Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Dinner List By Rebecca Serle

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Sometimes, The Dinner List is a wisp of a book—romantic, sentimental, an escape from today’s agitating news cycles. At other points, though, it is wistful and insightful, peeling back layers of deep and troubled relationships.

We first meet Sabrina, the just-turned-30 protagonist, when she shows up late for her birthday dinner at an unnamed New York restaurant where five people are waiting, one not so patiently. The twist: They’re not all her friends. They’re the five people on her dinner list: her best friend, her ex, her father, her college professor, and Audrey Hepburn—all of whom she has unresolved feelings for. Audrey’s presence lends a magical air that permeates the story. Adding to the enchanting quality is the writer’s masterful use of cadence and pacing.

As Sabrina discovers why they’re all gathered in this place, at this time, she participates in a therapy session like no other and advances on her journey of self-understanding. She isn’t the only one. I realized Sabrina was more than the hopeless romantic initially etched and how an unforgiving trait was impeding her growth. I began to wonder whether peace and healing can be found through probing conversation. Is it sufficient? It’s a question that takes on new resonance in these unsettled times. In the case of the novel, Sabrina seems to be on her way to healing, but so much is left unsaid and remains unclear at the end.

The ambiguity propelled me to find a satisfying resolution with meaning. So I made my own list of five dinner companions—which, unlike many, I hadn’t really considered before. Around the table I’d want Moses, Paul, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther King Jr. I’d want to talk about law, truth, love, purpose, and forgiveness—and apply their wisdom to this time.

 Who’s on your list? What would you talk about?

See You In The Piazza By Frances Mayes

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“The greatest gift of travel: the steep learning curve. Second best: how your vision refreshes and you see with infant eyes. Third: memory. How the places seen will layer into life as time moves on,” Frances Mayes writes in See You in the Piazza, the latest among her memoirs on living and traveling in Italy.

Taken together, her points extend a clear road map to anyone seeking to make the most of a summer vacation. As I travel to parts of America I’ve never before seen, I find her wisdom becoming woven into my being.

Mayes lives out these ideas in evocative detail. It’s her signature strength, one I’ve relished while reading her renowned best-sellers Under the Tuscan Sun and Every Day in Tuscany. Employing such visceral language, she leads Piazza readers around corners of Italy that even many locals don’t know — it’s a picture-perfect capturing of the countryside.

While venturing through the Campo Tures village, she writes, “Here in the voluptuous valleys and idyllic green hills sloping up to raw and haggard mountains, I close my eyes. The power and spirit of this landscape … must be that you enter it as an explorer. What lies over the next pass? The Dolomiti are in Italy but there’s a bedrock German culture, too; these are mountains but not remotely like any seen before; the air is fresh but I want to gulp it like spring water….”

Along her journey of the country’s 13 regions, we sense her joy and closeness with her husband and grandson. In addition to glimpsing their interplay, we feel her love with all of Italy — from Piemonte to Sicilia. Once after exploring a mystical garden in the rain, she tucks in another bit of wisdom: “Gardens and houses. My obsessions. He was onto it, this Gregorio Barbarigo, the mastermind of this symbolic garden walk. Everything you bring or grow or create or care for in this realm moves you closer to the life more abundant.”

For certain, See You in the Piazza is not an electrifying page-turner, but a lyrical travelogue to savor poolside or a practical guide to earmark for an upcoming trip. In that spirit, Mayes provides the recipes from some of her favorite Italian restaurants.

If the mark of a seasoned writer is turning places into living characters, Mayes is surely a standout.

The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay

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You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to become enraptured in The Austen Escape. Katherine Reay’s latest women’s fiction novel is very much a classic coming-of-age story with historic and modern twists. Even the two settings are emblematic of old and new eras.

The novel opens in Austin, Texas, a tech hub, where the main character, Mary Davies, is struggling with a project at a startup engineering design firm. When her childhood best friend and Jane Austen scholar invites her to visit Austen’s hometown of Bath, England, to finish her dissertation, Mary accepts, hoping the trip will help her forget her work woes and the company consultant she’s been crushing on for the past year.

While the book ticks along slowly at first, the road winds to pure enchantment in Bath. Scenes of fly fishing, dialogue, piano playing, and dancing unfold in flowing prose. But Mary and friend Isabel Dwyer wrestle with some huge obstacles: shortly after arriving in England, Isabel loses her memory and believes she’s living in the 19th century while Mary discovers that her friend is not who she thought she was.

In the midst of such conflict, Reay drops in many pearls, and often uses Mary, with limited life experience, as the source. Savor this one: “Music is math, and once you understand that… How can anyone not be in awe? It’s the audible expression behind the laws of the universe. It feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time. Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together. And while it follows rules, expression is limitless.”

As Mary comes to more clearly understand life and work through her experiences in Bath and Austin, her coming of age can only be described as sublime.


‘A Disappearance in Damascus’ is the story of a journalist’s hunt for a kidnapped Iraqi colleague

Deborah Campbell’s clear, compassionate voice pierces war’s fog and woe in her new memoir, A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.

