An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom

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I had a different entry planned for my return to writing posts today, but this weekend I went to see the new Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and walked out glowing with inspiration.

Beyond being a well-constructed film following the life and times of a fascinating man, the main theme of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a message sorely needed in today’s world: what made Mr. Rogers successful and great was his relentless, unwavering commitment to empathy. 

There is a wonderful line in the movie where one of Rogers’ tech crew said that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did everything wrong from a TV production perspective. TV is supposed to be ceaselessly noisy, but his program was filled with silence. TV is supposed to move fast, but he moved at a nearly glacial pace (he once set a timer for a minute and sat there in silence for the whole time to help kids understand what a minute is). TV shows are supposed to use their vast resources to make the costumes, sets, and props as real and polished as possible, and yet he used the same ratty puppets and papier-mache set for over thirty years. But the show still worked, earning consistently high ratings in five decades and the reason was that while kids do often love noise and action and pageantry, they also love people who make them feel understood and valued, and that is exactly what Fred Rogers did for millions of kids.  

Besides being of topical interest due to the profound lack of empathy that seems omnipresent in the media and social media of 2018, the movie entranced me because it brought home an idea that I’ve been thinking about over the past few months: empathy is vastly underrated and remarkably powerful stuff. As teachers it really should play a central role in our daily plans. Continue reading “An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom”

The Six Books I’m Reading Before School Starts

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy” -George Gershwin

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To start, I want to make one thing clear: Summer break is a blessing. Having some time to do the important work of breathing deep and clearing my head is so important to me as a teacher and person, but, as ungrateful as it sounds, I would be lying if I said that the blessing wasn’t a mixed one at times. The reason for such a seemingly preposterous statement? Expectations.

You see, the school year is so hectic that I can’t help but to make summer the place in my mind where I put everything that I would like out of life but don’t have time for during the school year. Do I need to start running again? No worries, there’s summer. Does the house badly need painting? No worries, there’s summer. Has it been over a year since I got my eyes checked, teeth cleaned, and allergies dealt with? No worries, there’s summer. Do I still need to send out thank you notes for my daughter’s April birthday? No worries, there’s summer…

And so on. Add it all up–one little desire and maintenance detail of life at a time–and by the time summer rolls around, it is already impossibly full of to-dos, which can make it really hard to effectively recharge.

So this year, I went out of my way to aggressively cull my summer to-do list before the summer even started, and the first order in doing that was to significantly trim down what is always one of my top summer stressors: my reading list.

A well known irony of being an English teacher is that we gravitate to English because we love books and yet it can be maddeningly hard to read as much as we’d like during the school year. The consequence of this for me is that by the end of each year I have dozens, or even hundreds, of books that I absolutely must read this summer. In earlier years, I tricked myself into believing that I would read them all, and then when the first day of school rolled around I always felt like I’d failed in some way if the list sat mostly unread.

This year I’m trying a new approach. I am capping my list at six books (3 non-fiction, 3 fiction) over the next six weeks that I just have to read. If I finish those and read more, great, but I am not putting pressure on it, as there are still those rooms to be painted and thank-you notes to be mailed, and summer’s lease is all too short. So without further preamble, here are the six books I can’t wait to read before school starts:

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.20.37 PM.pngMuch like with growth mindsets a few years earlier, the notion of grit made a sudden and serious impression upon education world. Seemingly overnight it was everywhere, and (also like with growth mindsets) it was nearly as quickly misunderstood and misapplied in a thousand different ways. Of course, the initial reasons for grit’s success is that understanding why some people can absorb failure and disappointment when others can’t is incredibly important to our jobs and Duckworth is a top notch researcher (not to mention a MacArthur Genius Grant winner), so my plan this summer is to go straight to the source. Further, I’ve been told that in many ways the book actually fits with the summer reading spirit, as it is largely narrative and far more accessible and engaging in its prose than what one might expect a University of Pennsylvania professor and researcher.

These Six Things by Dave Stuart Jr. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.17 PMDave Stuart Jr.’s was the first education blog I began to follow and it continues to be one of the few that I always read. From what I can glean, These Six Things reads like a comprehensive greatest hits compilation of one of the best educational writers around today. Its focus is on keeping us focused on what really matters in the classroom, and it looks to offer a whole host of practical resources for teaching reading, writing, arguing, speaking, listening, and identity-building. It doesn’t come out until the end of July, but I will be the first in line to get it when it does.

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.33.01 PM.pngI have no idea how I missed this book for so long. Since my early days in the classroom, two of my teaching bibles have been Rhetorical Grammar by by Martha J. Kolln and Loretta S. Gray and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. These two books, more than any others, have informed the content of my writing lessons, as both break open how writing works and make accessible topics that are normally dense and difficult to comprehend. They Say/I Say came on my radar this year, and it looks like it will do the same for the specialized features of academic writing. I am also particularly drawn in by the They Say/I Say approach, which focuses on teaching academic writing as contributing one’s own verse to a long-running, essential conversation.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.32.33 PM.pngMadeline Miller’s first book The Song of Achilles was a thoroughly enjoyable read. An LGBTQ retelling of the story of Achilles, it was fun, thought-provoking, and has consistently registered with a number of my students, both LGBTQ and not. Her follow up Circe follows the story of the witch Circe from her early days in the halls of Helios to her banishment and encounters with Odysseus. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like Miller further refines her approach of blending ancient myth with modern commentary as she weaves the conversations of the #MeToo movement into a story of a Greek goddess trying to make her way through a world set up to favor both immortal and mortal men.

There There by Tommy Orange

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.52 PM.pngThe debut book by Tommy Orange, There There is a series of interconnected vignettes spanning multiple generations of urban Native Americans from Oakland, California. Much like Pulp Fiction or early Guy Richie movies, the seemingly separate stories begin to barrel towards a single time and place, in this book a major pow-wow in Oakland. What excites me most about this book beyond its intricate design and impressive characterization is that a major publisher has decided to support a Native American author not named Sherman Alexie. While I love much of Alexie’s work, Orange tells a very different story of the nearly 80% of Native Americans who don’t live on a reservation, and from everything I can tell, he tells it with a voice and skill that is likely to make him one of the most important novelists of this generation.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 3.31.36 PM.pngBarracoon is the new (!) book by Zora Neale Hurston. It is the previously unpublished account of a slave who was brought over on the last slave ship to the United States and then after emancipation helped found Africatown, a town that for the next 100 years would maintain a West African society in the forests outside of Mobile, Alabama. For those not familiar with Hurston’s other work–the lyrical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the folklore collection Of Mules and Men, and one of my favorite short stories of all time, “Sweat“–her works all read as love letters to language and humanity and tell African American stories not told anywhere else. While acclimatizing oneself to her use of the country vernacular (she wanted to show the beauty of simple country talk and thus doesn’t censor it for urban audiences) can be tricky, it is worth persevering, as she is one of the great wordsmiths, researchers, and storytellers in the American pantheon. From what I can glean from reviews, Barracoon looks like Hurston at her very best, and I can’t wait to read it!

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