An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students

By Ron Berger (Heinemann, 160 pages, $17.50)
reviewed by Laura Flaxman

More than ten years ago, when I first saw Ron Berger present a portfolio of his students’ work and explain the process behind these beautiful and impressive artifacts, I was struck by this master teacher’s combination of skill, passion, energy and humility. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students allows others who haven’t had the good fortune to work with Ron to be similarly inspired. That his book can stand on its own, without being able to see in person the high quality student work that is central to Ron’s philosophy and teaching, is a testament to both the writing and to Ron’s enthusiasm for his craft.

The book is divided into “toolboxes” for fostering a “school culture of excellence,” creating “work of excellence” and inspiring “teaching of excellence.” The anecdotes and ideas that make up each toolbox are designed to help us build school and classroom cultures of excellence, through the important idea of “craftsmanship.” As Ron explains in his introduction, “In carpentry there is no higher compliment builders give to each other than this: That guy is a craftsman. This one word says it all. It connotes someone who has integrity and knowledge, who is dedicated to his work and who is proud of what he does and who he is. Someone who thinks carefully and does things well.”

Ron argues that these are qualities that all students should have, with the same attention to producing work that is thoughtfully done and has relevance, meaning and implications beyond the confines of the school walls.

So how do you get students to produce the kind of high quality work that Ron describes and shows off in his massive portfolios of student work? This is the question that many educators want to know (and many quoted in the book ask). Ron answers by sharing his toolboxes filled with examples, both from his own classroom and others, of ways to build culture, improve teacher practice, and help students achieve their personal best. The tools include using models, outside “experts,” protocols for critiquing work, field trips, multiple drafts, and creating high-level, well-scaffolded projects. Ron’s sixth-grade students conducted a water study of their town, created a business making and selling jewelry handcrafted from stones they had excavated, and wrote biographies of local senior citizens. These projects and the many more described in the book illustrate the use of these tools and serve as models for other educators looking for inspiration.


Laura Flaxman co-directs CES National’s Small Schools Project.