We meet Campbell in 2007 in Damascus, Syria, where she’s reporting for Harper’s magazine on the refugees fleeing war-ravaged Iraq. A seasoned immersive journalist, she goes undercover as an academic to move about more freely and avoid suspicion. For a while, this approach works well: She doggedly pursues her work, describing refugees’ current suffering and survivors’ haunting memories of kidnappings, torture, and shootings with clear-eyed resolve and an empathetic touch. She even opens up to us about the toll such work takes on her own romantic relationship.

When Campbell meets Ahlam – a name meaning dreams – we see a walking example of resilience. (Campbell identities her only as Ahlam for her family’s sake.) After the Iraq war began in 2003, Ahlam worked as a fixer for The Wall Street Journal and then at the Americans’ civil-military affairs office. It was dangerous, she knew, but she didn’t see other options for work. In 2005, she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Baghdad, considered a traitor for working with the Americans. Freedom’s price: a $50,000 ransom and a promise to leave Iraq permanently. But tragedy followed when she, her husband, and three children started a new life in Syria. Ahlam’s 11-year-old son died in 2006 after an illness was mistreated.

Despite these circumstances, Ahlam remains a force of nature – and for good. She becomes the de facto mayor of the refugee community, Little Baghdad, and houses young men in her cramped quarters. In her work as a fixer helping reputable journalists get out the news, she earns a reputation for maneuvering through sticky situations with her fluency in English and Arabic, street smarts, and caring ways. Campbell quickly becomes one of her many admirers and friends. Early on, Campbell asks Ahlam what she wants to achieve through her work. Ahlam replies, “Someone has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”

It’s one of several bonds the two women share. Their friendship is forged in “shared risk,” Campbell writes. Their love of learning and their commitment to serve humanity shine through as well. “You’re a free bird…. Don’t let anyone put you in a cage,” Ahlam’s father once told her. Raised in a Sunni farming village, Ahlam described how her father taught her to see beyond sectarian differences, to see Sunni and Shia Muslims as brothers. He encouraged her to continue her schooling and she became the first girl from her village to finish high school and the first person there to earn a college degree. Campbell recounts the moment that Ahlam brought her college diploma to her father’s grave to show him she had accomplished their goal. Ahlam pays this gift forward by opening a school for young girls in her small Damascus apartment, where Campbell witnesses – and marvels at – the moment of hope.

The women’s friendship is tested when Ahlam is taken away right in front of Campbell. For the first time, perhaps in her entire life, Campbell feels helpless and grows paranoid that she is being watched. Who is Ahlam really? Why was she arrested? And is Campbell next? Even while she worries, she doesn’t stop searching for her friend. She taps her contacts and draws on her wits and knowledge of the area to guide her steps. Meanwhile, Ahlam is meeting challenges in prison, and we see the force of her spirit.

The thriller, mystery novel quality kept me turning pages, but of course, it isn’t fiction, even if truth has been obscured by war and the passage of time. Campbell takes time to dispel beliefs about what is now history. She reports that the civil war in Syria did not spark in 2011 because of sectarian divides but from a simmering class divide between the city and the countryside. Iraqi middle-class refugees poured into the Syrian cities, a famine in the poor farming areas drove Syrians to the same cities looking for work, and President Bashar al-Assad sought to liberalize the economy by privatizing state lands and services and cutting subsidies to the poor. After urban progressives protested the ruling elite, a sectarian proxy war spiraled as regional powers seized on the chaos to advance their interests.

Throughout her story, Campbell conveys both authority and humility — a refreshing combination of traits. At a few points, she questions whether she is making a positive impact with her writing. With her ability to open up, educate, and empathize, I would submit that she is indeed.

The Food Table: An Intimate Space for Learning


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Engaging, educational conversations frequently happen around a food table. I learned crucial life skills with each bite and breath while in school, including how to get along with people and to stand up for myself. I remember sitting at the lunch table in high school when some classmates and I started discussing religion. We spoke from different faiths and nonfaiths – Christianity, Judaism, Jainism, Muslim, Hinduism, atheism – and debated the nature and essence of God. The atmosphere intensified as we made our cases and probed one another about our belief systems. I do not recall anyone persuaded by peers’ arguments, but remember us parting ways that afternoon with a deeper respect for world religions and for one another. I saw a unity in our diversity around the table.

My experience is just one example of how lunch, often a down time for students and teachers, can be turned into an intimate, stimulating forum for learning. Or as Oprah’s chef Art Smith puts it in his book, Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family: “Lunch is also a good opportunity to meet friends and associates who, while not part of our families, add richness and depth to our lives.”

For instance, in the new Independent Teacher article “The Power of Boys’ Lunches in Middle School: Breaking Bread, Breaking Misconceptions, Learning Together, and Building Community,” author William Piper explains how the Boys’ Lunch at the Middle School at University School of Milwaukee (Wisconsin) started as an anti-bullying program six years ago, but to his delighted surprise has evolved into a space where children and teachers learn from one another as they enjoy meals together. It’s been so successful that the school has developed a Girls’ Lunch.

Collective creativity, too, bubbles to the surface in these kinds of structured, yet intimate settings, as Jonah Leher explains in The New Yorker article “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work.” Steve Jobs had this in mind when he designed Pixar’s headquarters in the 1990s with a central atrium space where everyone in the company was forced to go – and run into each other, Leher writes.

