HOW THE OTHER HALF LEARNS by Robert Pondiscio

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Success Academy Charter Schools network or its controversial leader, Eva Moskowitz. Or maybe you have. Maybe you think Eva is the devil incarnate, or maybe you are a fan. As someone who’s been involved in the charter school movement since 1996 and who has in fact written a book about it, I fully recognize that I am predisposed to like this book—about the year that Robert Pondiscio spent observing inside a Success Academy school. But I also believe that anyone who is even remotely interested in education will find HOW THE OTHER HALF LEARNS compelling and thought-provoking.

Pondiscio (full disclosure: a friend) writes beautifully. For example, when describing a principal visiting classrooms with her assistant principals, he notes: “She turns to leave, her team of junior leaders attached to her like remoras as they head off.” And he understands that to engage readers in policy questions (this book is subtitled Equality, Excelling, and the Battle Over School Choice), one must raise issues through stories. There are many in this book. Possibly my favorite is about a day in the life of kindergarten teacher Carolyn Syskowski. First we see her stoically denying a boy access to blocks as a consequence for writing a book review that doesn’t make sense, and—unusually in this particular class—he bursts into tears. Later, we see Syskowski running a meeting for the parents of 90 children, explaining the urgency of the situation with their children and how they not only can help but must help them to learn how to read. By the end, she herself is crying because she cares so much about these children.

Pondiscio describes this parent-teacher meeting as a “Rorschach test.” He recognizes that some people may view it as reinforcing their preconceived notions “about Success Academy, charter schools, and even the entire testing-and-data-driven education reform movement,” while others may see “an unusually gifted and competent teacher, with emotional gears you cannot fathom, who can issue a consequence to a five-year-old like a bank examiner rejecting a loan, then an hour later bring herself to tears in front of a hundred strangers when for a single moment she catches herself weighing the cost of not doing so.” The funny thing about Rorschach tests is that you can train yourself to see both perspectives if you are open to them, and I think Pondiscio signals that by calling attention to both: he seems to want you to consider both.

Indeed, to some degree this whole book is like a Rorschach test. If you are a critic of what the folks at Success Academy are trying to do, the fact that their efforts are well-described will not necessarily change your mind; in fact, the demands they make on parents might solidify your thinking that they “weed out” weaker students. And if you are impressed by their accomplishments, then learning the details of how much hard work goes into their results will probably leave you even more in awe.

I think there is also another angle to consider, a finding which was perhaps inevitable given the anthropological nature of this book: Building school culture is important. Robert Pondiscio has captured very clearly and comprehensively how attentive one must be in order to create and maintain a purposeful culture, as they’ve done at Success over and over. And no matter what kind of organization you work in, this book might cause you to reflect on the nature of the culture of your organization and how intentional people have been—and continue to be—in building it.

That is something for all of us to think about.

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Posted in Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty, School leadership, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar

As a humanities person who underperformed in Econ 101, I am the last person anyone should ask for advice or even the most basic information about the stock market. Indeed, my brother who works in the financial sector recently pointed out that even though I am diligent about saving, I might not be investing in the most effective way. He said something else about bonds and how I should contact my money manager and evaluate my portfolio, and at that point he lost me because I don’t think I have a money manager: I have a company I send money to, and I hope that eventually they will give it back to me.

So it was with great interest and some trepidation that I picked up Sheelah Kolhatkar’s BLACK EDGE (subtitled Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street), widely described as a page-turning legal thriller about Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital, a hedge fund that was investigated by the government for seven years. As I opened the book, I figured I would probably encounter lots of unfamiliar terminology. But I do like a challenge. And I would like to understand more about what happens to my money when I mail those checks in every year.

Although the jargon was new, the story—in many ways—was not. It’s a story of greed and cheating, something we all know something about. And while it is ostensibly focused on Cohen and his cronies, it strongly suggests that corruption on Wall Street is more pervasive than you might have imagined. So: not good news. But if you read it, at least you will understand why.

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THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

When I began reading this book last week, my first thought was How did I miss this? Subtitled “Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” this fascinating exploration of trauma and its various treatments was first published in 2014 and apparently was a NY Times bestseller, but somehow it escaped my notice. Now I am determined to tell everyone I know to read this book.

If you know anyone who has been through trauma—and who doesn’t?—you have probably wondered, What can I do to help this person?

