My Island Books

Here is a list of my “island books” – texts that I would want with me during my isolation on a deserted island (within the context of education). These are the resources I go back to again and again as a school leader. They are books that I either own or want to own in multiple formats, such as both in print and digital, because I never know when I will need to reference them. I consider rereading each of these on an annual basis because the information provided is too essential to not review regularly. If I were running a graduate school for school leaders-to-be, these resources would be the basis for instruction. They are also examples of great writing by excellent authors.

Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth

This book piqued my interest in the principalship as a future career. It was discarded from my school’s library, and I promptly claimed it while teaching fifth and sixth grade. One of the best ideas I found was “Share Sessions”, where a staff member sets up voluntary meetings for one teacher to share with colleagues what they are doing well in their classrooms. I did this in my school, and people showed up! Roland Barth stressed that you don’t need a title behind your name to make a positive change in your school.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

Written by a former Hallmark greeting card creator, Gordon MacKenzie tells his story of maneuvering his way through the politics and pitfalls of a large organization. The title for the book is in reference to how one should never get too far away from the hairball (the corporation) while also not getting too close and end up tangled in its bureaucracy. As a school principal and in some ways a middle manager, his words are helpful as I also try to stay above the fray yet close to where the learning is occurring.

The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

Jim Trelease has updated this resource six times now, and every time he takes out a few read alouds he recommended in a previous edition to make room for new ones. Therefore I own multiple copies of this book because almost all of his book recommendations are excellent. Jim provides a persuasive argument that parents and educators should read aloud daily to our students. He uses both research and stories to make his case. As a teacher, this resource rarely left my side as I prepared my instruction for my students. I still use it when choosing a book to share in classrooms as a principal.

Schools that Work by Richard Allington

Although this book has been around for some time, I just read it last summer. I believe it is an essential read for any elementary school leader. It encompasses seemingly everything a school needs to focus on with regard to literacy instruction. Some of the ideas that I have already taken from Allington’s work include the principal helping facilitate the morning study center and student portfolios. I will continue to revisit this timeless resource.

Drive by Daniel Pink

If you ever hear anyone reference “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose” in that order, then expect that they have read this book. In fact, I think it was referenced at least twice at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention alone. In my opinion, it is a modern classic and essential reading for any school leader looking to understand what motivates people to do their very best.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

What Daniel Pink did for motivation, Malcolm Gladwell does for change. He introduced the concept of “critical mass” to me. When enough people adopt a new trend or idea, it causes a systemic change in the rest of an organization or culture. This has guided my work as a principal when introducing any new initiative into my school. Along with Mindset by Carol Dweck, I reference these books often as I do my best to convey with my staff the ups and downs of the change process.

Opening Minds by Peter Johnston

“Words have the power to open minds – or close them.” I had read his prior book, Choice Words, and thought that it could not be matched. I was wrong. Where as Choice Words has direct application about the important of language we use in the classroom, Opening Minds takes a more aerial view of the idea of social interaction with learning. Concepts such as agency and social imagination have permanently entered the educational lexicon because of Johnston’s work.

Teaching Essentials by Regie Routman

All of her previous work seems like it has been distilled down to this one resource. The ideas and dispositions she shares could be applied to any learning environment. My staff and I read this as a whole staff book study last year. Our use of the Optimal Learning Model as an instructional framework has changed the way we teach in our building. All other initiatives that come our way could potential be applied to this model.

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

After I read this book, I immediately purchased several more copies for all of my 4th and 5th grade teachers. This is one of the books that I wish had been written while I was still in the classroom. Adopting her love for reading and for developing life long learners could carry the day for so many of our reluctant readers and writers. I could not think of one parent who would not want to have Donalyn as their child’s teacher.

The Connected Educator by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall, Personal Learning Networks by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli, and Who Owns the Learning? by Alan November

Okay, I couldn’t decide between the three of these books, so I am taking them all with me. What they all have in common is a passion for helping educators bridge the learning divide between the 20th and 21st century. No longer is the teacher the lone source of knowledge in the classroom. Each book guides us as learners toward helping our students and colleagues better leverage the vast amount of information and tools at our disposal in order to better connect with our world.

What books listed or not listed here would you bring to your island? Please share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

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