Holding On To Good Ideas In A Time of Bad Ones

By Thomas Newkirk

Heinemann, 2009


Review by Debbie Lacy Anderson, Heinemann Representative


Just the title of this book gave me hope. There are so many demands on teachers today, so many times that we are required to participate in teaching practices that we know don’t make sense for our students. Newkirk’s first challenge to the reader is to use his book as a basis for creating our own list—what do we think is worth fighting for?


The book is divided into three parts. Part 1: The Mechanization of Teaching helps the reader understand "The Curse of Graphite". Before the 1930’s there was no efficient and cost effective way to conduct mass testing. Then, in 1931 a high school teacher Reynod B Johnson, began experimenting with electronic methods of scoring tests. Using the principle that graphite draws an electrical charge toward it ,resulted in the "Markograph" and the enshrinement of the #2 pencil as our chief testing tool for the next 80 years.


This, Newkirk asserts, is one of the Bad Ideas we must fight against. Tests can be informative and help us make some teaching decisions, but we must hold onto a careful balance of agreed-upon standards and teacher initiative. Teachers must constantly make decisions in complex situations that no one simple "standard" can solve.


In Part 2 of the book Newkirk elaborates on his six Good Ideas that he holds on to: balancing the basics-creating parity between reading and writing, expressive writing, using popular culture as a literacy tool, uncluttering the curriculum and finding a language for difficulty.


I have highlighted huge chucks of all six chapters, but there are two parts that really spoke to me as a teacher. I love Newkirk’s term "Educational Clutter" –the piling on of objectives and requirements. As we add on more and more standards, tests, forms, and curriculum, our classrooms become more and more rushed and depth gives way to breath. Big things, the things that take the most time—authentic reading and writing often become slighted in order to cover more "stuff".


In the last chapter of Part 2 Newkirk urges us to be honest about our struggles with teaching, with kids, with other teachers. He speaks of the isolation of teachers—how many hours do you go in a day before you speak to another adult? How many of us are brave enough to ask for help or express our frustration with our limitations as teachers? He suggests that we visit colleague’s classrooms to learn from each other and focus on the small moments in our classroom that brings us satisfaction.


Part 3: "Isn’t Freedom an American Value Too?" is Newkirk’s call for us to allow children to read freely, without an agenda, a test,or a comprehension guide. Just read for the love of reading.


So, what’s on your list? If this short review has given you food for thought or sparked an idea, please share it with us in the blog below. We must all fight for what we believe is best for kids and for ourselves. I am so glad that Thomas Newkirk gave me some new ideas and ways to think.


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