This book explains what happens in the brain when people experience trauma and how researchers have attempted to treat trauma over the years. Even if you work in a field such as education where you deal with students suffering from trauma every day, you might not be aware of recent advances in neuroscience that offer significant hope for people who wake up every day feeling depressed, distrustful, tense, or in despair. Along with talk therapy and medication, people can now look into things called “EMDR” and “neurofeedback,” which are showing promising results. And there is much more to consider.

Check it out!

Posted in For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Mental illness, Nonfiction, Psychology, Self-help, Trauma | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

I first read this remarkable novel the year it came out (in 2003), and I remember thinking it was one of those rare books that both young adults and adult-adults would enjoy. It spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a Broadway play. And now it appears commonly on summer reading lists for middle/high school students. Which is why—preparing for a new school year—I re-read it this week.

It is still wonderful: a suspenseful and often humorous story told through the intelligent, hyper-observant eyes of Christopher Boone, a young man with Asperger’s who starts out investigating the mysterious murder of a neighbor’s dog and ends up learning much more than he expected to. For the reader, it’s also a fascinating lesson in empathy.

This book reminded me that despite the seemingly endless fire hose of movies, shows, and books coming at us, it’s still a good idea to re-read books you’ve loved.

PS—If you like this book, you might also like THE REASON I JUMP, Naoki Higashida’s brilliant memoir.

Posted in Autism, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Mystery, Novel, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

MY LATEST BOOK…

“Whether you know much about charter schools or not, you have probably—at some point in your life—wondered: Why is K-12 education the way it is? Why isn’t it more the way I want it to be? People have asked themselves these question for decades and have made countless attempts to reform ‘school’ as we know it.”

Thus begins HIT THE DRUM: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement, my latest book. A page-turning narrative, it tells the stories of dozens of key individuals who jumped in–before there was a “movement” or a “sector”– to spread the idea and help to launch charter schools.  The first charter school law passed in MN in 1991.  Currently, 44 states plus DC have laws, and more than 7,000 charter schools serve 3.2 million students.  This book explains where the idea of chartering came from and why and how it spread so rapidly.  It also looks at how charter school leaders have developed and nurtured other important innovations that have begun to take hold in the field.

Whether you actively support charters or not, I think you will find this an interesting read.

To order your print ($19.99) or eBook ($3.99) copy, go to AmazonBookShop, or Barnes & Noble.

I would be super-grateful if you would help spread the word to friends via FB and Twitter.  And if you feel strongly, please know that 5-star Amazon reviews really help, too.

Thanks so much for your support!!!

Sincerely,

SarahT.

Posted in Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Inspirational, Nonfiction, Politics, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE by Lori Gottlieb

If you’ve ever been in therapy—and let’s face it, who hasn’t? (but, PS, if you haven’t, you probably should)—you know what it’s like to need someone to talk to when you’re in crisis, and you know that while therapy helps, it is not painless. You have to do the work in order to get out of the box you’re in. In this captivating memoir, subtitled A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, Lori Gottlieb begins in medias res, as they say. Having just pre-ordered tickets for a movie that weekend, her longtime boyfriend suddenly grows silent. Is he regretting the choice of movie? No. He is breaking up with her.

Gottlieb, a therapist, tries to shake off the pain, but ultimately realizes she can’t handle this by herself, so she goes into therapy. This book, which is pretty funny considering the circumstances, reveals her thoughts as she leads therapy sessions with her clients and  engages in her own work to figure things out. If you’ve ever wondered what your therapist is thinking while you sit there and weep uncontrollably (and who hasn’t—both wept and wondered?), this book provides some answers. It also sheds light on how people grow and change. Gottlieb’s clients—a young woman with a terminal illness, a self-absorbed Hollywood guy, and a senior citizen who is thinking about killing herself if her life doesn’t improve—help her realize some things about herself, too.

MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE is full of wisdom, humor, and insight. One of my favorite observations is this: “Many people come to therapy seeking closure. Help me not to feel. What they eventually discover is that you can’t mute one emotion without muting the others. You want to mute the pain? You’ll also mute the joy.”

It’s work, but it’s good work.

