Book Discussion Groups

In central offices, common readings can launch novel ways of thinking and set different directions by Marian Kisch

When Krista Parent was a child, she was not much of a reader. Athletics was her thing. She started reading profusely 15 years ago when she became an administrator — and hasn’t stopped since.

But reading alone wasn’t fulfilling enough. “I wanted to have conversations about what I read,” she says.

When she became superintendent of the 3,000-student South Lane School District in Cottage Grove, Ore., eight years ago, Parent found a way to do just that, through her semimonthly administrator meetings.

ElsberryReadingGroup.jpgA book discussion group in the Horry County, S.C., central office includes, from left, Cindy Elsberry, superintendent; Kenny Generette, staff attorney; and Carolyn Chestnut, chief officer for instructional support services.

For generations of educators who grew up on the printed word (as compared to the electronic one), books remain an enjoyable activity that can contribute to knowledge building for professional educators with wide-ranging responsibilities. Yet they have broader value beyond personal consumption.

In many school districts throughout the country, books on leadership, management and new thinking about educating children have served as a group learning tool or a jumping-off point to initiate important changes. Organized groups of central-office staff and site administrators read books by the leading thinkers in education and business. This, in turn, can be the catalyst to deep discussions about how to improve leadership and instructional practices in their school districts.

Professional networks use book discussions to further career advancement. The Suffolk County, N.Y., chapter of the New York State Association of Women Administrators recently convened its members to rethink leadership styles through a discussion of Becoming an Invitational Leader: A New Approach to Professional and Personal Success by William Purkey and Betty Siegel. The chapter chair, in her invitation, said: “Don’t worry about reading the entire book before the first meeting. There is enough in the first four chapters to keep us talking for two hours.”

Various Options
So how do these work, and what happens in these book clubs or reading groups?

In the Springfield, Pa., School District, 22 administrators, including the superintendent, concurrently read Jim Collins’ best-seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, a common choice in recent years. It took them a year to complete the book, break it down into meaningful parts and discuss its application to their work. Each month the group dissected another chapter, led by a different administrator.

“Continuous improvement is what great organizations do,” says Springfield’s superintendent, James Capolupo. “We needed to learn the difference between good and great companies. This book helped us do that. It demonstrated that in order to be successful, you need to find ways to be sustainable over time. That will help us help our students to be successful over time.”

Springfield’s group also has tackled books from unlikely sources — notably When You’re Asked to Do the Impossible: Principles of Business Teamwork and Leadership from the U.S. Army’s Elite Rangers by Anthony LeStorti.

In her Oregon district, Parent uses a similar approach during her administrator meetings, which used to be dominated by nitty-gritty agenda items. “People’s eyes were glazing over, thinking of all the things they had to do back in their offices or schools,” she says. “I realized this was an expensive meeting, a crazy use of people’s time. When we come together we should be learning together.”

So during the first meeting of each month (they meet bimonthly), an administrator facilitates a discussion of a particular book. This year the South Lane leaders are jointly reading Six Secrets of Change by Michael Fullan, Schools that Change by Lew Smith and The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.

“The second meeting has morphed into a ‘leadership studio’ in which participants take turns using what they learned in their reading to talk to their team, prepare a lesson plan (for staff, school board members, etc.), teach the lesson while the team is observing and then listen to feedback on how they did,” says Parent, the 2007 National Superintendent of the Year.

“This turns us from a professional learning community into a community of practice,” she adds. “Unless you do something with what you’ve read or learned, it’s a waste of time.”

In the 37,000-student Horry County School District in Myrtle Beach, S.C., administrators read A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink in 2008-09, Cynthia Elsberry’s first year as district superintendent. “I wanted to begin my tenure here with everyone thinking ahead about how we can develop into a 21st-century district,” she says of the high-poverty district of 48 schools.

