There is no silence quite like the one that fills an empty classroom on the last day of school, when all the children have gone. The stillness settles over the stacked books and rows of desks and echoes down the lifeless halls. For many teachers, that silence holds a golden promise of long, sleepy summer weeks ahead. Of time to reflect, to relax, and to catch up on things. Of whole hours, even days, without interruptions, when there's plenty of time for diving into a good book.
Powerful is the urge, certainly, to spend some of that valuable reading time traveling far, far away from the world of education. For that journey, we happily refer you to the works of John Grisham, Sue Grafton, Stephen King, and others. But for many teachers, the break also provides a chance to explore authors and ideas that will help them think about what they teach and how they teach it, so they can return to their subjects, and their students, with fresh enthusiasm and energy in the fall.
With that in mind, we've gathered from 15 teachers around the country a list of books they found thoughtful, challenging, and entertaining. Books that offered a new way of looking at science or math, English or art. We asked them to recommend books in their subject fields, but not scholarly works or academic tomes. Books so good that teachers from other disciplines would enjoy reading them, as well.
The list is impressive: a volume of parables about the law from a University of Chicago professor, a science fiction novel that explores how children learn, a story that looks at environmental devastation through the eyes of a gorilla, and a memoir on writing and wrestling by John Irving.
So turn on the answering machine, pour a tall glass of something cool to drink, find a comfortable spot in the shade, kick back, and read.
Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life
By Anne Lamott
No matter what you teach, give yourself a gift and pick up Bird by Bird. Written for teachers of writing, it speaks to all teachers, for Anne Lamott believes that teaching and good writing are about telling the truth.
This book covers the writing process from raw beginnings to publishable pieces. Lamott believes we all can write and that to do so we need first put aside the struggle for perfection. Perfectionism, she contends, is the main obstacle that stands between us and a "shitty first draft." It can ruin us and our writing because it causes us to clean up our clutter and mess, the very things that show we are living our lives--or teaching our classes.
This is not a "women's book," even though my female friends loved it. I gave it to two senior boys, and they found it funny, honest, and full of pep.
A perfect match for a summer respite, Bird by Bird offers this sound writing wisdom: "Write toward vulnerability. Tell the truth as you understand it." If you're a teacher, you're on a perpetual quest for truth. And Anne Lamott gives it to you in Bird by Bird.
Bonnie Davis teaches English at Clayton (Mo.) High School.
The Brothel Boy And Other Parables Of The Law
By Norval Morris
Brothers kill their parents and then claim they acted in self-defense after years of abuse. A Christian Scientist couple is prosecuted for denying medical care to their child. A radical group declares that the murder of a doctor who performs abortions is justifiable as a means to protect the lives of unborn fetuses.
None of these recent headlines can be found in this book, and yet the best way to reflect on these events--indeed to approach many of today's most contentious social issues--may just be to delve into the fiction of Norval Morris.
The backdrop for Morris' parables is Burma in the 1920s, which may seem far removed from our own lives. But that's the point. Morris, professor emeritus of law and criminology at the University of Chicago, has situated his stories in a remote place and time to remove our political and social prejudices--the "cultural blinders" that he says cause us to offer knee-jerk, simplistic responses to complex ethical and legal quandaries.
In one story, "The Best Interests of the Child," Morris has devised a child-custody case that pits a boy's Burmese birth mother against a wealthy British couple who has adopted him. The choice is not just between parents but between different cultures and a very different future for the boy under each scenario: university-educated professional vs. fisherman in a Burmese village. Like the other parables, "Best Interests" offers no easy solution--just a deep appreciation of the complexity of human problems.
Charlie Gofen teaches "Issues and Ideas" in the High Jump program at the Latin School of Chicago.
Travels With Lizbeth: Three Years On The Road And On The
By Lars Eighner
When I picked up Travels With Lizbeth, I hardly expected the author to find a way to draw a comparison between his trusted companion, a dog, and the portrait of a beautiful woman described in Robert Browning's celebrated poem "My Last Duchess." Not only does he deftly accomplish this unconventional allusion, but, more important, he also forces the reader to view the homeless as individual human beings. Furthermore, he encourages us to be more circumspect about ourselves and, indirectly, the students with whom we come into contact.
