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 www.ceelcenter.org.
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, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/books/review/lot-bryan-washington.html. Accessed 30 July 2019.
Washington, Bryan. Lot: Stories. Riverhead Books, 2019.