Monday, July 24, 2017

Bring on the Books

            One of the best things about summer for an English teacher is having the time to read. A perfect summer afternoon for me involves a few hours of uninterrupted reading on the beach, with the book of my choice in hand. After two years of educational leadership classes, having the time to read whatever I want has been most welcome this summer.

            When I read a summer book, my primary concern is not whether or not this will be a good fit for the classroom. I may find a text that I’d like to teach once in awhile, but that’s not my priority. I choose summer texts that I’m genuinely curious about, because that’s what readers do. And then as I’m reading, I think about the ways in which that text might help me in some way through my work as a teacher.

            After all, the whole point of reading in school is to help us develop our own outlook on the world and ourselves. In addition, positive school-reading experiences can help students develop into adult readers. I’m living proof of that, and I read over the summer in the hopes that I can help inspire my students to be independent agents of personal growth through their own reading choices.

            Earlier this summer, I read two young-adult books, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Both have been runaway bestsellers, and I read them so that I can discuss the books with students who have also read them. I don’t teach the age group that would read these texts in school, but I teach students who may wish to connect their own learning to them in some way. And now I can help them do that, and we can discuss the text-to-life connections we see in both novels.

            I also read James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, because its discussion of race was clearly an inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Many students are now reading Coates’ award-winning book, which like Baldwin’s is written in the form of a letter to a loved one and is designed to address race in America with complete honesty. Baldwin’s book helps me put Coates’ modern classic in historical and literary context.

            I checked out Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, as well as George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo and Dave Eggers’ novel Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? All three of these authors dare to write in ways that are radically different from traditional prose – Alexie by mixing poetry and prose, Saunders and Eggers by relying heavily on dialogue and dark humor, and Saunders by also mixing in excerpts of historical texts with his own fiction. I seek out authors who choose to write differently because so many of my students are doing the same today. For them, a day’s writing consists of Snapchat captions, Instagram posts, text messages, emails and traditional homework, both printed out and submitted online. There is no single path for them today, so why should their reading consist solely of traditional sentences and paragraphs? In addition, they take on so many different voices depending on the media they’re using and the audience they’re speaking to. I see value in helping them discuss the different ways great writers do this.

            I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air because a memoir by a doctor who is dying of cancer just seemed fascinating to me. And why do we read if not to quench our own thirst for specific knowledge? The same applied to my reading of Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi, a book about New York Yankees Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry, and the deep friendship they forged. I like reading and writing about baseball and life, and this one fit the bill. When I assign independent-reading projects to my students and encourage them to choose something they want to learn more about, I can bring up the choices I’ve made to model that process for them.

            I have read more during this past month than I usually do during a summer month, as the list of things to read had built up a lot over those two years. As the summer progresses, I’ve got more on my list – two longer novels, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I anticipate both books will help me view the direction literature is taking at its most influential level. I’d also like to read a nonfiction book by my favorite New York Times reporter, Dan Barry, and an autobiography that addresses baseball and race, written by former player, broadcaster and National League president Bill White. I find it really helpful to lean my humanities-oriented mind into the sciences as well, so I’m eyeing the book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. After that, we’ll see how much time is left and what I can fit into the summer.

            When September begins, and I step back into the classroom, these texts will most assuredly be in my mental backpack, and will help me find ways to connect with my students and colleagues. Books help us deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves, and that’s kind of the point of education as well. So yes, I am an English teacher. And yes, I read a lot over the summer. As far as I see it, this is part of the job – and part of a fulfilling life.