“Students who have experienced trauma and stress are not a small subpopulation of students.”

This book, like last week’s book, discusses “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” which is a set of 10 questions that assess the level of trauma kids experience.  These questions focus on exposure to mental illness, addiction, abandonment, hunger, physical abuse or danger, sexual assault, and imprisonment. Studies have found that about a third of students in the US have experienced at least two of these ten types of trauma. Perhaps it’s too obvious to point out that these experiences influence our students’ receptivity to learning — even in college.  As Lost Connections points out, these childhood experiences have mental health implications that extend into adulthood.

Gross, Karen.  Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. Teachers College Press, 2017, p. 79.

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“Professor Andrew Skull of Princeton has said attributing depression to low serotonin is ‘deeply misleading and unscientific.’”

Every once in a while, a book touches a nerve. This one certainly did when a British newspaper published excerpts from Lost Connections in an article titled “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” A neuroscientist – who hadn’t read the book – wrote a scathing review, which set off a series of rebuttals. I find it exciting. Finally, the topic of depression is in the spotlight. If there had been more interest in and scrutiny of  research methodology in previous decades, perhaps public understanding of the causes of depression would be different today.  This book is wonderfully provocative.

Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury Circus, 2018, p. 29.

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“Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think . . .”

It’s easy to recognize “bad” writing, but hard to identify the cause of bad writing. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker argues that the problem starts when writers make incorrect assumptions about their readers’ knowledge and vocabulary. Writers who are experts, for example, can be so familiar with their topics that they gloss over ideas that are unfamiliar to their readers. While Pinker uses scientific terms to describe this tendency (“chunking” and “functional fixity”), perhaps it should be noted that Aristotle came to the same conclusion 2000 years ago when he established the system of rhetoric, commonly taught in English courses.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2015, p. 75.

 

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“This is the most thrilling time in the history of genealogy. Which may sound a little like we’re in the sexiest era of professional bowling.”

Have you considered taking a DNA test to find out where your family is from? I sure have. I suspect that soon I’ll be among the millions of people who have done so.  I’m glad I read It’s All Relative by A.J. Jacobs first though because it provides background information about the testing industry. In addition, Jacobs reflects on the surprises he discovered – the sort any of us could find – when he dug into his family’s history.  Jacobs’ writing is entertaining, or, as the Washington Post says, “mostly endearing, occasionally annoying but always well-intentioned and, in the final analysis, indispensable.”

Jacobs, A.J. It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree. Simon & Schuster, 2017, p. 6.

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“The enthusiasm of the educators statistically predicted their students’ ratings of enjoyment and perceived value in the subject matter.”

This is the first week in the spring semester at my college, and it’s a critical time for setting the tone and energy level in our classes.  That’s why I’m turning again to James Lang’s excellent book Small Teaching, which focuses on simple ways to apply current research on teaching and learning. He provides six models for ways we can activate curiosity and purpose in our students by activating enthusiasm and compassion in ourselves. “We have to remember that the brains in our classrooms do more than think: they feel,” he writes, and those feelings “motivate and inspire student learning” (193).

Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016, p. 176.

 

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“The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’”

Rather, Parker Palmer writes, the more important questions are: “What am I? What is my nature?” These questions are more important because they require more self-knowledge. This knowledge must include, Palmer writes, acknowledgement of our limits and our potentials.  Of course, it’s much more difficult to develop self-awareness than it is to simply base our vocational decisions on what we “ought to” or “should” do.  The type of soul-searching Parker describes is hard work.  I read this book in 2013, and I’ve returned to it many times. I continue to find new, challenging ideas in this provocative book.

Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Jossey-Bass, 2000, p. 15.

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“Michael reciting the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere.”

In The Underground Railroad, Michael is a slave in Georgia in the 1850s who was taught to recite, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” This is one of many powerful scenes in this novel that show how the ideal of “equality” fell short in America during that time. Author Colson Whitehead also writes graphically about cruelty and injustice, which makes this a difficult book to read. I woke up thinking about these characters in the middle of the night. They haunted me. This best-seller won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016, p. 180.

