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Principal Uses "Book Talk" to
Engage Teachers as Learners


Leading the professional development of teachers is one of the greatest challenges school administrators face. Because teachers put so much energy into teaching every day, they often don't find time to imagine their work in a larger context. That's why Principal Jim Thompson launched a Book Talk program in his school. Thompson shares how he uses Book Talks to inspire teachers and to integrate continuous learning into his teachers' school day. Included: Tips for a successful Book Talk!

In the book Who Moved My Cheese?, the mice Hem and Haw are in denial about change. They believe that "this too shall pass." The mice Sniff and Scurry, on the other hand, anticipate change and quickly adapt to it, all the while preparing themselves to change again soon.

The mice in Who Moved My Cheese? represent people, of course, and the responses of the mice mirror the different ways people react to change. That's why Jim Thompson, principal (retired) at Wolcott Street School in LeRoy, New York, chose Who Moved My Cheese? for the 2000-2001 Book Talk program at the school. He and the faculty engaged in Book Talks at the elementary school for a handful of years.

A section of Who Moved My Cheese? called "The Handwriting on the Wall" distills the book's message:

  • Change happens.
  • Anticipate change.
  • Monitor change.
  • Adapt to change quickly.
  • Change.
  • Enjoy change!
  • Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again.

"Book Talk" Booklist

Following is a sample of Book Talk books that the teachers at Wolcott Street School have read:
* The Passionate Teacher and The Passionate Learner, by Robert Fried
* Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman
* How Reading Changed My Life, by Anna Quindlen
* How to Catch a Shark and Other Stories About Teaching and Learning, by Don Graves
* Ordinary Resurrections, by Jonathan Kozol
* Bringing Out the Genius in the Classroom, by Tom Armstrong
* Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
* Fish! by Stephen Lundin
* Craft Lessons, Teaching Writing K-8, by Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi
* Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom
* Educating for Character, by Tom Lickona
* The Teaching Gap, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert
In talking about the book, Thompson says "We helped everyone come to grips with the reality that the cheese has moved. Then we asked ourselves 'How does this apply to the way we look at teaching?' and, most important, 'How does this apply to learning and learners?'

"Public education in New York state has been a constant sea of change with the addition of high-stakes assessments and new learning standards for every curriculum," continues Thompson. His description of education in New York no doubt is applicable to other states as well.


This fall, Kelly Sattora began her 15th year of teaching at Wolcott. She is the reading specialist for grades 3 and 4 and the reading coordinator and curriculum coordinater for the school. Sattora has been at the school for past Book Talks. The book that impressed her most was Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, a non-fiction work about a sportswriter who each Tuesday visits a former teacher and mentor who is slowly wasting away and near death but dying with dignity. As he moves closer and closer to death, Morrie again teaches his former student, but this time the lesson is about appreciating every day of life to its fullest. Tuesdays with Morrie was especially appropriate for the staff at Wolcott because a much-loved teacher there had died after a long bout with cancer.

"I liked what Jim (Thompson) had us do at the end of the Book Talk," Sattora tells Education World. "He handed each one of us a blank thank-you card with an envelope. He suggested we take the time to thank a teacher who was instrumental in making a difference in our lives. My thoughts immediately jumped back to my high school biology teacher, who had more faith in me than any other teacher I ever had. The book made the teachers think about what a huge impact we can have on a child's life."

FISH! is the book that most influenced Allison Whiteside, who teaches 5th and 6th grade language arts and mathematics and has taught at the school 11 years. FISH! tells about Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington, but actually presents a philosophy for work and life and a method for creating a world-class organization. Thompson chose the book to get the faculty talking about how to make Wolcott Street a world-class school.

The four elements of working with people to create a stellar organization, as detailed in FISH!, are:

  • Play.
  • Make Their Day.
  • Be Present.
  • Choose Your Attitude.

"FISH! is a motivating book that leaves you with a few catch phrases that can become a focus for your daily interactions with children," Whiteside says. "'Make Their Day' is one catch phrase that comes to mind, and you get immediate feedback from students when you've succeeded in doing that -- smiles, looks of pride and satisfaction, and thank yous."


Most Important Tip!

Among Jim Thompson's tips for using Book Talks: "In every discussion focus on how to infuse actual classroom teaching with the book's message." Be sure each book enriches the teachers' teaching and supports their primary mission, which is, as Thompson says, "making a difference with each and every kid, each and every day."
Jim Maginn works at the Genesee Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a support organization for 22 districts, including Wolcott Street School's school district. He has worked with Jim Thompson in various areas of educational support for a number of years.

"One of our most successful initiatives is the use of Book Talk as a method of professional development," Maginn told Education World. "This is a very inexpensive, enjoyable, and effective form of professional development used to introduce the staff to a particular topic or issue.

"The formats involve and stimulate the participants, and use very little lecturing," Maginn continues. "The participants get the book ahead of time, and keep the book after the session to be used for follow-up activities and reference."