I don't often encounter disenfranchised individuals as I make the short drive to my rural central Wisconsin high school. But when I take the four-hour trip to Chicago for holiday breaks, the cardboard signs held by broken people in tattered clothing are images that both haunt and inspire me. These disconnected ones, with both their spoken and unspoken pleas, remind me that it is easy for students and the adults who teach them to make a difference.
Lars Eighner has provided an excellent source for viewing the difficulties of the homeless in a new way. In his most compelling chapter, "On Dumpster Diving," Eighner vividly describes the wealth of items he has scrounged from garbage bins--items he could wear, sell, and, yes, eat.
This enlightening book reminded me of the importance of the stories behind the faces of the impoverished. Eighner awakens us to the disenfranchised in our midst and challenges us to take a harder look at ourselves.
Thomas Lisack teaches English at Stevens Point (Wis.) Area Senior High School.
A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper
By John Allen Paulos
To many people, especially students, mathematics is useful only to scientists and engineers, unconnected to the lives of "ordinary" people--a subject that revolves around complicated formulas void of any human component. Truth be told, mathematics is none of these. Mathematics is everywhere; its principles can be found in the most ordinary of human endeavors. All we have to do is notice them. John Allen Paulos has done just that in his most recent gem, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. Each essay takes for its title an actual newspaper headline, with subtitles pointing to mathematical tidbits that are revealed therein. Spiced with wit and quirk (and interesting digressions that manifest themselves as footnotes), this book is not just for the enjoyment of math folks alone.
Paulos has divided it into five sections--Politics, Economics, and the Nation; Local, Business, and Social Issues; Lifestyle, Spin, and Soft News; Science, Medicine, and Environment; and Food, Book Reviews, Sports, Obituaries--each with a dozen or so brief but stimulating essays. I enjoyed reading it just before retiring each night by randomly opening the book until I happened upon an essay I had not yet read. Of course, with each passing night, the number of openings increased.
Paulos has armed us math teachers with the ammunition we need to battle the widespread misperception that mathematics is an esoteric subject to be appreciated and understood by only a select few. In fact, though this work is an obvious resource for math teachers wishing to fortify their lessons, I recommend it for English and history teachers, particularly those whose perceptions of math resemble the ones I mention above.
Daniel Venables teaches mathematics and is chairman of the math department at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C.
Snow Falling On Cedars
By David Guterson
It has been said that writers, like musicians, must not teach, or they will lose the "clean ears" necessary to retain their gift. Those who can, write, the saying goes, those who can't, teach writing--or teach writing teachers. With this wonderful novel, David Guterson, an English teacher, reassured me that this line of thinking is far from the truth.
The book took me beyond my everyday life and into a 1954 murder trial held during a blizzard on fictitious San Piedro Island in Puget Sound. The story weaves its way back more than a decade, through the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the Allied invasion of Italy, a battle for an island in the Pacific, the anguished adolescence of two young people the age of my students, and the emotional shut down of parents and teachers my own age.
In the process, Guterson asks some important questions. Will the outcome of the trial be decided on its merits? Or will the defendant's Japanese heritage determine his fate? Are we capable of growing beyond the residue of adolescent sexuality, the evils of war, and the pressures of economic hardship? Can we see beyond hatred and act reasonably?
Nancy Traubitz is an English resource teacher at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md.
The Cold War: A History
By Martin Walker
Have you found it hard to get today's students interested in learning about the conflict that shaped so much of the contemporary world and our lives? This book should help.
In clear, often riveting prose, Martin Walker presents colorful insights into the personalities and motivations of the Cold War's major players. He skillfully unravels the complex security needs of the superpowers, showing how Washington's and Moscow's ignorance of the forces shaping the other prompted each to "defensive" actions to counter real or imagined "offensive" actions of its rival.
Walker contends that the emerging world of the 1990s was born out of the necessities of the Cold War and that the economic impact of it laid the framework for the global economy of today. "The objective may have been to contain the Soviet Union," he argues. "The achievement was to build the West, the global economy which was greater than the sum of its American, European, and Japanese parts and whose creative economic energies were the true victors of the Cold War."
The Cold War, Walker says, did provide an odd sort of stability, "a form of global insurance against catastrophe . . . which prevented local wars from getting out of hand." Now that the insurance has been canceled, long-festering ethnic and regional conflicts have bubbled to the surface, giving us a world less stable and more bewildering than before.
