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Notable books

Notable Books | Four books with educational themes reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

In a Heartbeat

Between those who read Michael Lewis' bestselling book The Blind Side and those who saw the movie based on it, millions know the story of the affluent Memphis family that took in and then adopted Michael Oher, who later became a pro football star. The Tuohys tell their own story with a focus on how they came to be a family willing to undertake such a venture-it wasn't the first time they'd been lavishly generous. This book goes into their family histories and continues the story through Michael's time at Ole Miss, which he attended with his adopted sister Collins. It's clear from the telling that the Tuohys did not just help Michael; he helped them by bringing order and routine to an overly busy family.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

This book received a lot of attention when it first came out because Ravitch, who had been an advocate of school choice and accountability testing, is no longer a fan. The book functions as an intellectual memoir, explaining her journey and the larger history of the educational reform movement. It's clear from her history that after years of chasing educational improvements and being influenced by corporate efficiency models, policy makers still don't know how to improve classroom education for kids who come from culturally and economically poor families. Ravitch paints a sobering picture of the current mess, but her prescriptions are vague: If we could get past the culture wars and agree on national curriculum and let teachers teach, she suggests, all would be well.

The Book Whisperer

How do you get children to become lifelong readers who read because they want to and not because someone is telling them to? I've met many good young readers who consider it drudgery. School sucked the joy from it. Here one classroom teacher relates how she created a classroom where each child reads at least 40 books a year in class and out. The peer pressure is oriented toward reading. She and her students also become book recommenders, sharing their favorites with other class members. The book offers practical help for teachers and also raises important issues about what kinds of books kids should be reading. You may not agree with all her conclusions, but her perspective is worth considering.

Drawing Autism

Drawing Autism, a brightly illustrated hardbound book, stood out at the national Book Expo in New York this past spring. It is filled with art created by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and shows both their gifts and the way they see or imagine the world. The book showcases artists like Rohan Sonalker, who loves color; Gregory Blackstock, who creates charts of various kinds of objects (tropical fruits and balls), and Esther Brokaw, who paints dense pointillist landscapes. Some of the artists are truly talented-but all of them are interesting. The book contains interviews with the artists (or in some cases, a family member).

Spotlight

When my 20-year-old was in elementary school, we used to listen to Hank the Cowdog CDs while carpooling. Judging by The Case of the Coyote Invasion (Maverick Books, 2010), the series has not lost its charm even after 56 books. Hank, for those who don't know, is a not-very-bright ranch dog with high self-esteem and low self-awareness. Kids can read about Hank's exploits, but listening to the stories read by Hank's creator, John R. Erickson, in his West Texas twang-accompanied by sound effects and songs- is delightful. Erickson described Hank in a 2006 interview with WORLD: "Hank wants to be a good dog, but he's involved in a constant struggle with his nature: a short attention span, food lust, and an exalted opinion of his role as Head of Ranch Security. Hank is a sinner. Sometimes he rises to heroism but he doesn't stay there for long. That describes every dog I've known. It also has some very funny parallels with the human condition."

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