Opinion, Promising Practices

The 5 Books I’m Going to Keep On My Bookshelf

No Matter What...

It’s Sunday afternoon and we’re less than 24 hours away from getting some carpet replaced upstairs. We’ve been fairly ambitious with the first part of this project, wanting to get as much done as possible in the first round. This has involved some rather ruthless decision-making in terms of what we keep and what we decide to give away.

Ok, if I’m totally honest, one of the main reasons that I’m embarking on this project now is that the very act of having to “touch” practically everything we own is one of the best forms of spring cleaning that I know! (But, you’re sworn to secrecy on that.)

So, I’m sitting here all alone looking at two IKEA bookcases full of books—my books. The family is off working on something else (and they seem to be getting along!) and its just the books and me caught in a type of literary staring contest. The books know that they are survivors from a similar act of purgation that decimated their population about 2 years ago. It had taken a good year and a half after retiring from Dufferin Peel for me to finally accept the fact that many of the books I had been collecting over the course of my teaching career would, at this point, likely be better off in someone else’s hands. At that time, I had dedicated two full days to the act of thinning out my collection, shipping some off to our local used bookstore and others to the brand new school down the street. I had managed to part with two full bookshelves worth of treasures.

But now, I realize that I still have too many books that will likely remain unopened, unappreciated, collecting dust.

I love books. I love buying them. I love owning them. I love reading them. I love the way they look when they’re standing at attention on a bookshelf.

I would say that 80% of my collection is connected in some way with education: books about teaching, learning, schools, design, drama, the Arts, philosophy, sociology, psychology. I have books about technology, about blogging, about coming to the profession, about leaving the profession—and everything in between. There are books about reading, writing, mathematics and science. Books about imagination, creativity and innovation—lots about innovation!

But having made a commitment to move from two bookshelves to just one, I need to make some serious decisions about what I keep and what I give away. And so I’ve started with the desert island question. You know the one: If you were destined to be stuck on a desert island, what are the 5 books that you would want to have with you?

So, looking at my bookshelf, here are the five (OK, six) books that I’ve decided to keep, no matter what. In their own way, they have inspired me and have earned their “place on the case” by also being books to which I have returned several times for guidance and insight:

1. Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Published first in 1963, Ashton-Warner was a New Zealand teacher who, in found that the Maori children she was teaching didn’t respond to the British style of education under which she, herself, was trained. The book is a wonderful reflection on how she learned to respond to the children in front of her.

2. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

I’ve read this one three times! This is McCourt’s memoir about his 30-year career as a teacher in the New York City school system. His passionate attempts to engage his students makes for a memorable story.

3. Teachers and Machines: The Classroom of Technology Since 1920 by Larry Cuban

Ok, I know that this book was published over 30 years ago, but there is something about Cuban’s review of the attempts that we’ve made to move technology into classrooms that still resonates.

4. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

I first encountered this book during my faculty of education year in Toronto and it immediately captured my imagination. Opening my eyes to how the very enterprise of education was a source of power in the world, this book has kept me connected with the voices and thinking beyond my own little corner of the world.

5. The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

Teaching is as much about the inner life and journey as it is about what other people—our colleagues and our students—see on a daily basis. Palmer provides a way of looking at teaching as something more than designing unit plans and assessment tools. There’s something deeper to all of this, and this book has provided some touchstones along the way.

6. A Life in School—What the Teacher Learned by Jane Tompkins

I first encountered this book during a time in my career when I was trying to connect with what was important to me as a teacher. Immersed in a new wave of technological advance, including the expansion of the internet, Tompkins’ book spoke to me of relationship, challenging assumptions and re-imagining what our teaching lives could be.


There’s a bit of risk in presenting a list like this, isn’t there? I’m sure that if my desert island experience went on too long, I would be craving more choice. And I’m sure that there are others in my electronic collection that will also stand the test of time.

But, several things have become apparent to me during this Sunday afternoon purge. The first is that I will continue to be inspired by the lives and work of those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of teaching. Second, stories are important and carry with them the common threads of our work. Third, I still love books and, although most of my purchases are now electronically driven, the physical presence of books will always be important.

Finally, for me a moderately-priced Cabernet Sauvignon is the best companion for this type of endeavour.

So, if you had to engage in a similar task, what 5 (no less than four—no more than six) books would be remaining on your bookshelf at the end of your Sunday afternoon? What would your selections reveal about how you view your work and what is important to you? It would be great to compile a list of people’s Top Fives. Whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, a support worker, a student or a parent—what would your five selections be?

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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