In the piece, Leher offers expert commentary: “If you want people to work together effectively,… findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” [Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac] Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.”

Millennials, ages 13 to 32 years, agree that they prefer intimate, communal space when eating, according a recent Washington Post article, “For Millennials, Food Isn’t Just Food. It’s Community.” And when the San Francisco Unified School District hired the design firm IDEO to rethink the lunch space recently, it enlisted its high school students for help.

” ‘When adults dine, we don’t just think about the food,’ explained Orla O’Keeffe, the executive director of policy and operations. ‘The food is important, but so is what’s going on around it: the ambience, the service, the company. Why would we assume kids are any different?’ ” as Courtney Martin reported in her recent New York Times article, “Improving School Lunch By Design.” Additionally, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and founder of The Edible Schoolyard, addresses children and the dining experience in a recent interview with the Center for Ecoliteracy.

For such reasons, I continue to enjoy brunch and dinner parties. Each one is an opportunity to share and learn about people, events, culture, and ideas – from the mundane to the sublime. These gatherings mixing old and new faces are like fresh oxygen to me, with conversation swirling and stirring my imagination. As the smells waft through the air, the words linger there. Many an idea comes about when listening and talking over meals. I’m grateful for a food table piled high with learning opportunities.

The views expressed here reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS. Please contact the author at with comments and suggestions for future blog posts.

A School-Eye View of Give and Take- An Interview with Adam Grant


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Editor’s Note: This is an expanded Web version of the interview conducted with Adam Grant.

I met best-selling author Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia as he raced between book tour appointments. At 31, he’s also the youngest tenured professor on the Wharton faculty — and brimming with groundbreaking research in his chosen field: organizational psychology. I sat down with Grant to learn how the principles in his cutting-edge book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, can apply to the education sector.

Ari Pinkus: In your book, you write about the three categories we fall into: givers, takers, and matchers. Why should people want to be givers in their lives as opposed to takers or matchers?

Adam Grant: I wouldn’t necessarily assume anyone wants to be a giver as opposed to a taker or a matcher. I think there are pros and cons to each style. Many people assume that the givers, the people who help with no strings attached, are just the worst off when it comes to their careers because they’re burning themselves out or they’re becoming doormats at the hands of takers who are just trying to get as much as possible from others. And that is true. So the good guys do finish last. The givers are typically the worst performers if you look at data from engineers, medical students, and salespeople; that’s a consistent pattern.

But what’s overlooked is the other side of that equation, which is that although some givers finish last, the rest finish first. The most productive and effective people in engineering, medicine, and sales are also the helpful and generous among us. For these people who share knowledge, make introductions, and provide mentoring, they manage to succeed in ways that lift other people up instead of cutting them down. I think that’s a pretty exciting way to achieve success that’s marked with meaning and happiness in ways that perhaps solo success sometimes isn’t.

Pinkus: Are there common backgrounds and demographic characteristics givers have?

Grant: If you look at some of the studies of who gives and who doesn’t, you can see that parenting is really important. Controlling parents, who deprive their children of freedom, are more likely to turn their children into takers who literally take freedom from other people. Another interesting pattern: the more siblings you have, the more giving you tend to do. As David Winter from the University of Michigan puts it, being an older sibling is a proxy for responsibility training… you end up doing a lot of sharing and caring and cooking and cleaning, and those are helping and giving kinds of activities.

As I recently argued in a New York Times piece, there’s some evidence that those who grow up to be givers are more likely to have sisters than brothers, which I think is fascinating. We can debate about the reasons for that, and get into controversy quite quickly, but it does seem that female family members have a habit of tilting men toward generosity.

Pinkus: Let’s talk about education. What makes a good teacher?

Grant: In my mind, one of the first qualities is passion for the subject matter to the point where it’s contagious or infectious. Second is a deep and broad knowledge base so that you can teach students a lot about one thing, but you can also teach them about many different things. Third, and perhaps most importantly given what I study, is caring about students. A great teacher is someone who puts students’ best interests first, sees more potential in them than they see in themselves, and strives to help them learn and succeed.

Pinkus: How can teachers see a student who’s been a challenge for them to one who has potential?

Grant: I think the first step is looking for where the potential lies, as it may not be in the most obvious or immediate form. One of the most useful and inspiring ways to identify strengths is through the Reflected Best Self Exercise. Students ask people in their lives (usually 15 or 20) to write a story about them at a time when they were at their best. As a teacher, you could have your students seek feedback from their families and friends about who they are when they’re at their best. Then the students review all the feedback and compose a portrait about the common strengths, some of which are surprising. People notice things that students didn’t know were there. For a teacher, that becomes feedback: you see the portraits that your students’ friends and relatives have created, and those are cues about potential.

The other step is to understand what students’ goals are. We sometimes overlook the fact that even the most troubled students have hopes and dreams. In fact, Daphna Oyserman and Hazel Markus found that juvenile delinquents had the same hopes and dreams as their high-achieving peers. What the juvenile delinquents lacked was fear about what would happen if they failed or did something wrong. They didn’t worry as much about unemployment and social disapproval, but they had the same dreams and hopes and aspirations. So I would say that if you can identify students’ goals, it’s possible to reach students where they want to go on their terms.