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Four Favorite Books from 2017

I’ve already written about the best books of 2017 for teachers, and so today I will focus on the other books that I’ve read this year. My “favorite” books are the ones that I am most likely to read again. Here they are:

1. Elizabeth Strout: Anything Is Possible.

I predict that a hundred years from now, readers will continue to turn to Elizabeth Strout’s books. She has the ability to focus on the details that reveal the best-hid secrets.  This book, in particular, shows us the scars of poverty.  In some respects, she is a literary descendant of Charles Dickens.

2. Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

I believe that today’s political climate calls for the reading of Charles Dickens because his novels show us what happens when the disparity between the poorest and the richest reaches the tipping point. What lessons can we learn from 1860s London, with its debtors prisons and lack of free public education for all children?

 

3. Jane Smiley: Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens was, in many ways, a misfit.  He was a head of his times in many respects as a writer – daring to take on subjects and sentiments that no one else would touch.  Even though he was very famous, he had few friends.  He became rich after suffering the indignities of poverty.  He trusted only himself.

4. Desmond, Matthew.  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

I wish that this was a novel instead of a book that tells the true stories of real people.  Of all the books I read in 2017, this one was the most difficult because it chronicles the heart-breaking – and real – situations people here in Wisconsin are in right now. It shows us the unexpected consequences of public policies.

What are your favorite books from 2017?  Use the comment box or reach me at CStover1@madisoncollege.edu/.  Here’s to a happy 2018!

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“We now know that this picture of a static, unchanging brain is wrong.”

Richard Davidson, my favorite scientist, continues: “Instead, the brain has a property called neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structure and function in significant ways.” This has important implications for teachers like me who want to understand how people learn.  It turns out that every time we learn something new, we change our brains. Our capacity for learning can grow – and so can our IQ. That means that we have solid, science-based reasons to encourage students to persevere, to keep pushing themselves to do difficult work. We have entered period of great optimism in the field of teaching and learning.

Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Penguin Books, 2012, p. 9.

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“In her research, Fassinger (1997) found that the variable that best explained student participation was a student trait – confidence.”

Thirty years of research on classroom discussion has generated many theories on why some students participate in discussion and others do not. I’ve come to believe that while a combination of factors come into play, Fassinger’s findings are probably key. If you put her research side-by-side with Jean Twenge’s new research that indicates that the confidence level of traditionally-aged college students is declining, we can see why engaging students in classroom discussion is becoming more challenging. That’s why my copy of Jay Howard’s excellent Discussion in the College Classroom is becoming one of my most marked-up and frequently-used resources.

Howard, Jay R.  Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. Jossey-Bass, 2015, p. 28.

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“Our views about insomnia are continuing to evolve.”

For many years, insomnia was considered to be primarily a symptom of another illness, writes Wallace Mendelson in The Science of Sleep. During his 40-plus years as a sleep researcher, Mendelson has seen many views evolve, and this is one of them. In addition to being the result of some other underlying condition, insomnia may also be a free-standing disorder in its own right, which means it needs its own treatment. In fact, researchers have found that treating sleep disturbances can decrease the symptoms of other illnesses. Interesting new studies make this an exciting time for researchers and insomniacs alike.

Mendelson, Wallace B. The Science of Sleep: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters. U of Chicago P, 2017, p. 149.

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“I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m going to fail!”

Angela Duckworth had a rough start with her first class in neurobiology – she failed the first two exams. She was advised to drop the course.  But she refused to quit.  Instead she believed that she could figure it out if she worked harder and got more help. It was a good decision: she ended up majoring in neurobiology, getting a PhD in psychology and writing a book titled Grit. My students love this book because its exploration of why some people succeed and others fail concludes that in the long run, IQ and talent matter less than effort and perseverance.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016, p.170.

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“Is the soul solid, like iron?”

