Summer Reading: A Stack of Choices in Multiple Genres

As a high school English teacher, summer means one thing to me: reading for pleasure. Each May, I get giddy with the thought of the stack of books I plan to delve into during my two months off. Inevitably, I almost never reach my goal of getting through the whole stack. Sometimes it’s because my eyes are bigger than my timetable, sometimes it’s because I stumble upon different books throughout the summer I want to read more, and sometimes it’s because a book that seemed so promising turned out to be a slog that I can’t bear during summer days (War and Peace, I’m looking at you!). No matter the end result, at the beginning of every summer I try to build a stack that’s a mix of professional and pleasure reads that will inspire me for the coming school year, ones that span several categories aimed at broadening my horizons and challenging me as a reader and educator. Here are the categories and selections I’ve chosen for summer 2019.

As a high school English teacher, summer means one thing to me: reading for pleasure.

A classic: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been my favorite novel for 20 years, and I had never gotten the chance to read his other masterpiece, though I had seen and loved film versions. Unfortunately, this one just didn’t resonate with me. I tried and tried while sitting on the beaches of Long Island this summer, but I found myself more and more bored with the endless rotation of names and salon chatter and gave up a quarter of the way through. Life (and summer) is too short to read things we don’t love.

Historical nonfiction: Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. This finalist for the Pulitzer Prize chronicles the rise and fall of the Comanches in Texas and follows the fascinating story of a nine-year-old, blue-eyed Texan girl abducted by the Comanches in the mid-19th century. I have learned more about native history and westward expansion in this book than during my entire year of U.S. History in high school.

A local writer: Lot by Bryan Washington. Washington is a young, up-and-coming Houstonian writer and this book came across my radar from a review in the New York Times. It’s a collection of short stories about the many faces and ethnicities of Houston and, as the Times says, it “throbs with lived experience.” I’m looking forward to seeing if I can use some of these stories in my creative writing class this fall to get my students thinking more about our local culture.

An education book: Dive into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie. I have read a lot of education books and don’t always find them particularly well written or helpful. This one is both. It is short and to-the-point on the topic of how to use stages of inquiry to encourage students to do more independent, deep learning; he covers areas like how to get students to write their own great essential questions and draft “free inquiry proposals” that aim to show evidence of their learning on the subject. This author is a proponent of personalized learning and ways to encourage curiosity and research. I’ll be coming back to his book for inspiration for our tenth-grade research unit/paper this spring.

A celebrated new work of fiction: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This one has so far been the surprise hit of the summer for me. I didn’t have any particular expectations for this popular novel, but I found the deft plot, which subtly picks at the scab of the American Dream, a beautifully written page turner. It’s been my favorite read so far. I’d love to teach this book in an American Literature class someday.

A memoir: From Scratch by Tembi Locke. I just stumbled onto this culinary memoir by another Houstonite and am eager to read about her experience moving to Italy, marrying a local, and falling in love with Italian food and culture. I, too, moved to southern Europe as a young woman, married a local, and fell in love with the culture, so I’m eager to read this one and am hoping it might have some good excerpts to offer as readings in a course on Food Writing I hope to teach in the future.

Something that challenges my ideas and makes me a little uncomfortable: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This book was a slightly more academic read than the rest; I bought it out of an interest in equity and inclusion work after I attended the Exeter Diversity Institute three years ago. This slim read left me with some good insights and at times discomfort and more questions, which was exactly what I was looking for. I highly recommend it for white educators.

One of the best ways to get ideas for great summer reads is to connect with your local, independent booksellers. I am lucky to have Brazos Bookstore here in Houston; in addition to author readings and literary events, they regularly publish summer reading recommendations for both adults and young readers, which is a great way to gather ideas as both a reader and a teacher. Contact your local bookstore to see what resources they may have put together this summer for you or your students to get you inspired.

OK, now back to my reading, as summer break is (sadly) coming to a close.

Alexis Wiggins has worked as a teacher, instructional coach, and consultant. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. Alexis is currently the English Department Chair at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX. You can contact her at

Works Cited:

DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Reprint ed., Beacon Press, 2018.

Gwynne, S.C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Scribner, 2010.

Locke, Tembi. From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. Simon and Schuster, 2019.

MacKenzie, Trevor. Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice. EdTechTeam Press, 2016.

Ng, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere. Reprint ed., Penguin, 2019.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Vintage, 2008.

Urrea, Luis Alberto. “In Bryan Washington’s ‘Lot,’ Stories Reveal Houston’s Hidden Borders.” The New York Times, 14 May 2019. The New York Times, Accessed 30 July 2019.

Washington, Bryan. Lot: Stories. Riverhead Books, 2019.

Summer Reading: Learning About Race

We have all heard that collaborating is an opportunity to stretch our thinking by hearing what others have to say, or have read, or are reading on a topic that we are exploring.  That is what is occurring as I co-write a book with Ivannia Soto; I am learning about resources from my writing partner, in addition to reading what she has to say, and the combination makes collaborating a powerful experience.  One book Ivannia recommended is Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.  A self-proclaimed “internet yeller,” Oluo brings a fresh, current, and serious look at racism in ways that are on the one hand personal and on the other generalizable.  She helps us to see, in today’s climate, how it comes in many subtle, but no less-damaging forms than overt racism.  