Walker asks a key question: Can the United States summon the national will to compete economically with the same determination it brought to the conflicts of the Cold War? On that, he notes, the jury is still out.
Karen Lessenberry teaches global issues at Birmingham Groves High School in Birmingham, Mich.
By Daniel Quinn
We science teachers live for those days when a kid's thoughts and expressed beliefs reflect a genuine interest in finding out why the world, and the things in it, are the way they are. But too often the reality of teaching is mired in administrative details, time constraints, supply limitations, and children who are so troubled they cannot or will not experience true wonder. Ishmael came as a lovely surprise. From both a scientific and humanistic point of view, the book makes a genuine attempt to make sense of the world by asking some of the largest questions that can be asked: How and why have we humans done so much damage to our planet? Are we inherently evil, or are we captive to what Daniel Quinn calls a "crisis of perception"?
The book revolves around a dialogue between a teacher and a student. Anyone reading the novel will identify quickly with the student, who, like so many of us, is both distressed by how humans treat the planet and frustrated with attempts to make sense of it or do something about it. What allows the teacher to impart real wisdom in this book is his ability to view human behavior from a vantage point outside the human condition. Ishmael, the teacher, is a gorilla.
Ishmael is a serious sort--sincere, likeable, and intellectually compelling. He and his student look back through human history and focus on the time when humans made a departure from hunting and gathering--a "Leaver" culture--and moved toward becoming a "Taker" culture. As Takers, humans began removing themselves from the circle of wildness, the great web of life, and, by doing so, paid a terrible price. The reality of the Taker culture is that we are, as Quinn so aptly puts it, "enacting a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the world."
Quinn's message may be grim, but it is not without hope. On some intuitive level, the book makes sense of the Earth's present and past state of affairs, and there is some relief associated with that. Even if you never bring any of its ideas into the classroom, the pleasure of reading it will surely enrich your teaching.
Sharon Cooper teaches chemistry and environmental science at Centennial High School in Gresham, Ore.
Ways Of Seeing
By John Berger
In each of the past five years, I have taken time to reread John Berger's Ways of Seeing, a collection of seven essays in words and images based on a famous BBC television series.
Teachers of various disciplines will appreciate this classic as an energizing force that helps them reconsider the way they--and students of all ages--see. "Seeing comes before words," Berger writes. "The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." With these opening lines, Berger takes the reader on a journey through art history, from about 1600 all the way up to the strategies of contemporary advertising, demonstrating how cultural biases and acquired information have colored the way people respond to visual imagery.
He presents an entertaining and refreshing way to re-evaluate what we think we see. Berger makes us more conscious of who we are and what we stand for as an audience viewing art. In light of the growing diversity in our classrooms, a book that sensitizes us to societal, class, and gender biases that influence the way we see is a must for the clearer vision we need as open-minded teachers.
Susan Leshnoff teaches art at East Orange (N.J.) High School and is a member of the clinical adjunct faculty in the department of curriculum and teaching at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J.
Trying To Save Piggy Sneed
By John Irving
I'm glad John Irving hurt his shoulder during a wrestling match; otherwise he might never have pieced together Trying To Save Piggy Sneed, a collection of recent autobiographical essays, short stories written over the years, and various other commentaries--some previously published, some not. Unable to write a novel with "one arm and four hours a day of rehabilitation," he completed the bulk of the Piggy Sneed manuscript in the five months his shoulder was on the mend.
The book is essentially a conversation: about life, writing, and wrestling. We read about a dinner with the president, imaginary girlfriends, and an attempt to rescue a pig farmer named Piggy Sneed from a fire in his barn. With a conversational tone, Irving explains how difficult it is to write well--to do anything well, for that matter. Making a piece of writing sound spontaneous is hard work; "Half my life," he writes, "is an act of revision."
Irving's is an encouraging message: Even the best writers struggle with the basics of composition. But more important, he presents his own writing experience as an example of how students and teachers can overcome the self-doubt most feel when faced with a blank sheet of paper. In the end, the result of Irving's efforts is a book that will motivate teachers and students to strive for the same self-discipline he exudes, whether he's writing, wrestling, teaching, or trying to save Piggy Sneed.