Pinkus: Why do teachers who are givers focus on gritty students?  And how do they help  students cultivate grit?

Grant: Angela Duckworth describes grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. I see grit as a marker of how close to your potential or talent level you’re going to come. The more you focus and engage in deliberate practice, the greater the growth of your skills, your knowledge base, and your ability to be successful. Many givers feel that if they invest in gritty people, there will be a greater return on their investment: those students, those athletes, and those employees will go further. At the same time, givers also strive to cultivate grit by encouraging students to identify important goals and exercise discipline and perseverance in pursuit of those goals.

Pinkus: You write that givers use powerless communication effectively. Could you define this communication, and describe how you use it yourself in the classroom?

Grant: It’s hard to define it without trying to do it which is never easy. I borrowed this concept from Alison Fragale’s research. She defines powerful communication as speaking authoritatively, confidently, and dominantly—being the quintessential expert. Powerless communication, by contrast, involves being a little bit more hesitant and uncertain, revealing your vulnerabilities and your weaknesses (not only your talents and strengths), admitting when you don’t know the answers, and being receptive to the advice of other people.

I’ve found over the years that I am often more comfortable in a powerless speaking mode than a powerful mode. I guess I tell many more embarrassing stories than success stories from my own life.  I think it’s really important to show students that you can still accomplish your goals without being perfect or successful all the time, and that learning through failure and being willing to admit, carefully examine, and reflect upon your mistakes is just an invaluable skill for work and life. I think the other reason that it proves really useful is that when you’re standing up on a podium and there’s this hierarchical relationship between you and your students, it really humanizes the relationship: they can see, “Oh wait, this isn’t just a professor; this is a person.” I’ve found that it helps me connect with them. I’m always amazed when I tell a particularly embarrassing story, there are a few students who will come up and tell me they had something similar happen, and then I don’t feel quite so terrible about it, and apparently they don’t either.

Pinkus: It would seem to be a good idea to teach this kind of communication style to students at a younger age. How would we change the way we teach students to communicate?

Grant: I won’t be the first to say this, but I would love to spend more time teaching students how to ask questions as opposed to give answers. I might engage students to write tests, instead of just taking them. It’s a whole different mode of thinking to put people in the mindset of inquiry as opposed to advocacy. I think it would also be really nice if we could find ways of evaluating people on their listening skills and on their ability to help other people speak, as opposed to assessing their capacity to spit out verbatim responses.

Pinkus: How do you recognize a giver in your classroom?

Grant: In my classroom, the givers are students who go out of their way to apply the knowledge to help other people. For example, I think of students who come to office hours and ask for advice on how to share the principles with their family members, friends, and members of their extracurricular clubs.

Another sign is empathy and compassion toward peers. I run an exercise in class every year invented by Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan and Cheryl Baker at Humax Networks called the reciprocity ring, where all of the students are invited to make a request for help. Everybody else in the class tries to help fulfill the request, and you see that some of the students … will go to great lengths in reaching out to their family members and their friends in an effort to make a difference.

Pinkus: How do you encourage students to be givers in their lives?

Grant: I don’t know that it’s my job to encourage students to be givers. That being said, I’ve been struck by the number of students who hold giver values, but are held back by the misconception that you have to be a taker to be successful. I’ve had a lot of students say I really want to help others, so I’m going to work for 35 years in a job that’s going to make me the most money and get me the most power, and then I can start to give back. In that situation, I feel like my responsibility is to ask whether that may be backward. My data show that instead of succeeding first and giving back later, it’s often the people who give first who set themselves up for succeeding later… If students can see that, it can be a bit liberating in terms of saying, “Maybe I can do that, too.”

Pinkus: What are the pitfalls of being a giver?

Grant: One major risk is being exploited by takers — people who are willing to use you and just capitalize on your generosity to the point where you run out of resources or time. The other is burnout: some givers are so selfless and altruistic that they put other people first all the time, and they have no energy left over to be effective and productive at their jobs.

Pinkus: Why do educators seem particularly subject to these problems?

Grant: Evidence shows that there are many causes, from red tape and bureaucracy to angry parents to children who won’t cooperate, but from my angle, one of the greatest causes of teacher burnout is not seeing the difference that you make in the long-run.

A few years ago, Beth Campbell Bush and I published a study of teacher burnout. We found that the teachers who had stressful experiences on a regular basis were only prone to burnout when they didn’t feel like they were making a difference. When they felt that their jobs were really helping their students, they were able to cope with all of the frustrations and the difficulties in their daily work. One of the challenges is that the impact of teaching often isn’t realized until many years after students have left your classroom — eventually, an idea crystalizes, a behavior changes, or they choose a career based on some advice or perspective that you might have shared.

I’ve recommended that we launch a No Alumni Left Behind act, where schools invite their alumni back — not just give to the school financially, but to share their experiences and help teachers see the impact that they personally have had, or recognize the potential for impact by seeing what their colleagues have been able to contribute.

Pinkus: You talk about a support network being an antidote to burnout. How can teachers build a support network to help themselves? What role do leaders have here?

Grant: How do you build a support network for yourself? One major step is through giving. The evidence is really clear that most people are matchers: they believe that what goes around should come around, and strive to follow the norm of reciprocity. That means that if you’ve been really generous with them, when you need them, they will be there for you.

