“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

oliver-essaysMuch like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, this collection of elegant essays by the poet Mary Oliver is for those who “are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.” It’s a guide for dreamers – for people who need “the whole sky to fly in.” She doesn’t give advice directly. Her description of Emerson’s tactics describe her own approach. She writes that he “opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look – we must look.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 30.

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“If we are not fragile, we don’t deserve the world.”

nyeThe poet Naomi Shihab Nye is an expert on how fragile the world can be. She is an Arab-American who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri and Palestine. Perhaps she has never taken “safety” for granted. She describes how knowing “how desolate the landscape can be” has heightened her appreciation for “the tender gravity of kindness.” Her poem “Kindness,” begins this way: “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” Even so, she has concluded that “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”

Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words. (Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1995), 155.

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The 10 Best Books for College Teachers — Part 2

My list of the books that have sparked the biggest changes in how and why I teach continues this week.  What are your favorites?  Share your recommendations in the “Leave a comment” box below or email me at CStover1@madisoncollege.edu.

Dweck6. For those who are looking for research on why some students give up easily: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck (Ballantine Books, 2006). Her theory on “mindsets” is so compelling that I show her Ted Talk in my classes early in the semester. Her work challenges students who see academic disappointments as proof that they “don’t belong in college” to instead believe that they can learn and grow by using greater effort and more effective learning strategies.

Lang7. For those who are looking for small changes in strategy that can result in significant gains in learning: Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang (Jossey-Bass, 2016).  This is book is for busy pragmatists who want someone who has read the research on learning to translate the findings into effective  classroom practices.  Implementing these strategies doesn’t require redesigning your course.  Instead, you can begin using some of these suggestions tomorrow.

Knowles8. For those who are looking for a deeper understanding of adult education: The Adult Learner by Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, Richard A. Swanson, 6th ed. (Elsevier, 2005).  So much of what we do as college teachers has been shaped by the work of Malcolm Knowles, even when we don’t recognize his influence.  This book is a classic that continues to be relevant.  I recently used the chapter on “Making Things Happen by Releasing the Energy of Others” to clarify instructional choices in a learner-centered classroom.

miller9. For those who would like to understand how cognitive science can inform teaching with technology: Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller (Harvard University Press, 2014).  What sets this book apart is the order of its priorities: learning goals, cognitive theory, and then technology (as opposed to starting with technology, then looking for a way to use it to support learning).  Miller shows us how technology can give us many new ways to align our teaching with the way the mind works.

mellow10. For those who are looking for a new way to connect with colleagues nationally in an effort to improve teaching: Taking College Teaching Seriously: Pedagogy Matters! Fostering Student Success Through Faculty-Centered Practice Improvement by Gail O. Mellow, Diana D. Woolis, Marisa Klages-Bombich, and Susan G. Restler (Stylus, 2015).  This promising model is based on is based on self-reflection, a peer-based dialogic process, and data analysis, and provides a way to work with peers from across the country.

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The 10 Best Books for College Teachers – Part 1

As a college teacher who spent many hours during the last ten years reading books, articles, and conference proposals on the art and science of teaching, I believe that the best books for college teachers are the ones that provide a new framework, new research, or new ideas on how to develop a strong instructional practice. Of the books I’ve highlighted in this blog, these are the ones that have sparked the biggest changes in how and why I teach.  We’ll look at the first five this week, and the next five next week.

  1. For those who are looking for a book that addresses the challenge of having McGuirestudents who don’t know how to do college-level work: Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire (Stylus, 2015). This semester, I am using the approach – and the Power Point slides – that she developed. So far, the changes I’ve made are promising.

2. ForBrown cropped those who are looking for current research on how learning works: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roedigerr III, and Mark A. McDaniel (Harvard University Press, 2014) This book, written by two cognitive scientists and a journalist, is simultaneously science-based and enjoyable to read.  In addition to requiring it in my English 2 course, I also practice many of its suggestions in all my courses.Weimer

3.For those who are looking for a better understanding of the “guide on the side” approach to learning: Learner-Centered Teaching, 2nd edition by Maryellen Weimer (Jossey-Bass, 2013). This book on learner-centered teaching will give you a firm grounding in a research-based approach that leads tothe development of autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulated learners.” More than anyone else, Weimer has influenced my orientation toward instruction.

palmer4. For those who would like to explore what is required to be a teacher: The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition by Parker J. Palmer (Wiley, 2007).  This book is unique in that it focuses on examining your courage, or ability to keep your heart open, which Palmer says is a requirement for learning and supporting the learning of others. This book has had a profound influence on my core beliefs about who I am as a teacher.

Howard5. For those who are looking for a research-based approach to discussion: Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online by Jay R. Howard (Jossey-Bass, 2015). Howard is a sociologist who has studied discussion for many years. He is also a very engaging writer whose insights in this important topic can help you recognize students who are paying “civil attention” instead of being involved with the conversation.

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“Yet we now know that a brief distraction can help when we’re stuck on a math problem or tied up in a creative knot and need to shake free.”

careyAfter having read my share of books about learning, I was initially reluctant to read this one because a reviewer said it is a “gift to guilt-ridden slackers everywhere.” Fortunately, it’s the review, not the book, that is misleading about the effort learning requires.  How We Learn, written by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, doesn’t advocate spending less time studying.  Instead, he, like many others, recommends shorter, more frequent, quiz-based sessions that occur over several days.  He also describes the benefits of studying in a variety of locations, alternating topics of study, and taking brief breaks.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn (New York: Random House Paperback Edition, 2015), XV.

