Love what you read and read what you love.
Is this not the life force behind workshop? Behind teaching English? Behind becoming a reader?
Personally, I’m pretty sure my love for reading started in utero. My parents (both educators themselves) read to me and read to me often. The first real memory of a book I have is Disney’s The Penguin that Hated the Cold. Pablo the penguin wanted out of the Arctic. I connected with his desire to swing in a hammock and travel the high seas in a bathtub.
Next came The Boxcar Children. I used to run out into the backyard of my comfortable suburban home and pretend to be an orphan living in a boxcar. Logical, right?
Soon after, I was devouring the Little House on the Prairie books, the early Baby-sitters Club books (only those before #100…sorry Ann M. Martin, a girl has her limits), and The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. I read under the covers with a flashlight, swinging from the tire swing in my backyard, and sometimes under the dinner table. I only drew the line at reading in the car. Still can’t do it. It makes me vomitous.
The common thread to this early reading, was my love of stories. I chose what I wanted to read and I read voraciously because I was in charge of where I could travel, the conflicts I could watch unfold, and the people I could meet through books. I know my dad wanted me to read more Robert Louis Stevenson, but that was a journey of his childhood. The journeys of my childhood were with Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, R.L Stine, and C.S. Lewis.
So where is the balance that we, as English teachers, can bring to our classrooms when it comes to teaching the books we love (or the books we think students “should” read), and our understanding that choice fosters a connection to what we read? A connection that can far outweigh the legitimate literary merit of works we would choose for our students? Where do cultural literacy and passion for literature meet?
Well…I don’t really know. Yet.
What I do know, is that I need to provide opportunities for my students to choose texts that appeal to them. But my job can’t end there. I then need to help them move to more complex and challenging works. Classics included.
How to do that…I don’t really know. Yet. But I am learning.
Here is what I do know – If I am going to build a community of readers, I need to be a reader. If I am going to build a community of writers, I need to be a writer. Lead by example and beautiful things are sure to follow.
Easy, right? Of course we, as teachers, are often readers. The beauty of language, the study of what it means to be human, and the opportunity to live countless lives through reading is what led me to the high school English classroom. But somewhere along the way, I started reading more student papers than novels. More formative assessments than poetry. More parenting books than bestsellers (though I will contend that Oh, Crap! Potty Training is a necessary text for parents with kids of a certain age – Shana, this is the book – trust me ). But with the advent of workshop, I have read more in the past few months, since Amy and Shana came to Franklin High School for professional development work, than I had in longer than I’d care to admit. And as such, I am able to broaden my repertoire of texts and my students now see me reading. A lot.
In fact, the students at Franklin High School are seeing their teachers read more and more. Not that we weren’t reading before, but as fellow colleague and reader Catherine Hepworth wrote in her guest post, we are now, as teachers working within the workshop model, making our reading far more visible. As a result, I wanted to share some recent reads from my colleagues. Teachers who are fired up about reading, because we love it and want to share the love.
The English Teachers at Franklin High School highly recommend these recent reads:
Demian by Hermann Hesse – recommended by Karin Adelmann
Demian is a coming of age novel. Sinclair, the protagonist, is trying to find his way to what is true and real as he encounters different mentors and situations. The book frequently challenges more conventional ways of thinking.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood– recommended by Lisa Dennis
As a pretty progressive woman, I can’t believe I haven’t read this book until now. I work; I share a household with my husband; I cook but also know how to shingle a roof, I vote; I raise my daughter to trust herself and know her own mind. And yet, I’ve never read this cautionary tale full of sardonic humor and striking dystopian visions that suggests all that Artwood feared about 1980’s “Morning in America.” The Handmaid’s Tale carefully unfolds the story of Offred, a woman living in the fictional future world of The Republic of Gilead. In a world of declining birth rates, fertile women are assigned to existing families, solely to bare children. Through Offred’s memories of her life before, an American life most of us would recognize, the reader discovers the sharp contrast between the freedom we currently enjoy and the very real limits placed on life when that freedom is lost. Like so many great dystopian novels before and after it, The Handmaid’s Tale is a testament to upholding the values of personal freedom in the face of what life might be like if we forget how precious those freedoms really are. I can’t put it down.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes– recommended by Erin Doucette
I was hooked on this book from the first page. The book is set in England, so I really enjoyed the voice of the narrator as well as some of the words she chose to incorporate. Me Before You chronicles the sometimes confusing, frequently tumultuous, and always touching relationship between a funny, eccentric, secret-hiding Louisa and formerly adventurous, formerly ruthless, and currently angry, quadriplegic Will. Quirky, unqualified Louisa becomes his care-giver for the 6 months he has left before his pre-planned assisted suicide.
I loved this book. It make me laugh. It made me cry. It made me angry, but best of all, it really made me think about the impossibility of some of the choices we face and the importance of standing by the people we love.
Eleanor by Jason Gurley – recommended by Richard Gould
This is a story of a young girl, Eleanor, whose twin sister dies in a horrible accident. After that, the entire family crumbles. At the age of 14, Eleanor has an experience that she cannot explain, but it seems that someone is trying to contact her in an unimaginable way. As these experiences happen more and more often, Eleanor begins to see a way to repair all the damage to her and her family’s lives. I recommend this book for several reasons. Fist, it features two strong female protagonists. The writing is authentic and the characters are complex and not without fault. The story delves into “other dimensions” and would appeal to any fan of existential writing. The book is organized through a series of flash backs, flash forwards and time travel, which can be a bit confusing if a reader is trying to quickly read the story; however, this is a book to be enjoyed slowly with frequent pauses to think, not only about the story itself, but about the reader’s own perception of reality. There is a bit of romance, but not too much as the story stays focused on the protagonists’ objectives. The conclusion is satisfying but is not obvious or formulaic. When all is said and done, this book stays with the reader for a long time after it is put down.
Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming – recommended by Catherine Hepworth
Alan Cumming, Scottish actor extraordinaire, presents us with two parallel stories about the men in his life and their influence on him. While he is preparing for and filming a genealogy show, he is learning about his maternal grandfather’s escapades in WWII, while at the same time dealing with his own abusive father. It is a very honest and open memoir about one particular moment in his life that is at the same time about his entire life. He is my favorite celebrity and a wonderfully talented writer. I especially enjoyed his memoir because it’s rare that a celebrity gives you this type of glimpse into their heart breaking childhood. When I finished reading, I wanted to rush to NYC and give him a hug.
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak – recommended by Amy Menzel
I like reading short story and essay collections because it mixes things up. It’s like what Mark Twain said about the weather in New England — to paraphrase, “If you don’t like it now, just wait a few minutes.” I can do that. And I’m pretty good at having the memory of Dory when reading story or essay collections. If I read something I don’t like, I forgive, I forget and I swim–I mean, read on. What I really like about Novak’s collection is his thinking. You might know of Novak from The Office fame. He wrote, directed, and starred in the hit sitcom. In this book, he uses his creativity to ponder some what if questions. “What if John Grisham’s publisher mistakenly published one his books with the place holder title of ‘The Something’?” “What if there was one man behind the creation of the calendar?” “What if there was a ‘Best Thing in the World’ Award?” I like how Novak thinks, and I really like that I get to follow his creative thinking in this collection.
Winger by Andrew Smith – recommended by Leah Tindall
I absolutely loved this book because Smith uses real language, humor and other great writing techniques that will truly appeal to all teens, boys especially. I thought I would take about a month to read in between grading and planning. However, once I started on a Tuesday, I finished it the following Friday evening. I could not stop reading it! I laughed almost every page, and then I cried in the end! I began reading it aloud in a few classes and this inspired several of my students- 3 girls and 4 boys, to be exact- to read it! One of the boys I don’t even have as a student- I was talking to him about it in resource. He didn’t read any books last year and finished this book and loved it! P.S. I love Andrew Smith.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – recommended by Sarah Sterbin and Brandon Wasemiller
Sarah says: I love reading books that are being made into a movie so I can compare them. Ready Player One is hitting the BIG SCREEN in 2017 (I’m really on top of my game). It was an awesome read about living in a world where you can “plug in” to the virtual world. I have recommended this to a lot of my students who are into video games (and those who, like me, like to be harsh critics on the movies based on books), but it is a great story for ALL to read!
Brandon says: This is a book that I could not put down, and when I did I was trying to figure out the next time I could dive back in. Ready Player One was all that I could talk about for the week that I was reading it, and I suggested it to colleagues, family members, and students. This book has everything. A mystery, an dystopian future, life inside of a video game, undying friendship, 80’s references, solid characters, and a real look at how much video games affect our life–and more importantly how they could RUN our lives in the years to come. There is no a single person that I would not suggest this book to. It is unlike anything you have read before, and I highly suggest it to everyone.
The Selection by Kiera Cass – also recommended by Sarah Sterbin
This books is a mash up of The Bachelor and Hunger Games. Dystopian feel while seeing the inner workings of a Bachelor type show (with some “ROYALTY”!) I have recommended this to a lot of my students who talk Bachelor/ette with me (guilty pleasure alert), and those who love reading Dystopian stories.
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan – recommended by Brandon Wasemiller
I grabbed up this book because I can be a window shopper when it comes to books, and I really liked the cover art on this novel. However, after I read the first page I was hooked, and spent much of my weekend reading through the entire thing. This is a book that takes you into pure madness and back again, and it is great for that reason. Going on a journey with someone as they go insane is a hard journey to take, but Susannah, a writer for the New York Post, brings her story to life. You will find yourself reading just ONE more chapter just to see if things get better.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman – also recommended by Brandon Wasemiller
I bought this book on Amazon because I saw that it had a five star rating, and really awesome art on the book jacket–I am so happy I did. The amazing quality that this book has is that it really makes you care about Caden, the main character, and the problems he is going through. Caden is in the real world, but also finds himself on a boat on its way to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep. You, the reader, are unable to help Caden who is starting to confuse dreams with reality. This book brought me back to the days when my grandma would read James and the Giant Peach to me and do all the different voices as she read, and like James and the Giant Peach, Challenger Deep is a journey of a young man who lives in one world, but escapes to another to work things out, but as a reader you worry that Caden will never come back. What if he is never “himself” ever again?
Columbine by Dave Cullen– Brandon’s passion for books cannot be contained.
This was a book that I could not put down. Each chapter builds on the last, and you feel connected to the school, its students, and the tragedy that took place more than a decade ago. I never realized how much I did not know about Columbine. This book expertly tells the story of two very misguided young men, but more importantly, the teachers, administrators, students, and families that were all affected on that day and beyond. I would suggest this book to anyone looking for a great non fiction book, and a really solid look into what great investigative journalism looks like.
Thank you to the enthusiastic teacher readers at Franklin High School for sharing their recommendations. Each new text our students see us reading expands their field of choices and also lets them know that we truly, and gladly, practice what we preach. Because we love it.
What are you reading? What recommendations can you share? Can’t wait to grow our “to read” lists together with your suggestions in the comments below!