For many years I swam and surfed the Pacific Ocean on a near daily basis. One of the things I loved about its waters was that they were predictably unpredictable. Each night the combination of the current, tides, swells, and wind reshaped its bottom, creating a topography of the sand and movement of the sea that was unique to that specific moment in time, and each morning I would swim or paddle out to feel how that day’s motion differed from the day before and the day before that.
Last week, even as I was landlocked in the Midwest, I spent my hours doing something similar, as I took time to actively feel for the new contours, pushes, and pulls as one unprecedented year ended and another, hopefully at least somewhat more precedented, period began.
My Six Books That I’m Reading This Summer (which is in its fourth installment, more on why I choose six here) were chosen largely as a response to the questions and feelings that arose last week as I bobbed between the school year that just passed by like a towering and roiling wave and the next one that for now is just a slight swell on the horizon. Like the lulls between waves that I knew during my hopelessly novice surfing days, my goal for these books is equal parts recuperation from the year that just was and preparation for what I think I am reading from the horizon. I hope you enjoy.
Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers by Tom Newkirk
In those first uncertain months of the pandemic, I gave my students the opportunity to finish the year by designing their own writing project. I left the genre, style, and concept entirely up to them, and to my surprise the most popular genre was fiction. At first I assumed the appeal of fiction was largely an interest in escapism during a crisis, but as the pieces progressed, again and again students expressed to me in our conferences how excited they were to write fiction after years of nothing but analytical writing peppered with the with the occasional personal narrative or poem.
Among the many lessons of the spring of 2020, the idea that fiction writing might deserve a more prominent role in my classes stuck with me, but with so much during the 2020-2021 school year, I didn’t get to explore this thought as much as I’d like. Enter Newkirk’s book Writing Unbound. Newkirk is already a member of my pantheon of essential education authors, so no matter what he wrote, I was very likely going to read it, but it just so happens that he wrote the exact book I need to figure out how to bring more fiction writing into my upper-level literature and composition classes. If it is half as good as I think it will be, I am sure that this won’t be the last time you will hear me talk about this book on the blog.
Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kaela Duncan, and Trevor Aleo
A suggestion that has existed for decades in writing instruction circles is that writing teachers need to try to find ways to incorporate more real-world writing. While I agree with this sentiment, I have often struggled with this suggestion because it normally ends there, with little concerning what makes writing “real-world” or how we can move in that direction. The most common suggestions I’ve seen for making writing more real-world tend to involve forms of publishing: Creating classroom blogs, sending letters to real recipients, making literary magazines, etc. These are all great suggestions, but I’m not sure they are the complete answer for how to make writing more real for our students.
In recent years, I’ve started to wonder if what makes something real is less a matter of audience or platform and more a matter of value for the writer. Plenty of private journals and diaries are quite real for those who write them, letters and emails out in the world often only have one recipient, and when my students design and pour themselves into essays on personal topics, I am convinced that the experiences are quite real and meaningful, even if the audience is just me or their classmates.
This is a part of why I’m so interested in transfer. I have a suspicion that the ability for students to transfer the lessons from class to topics and writing that means something to them is the real key to real writing, and I’m hoping Learning That Transfers, written by a really dynamic team of practicing educators, will help me to do a better job of that in 2021-2022, a year where having more real-world writing will likely be more important than ever.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green
One of the topics I have discussed the most on this blog is how I would love to reframe what the word essay means to my students. Ask most students about writing essays and they will likely groan, and ask them what an essay is, and, despite having written essays for years, a great many students will struggle to define them.
These two issues are interrelated. If students don’t know what an essay is, let alone the possibilities within essay writing, it will be very unlikely that they will enjoy essay writing or build particularly strong skills.
To help with this, I have done an essay of the week (in the vein of an article of the week) in recent years, and unpacking these regular mentor texts has helped students to both build knowledge and better understand what an essay is. The only trouble is that finding good essays to share with the students has been devilishly hard at times. That struggle to find essays is why I’m so excited for The Anthropocene Reviewed. From what I can tell, this series of essays from John Green, which he adapted from his various vlog and podcast pieces, hits upon a wide range of topics while centering on a couple timely themes like the pandemic and struggling with mental health. Further, it is written by John Green, who has an ability to connect with young adults in a way that is nearly unmatched. My hope is that this will be both a wonderful summer read for me and a rare source of beautiful essays for my classes to unpack next year!
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
I first encounter Clint Smith nearly a decade ago when I saw his TED Talk “The Dangers of Silence” and shortly after found his National Poetry Slam poem “My Father Is an Oyster.” Both knocked me off my feet, and his work, including his first volume of poetry Counting Descent and columns for The Atlantic, has since become a regular fixture in my classes.
So when I heard that his new book How the Word is Passed would be a blend of all of his work to date–his journalism, social critique, and roles as a poet and historian–as it examined the history of slavery in America by going to the places where it is memorialized in various ways, I knew I had a must-read, both for me personally and likely for my classes.
Writing Rhetorically by Jennifer Fletcher
For those who haven’t read Jennifer Fletcher’s other books Teaching Arguments and Teaching Literature Rhetorically, what makes her books stand out from similar books is that they are deeply, deeply researched (seriously, I am not sure there is another language arts education author who has read and researched more than her) while containing an impressive amount of specific, practical materials that teachers can bring into their classes. After taking on literature and argumentation, she has now turned her full attention to writing instruction in Writing Rhetorically, and I couldn’t be more excited! A few months ago I got to read the first few chapters, and I have a feeling based on what I saw that this book will soon be one of those rare and essential resources that I find myself referring to again and again over the years.
Book 6 and Beyond: ???
I normally have more fiction on my six books list, but after a year of mostly trying to make it through each day, I find myself excited to dive back into the professional books that I missed this year. Additionally, I have to admit to struggling for some reason to find fiction books that have captured my attention this summer. This is where I love being a blogger because whenever I put out a question, you all invariably answer with remarkable brilliance. With that in mind, if you all have a recent (or even not so recent) fiction book that you love and that I should definitely read, let me know and I will share it on the blog next week!
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