It’s no easy task for school leaders to build a support network. Research suggests that formal mentoring programs rarely do much good, in part because a relationship in which you rely on people for emotional support, advice, guidance, and resources tends to be something that needs to evolve genuinely based on a natural authentic connection. It’s tough to say, “Today I am your mentor and I will be helping you,” and immediately have trust.

That said, I would encourage school leaders to legitimize help seeking. Many teachers are reluctant to seek help — they don’t want to appear vulnerable or helpless, and they don’t want to burden others. But if you’re unwilling to seek help, that’s a great recipe for burnout. And you’re thwarting the potential givers in your life from knowing what you need and how they can be of support to you.

School leaders can play a huge role in this. I would love to see more school leaders asking for help themselves: admit when they don’t know the answers, and show it’s acceptable to seek out help, that it’s safe, and even encouraged.

I would also be thrilled to see more school leaders create marketplaces for people to seek help. For example, there’s a company called Appletree Answers in Delaware that runs a call center. They had turnover at a range of 98 percent annually. CEO John Ratliff was getting together with a group of people to brainstorm about how to reduce the turnover rate, and one of the people suggested creating an internal version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They called it the Dream On program: employees could pose any dream they wanted, and there was a committee of people at Appletree who would try to make it happen. They got all sorts of really interesting requests, from a woman who wanted to help her sick husband meet his favorite football players to a man who wanted to take his daughter to a birthday party and go behind the scenes at the circus. Not only did [the dream committee] make them happen, but turnover dropped to around 33 percent within the six months after they instituted this program because they made it acceptable for employees to ask for help. It created a lot more authenticity and empathy in their everyday relationships. I don’t know if every school should have something like that, but it’s a really interesting model.

Pinkus: What do you think school leaders can do to protect giving teachers from becoming too selfless?

Grant: Setting boundaries is really critical. Teachers need ways of saying, “I have license to decide which requests I will grant and which ones I won’t.” There are organizations that have created quiet time windows, with no interruptions, so that people can make progress on their individual goals.

I also think that schools can take some steps to make sure teachers have the support they need. This would be less about providing a support network and more about providing structural support. Dave Hofmann, Zhike Lei, and I conducted a study in hospitals, where there was a nurse preceptor staffed on each unit with the responsibility of helping nurses. Nurses were more likely to seek help. What would happen if schools hired rotating people in giving mode, whose job was to, in a sense, care for the caregivers?

Pinkus: Do you think there’s a way to evaluate teachers and students on the giving scale? What do you think that might look like?

Grant: I guess the question would be for what purposes. Why would we want to evaluate teachers and students on the giving scale?

Pinkus: As another assessment measure… because this is something that is helpful to society and that we might want to cultivate this behavior.

Grant: If we’re not careful, we might have more takers becoming good fakers, trying to live up to our metrics of “Are you a giver?” “Well, yes, of course, I’m a giver. Here are all the ways that I’ve been helpful and generous.”

Pinkus: So you see it undermining the intention?

Grant: There’s a risk that the moment you start to create extrinsic incentives for behavior you would like to be intrinsically motivated, you may get people giving lip service to it without actually doing it. As we know from decades of research on the undermining effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, there are conditions under which you can take a behavior that people would naturally endorse as meaningful, interesting, and fun, and if you start to reward it, people only do it for the reward. When the reward is gone, they no longer follow through with that behavior.

That being said, it would be helpful to give teachers and students benchmarks for what would constitute giving so that they can evaluate themselves, which is really hard to do. I wouldn’t want to stake too much on it, but I would say it could be interesting for students to evaluate teachers not only on conveying knowledge, but also in providing help.

Pinkus: You mention that in American culture people don’t believe that many people around them are givers, and schools have a role to play here. Should grading curves and rankings that pit people against each other be eliminated?

Grant: When it comes to encouraging giving, grading curves and forced rankings can be a complete disaster. There’s a lot of research showing that when you create zero-sum situations, it’s hard for people to feel that they can help and contribute to each other, let alone even cooperate, because you’ve created an inherently competitive situation in which your failure is my success. I think that’s a really dangerous and tragic way to teach students about how the world works.

If you look at research on motivation, ever since Victor Vroom and others started doing this kind of work in the 1950s, we’ve known that people will work harder when they see a connection between their effort and their performance. If you have a grading curve that requires a certain number of students to get B’s and C’s, then you’re disrupting those beliefs: no matter how hard I try, it’s possible that somebody else could do better, and then I won’t get the grade that I deserve. So why should I try hard?

Pinkus: What are some possible solutions educators can consider?

Grant: There’s a powerful example that was in the news recently about a UCLA professor who let his students “cheat on an exam. It’s not what it sounds like, at least at first. He told them it was going to be an impossibly difficult exam, they could talk to anybody during it, and they could bring all of their notes. Because it was going to be so challenging, the students knew that they still had to prepare. The professor encouraged them to learn the material cold, but to do it in a way that allowed them to rely on each other and help each other with the test. I thought it was a brilliant example, and it’s gotten me thinking a little bit about different ways that I can incorporate some of those possibilities into my own classroom.