Pink’s work about the need to expand right-brain capacity to prosper in the “conceptual age” has sparked some “deep discussions,” she says. “It forced us to look at the way we do business. School districts have lots of bureaucracy with many rules and regulations. Hopefully we can streamline some of those.”

The Horry County cabinet also has studied Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson. The authors ask if education can improve student outcomes using current models or whether a wholly new model of K-12 schooling needs to be created.

“They give hope,” Elsberry says, “and give examples of how schools can change by redesigning. We hope to adapt some of those ideas.”

Inside or Outside
While some reading groups ask members to take turns at facilitating discussions, others find it more valuable to work with an external professional developer.

Broward County, Fla., Public Schools prefers the inside approach. “Instead of going to an outside consultant who comes in and tells us what to do, we decided to build our expertise in-house,” Bette Zippin, director of professional development support, says.

School leaders there have been reading Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work by Richard DuFour and others. First, the district team studies the subject, develops a common vocabulary and model and adopts a message to share with others. Next, the principals bring back the message, along with a quantity of books, to their own schools to share with their staff. Each of Broward’s 268 schools approaches the implementation differently, according to the needs of the particular teachers and students.

The school-based book discussions take place before, during or after the school day or on days off. High schools in Broward can apply for an early-dismissal waiver so they have more time for professional development. The school board has approved 20 such waivers so far; students in these schools leave early on up to eight days each year.

“Creating a common language about professional learning communities is what needs to happen to get all the arrows going in the right direction in any educational environment,” Zippin says. “Since leadership sets the stage for any initiative or improvement, it was essential for all administrators to bring a copy of this guidebook back to their school — and then to use it with their staff.”

In Springfield, Pa., an hour of the monthly administrator meeting is devoted to book discussion, which also takes place during the summer administrator retreat. Reading permeates the district to such an extent at all levels that each administrator works individually with kids needing help in that area. Every Wednesday morning before going to his office, Capolupo drives to two elementary schools and one middle school to work with three students on their reading, a weekly ritual for the past four years.

“The whole district is wrapped around reading,” he says. “If you can’t read, what can you do?”

Hard Questions
The Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo., has partnered with consultant Grant Wiggins this year (and for the next two years). They meet on a monthly basis, first with a group of 36 steering committee members (superintendent, assistant superintendents, principals, curriculum coordinator, early childhood director, teachers, school board members and parents) and later with a larger group of 100 members of the school leadership teams. The initial group read Wiggins’ book, co-authored with Jay McTighe, Schooling by Design: Mission, Action and Achievement, and the next group will tackle Understanding by Design, starting this month.

“We felt we needed an outside consultant to ask the hard questions,” says Kathy Blackmore, Parkway’s executive director of curriculum, development, assessment, technology, integration and pupil personnel. The district had been working with multiple book study groups for the past five years.

“It was clear that it was time to get on the same page,” she says. “If our curriculum and reform process was built on backwards design logic, it was time that we all read the same books. We needed to know where we wanted to go and then plan backwards so we can get there.”

And that is what the district plans to do: Apply Wiggins’ logic of “backward design and planning” to Parkway’s school culture and practices. At the first two-day gathering in February, Wiggins walked the participants through his school reform design and facilitated a discussion of what it could mean to the district.

“We needed a month (the next meeting was slated for March) to ‘marinate,’ to walk away and think about what we discussed,” Jennifer Sisul, Parkway’s coordinator of professional development, says. “But what was especially nice, is that we gave ourselves permission to step away from our work for two days to have honest conversations about hard questions.”

Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools is working with Dennis Sparks, via videoconferencing, to explore the relevant ideas in his book Leading for Results: Transforming Teaching, Learning and Relationships in Schools. Denny Berry, a cluster coordinator, says, “Dennis is not there to figure it out, but sees himself as ‘our thinking partner.’”

The group convenes monthly to discuss specific chapters. Assistant Superintendent for Cluster VI Leslie Butz and Berry speak with Sparks before and after each session. Since the chapters are very short — only two to three pages in length — the administrators read them right then, count off to form “jigsaw” groups, share what they’ve learned and discuss applications to their work.