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“All was artifice.”

singerCan a 20-year-old character study still be relevant?  In the case of this essay by New Yorker writer Mark Singer, which one British newspaper said offered “clearer insight into the mind” of Donald Trump than the longer biographies, my answer is yes.  After spending several months with Trump, Singer noted how a favorite Trump phrase – “truthful hyperbole” – is more than just an oxymoron, it’s also a way to describe his assets, his statements, and even his home.  In Trump’s 53-room apartment with its carved ivory frieze and onyx columns, there is a Renoir, or rather, a prominently placed reproduction.

Mark Singer, Trump & Me (UK: Penguin Random House UK, 2016), 97.

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“And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rise up from the depths of time.”

rilke2-2Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, perhaps the most dog-eared book on my shelves, doesn’t give advice on writing poetry.  Instead, it’s what Einstein –his contemporary — might have written if he had been a poet.  Compare the Theory of Relativity to this statement: “People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they will also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us. . . . The future stands still, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space (86)”.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage Books: 1984), 85-6.

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“The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control.”

CoatesJPGThis 2015 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction – “a work of rare beauty and revelatory honesty” that is “highly provocative, thoughtfully presented” — is a meditation on race as a social construct. Written as a set of letters to his young son, it raises many important questions but does not offer solutions.  It reminds me of another set of letters – Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet – which  recommends having “patience with everything unresolved in your heart” so that “someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015), 107.

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“Felicity rubbed a bit between her fingers. It was gray, just grit.”

Smiley3This is how the great-granddaughter of Iowa farmers Walter and Rosanna Langdon describes what’s left of the topsoil on the original family farm when she visits it in the closing pages of The Last Hundred Years Trilogy by Jane Smiley.  We can see the how this family’s decisions played out – as evidenced by the quality of their fields, their relationships, their contributions to society and to their professions. “There is a powerful sense of tragic legacies of character and obligation,” notes a British reviewer. I found the depth and scope of this trilogy fascinating, moving, surprising and rewarding.

Jane Smiley, Golden Age (New York: Anchor Books, first edition, 2016), 442.

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“We should expect no one will understand this.”

Lee2Ed Bok Lee, who won the 2012 American Book Award for this moving collection of poems, is the son of Korean emigrants. The family’s transition from Seoul to North Dakota was difficult. He writes about getting stoned before and after school from the age of 13. John Freeman, editor of Granta, observed that Lee’s poems ask the same question Wallace Stevens’s poems asked many years ago: “How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream?”  There are no easy answers here – instead, images of “…a long line of hungry souls” each of whom is a “spiritual refugee” (114).

Ed Bok Lee, Whorled (Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2011), 30.

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“With grammar, it’s always something. “

OConnerThis is the first sentence in the chapter titled “Plurals before Swine: Blunders with Numbers” in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner.  The tone is light-hearted, which, as the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer noted, makes it readable “even for those with a deep-seated hatred for grammatical do-goodery.”  The author describes her readers as “…intelligent people who probably never have diagrammed a sentence and never will” and who “don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care.” The first words that came to me when I read this were “At last!”

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 17.

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“I used to think that if faculty teaching improved, student learning had to follow suit.”

McGuireNow, however, Saundra Yancy McGuire believes that even the best teachers will not see the kinds of learning gains that are possible “as long as students do not come to our classrooms prepared to learn efficiently and independently.” This book shows faculty members how to teach students how to learn by focusing on metacognition, mindset and motivation strategies. Because this book is packed with suggestions and excellent summaries of research, I agree with the reviewer who predicted that this book is one that  “will become dogeared with use.”  I’ve already started making changes in the courses I teach this fall.

Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2015), 10.

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“Rosa was a perfect example of an only child, thought Claire – she behaved herself, but it was because she was always on the stage and the lights were always up. “

smiley2If you were a novelist, what compliment would you most like to see in a review of your work?  A comparison to Tolstoy, perhaps? That compliment was in fact given in the British newspaper, the Guardian, in a review of Jane Smiley’s novel Early Warnings, the second in a trilogy set in Iowa.  The reviewer, English novelist Christobel Kent, wrote that Smiley’s “faultless skill” in bringing a large set of characters to life, her “feeling for territory and landscape,” and her “combination of impatient intellect, emotional perspicacity and unfailing humanity” were reminiscent of the Russian master.  I agree!

Jane Smiley, Early Warnings (New York: Anchor Books, 2016). p. 45.

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“Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.”

bakerThis memoir by Russell Baker encourages readers to write their stories for the generation that hasn’t yet asked for them.  He shows us why he believes this: he will always regret not knowing better the person who told him how to see the world and his role in it. After his mother’s mind began to wander “free through time” he realizes what he had missed. He writes, “A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs” (13).

Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York: Signet, a division of Penguin Group, 1984), 13.

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“I raise my chin and say nothing.”

ChmielarzThis is the final line in the poem “When Are You Coming Back? I’m Getting Tired of Waiting” from a collection of poems about grieving titled The Widow’s House by Sharon Chmielarz.  It is one example of how the poet has achieved a “mastery of tone.” Tone is a slippery thing to describe, much less master.  Chmielarz does it by giving a clear description (in this case, of the lift of the right eyebrow), adding dialogue (with a strident grief counselor) and humor (“As if you have things to do now…”), and then stopping at precisely the right moment.

Sharon Chmielarz, The Widow’s House (Omaha, Brighthorse Books, 2015), 23.

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