J. Alan Bates teaches English, journalism, yearbook, and speech at Stahl Junior High School in Puyallup, Wash.
By Orson Scott Card
Summer is a time for teachers to relax and recharge, and a novel that allows us to escape into other worlds is greatly appreciated. Ender's Game has all the characteristics of great escape literature. Richly drawn characters and a fast-paced story line draw us into the world of central character Ender Wiggens. It's a world of the future, in which gifted children are used by the military to save Earth from the assault of aliens. Orson Scott Card's story is so engagingly readable that it left me begging for more. (Never fear, two sequels are available, and a third is planned.)
I must, however, add a warning: Teachers beware! While Ender's Game is a great escape, it is also a serious moral tale, and Card's perspectives challenge us to re-examine our basic assumptions about who and what children are.
The treatment Ender receives at a place called the "Battle School" is heavy-handed and cruel, but the teachers there easily justify their tactics; after all, the fate of humanity lies in the balance. If our own schools sometimes feel like a version of the Battle School, do our own justifications stand up to the test of moral rightness? Ender and his classmates eventually realize that their teachers are the "enemy." Is this the way our students come to see us?
We may choose to place ourselves inside Card's story as spectators. But it will be the rare teacher who comes away without thinking hard about what we do with our students and why.
Simon Hole teaches 4th grade at Narragansett (R.I.) Elementary School.
Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art
By Scott McCloud
Don't be misled by the title of Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. McCloud's stylish pictures-with-words approach also introduces sophisticated ideas about other forms of sequential art--language and film, for example--and discusses such techniques as the elements of composition and the use of time.
McCloud explores styles and the problems of editing and storytelling in a given medium in a unique, enthusiastic way that allows the reader to leap through history, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Magritte, from contemporary culture to Japanese cartoonists.
His chapter contrasting abstraction and realism in art made that difficult concept accessible to nearly all of my high school students, and I confess that several of McCloud's ideas have become lesson plans in my classes. This book integrates history, art, film, and the English language at an elemental, powerful level. But don't read it just for use at school. Read it because it will make you shake your head in wonder--and smile.
Jon Appleby teaches English at Noble High School in Berwick, Maine.
The Story Of Numbers: How Mathematics Has Shaped
By John McLeish
In the first 15 minutes of the first class of my first year as a math teacher, a student angrily cried, "Why do we need numbers anyway?" This student, and many since, have seen the language of mathematics as a monstrous obstacle in their education. I wondered, "Why are we so afraid of numbers when they are our own creation?" In Number, John McLeish traces the origins and evolution of numbers in a way that reminds us that while quantity, size, and shape may be constants, how we measure these always has been the invention of people.
McLeish explains the important role of numbers in traditional civilizations as well as less-recognized cultures. Information on the impact of number systems in other civilizations has been helpful in my efforts to work with other teachers on an integrated curriculum.
I also have used this book to get my students to take some ownership of their mathematical literacy. In one activity, groups of students assumed roles in ancient civilizations; they had to answer the question, "Do we need numbers, anyway?" I asked each group to develop a number system that would appropriately meet the needs of the people in their civilization. Once finished, the students researched and found connections between their own systems and those of other civilizations.
The strength of this book is that McLeish puts into perspective the power of numbers. He writes in a style that is clear and informative--one that just about any reader would find interesting.
Gregory Peters teaches mathematics and art at Oceana High School in Pacifica, Calif.
Children Of Cain: Violence And The Violent In Latin
By Tina Rosenberg
When I was a girl, one of my first close encounters with the fallen world came from reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Sketching the attic layout on crinkly tracing paper, I carried my facsimile map everywhere to help me imagine how I'd have fared in that struggle for good in an imperfect world. That's the feeling I got reading Tina Rosenberg's Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America. It's a deceptive title. The book encompasses so much more than the lurid doings of torturers and death squads. There is also the violence of refusing to pay a livable minimum wage or of hospitals that spread rather than cure fatal disease in young children. With evils so fantastic and tragic, it's only through personal stories that our imaginations can take it all in.
Rosenberg tells these tales of struggle in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Central America, blending fresh historical analysis with compelling journalistic narration. She avoids sentimental manipulation or party-line rants to give an impassioned portrayal of those who have power and those who do not.
