The Six Books I’m Reading Before School Starts

Blogger George Evans recently wrote a blog post called “In Defense of Slow” where he states that “many things in education are simply too fast…in this rush to cover content, to get through standards…we lose the heart and soul of what we should be there for.”

I connected with this instantly, as I’ve written about how cramming too much feedback into a single paper or cramming too much content into a single lesson or unit paradoxically often leads to less learning. Sure, the amount covered by the teacher is more, but the amount ultimately retained by the students tends to be far less.

It is worth remembering though that the same is true in our own education as well. For most summers of my teaching life, I tried to blast through twenty, thirty, or forty books in a vain effort to chop my always massive to-read list down to a more manageable size, but at the end of each summer this left me feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.

So last summer I decided to focus on reading six books and read them well and deep. The result was a far more enjoyable and fulfilling experience, so I am going to do the same thing again this summer. People seemed to really enjoy the list last year (I mean who doesn’t love book lists? They are among my favorite things in this world), so I wanted to share my summer 2019 list. Here it goes:

We Got This. by Cornelius Minor

I saw Cornelius Minor speak at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference last year, and to say I was blown away is a major understatement. His affable, easy smile, charismatic anecdotes, and rhetorical flourishes entranced the crowd, but Minor is more than the flash on the surface. In We Got This. he does a deep-dive into the importance of true listening and what it looks like in practice in the classroom. Similar to Tom Newkirk’s Embarrassment (which regular readers know that I love), Minor has given an essential, yet far too rarely talked about topic the attention it deserves, and I for one cannot wait to read it!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life remains one of the most unique and mind-bendingly imaginative collections of stories I’ve ever seen. For example, there is one story that examines in careful detail the idea that if speaking in different languages can change how we think (a true and well-documented phenomenon), how would speaking an alien language change our actions and perceptions. Exhalation’s reviews point to more stories that pick up where Stories of Your Life left off. There seems to be plenty of time traveling, a story of artificial intelligence going through adolescence, and an investigation of how relationships with others and ourselves would change if we could digitally revisit any moment from our past via a sort of Google Glass 2.0. I’m really looking forward to this as a lovely escapist read in the evenings!

Fewer Things, Better by Angela Watson

For those who haven’t heard of her, Angela Watson is a teacher who realized that many of the teachers around her (and herself as well) were burning the midnight oil and also burning out because they were trying to do too much. This led her on a journey in search of both efficiencies and answers concerning what we should and shouldn’t be investing our time in. The culmination of this journey was Watson’s wildly successful 40 Hour Workweek Club–a web-delivered series of activities designed to refocus us on what matters. I’ve been curious about it for quite a while now, but somewhat ironically I’ve never had the bandwidth to jump into a whole online course, which is why I’m really excited that she now has a book with the same ideas called Fewer Things, Better. As someone who is always in the pursuit of focusing my energy on what truly matters, I am really curious about what she has to say.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Rilke

I don’t often focus my reading energies on 19th century German poets, but in the case of Rainer Rilke, I’ve made an exception. Until this year I’d never heard of Rilke or his wonderful work, but this spring I stumbled across a Medium article discussing this slim volume where Rilke responds to letters from young poets. After reading the article, I read the first letter in the volume and I was instantly somewhat obsessed. Rilke said so many things that I’d felt and thought but never been able to articulate about writing, creating, and being. Better yet, he also said it in a way that speaks to young people, which became readily clear when I lent my recently purchased copy to a student, who gave it to another student, who then gave it to another student, and so on. I finally have it back, and judging by my students’ reactions, I think reading it is going to be a delight.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

While it came out in 2012, this book appeared quietly in my classroom library this year, and since that point it has become a not-so-quiet favorite of my students. Written by poet and author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, it is a lyrical journey through childhoods that like far too many childhoods, contain far too many adult questions and themes. Like The Alchemist or The Secret Life of Bees, what draws me to this is that my students have reported that while it hits upon heavy themes, it balances them with the wonder, joy, and anticipation that is also present at times in even tough childhoods, making it a good and engrossing read for the classroom or the beach.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

The last of my six books is likely the most important book I will read this summer. Emdin is a professor at the Teacher’s College at Columbia, and I’ve heard from a number of sources that this book is indeed essential for everyone, whether or not they teach in an urban school. What makes this book so important is that it is a case study exploring how idealistic, thoughtful, caring people can go into schools and by lunch time on the first day they have stopped being change agents and instead become active agents in perpetuating many of the systems they’d previously committed to fixing. I heard Emdin speak once, and that experience has me really excited to see what I can learn from him about the realities of education, both urban and otherwise.

Well that’s my list. I’ll be back with a new post next week, and until then, happy reading!

Yours in teaching,


Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

One response to “The Six Books I’m Reading Before School Starts”

  1. […] What struck me about this line (beyond its sad truth) was that it read like it could have come out of Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, which was one of my books I read for the summer. […]


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