A few weeks ago one of my co-author’s of the new book Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, Dave Stuart Jr., offered a challenge on his blog: What if we approached resting this summer with a purposefulness and intensity normally reserved for home improvement projects or planning an epic vacation?
His call hit a chord with me because I have a long history of struggling to relax when it comes to summers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t want to relax or understand the value of downtime; it’s just that one of the ways that I get through the scramble of the school year is to toss things I don’t have time for into what I call the summer bucket. The paint peeling in my bathroom? That can wait till the summer. The absolute mess of the basement? Toss it into the summer bucket. Finishing my son’s baby book. I’ll have time in the summer. And that new patio I want to build? Let’s do it this summer! You get the idea.
My struggles with putting an impossibly large number of things into my summer bucket is also the reason why I offer only six book suggestions for summer reading. As a young teacher, I used to fill my summer bucket with everything that I didn’t have time to read during the year. And while I read a lot in those summers, I never read everything I wanted to, meaning that I always ended the summer disappointed that I only read a third of the books on my list instead of thrilled that I read twelve books.
As I approach the two-and-a-quarter-year mark of pandemic parenting/teaching, I have found in recent months that my urge to toss both books and to-do items into the summer bucket to be worse than ever. There is just so much that I want to upgrade in my house, my life, my teaching, my garden, and my reading and writing life–all of which show noticeable signs of pandemic wear and tear. At the same time, I am more tired than I’ve ever been at the end of a year. Whereas my general inclination upon finding a bit of time in an afternoon is to write or run or build something, these days I am much more likely to curl up for a short nap or scroll vacantly through my phone.
So this summer, I plan to take Stuart’s challenge to heart by granting rest and leisure the seriousness with which they and I deserve. This can be seen in my suggestions, which are slightly less academic than what I normally recommend. Even still, I am so excited about my six books of the summer, as I think that they, along with that serious rest, are just what I need to recover and replenish so that I can be the best father and teacher possible when the fall comes around.
So without further preamble, here is my 5th annual list of the six books I’m reading this summer.
The Confidence to Write: A Guide for Overcoming Fear and Developing Identity as a Writer by Liz Prather
I have heard wonderful things about Liz Prather’s work for several years now, but I haven’t found the opportunity amongst everything to dig into it. This summer feels like the perfect opportunity to change that since her new book The Confidence to Write is a meditation on a subject that is close to my heart: How do we get students to start viewing themselves as writers? I’ve written many times before about how one of the main challenges of being a writing teacher is that far, far too many students come into my classes each year already aligned against writing. On the very first day they will enter my classroom saying “I’m not a writer” or “Will we have to write in here?” and until that negative narrative around writing is dislodged and replaced with something more positive, I know that it will be a struggle to get them to grow as much as I want and they need. I have my own ways for handling these situations (see here and here for some old posts on the subject), but I’m always looking to expand and can’t wait to see what Prather has to say about the subject.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s saga about a post-pandemic world, was ironically one of the last pre-Covid books I read. It also is the only book I have read cover-to-cover in one day in many years–a rare and true badge of honor when one has two small children. What struck me about Station Eleven was the intersection of Mandel’s lyrical and effortless writing and her realistic and deep world building. From the reviews I’ve read, Sea of Tranquility offers even more of the same while also digging deeper into questions that Mandel was grappling with as she wrote it during the early days of Covid–questions of fear, loss, a world gone mad, and even the specific impacts of pandemics themselves. It also plays with time, which is a topic I’ve been drawn to since I was a little kid, and has an interesting structure reminiscent of Cloud Atlas. Add all of this together, and Sea of Tranquility seems like the perfect summer read for me: at once deep in its content and themes and deeply readable, with interesting new characters and worlds to explore.
Open Windows, Open Minds by Afrika Afeni Mills
I got to see a couple early chapters of Open Windows, Open Minds by Afrika Afeni Mills about a year ago, and I have been excitedly awaiting it ever since. What struck me about Mills’ work were a few things: First, she is one of the warmest, most generous, and genuine voices I’ve read in some time. I would say that it is nearly impossible to read her work and to not want to meet and talk and laugh and cry with her. Second is that while her book has plenty of research and discussion of theory, it is also a deeply practical book filled with tools from and for actual practicing teachers. Lastly, like my perennial favorite Not Light, But Fire, Mills’ Open Windows, Open Minds is about exactly what its title says it is: Openness. Her goal isn’t to get her students thinking or talking in any one particular way; it is simply to get students thinking and talking in an open dialogue about topics that matter both in the ELA classroom and life.
Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro
Everything about Ordinary Monsters is dark and mysterious–from the location (the midnight streets of Dickensian England) to the shadow pursuing its heroes (it is a literal dark cloud in the beginning) to the author itself, who writes under a pen name and about whom little is known. I will admit that such dark fare feels like an odd summer read, but right now there is something appealing about the idea of a hero going through dark times and ultimately emerging victorious. Of the reviews I could find, a number of them compared it to a blend of Penny Dreadful and Umbrella Academy, a combination that feels like just the right blend of dark and ultimate light for me to spend some time with it this summer.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain has been at the top of my hopeful summer reads ever since I encountered the first chapter of it in some professional development last fall. That changed in February when Russia invaded Ukraine because while Tolstoy and Turgenev have nothing to do with the war, I still couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t want to dig into the work of the great Russian authors right now. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who is a scholar of Russian works, and he instantly shifted my interest back again by informing me that of the four authors covered, two (Nikolay Gogol and Anton Chekhov), were of full or partial Ukrainian descent. Gogol in particular is only considered a Russian author because Ukraine was ruled by the Russian Empire during his life and Chekhov grew up only miles from Mariupol and spent many boyhood summers in Ukraine with his Ukrainian family. This information vaulted this book to the top of my list, as to read and admire Ukrainian stories feels exactly like something I’d love to do this summer (and if there are other Ukrainian authors one would suggest, please let me know). Further, while I haven’t always been a huge fan of Saunders’ fiction, I am a massive fan of his literary analysis. Finding good examples of literary criticism is hard, and Saunders’ breakdown of the first story, “In the Cart,” is some of the sharpest and most interesting and invigorating criticism I’ve ever encountered. He gave me a whole new perspective on an old story, and I’m really excited for more.
Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA by Matthew Kay, Dave Stuart Jr., and me
Ok, I recognize that putting my own book on this list is corny, but I am also that excited about Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA! I’ll be talking more in-depth about it soon, but regular readers will know how much I admire the work of Matthew Kay and Dave Stuart Jr. My copies of Not Light, But Fire and These Six Things are more crumpled sticky-notes and notes scrawled in the margins than book at this point. So when Corwin approached me with an idea to do a book where three mid-career teachers who teach in different locations (one rural, one urban, and one suburban) discuss what works in all three of their classrooms, I jumped at it, and the result is even better than I anticipated. Plus the chapters are short, practical, and hopefully thought-provoking–perfect summertime professional development!
Those are my books for summer and this is my last post while I wrap up the school year. I’m so excited about the things coming this summer though: A new book, a host of new posts, and a new online course on feedback/assessment 2.0 are all on their way, so stay tuned! Also, to those finishing up the year, I hope it goes well and quickly, so you can get off to that necessary work of taking some time for yourself.
Yours in teaching,
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