The poet Mary Oliver continues: “Or, is it tender and breakable, like the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?” With these questions, Oliver opens the poem “Some Questions You Might Ask,” which has inspired artists, videographers, and hundreds of bloggers. During this Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for Oliver’s “bravery and boldness” and “largeness of spirit.” I am thankful for this rare poet who has found a large audience in addition to finding critical success. For those who wish to contemplate the nature of the soul, there may be no better guide than Mary Oliver.

Oliver, Mary. “Some Questions You Might Ask.” New and Selected Poems. Beacon Press, 1992, p. 65.

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Best Books for College Teachers in 2017

Of the books published in 2017, here is my list of the five that have added the most to my understanding of our students, our challenges as instructors, and our need to reform our educational system.

iGen by Jean Twenge: More than any other book that I’ve read this year, iGen has made me re-evaluate how I work with students. Twenge’s analysis of data drawn from four national studies that 11 million Americans have participated in since the 1990s has led me to agree with her that we are on the forefront of a mental health crisis in higher education. It’s all the more challenging because many of these students have “invisible disabilities” that they don’t want to acknowledge or manage. This has a profound effect on their engagement in learning.  (95)

Twenge, Jean M. iGen: why today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Atria Books, 2017.

On Edge by Andrea Petersen: This book shows what it is like to live with an anxiety disorder. Petersen, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, had to take many incompletes while a student at the University of Michigan.  Now, with years of therapy, yoga, and a bottle of prescription medication that is with her at all times, she is uniquely qualified to provide an insider’s perspective on anxiety. She also writes as a reporter who examines dozens of studies and interviews many experts. Readers see how her story reflects the experiences of the 40 million Americans with this disorder.

Petersen, Andrea. On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety. Crown, 2017.

Teaching College by Norman Eng: From what I’ve seen, this is the most useful pedagogical book published in 2017.  It’s so easy to get caught up in covering important course content – ideas we love and information we believe is critical – that it’s easy to forget that our primary challenge is to help students learn. Perhaps we all need occasional reminders to shift our focus from the content to the student. Eng has a doctorate in education, and he cites a lot of important research, but his lively book doesn’t get bogged down with jargon or heavy academic prose.

Eng, Norman. Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting and Engaging Students. Norman Eng, 2017.

 

Breakaway Learners by Karen Gross: If asked who I would most like to visit my campus to talk with faculty, administrators, staff, and local news reporters, I would pick Karen Gross.  I wish she could spend at least a week with us. She is a former college president who grew up in difficult circumstances and has a deep understanding of the challenges our students face and the urgency with which we should address them. She is committed to helping students “break away” from the circumstances that prevent them from developing their abilities.

Gross, Karen. Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. Teachers College Press, Columbia U., 2017,  p. 25.

The New Education by Cathy Davidson: Take a deep breath. You’ll need to steady yourself if you decide to read this book.  Davidson challenges us to rethink the assumptions that higher education is based upon. The subtitle is:  How to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. As a former professor and administrator at Duke, and the author of many books, she contends that our system of education is based on assumptions that were relevant a hundred years ago, but now must be updated, redesigned, restructured – “a revolution in every classroom, curriculum, and assessment system” (8).

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017.

What are your favorites from 2017?  Share them in the comment box or with me at CStover1@madisoncollege.edu/.

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“Sadly, the reality is that more and more students entering the educational pipeline have had curdled childhoods.”

It is not poverty per se that distinguishes these students, Karen Gross writes, but it’s a childhood burdened by “hunger, exposure to or experience with drugs, alcohol, abandonment, frequent moves, abuse, self-harm or harm of others.” Do we know which of our students have had these experiences? Probably not. I was surprised to learn that the author of this book, a former college president, lived through four of them as a child. Now her mission is to show us how to help students with “curdled” childhoods succeed academically. The first step, clearly, is to stop making assumptions about our students.

Gross, Karen. Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. Teachers College Press, Columbia U., 2017,  p. 25.

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