Reading oppression-genre books like this, it is easy to look up from the pages and thank higher powers for our North American stability. But we must recall our own history, our own use of violence in the cause of nation building. There is a familiar ring to some of the stories Rosenberg tells. For example, she writes of a woman in Medellin, Colombia, who, upon the birth of her baby, locked her doors, vowing not to go outside until the girl was grown. Even so, the infant was gravely wounded by stray bullets.
Rosenberg reminds us that the deadliest weapons against violence and the violent are first, an effective pen, and then, as she observes of one Peruvian Jesuit, "a divine patience amidst the absurdity."
Loretta Brady teaches humanities at the School for the Physical City in New York City.
Talking Peace: A Vision For The Next Generation
By Jimmy Carter
Each summer, I look for books that will help move my thinking forward, and recently I found one that I can share directly with my students. Talking Peace is the first book written by a former U.S. president for a young audience. In it, Carter intersperses stories of his peacemaking experiences with a straightforward analysis of why conflicts arise. Touching on the factors of food, shelter, health care, environmental degradation, and human rights, Carter discusses international and civil disputes, illustrating them with his own strategies for easing tensions between powerful personalities and nations.
Beginning with the inside story of the 1979 Camp David accord and ending with a discussion of approaches to conflict resolution in our major cities, Carter cites examples of work being done by thousands around the world to solve conflicts without using violence.
As an educator trying to help my students make sense of our increasingly violent world, I am both comforted and challenged by Carter's forthright message. He urges young people to educate themselves about current events and social issues, to talk about peace with their friends and families, to vote when they are able, and, ultimately, to contribute to the cause of peace through community service. That's good advice for all of us.
Edorah Frazer teaches English and wellness at Souhegan High School in Amherst, N.H.
The Beak Of The Finch
By Jonathan Weiner
How do we evolve? In this book, Jonathan Weiner uses the enchanting tale of Peter and Rosemary Grant's 20-year study of the finches of the Galapagos Islands to describe the incredible, radiating ebb and flow of evolution. Within this account, he weaves many other simple and fascinating stories that illuminate the process. These sketches--about guppies, elephant tusks, mountain parrots, and fish--illustrate the constant changes that connect all living organisms.
Weiner wraps these ideas in a warm writing style that lends itself to a comfortable, swinging hammock. This book will affect the way you look at life for a long time.
Frederica Ware teaches science at Oceana High School in Pacifica, Calif.
The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. (Random House, 1994.) Available in paperback, $13; to order, call: (800) 793-2665.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. (Pantheon, 1994.) Available in paperback, $11; to order, call: (800) 323-9872.
The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law, by Norval Morris. (Oxford University Press, 1992.) Available in paperback, $14.95; to order, call: (800) 451-7556.
Children of Caine: Violence and the Violent in Latin America, by Tina Rosenberg. (William Morrow, 1991.) Available in paperback, $13.95; to order, call: (800) 253-6476.
The Cold War: A History, by Martin Walker. (Henry Holt, 1994.) Available in paperback, $14; to order, call: (800) 288-2131.
Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. (Tor Books, 1985.) Available in paperback, $5.99; to order, call: (800) 221-7945.
Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. (Bantam, 1992.) Available in paperback, $14; to order, call: (800) 323-9872.
A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, by John Allen Paulos. (Basic Books, 1995.) Available in paperback, $11; to order, call: (800) 323-9872.
The Story of Numbers: How Mathematics Has Shaped Civilization, by John McLeish. (Fawcett, 1994.) Available in paperback, $11; to order, call: (800) 733-3000.
Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. (Vintage, 1995.) Available in paperback, $12; to order, call: (800) 793-2665.
Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation, by Jimmy Carter. (Dutton Children's Books, 1993.) Available in hardcover, $16.99; order through your local bookstore.
Travels With Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets, by Lars Eighner. (St. Martin's Press, 1993.) Available in paperback, $11; to order, call: (800) 733-3000.
Trying To Save Piggy Sneed, by John Irving. (Arcade Publishing, 1996.) Available in hardcover only, $21.95; to order, call: (800) 759-0190.
Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. (Harper-Perennial, 1993.) Available in paperback, $20; to order, call: (800) 242-7737.
Ways of Seeing, by John Berger. (Viking Press, 1972.) Available in paperback, $10.95; to order, call: (800) 253-6476.