            As I read the book, I applied the ideas in my work with a school district that is determined to support its culturally and linguistically diverse students to feel safe and welcome  and to have a sense of belonging to the community as valued and competent members.  This district is wholly committed to hiring the best candidate of color they can find to support these goals: someone who they feel is sure to demonstrate them in their deeds and actions.

            I also applied Oluo’s ideas to a district who might not seem to understand the importance of this level of commitment.  The prevailing sentiment among the leadership in this district could be paraphrased thus:   “As long as a candidate is good at teaching and really committed to ‘our’ students, does it really make that much of a difference whether they are White or not?”  

Writer and outspoken social media presence, Oluo would respond with a resounding “Yes!” it does matter.  She helps to push this type of conversation further by sharing many thought-provoking examples from her life experiences. These help us to see, really see, what it is like to be a Black person on a daily basis.  Quoting Oluo, “My Blackness is woven into how I dress each morning, what bars I feel comfortable going to, what music I enjoy, what neighborhood I hang out in.”  Supporting schools to think about what it means to be a student of color is critical for all of us to consider as we work to validate, honor, and be fully committed to support each student and transform education to be culturally responsive to all of its students. It is what is guiding our writing together and my work with schools.  As personal as her book is- and it is filled with stories from her childhood and adulthood- what is emblematic of her writing is how important it is to bring racism in all of its forms into the light.  And, there is no better time to do this, no better time to read her book, no better time to take actions that help all of us to understand the importance of talking about race than right now.  

Work Cited: Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018.

Debbie Zacarian consults at the federal, state, and district level on education for diverse populations.  Her forthcoming book with Ivannia Soto, Responsive Schooling for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students will be published by W. W. Norton in 2020.

Summer Reading: The Freedom to Choose

The last pieces of writing I see from students each year are reflective in nature. Some celebrate areas of literacy growth and proudly exclaim, “I am a writer!” Others share classroom routines, like creative writing and poetry, that have stuck with them throughout the year. There are a few students who are gracious enough to thank me for enlivening a love for reading and writing that they had lost over the years. These reflections would brighten any teacher’s soul.

On occasion, however, I receive student reflections that are concerning. In the honest space of reflective writing a few students say they missed having writing prompts, or writing templates, or a clearly defined rubric they could have used as a writing checklist for their assignments. Though the number of these types of reflections are small in number (5-6 students out of 95), these are the ones that give me pause and guide my summer reading.

As a teacher of 12th grade students I have learned to appreciate honest feedback from those who matter most – my students. It is their experiences in the classroom that direct my learning.

This summer my reading is trending toward helping students move their literacy lives a little closer to home: rural America. To jumpstart my learning I leaned on Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing which is a collection of essays edited by Robert E. Brooke.

Though his book is targeted to an audience of rural educators, Brooke suggests a pedagogy useful for any demographic. He offers three guiding principles regarding what he calls “place-conscious education” for the teaching of writing:

  • An Inquiry Stance – students who actively identify local issues they want to affect through meaningful projects, self-reflection, and evaluation.
  • Prioritizing Local Interests – first building a deep local understanding that spirals to more distant knowledge and issues.
  • Locally Active and Intradependent – learning about, for, and with local communities in rich and authentic ways (13).

In other words, evocative and engaging writing comes from a place of deep personal interest to a writer. Some students’ reflections reflect the unease they feel with this deeper engagement in writing, especially within a school context. The freedom to choose can be daunting!

Realizing this truth shaped my summer reading. My focus is to incorporate authentic ways that will honor student voice, offer writing choices, and connect them to both the community they are leaving as well as the world they are entering. Next year my students will again be encouraged to propose individual writing projects in genres and modes that awaken their writing identities. Inviting an inquiry stance, encouraging personal interests, and celebrating in authentic ways will shift student perspectives about what it means to write and be a writer.

The summer months bring with it the freedom to choose new avenues of reading and writing that spark personal curiosity. Although I imagine some students will express concern again next year about the approach, it is the freedom to read, write, risk, and share that most students will embrace as they come to identify as writers.

Andy Schoenborn is a high school English teacher in Michigan at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools.  He focuses his work on progressive literacy methods including student-centered critical thinking, digital collaboration, and professional development. He is a co-facilitator of the monthly #TeachWrite Twitter chat, past-president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, and teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project. His first book, co-authored with Dr. Troy Hicks, Creating Confident Writers will be published next Spring. Follow him on Twitter @aschoenborn.

Work Cited: Brooke, Robert, editor. Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. Teachers College Press, 2003.

Summer Reading: On Gender and Identity

My summer reading has begun with This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel. I chose this book for two reasons; I am a parent trying to raise gender-aware and sensitive kids and also an academic, a sociologist who studies gender. These are two roles that often overlap but at times can be difficult to negotiate. I want my children to express gender in whatever ways they see fit and yet I am aware of the constraints of social structures on gendered bodies.  This novel is a wonderful depiction of how and in what ways a family deals with gender. Frankel tells the story of a family, made up of two-heterosexual, cis-gender parents that have four kids, all boys. However, the last child, Claude, struggles with his gender (boy) and sex (male) identity. The story follows how and in what ways the family influences, reacts to, and shapes the transition of the young child.