Last year, I had a group of students announce that having a final exam was a bad idea because it imposed a lot of stress. I had expressed that it was important to me that students learn a lot and be successful, but also enjoy college, and my undergrads banded together on the last day of class, and said, “We want to negotiate for no final exam.” I said, “I would love to support that, but as a negotiation professor, my job is to get beyond positions and toward interests. My understanding is that your interest here is in reducing your stress level. My interest is in making sure that you learn the material, and that you really internalize the key concepts fromthis course. I’ve not been convinced from the data I’ve gathered that this can be done easily without a final exam, so if you have another proposal, let me know. “

They suggested a few ideas, but I didn’t think any of them were viable from a learning standpoint, and they didn’t have the evidence to convince me otherwise. So I said, “OK look, I want to do something that will not only reduce your stress level a little bit but also allow for the testing process to take into account the principles that we’ve been studying.” I told them that the multiple choice questions were going to be extremely difficult (which they always are on my exams). I invited them to select one question on which they were uncertain of their answer, and write down the name of someone else in the class who they thought knew it. If that student got the question right, they would get that peer’s points. What I saw was that more students studied together. They learned what everyone else knew, they taught each other some things, and it was just a small way to promote a little bit more helping and support in the classroom. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and they seemed to get a kick out of it, so I plan to continue it.

Pinkus: What can educational institutions do individually and collectively to cultivate and sustain a successful giving mentality among all stakeholder groups in schools: administration, faculty, staff, and students?

Grant: I think it’s a really tough question. If I knew the answer to it, I would be out trying to lobby education policymakers, and speaking to groups of school principals, and so on. Frankly, it’s part of why I wrote Give and Take. I was hoping to create a common language for these ideas, and allow people to recognize that if we could create a norm where more people act like givers, it’s possible that we could expand the pie such that we’re all able to achieve our goals more effectively. From here, it would be exciting to see some new and creative solutions emerge.

Pinkus: Let’s discuss giving in and out of the professional realm. How are you able to juggle giving on the personal and professional fronts?

Grant: I think setting boundaries is really important and being clear. So for me, “family first, students second, colleagues third, everyone else fourth” is something I have in my mind every day when a request comes in. Is there a risk that if I say yes to this, then it will compromise or hurt my ability to support my family and to be there for my students and for my colleagues? Also, when a request comes in, and I’m not in a position to offer unique help, I’ve tried to get better at making an introduction to someone else. I feel really lucky to have a network of givers who are willing to do that and help carry the responsibility of supporting people.

The other thing that’s been really useful for me is Nancy Rothbard’s research on work-life spillover. Many people assume that if you take on more at work, it’s going to deplete your home and family life, but Nancy finds that beyond these depleting effects, there are also enriching effects. Sabine Sonnentag and I did a study showing that on days that you made more of a difference at work, you actually brought more energy and joy back to home: you felt like your work really mattered, and you have more excitement and enthusiasm to share with your family. I experience that personally: on days where I feel that I’ve had a meaningful impact at work, I feel like I’m sometimes a better husband and a better dad. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that work can enrich home life, not only deplete it. The key, of course, is to set really careful boundaries to facilitate more of the enriching effects and fewer of the depleting effects.

Pinkus: Would you recommend that people establish a circle of givers whom they can go to?

Grant: If you want to be a successful giver, it’s invaluable to have a group of givers who committed to the same goals. One of my favorite examples from the book is Jason Geller, a Deloitte consulting partner. After he mentors a group of consultants who get promoted, when he mentors a new class, he invites the old class of mentees to pay it forward. As a result, the new consultants are learning from a more diverse group of mentors, and Jason is making sure that the people he mentored end up giving. This also reduces some of the burden on his time, so he can scale his impact a bit. I think that’s extremely useful.

Ari Pinkus is the associate editor at NAIS.

Out of the Ashes


Click here for original publication.

Dear Readers,
Last year, I wrote a review of Jonathan Kozol’s book, Fire in the Ashes. A year after the book’s publication, the issues raised are just as relevant to the ongoing conversation on education in America, and so I’m offering it in this forum to spur more discussion — and generate possible solutions. The piece below initially ran in the Winter 2013 issue of Independent School magazine.

Review of Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, by Jonathan Kozol

In one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, the Mott Haven neighborhood in New York’s South Bronx, many children lay in the ashes, ravaged by drugs, violence, illness, broken homes, and squalor. In the midst of such wretched circumstances, there are the children who, instead of being consumed in flames, are able to rise as phoenixes to become educated, conscientious young adults.

What sets these children apart? Jonathan Kozol provides an answer in his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America. For one, the survivors had intrepid, compassionate adults and private institutions, both educational and religious, taking an interest in their welfare. Kozol vividly describes the backgrounds and personal traits that brought these “children of hope” to the attention of outsiders at the right time. Pineapple stood out for speaking her mind, her “buoyant” personality, and a tight-knit Guatemalan family; Leonardo was raised by an intelligent mother and got along with everyone; Jeremy, mentored by a pastor and a poet, became known for his moral compass.

Regardless of these distinctions, Kozol is emphatic that, in “a genuine democracy,” outsiders offering charity to a select few children they deem have potential are not substitutes for a first-rate education system that benefits all children.

