Just about all teachers I know cherish the opportunity to read great books while they recharge their batteries over the summer. Most of a teacher’s “reading life” is dominated by student work (preferably actual written pieces and not just worksheets), technical reading of curriculum guides and texts designed to improve their classroom practice. That’s why I recommend that teachers set some time aside every summer to broaden their perspective by reading books on more wide-ranging topics.
Here are five books that I suggest you take a stab at this summer:
‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ by Amanda Ripley
Ripley, a writer for Time magazine, has done a masterful job analyzing the educational systems of Finland, Poland and South Korea to figure out why their approach to learning enables them to excel internationally. She offers a complete overview and relays the experiences of American foreign-exchange students in these countries. Ripley does not fall into the trap of simplistic answers and platitudes, which makes her clear and concise work an enthralling read. Be warned, though: After reading her book it will be hard to ignore many of the poor decisions we Americans make when educating our children.
‘Amazing Grace’ by Jonathan Kozol
I came across Kozol’s book over 20 years ago when I was just starting my work in the East Bronx. Needless to say, Kozol’s work hit me right between the eyes as he documented the lives of children living in the South Bronx. St. Ann’s Parish is in the poorest ZIP code in the country, and we soon learn that the sixth-wealthiest ZIP code in the country is just a short subway ride away. From his work, we learn of the squalid state of our schools, the policymakers’ decisions that reinforce these conditions, and how we are morally obligated as teachers to do something about it. This is one powerful, powerful book that has worked its way into the DNA of my professional practice.
‘Odd Girl Out’ by Rachel Simmons
Simmons has penned THE book to read for helping identify, address and prevent bullying between girls. Simmons calls this kind of female-specific bullying “relational aggression,” explains why young women choose to act this way, describes the societal forces at work and, most importantly, guides teachers on controlling it in their classrooms. This book helped to open my eyes to many behaviors that I observed time and time again from the “popular” girls in my classes, but I never made the connection between their actions and how they used their power to isolate other students. All teachers can benefit from “Odd Girl Out,” regardless of the grade level or socioeconomic setting of their schools.
‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green
You can’t move this summer without seeing an ad for the screen version of Green’s book about teenagers who have cancer. I spent several years working at a summer camp for children with cancer, and Green captures the occasional joys, pressing emotions and deep sense of loyalty that these children have. Aside from the high emotion, his book is also a great reminder of the wit, depth and insightful “eye” that all teenagers bring to their families’ lives.
‘Soldier of the Great War’ by Mark Helprin
OK, I’m not recommending you read this exact title; I’m just adding it to make a point. Helprin’s “Soldier of the Great War” is an example of a great book that has nothing to do with teaching but a lot to do with life. Set during World War I, it tells the story of the fictional Alessandro Giuliani and his life as a soldier during the war. Hemingwayesque in its grand storytelling, the book represents a mental vacation for everyone to take advantage of during the summer. Side note: I was so enraptured with this book that I attempted to name my first son Alessandro, though my Irish-American wife had other ideas and Jimmy, my fair-haired and freckle-faced son, is grateful that she did to this day.