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A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN by Therese Anne Fowler

Coincidentally, a few months before I read Therese Anne Fowler’s latest novel focused on another dynamic woman in history (her previous gem was ZELDA), I visited some friends in Asheville, North Carolina and took an eye-popping tour of the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s sprawling 250-room French Renaissance chateau featuring 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, the landscaping for which was designed by Frederick Olmsted (also known for the landscape architecture of the Washington Capitol, Central Park, and the Chicago World’s Fair, among 500-plus other projects). The Biltmore, finished in 1895, is a testament to the astonishing wealth of the Vanderbilts, who built a shipping and railroad empire. It is, shall we say, one way to see how the other half lived.

So it was with special interest that I read A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN, the story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt (1853-1933), a woman from a respected Southern family that lost much of their wealth during the Civil War, who made the pragmatic decision to marry William K. Vanderbilt for his money. Ordinarily I wouldn’t waste my time on the saga of a gold-digger, but Alva was so much more complicated than that, and Ms. Fowler presents the details of her life in a way that actually invokes sympathy. Alva was both a force of nature and also very human.

While some of the particulars—e.g., decisions about what to wear to various social occasions—might seem superficial, they capture this historical period authentically, and the human interactions remind us that no matter how much money you have, money isn’t everything.

Posted in Fiction, Gilded Age, Historical fiction, Novel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

CALYPSO by David Sedaris

If you are not already familiar with David Sedaris’s writing, then you should start with ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, for reasons which I’ve explained here. Then, read everything else he’s written. He has a dysfunctional family (Who doesn’t?) and he travels widely, so he has plenty of stories to tell. Eventually you will arrive at CALYPSO, his latest collection of essays, which is as hilarious as all the rest. While it might be sacrilegious to analyze humor, when I read his work I’m always struck by two things: his precise attention to detail and his willingness to contemplate the absurdities of ordinary life. For example, in “Your English Is So Good,” he mulls over the inane conversations that we endure when traveling:

As a business traveler, you’ll likely be met at your destination by someone who asks, “So, how was your flight?” This, as if there are interesting variations and you might answer, “The live orchestra was a nice touch,” or “The first half was great, but then they let a baby take over the controls and it got all bumpy.”…

That’s just a tiny taste of this delicious collection. I encourage you to dig in.

Posted in Essays, Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s memoir, BECOMING, is a humble, honest account of what so far has been an amazing life. “When I was a kid,” she begins, “my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it—two floors for one family. I wanted, for some reason, a four-door station wagon instead of the two-door Buick that was my father’s pride and joy….” From these first few lines, she draws us in and—because we know that her life has become so much bigger than that—we can’t stop wondering how she was transformed from a little girl with such modest dreams into a powerful, influential First Lady.

When I picked this book up, I already knew a fair amount about Mrs. Obama. I knew that she grew up in a two-parent household with an older brother on the South Side of Chicago; I knew that she went to Princeton and then Harvard Law School. I knew that she met her future husband when she was assigned to mentor him at the law firm where she worked.

What I didn’t know—and what this book makes clear in an open, lively way—is how she has felt all along about her various experiences. She knows who she is, and she is remarkably candid and reflective about what she has been through. Her reflections remind us that no matter what hand we might be dealt, we all have choices to make and consequences to deal with. But she also acknowledges how much our family, friends, colleagues, and mentors can help shape our lives, and she wants to inspire young people—young women, especially—as much as she can.

With this book, I have no doubt that she will.

Posted in Biography, For EDUCATORS, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics, Race relations | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE FIFTH RISK by Michael Lewis

What I have loved about Michael Lewis’s writing, from LIAR’S POKER forward, is how he follows his intellectual curiosity to investigate timely problems then tells engaging stories to explain these problems and shed light on the people trying to solve them.

When you think about everything happening in the world, it seems a safe bet that Mr. Lewis will never run out of material.

His latest book, THE FIFTH RISK, looks into how specific federal agencies have been operating since Donald Trump was elected. Whether you voted for Trump or not, you should care about how effectively the government functions—both because we are all paying for it and because it has the potential (through action or inaction) to make our lives easier or more difficult. And even if you think So what? or They’re all incompetent/crooks/whatever. Trust me: Michael Lewis has somehow managed to turn the inner workings of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy into an engrossing set of tales. And, I am relieved to say, there are some heroes out there.

This book should be required reading in civics classes. I think it would inspire more students to pursue careers in public service.  Which would be a good thing.

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