In Kozol’s descriptions of the families and children he has known since their grade school days and whom he has befriended is a narration so gripping that readers gain a visceral understanding of what life is like inside the poorest neighborhoods. There, lives unfold over a generation for good or for ill — many families struggling on a subsistence of $8,000 a year.

The stories are at turns moving and horrifying, a credit to Kozol’s sympathetic portrayals and his passion for exposing economic injustice. For Kozol — who won the National Book Award in 1968 for Death at an Early Age, about his first year teaching in Boston’s public schools — it is a lifelong pursuit. In gut-wrenching prose, Kozol assails the American institutions that have failed the children. The list is long: New York City’s social service system and political administration, which kept homeless people in the “decrepit, drug-infested” Martinique Hotel shelter in midtown Manhattan and then shuffled them to the South Bronx in the late-1980s, an immigration system that deported a father to Guatemala during his children’s formative years, middle schools in the Bronx where learning potential fell through the floor and did not rebound. Even the New York Times doesn’t escape unscathed, after the paper downplayed the poor sanitation in the Bronx, which residents said was responsible for their families’ chronic health issues.

Kozol also devotes much time describing young people’s dangerous choices that ended in tragedy. Fourteen-year-old Silvio lost his life while train surfing; another young man, Christopher, overdosed on drugs; a third teen, Eric, whose emotions were bottled up and was believed to be doing drugs, committed suicide.

The ticket out of the wasteland: a good education, very often at America’s elite private schools, which remain nameless in the book. Among the institutions referenced, these private schools stand out for their role in educating young minds to become productive young workers. It helped to have Martha, a priest and a tough-as-nails attorney who advocated for poor families and took in one child, Benjamin, as her own. Kozol describes how he and Martha are staunch supporters of public education’s role in American society and wrestled with whether private school might be right for Pineapple as she approached the crucial middle school years. Ultimately, Martha decided (and Kozol agreed) that they could not, as Kozol writes, “let her be denied the opportunities that lay beyond the options the city had prescribed.”

After being accepted to a private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Pineapple benefited from a principal and teachers who were able to quickly assess a child’s abilities and pinpoint underlying problems. They determined she needed to repeat fifth grade because she was too far behind her peers academically. As Kozol puts it, not only were they aware of “her deficient writing skills and reading comprehension. They also recognized that she had never learned the whole array of study-skills that students who had had the benefit of reputable elementary education had mastered long before.”

On the other end of the private school spectrum was Leonardo. His mother, a high school graduate and a “very smart and largely self-taught intellectual” who read prominent black authors, said she taught her son “to read when he was three or four,” Kozol writes. Her place in her son’s education as he matured was evident, even after her husband was hauled off to jail. A teacher at his New England prep school marveled that “he came into the school at cruising speed.” A natural leader, Leonardo was dubbed “the Mayor,” and easily made friends with people of different races and classes.

The other main institution that guided children on a purposeful path was St. Ann’s Church. The church in the South Bronx nurtured youth with innovative projects, tutoring sessions, and intellectual stimulation. A preacher at St. Ann’s mentored Jeremy, who went on to a New England boarding school and later earned a college degree.

Coming into adulthood, Kozol’s children of hope have decided to pursue vocations that serve their communities. After failing to complete a graduate teaching program, Jeremy returned to St. Ann’s to work with children. “I’ve come to learn how many other ways there are to make a difference for these kids, and not only for the kids but for their parents and grandparents too,” he says in the book. Pineapple, too, held a desire to return to the Bronx and engage in social work as a way of passing on the torch or paying it forward, she said. After graduating from college, Leonardo was still mulling over his career path. If entertainment doesn’t pan out, he may go to graduate school and help “shape policies… that affect the lives of children,” he says. For his part, Benjamin, a recovering drug addict, came to assume responsibility for other drug addicts in recovery, which has strengthened his resolve. Hardship brought all of them greater meaning even as it exposed life’s fragileness, Kozol points out.

Kozol does not answer the question of what America as a nation can do to educate its poorest children. Perhaps the answer, like the spark, lies within the children. Pineapple, Jeremy, Leonardo, and Benjamin, wearing the armor of survivors and equipped with the tools of fine educations, are well positioned to be the stewards.

The views expressed here reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS.

Secrets of Powerful Women

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

What helps a woman to succeed? Sixteen teenage girls asked that question of some of the most powerful women in America. Here’s what they heard: Nurture your relationships. Share the credit. Seize the moment. Do not wait to be asked about taking power.

Because, as California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez put it, “Life is not a fairy tale, and that prince ain’t coming.”

The new book Secrets of Powerful Women champions female networks to help young women realize their ability to lead.

The idea for the book took root after women leaders in American politics spoke to 16 teenage girls who had won an essay contest cosponsored by Lifetime in 2008. Lifetime asked these female powerhouses to turn their remarks into essays for a book. Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime Networks, explains why in the book’s foreword: “[I]f we are ever going to crash through that ceiling altogether, it’s not enough to let only a handful of women at a time in on the secrets.”