Then Sparks discusses the chapter with the group, “and the conversation takes off,” according to Berry. After Sparks said, “The way you show up at school makes a difference; if you find things to be positive about, it will spread,” one principal retorted: “It makes so much sense. On those days I’m really trying to be positive, things go better.”

Board Reading
When Terrance Furin was in his first year as superintendent at Owen J. Roberts School District in Pottstown, Pa., he reached back in time for a classic in American literature, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He sent each board member a copy of the Nobel Prize winner.

Board members were divided at the time over a school prayer issue. Then, on a snowy, winter morning, Furin invited his board to a meeting that featured candlelight, background music and a full breakfast cooked by the new superintendent. He formed groups with members from both sides of the issue and led them in a nonconfrontational discussion of the book.

“What color do you think the book is?” he asked. No right or wrong answer. At the end of the session, board members identified behaviors that would be acceptable for future board meetings: be present, do your homework, come with an open mind, be a good listener — and they all agreed to abide by these rules.

“The book served as a way to get people to talk together,” Furin says.

He later used Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man with his school board and some central-office staff. Because the book addresses student testing and its fallacies, he gave each participant an old, short IQ test and asked if the school district should publish the results. “This led to a discussion and a new perspective on what we do with testing and how we misuse it,” says Furin, now a faculty member at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Minds and Directions
In South Carolina, a state where school choice and voucher support are strong, Elsberry wanted her leadership team to “look at ways to do things differently to meet the needs of their customers, the students and parents.” She believes the central principles in Disrupting Class, a book about getting around obstacles and customizing instruction, are forming the foundation for moving the Horry County schools in new directions.

In particular, the district is piloting virtual course offerings (this year a graphic design class was beamed from one high school to a small rural classroom in another high school) and providing training for teachers and principals on how to better use technology in their work. Alternative programming outside the regular day — what Elsberry calls “any time, any day schooling” — is another possibility that may emerge from the group discussions.

“We’re stretching thinking by studying books,” the superintendent says. “We need to plant seeds and try new ventures. These authors jump-start our thinking.”

Books can even have an effect on personnel decisions. “Through books, we learned we need to get the right person on the right seat on the bus,” says Capolupo, in Springfield, Pa. “We are a fluid organization and need to do what makes the district successful.”

As a result, he transferred several administrators, including principals, into new positions.

Parkway’s association with Wiggins will have some practical consequences, as well. After the 18,300-student district drafts a new mission and vision statement, it will tackle ways to apply it to the district’s curriculum, assessment and grading policies.

“We want more than a pretty statement on a plaque,” Sisul says. “We need to explore what we believe all kids should look like, sound like and be like. Are we doing the best we can to prepare students for the 21st century?” Wiggins helped participants prepare for questions from others in the district about “what’s going on in those meetings” and to get others on board. “And he reminded us,” Sisul says, “that this was only the first meeting in a three-year process. We have to be patient.”

Online Discussions
Some education groups have taken a logical extension of face-to-face discussions to online book studies. Dan Smith, the executive director of School Administrators of Iowa, introduced the concept to his membership this spring. He picked The Global Achievement Gap for the initial book because the author, Tony Wagner, is scheduled to address educators in Des Moines a few months later.

Smith intends to divide the book into clusters of several chapters from which he will summarize a few points that he hopes will lead to discussion by administrators statewide. More than 50 members signed up after the first promotion.

Scott McLeod, who coordinates a resource site (www.schooltechleadership.org) catering to technology needs of school administrators, launched his first online book discussion last summer. More than 100 education leaders registered to chat about the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson and others — so many that McLeod broke them up into five chat rooms with a more manageable number of discussants.

As summer progressed, interest began to wane. McLeod put the remaining active discussants in a single chat room for the last few weeks.

“That seemed to work well,” he says. “Even those who dropped out told me they really liked the book.”

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@comcast.net