Hungry for a good story: Some thoughts on PD books

Teachers hunger for stories. Classrooms are intersections of narratives. Each year is a new volume. A primary way teachers improve their craft is listening to each other’s stories – in the lunchroom, in meetings, at conferences, and in books. When I read about an educator in the field, experimenting and developing her craft, I’m engaged.  To me, the best professional development (PD) books are also steeped in the narrative of teaching. I think there’s some human nature involved here; telling stories is at the soul of the human experience.

I felt this way when I read Allen Carey-Webb’s Literature and Lives, a memoir published by NCTE. Carey-Webb, now a professor at Western Michigan University, chronicles his experiences breaking the mold of traditional curriculum by experimenting with cultural studies in his English class, and making much of the curriculum student-directed. When his students expressed interest in the Holocaust, together they built a course around Holocaust-related texts and experiences. His book is a must-read for English teachers, but I think a lot of non-educators would find it highly readable and compelling. Unfortunately, it’s in that long and wide shape of so many PD books, likely scaring off many would-be readers.







When I scan a shelf of PD books for titles of specific goals and ideas I do want to explore and adopt, I often find that they lack the attractive narrative of Carey-Webb’s. This happened to me this summer when I picked up Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide of Instructional Leaders by Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart, published by ASCD last year.

More than ever in our land of increasingly standardized education, we need more educators picking up the banner of progressive assessment and student-based inquiry to restore the souls of classrooms. Formative (as opposed to summative) assessment is “an assessment for learning rather than an assessment of learning.” It’s a classroom experience of shared ownership and inquiry between students and educators, and it’s not a test. The idea is to engender and support a love of learning.  I really wanted to pick up some good practices, illustrated in action.






I quickly realized there would be few narratives in this book; the information is written for a generic classroom. Of course, formative assessment could be applied in any subject and for any age group, but I wanted detailed examples of model classrooms. Tell me about a hypothetical Ms. Smith’s success story in Los Angeles or Mr. James’s story of struggle and overcoming in Iowa. I wanted characters. I’d even take imaginary people in a model classroom invented by the authors. Briefly in Chapter 7, the authors juxtapose imaginary classrooms and the one using formative assessment has empowered students talking to each other, not just to the teacher. That was an okay page.

Formative assessment is so important. I have an 8-month-old daughter and when she’s in school, I hope her classes embrace formative assessment. I’m looking forward to adapting some of their templates (especially for student feedback) and ideas to my classroom. Despite my very real interest in acquiring their information, my brain pleaded with me to pick up another book from the stack on my bedside table – anything with a story I could grab onto.

Here’s an example from the Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: a graphic titled “Just-Right Goals for Student Motivation” displays a central diamond with the words “Setting a Goal” inside. The diamond has four arrows shooting out,  informing the reader that “Just-Right Difficulty” leads to “Increased Effort and Persistence.” A caption explains: “Students work harder and stay engaged.” A different arrow pointing toward “Too Vague” then leads to “Decreased Intention and Attention” and then “Students lose their focus and expend their energy in less productive directions.” It felt like a jargon-addled PowerPoint presentation from my nightmares.

Moss and Brookhart’s ideas are wonderful, but I fear that their audience is limited to teachers whose principals or coaches place this book in their hands. The book is also aimed at instructional leaders, not the lay teacher, but I still believe that formative assessment would get more airplay and consideration with specific examples of the authors’ ideas in action.

I feel a little guilty in writing all of this, almost like admitting I can’t hang with a technical, professional text. I can, but I’m not exactly motivated to seek out more of the same. To ignite more self-motivation in educators to develop themselves as professionals, I’d like to see more accessible, narrative-driven PD books. It doesn’t have to feel like taking your medicine.

I welcome feedback about PD books that not only kept you turning pages but also motivated you to try something new in your practice.