In both these roles, I feel that reading about this topic is important: as a parent, because we shape and influence the ways our kid’s express gender. From the names we select, to the clothes we buy and language we use to describe our kids; it is all gendered. As a sociologist, I’m keenly aware that gender is a social category as well as a social institution that embodies practices, characteristics, rules, and social norms.  Reading about how this plays out in family life helps me comprehend on a more fundamental level the significant and pervasive role gender has in our lives.

For most of us, that identity is cis-gender (the gender assigned to us at birth), and we live life with gender privilege, not having to think about how others perceive our gender presentation.  But for those that are non-binary and/or trans, gender can be treacherous.  Those that use a non-binary indicator tend to find the gender binary or dichotomy limiting and restrictive. Those that identify as trans have moved across the gender binary to a gender that matches how one sees and thinks about oneself.  A book that does a great job demonstrating the gender transition is titled She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Here, Boylan a parent and educator (English) shares how the transition of man to woman impacted her family life.  Like Frankel’s novel, it is both illuminating and engaging, and provides a window into a different experience of gender identity.

In my second role, as an educator, I feel that the more we are equipped with gender knowledge and literacy – meaning we understand that gender is a fluid category and can change – the better we can support our students’ experience of gender. For my teacher friends looking for  great reads this summer on gender, both books – the fictional narrative by Frankel and the memoir by Boylan – provide absorbing examples for the ways that gender matters and shapes our lived experiences. It is very important that we, as educators, stay on top of all the ways diversity can happen in our schools and classrooms, and create inclusive communities where students feel a sense of belonging regardless of gender, sexuality, race or class. Teachers are on the front lines of student engagement and our ability to adjust, acknowledge, and affirm our students’ identities will help with classroom goals, student outcomes, and a love for learning.

Marni A. Brown is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia Gwinnett College. Her areas of research are gender, sexuality and intersectionality.

Summer Reading: Exploring Student Choices

When I was a kid, I always kept a novel on my lap during class, hidden (I thought then) from teachers’ eyes. Between math problems and history lessons, I’d sneak-read a few paragraphs. Summer was, for me, a chance to binge on books without interruption or subterfuge. It still is.

As a teacher I’ve purposely overlooked the lap-reading of my book-obsessed students,  though I do insist that they keep up with the actual classwork, as I did when I was on the other side of the desk. Indulging them isn’t an exercise in nostalgia but rather a chance to learn about the genres and authors they treasure, which I then explore during the gloriously free hours of summer vacation. Some works have become part of my teaching strategy; many have given me a connection to students I couldn’t reach in other ways.

Indulging them isn’t an exercise in nostalgia but rather a chance to learn about the genres and authors they treasure, which I then explore during the gloriously free hours of summer vacation.

Alexandra, for example, always seemed aloof and sometimes downright hostile. (I’ve changed student names to protect their privacy.) Her lap-reading was Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Vampires? Not for me, I thought. Lacking anything else to talk about with Alexandra, I read the first book. I never did grasp the appeal of Bella and Edward’s romance, but discussing Twilight with Alexandra allowed me to pierce the facade and get to know a very interesting young woman. Plus, I discovered that I actually enjoy a touch of the supernatural. I began that summer with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, which took me into the time travel of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Soon I was laughing my way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Sci-fi and fantasy works earned a spot on my personal reading list and in my classroom library. 

Dan was more open about his extracurricular reading. He showed up at my office one day in April with the sports page of a newspaper. “We made it through another off season,” he declared in delight, “first pitch in half an hour.” Dan knew I loved baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. What he didn’t know was that I also loved sports writing. I lent him Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Park and The Red Smith Reader. Dan’s reaction encouraged me to devote July and August to sportswriting of earlier eras and to create a curriculum unit around these authors.

Amalia was polite but firm when I asked her about the book tucked inside the assigned text. “I did read what you told me to, but I like this one better,” she explained. Her preferred book was Nella Larsen’s Passing, a major work of the Harlem Renaissance. In her AP American History class Amalia had learned about the historical significance of the era; now she wanted literature. That summer I read Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There Is Confusion and Jean Toomer’s Cane; the poetry of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson; and many other novels, stories, and plays. Amalia and I continued our literary exploration during the following academic year. After she graduated, I offered a multidisciplinary elective in the Harlem Renaissance.

This July and August, not a student but a writing project inspires me. I spent the winter reading or rereading works from every genre and time period, selecting great sentences for a book on writing style that W. W. Norton will publish next year. Now I want to delve into other works by some of the writers I encountered. They may make it into my teaching, but even if they don’t, I’ll have had a book on my lap all day, with summerful time to read.

Geraldine Woods has taught every level of English from grade 5 through AP for many decades, most recently at the Horace Mann School in New York City. She’s the author of many nonfiction works, including several textbooks. Her first Norton book, 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way, will be published next summer.