruction that can minimize the tendency to fall back on various layers of intervention. The authors call this more unambiguous model of RTI, “Response to Instruction and Intervention.”

They suggest that teachers should not wait to see if students will eventually respond to intervention; they must first become aware if students are responding to everyday classroon instruction. I think this distinction is critical for teachers who may not have a clear understanding of the premise of RTI. The authors include the following components for their strengthened model of RTI:

Making sure that the core instruction (at the Tier 1 level) is responsive, standards-based, and data-driven;

Making sure that Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions provide a continuous flow of instruction that is aligned to the core instruction;

Analyzing instruction around a three-way feedback loop that incorporates formative assessment results that inform the teacher and the students;

Making sure that collaborative efforts are established so educators and families work together successfully.

Each of the eight chapters is like a rung in a ladder leading to complete awareness of the RTI framework. Some chapter topics include:

Defining and refining the RTI process
Quality core instruction (Tier 1)
Supplemental Interventions (Tier 2)
Intensive Interventions for high risk learners (Tier 3)
The role of assessment and necessity of progress monitoring
Progress monitoring in action

Each chapter ends with a summary, or what the authors call “the takeaway.” This takeaway allows the reader to validate his or her reading of the text and begin to build a deeper understanding of what it takes to apply the comprehensive cycle of instruction described here.

After reading this book, the reader is ready to implement RTI with a clear focus and understanding that high quality core instruction is at the center of it all. The authors provide instructional planning tools, assessment rubrics, and pacing guides that are sure to make readers confident and ready to apply concepts right away. This book is perfect for those with and without a prior understanding of RTI. It will deepen any reader’s understanding and ability to implement the instructional cycles that define the RTI process.

The close of the book also brings to a close the particular adventure the authors have encouraged their readers to take. Adam, now entering 6th grade, has developed into a confident student. Adam’s story serves as an apt metaphor for the deep learning that can take place for every student when a school’s mission becomes aligning instruction, assessment and intervention to drive the learning process.

Elizabeth Stein is a National Board-certified special education teacher in the Smithtown Central School District on Long Island, N.Y. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in special education and literacy. Among her published articles is this advice for new special education teachers. She also reviewed two books by Rick Wormeli that she says helped her make a mid-career shift from elementary to middle school.