Palo Alto High School English teacher David B. Cohen has done a favor for the teaching profession by writing Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools. The book pushes back again a tired and prosaic cynicism about the teaching profession that reflexively asserts that American education is in a sad and dilapidated state, soiled by greedy unions and paralyzed by its inability to reform or improve.
Instead, Cohen goes on a year-long road trip during the 2014-2015 school year, spending sixty days at a wide assortment of elementary, middle, and high schools. He observes a hundred classrooms and the result is a book that should be read by every cynic, naysayer, and education law-maker in America. As Cohen notes in his Introduction: “The goal was to record and share the inspired teaching that I knew was happening all over the state in thriving public schools that defy stereotypes. I wanted to make sure more people know what’s happening in the rooms and buildings that most of us walk, ride, or drive past without much genuine insight.”
Cohen delivers big time on this aspiration. What is most impressive about his book is that its optimistic tone and energy does not deny or obfuscate the difficulties of the modern American classroom. Indeed, lurking in the shadows for much of the book is the specter of perpetual poverty and disadvantage. The uplifting ethos of the teachers he profiles proves that high hurdles are not always consistent with failure.
That said, the book is a powerful tonic to the excesses of reform efforts of the last decade. Reforms that narrowly tailor efforts of teach accountability, school choice, or the proliferation of corporate-backed charter schools have all failed to yield seismic improvements in the landscape of American schools. If anything, Capturing the Spark is honest in its underlying argument that there are no elixirs to be had, no panaceas to proliferate. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can take the place of a committed and professional teacher.
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There is a consistent and powerful message that weaves its way throughout the entire book: excellence in teaching requires a constant commitment to professionalism in all of its forms. Professionalism in the way teachers prepare to teach the curriculum. Professionalism in the way teachers learn to augment their skill sets and partake in professional development. Professionalism in the posture teachers assume when asking for better pay, better working conditions, and better respect from elected officials. Cohen makes the interesting statement that powerful and impactful teachers share a common characteristic that has nothing to do with teaching awards, writing blogs and books, or obtaining a leadership position in teacher unions. What binds powerful teaching is dedication to the craft of classroom instruction and a deep faith that educators should always be treated like professionals.
Teaching is not a part time profession even if there are summer vacations. Teaching is not a hobby even if the students leave in the middle of the afternoon. Teaching is not charity work even though great teachers help the most vulnerable among us. No, teaching is a serious and difficult profession. Cohen makes the cogent and intelligent argument that the trappings of civilization itself do not materialize when educators fail to do their jobs. Democracy falters. The economy becomes anemic. Individual dreams never take the shape of genuine achievement.
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The book is both readable and well-written—a dual achievement that can be difficult to attain. Cohen provides a professional service that I have long searched for. As a teacher, I spend my days in my own classroom, frequently isolated and curious about the practices of others. I have always wanted to see what is happening “over there” – in the next classroom, in another school, in another part of the state. David Cohen does not just paint a vivid picture of “what’s happening,” but he vividly describes what’s happening in the best classrooms in the state of California, a state of extraordinary diversity and a tapestry that is certainly a microcosm of America itself.
On a personal note, it was an extraordinary honor to be the subject of one of the sub-sections of the book. While surreal to read about oneself in the text of a book, it was also a professional highpoint to be featured alongside the best of our profession, from National Teacher of the Year winners such as Rebecca Mieliwocki to teacher-writers whose work I very much respect such as Larry Ferlazzo. But most of all, it has been an honor to follow the scholarship and insights of David Cohen. His passion for education is palpable when one reads the book.
The world of educational publishing is both vast and competitive. The sheer volume of books on education and teaching makes it difficult for any one book to rise above the herd. But if there is a clarion message of good news this holiday season that deserves to be heard it is surely that of Capturing the Spark. It is a message that will resonate with teachers at all levels of education, from the first-year kindergarten teachers to the veteran AP Calculus teacher and everything in between.
Go buy this book!
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