The contributors reveal why and how women help other women, whether in groups or one-on-one. As Sanchez explains, growing “our network of girlfriends” in Congress enables women to be effective in office. A critical mass of women in leadership positions across sectors is essential to “change the way this country works,” writes Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, which expects to have prepared more than 40,000 women to run for office by 2013.
Wilson, Sanchez, and Wong are three of the 24 female activists, journalists, and members of Congress from different races, parties, and places who contribute to the book and cheer women on to lead.

In essays that at times take a pep-talk tone, women leaders talk about being influenced by strong mothers and grandmothers who defied convention by working outside the home and getting college educations before it was widely accepted. It helped when fathers supported mothers’ endeavors. Beyond families, the women pointed to Betty FriedanGloria Steinem, and Margaret Thatcher as role models.

But where the women really spill secrets is in their personal narratives. Lisa Maatz, a lobbyist for the American Association of University Women, learned about lobbying and grass-roots organizing at age 8. Maatz describes politely asking the school principal, Mr. Ginke, for doors to the stalls in the girls’ bathroom. The boys had doors, she argued. Maatz remembers the principal patting her on the head and dismissing her request. “[W]hen I gave Mr. Ginke a petition signed by two hundred of my classmates, I had doors in a week,” she writes.

For Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, a career in politics began organically. At 25, she was part of a group of six suburban housewives that called themselves National Consumers United. Their mission: to know how old the grocery food was that they were buying. They inspected stores and found food was on the shelves long after the date manufacturers said it was fresh. After becoming small shareholders of the Jewel supermarket chain and the National Tea Company, the women wrote press releases about their work. “We won!” Schakowsky writes. “Jewel began to advertise ‘freshness dates.’ ” Schakowsky says that early taste of making a difference led her to take other advocacy jobs, and eventually to run for Congress.

So far, the contributors are part of a small group of women leaders, and the statistics they reiterate through the book provide good context for their stories. Women make up 17 percent of congressional seats, 7 governorships, and 24 percent of state legislatures. They run 3 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, and occupy 3 percent of top positions in the media industry.

The women are skilled at explaining why the low numbers matter. Different perspectives are needed to create good policies, says Shelley Moore Capito (R) ofWest Virginia. Women also bring in new voices, work well in teams, and seek out long-term solutions, writesRep. Kay Granger (R) of Texas.

Such realistic views carry over to thoughts about women’s personal styles. In the recurring section Power Dressing, it’s refreshing to find successful women getting real about the significance of their clothing choices. Betsy Myers, a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, recalls watching bright, attractive women being sidelined because of “inappropriate clothes.” The lateAnn Richards, former governor of Texas, once told Granger to ditch her navy blue suit and wear bright colors to stand out in a crowd. Granger’s power attire now: a red suit.

For all the focus on women, the contributors neither demean men nor debate which gender leads better. Rather, Schakowsky says “investing in women” helps “create a more peaceful, more healthful, more productive society.” The takeaway message to women is confident: Everyone benefits when more women lead and this is why they must.

Ari Pinkus is a graduate student in management at New York University.

The Audacity of Hope – from the Monitor archives

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

Barack Obama gives readers a blueprint of his view that America requires “a different kind of politics.”

[The Monitor occasionally reprints book reviews of current interest. This review of “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama originally ran in the Monitor on Jan. 30., 2007.] It’s easy to see whyThe Audacity of Hope quickly shot up to the top of the bestseller list. In a refreshing voice, presidential hopeful Barack Obama gives readers a blueprint of his view that America requires “a different kind of politics.”

Coming off as an earnest – if somewhat wide-eyed – new senator, Obama gives sweeping assessments of the country’s intractable concerns: healthcare, education, and energy.

Obama advocates, for instance, for universal healthcare, but leaves the details to be ironed out. If he decides to push beyond an exploratory presidential bid, the generalities won’t be enough. But his writing is at least refreshingly free of the vitriol and nuanced policy positions that characterize the debates in Washington.

Obama takes on the most divisive topics in America, such as race and social issues, in a way that shows respect for alternate views. A constituent who has problems with Obama’s pro-choice position on abortion receives a personal letter from the Senate candidate. On race, he’s firmly in favor of affirmation action, but notes how “many Americans disagree … arguing that our institutions should never take race into account. Fair enough – I understand their arguments.”

Obama aims, too, for Americans to relate to the woes of politicians by placing them on a basic human level. Politicians are driven to win, not only by ambition, but also because they fear the humiliation of losing. “It’s impossible not to feel at some level as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community.” Obama says he still “burns” over the “drubbing” he took in 2000, when he lost by 31 points to incumbent US Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois.

In several other places, Obama is surprisingly candid, opening up about vulnerabilities, such as his discomfort at spending time away from his family and the role that his Christian faith plays in his life. He describes the search for meaning that led him to be baptized as an adult.

But unresolved questions and sensitivity on faith matters dogged him during his Senate race. While debating opponent Alan Keyes, Obama was thrown by Keyes’s statement that he wasn’t a true Christian partly because of his support for abortion rights.

“I was frequently tongue-tied, irritable, and uncharacteristically tense” while debating Keyes, he writes. It leaves one wondering how he’d handle a more formidable opponent.

Yet the openness and eloquence with which Obama shares his personal story interwoven with his broad vision for America is compelling. For those who have been disillusioned by the divisiveness of politics, Obama inspires.

Ari Pinkus was a national news editor at the Monitor.