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Igniting the Fire (and Tending the Flame): Teachers on Works That Inspire

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Summer offers the opportunity to recharge and reflect—and for many teachers, it's the ideal time to gather helpful resources. With that in mind, I asked accomplished teachers in the Teacher Leaders Network to share the literary, cinematic, and musical works that sustain them (and help inspire their students). —Braden Welborn

Susan, a family/consumer science teacher:
I think of lines from John Steinbeck’s poem "Captured Fireflies": "I've had many teachers who taught us soon forgotten things, / But only a few like her who created in me a new thing, a new attitude, a new hunger / … What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person."

Katy, an academic intervention specialist:
Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children resonated with me. It wasn't comfortable to read because it challenged many of my core beliefs about teaching and learning. However, to this day, it inspires my work in and out of the classroom.

Cossondra, a special education teacher (and blogger):
Taylor Mali’s poem "Undivided Attention" is the piece I find most inspiring in my classroom. This piece reminds me of how important engagement, spontaneity and enthusiasm are in my work. "Let me teach like the first snow, falling."

Marsha, a middle school teacher in Kansas:
When I heard the song "Jammin'" by Brad Paisley, I fell in love with it. It's uplifting and full of possibilities, and it's thinking about how to change the future. That's why I teach … helping kids find their futures.

Tiffany, who teaches gifted elementary students:
When I was an 11th grader at a boarding school in New England, I read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. This book hooked me on the idea of public education as a career. It terrified me even as it ignited a fire inside of me. Kozol's images stuck with me and followed me down to Florida, where I find myself teaching in high-poverty schools.

Anne, a 5th grade teacher:
Karen Levine's Hana's Suitcase inspired me to teach a non-fiction unit related to the Holocaust. In Levine's book, a young girl dies at the hands of the Nazis but her dream of becoming a teacher is realized when her suitcase is found at Auschwitz and used to educate a new generation of children about the horrors of genocide.

Gail, a K-6 instructional coach in Virginia:
When I first saw "Music of the Heart," I cried my eyes out—what dedication, what determination, what perseverance. And a lovely example of supporting students to be whatever they aspire to be. Every time I watch it, I get all tingly when the students are performing in Carnegie Hall. Did I agree with the teacher's rather harsh teaching methods? No, but I certainly admired her refusal to give up on her students and the incredible results she achieved.

David, a high school English and language arts teacher:
I could point to lots of nonfiction about education and teaching, but as an English teacher I also argue for the relevance of fiction in shaping our understanding of the world, its people, and our relationships. Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948, emphasizes that we need not assume guilt for other people’s sins—but embrace responsibility for what we have and what we do in the future. And in A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines asks us to wrestle with family, faith, knowledge, responsibility, and whatever measures of unfairness and indignity life may throw at any of us.

John, an early childhood educator (and blogger at Emergent Learner & The Future of Teaching):
Sly and the Family Stone songs like "Stand," "You Can Make It If You Try," and "Everybody's a Star" have inspired my students and me. These songs are exuberant and joyful, and are embedded with life lessons I want my students to remember: Believe in yourself; stand up to injustice; achievement requires risk. "You Can Make It If You Try" has often been our theme song—we've even come up with a Pips-style dance!

Laurie, a special education teacher:
As someone who works with kids in an urban setting who learn differently, I am always inspired by teachers who share how they have helped kids to be successful. My all-time favorite author, Louanne Johnson, has written many books about teaching in East L.A. Her book My Posse Don't Do Homework had me riveted by her dedication and determination to help the kids that others had given up on. I've used many of the ideas in her book Two Parts Textbook, One Part Love, like having my students share their talents: cooking, singing, playing a musical instrument. It changed their perceptions of themselves; many felt they weren't good at anything, and this activity gave them validation.

Anthony, who teaches gifted students:
"Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" is a great representation of what teaching history is all about, bringing it alive for uninterested youth.

Cindi, a middle school reading teacher:
"Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield and "100 Years" by Five For Fighting are songs I often share with middle schoolers. "Unwritten” reminds them they have their entire lives ahead of them—"the rest is still unwritten." On the wall, I place the lyrics "today is where your book begins" and ask them to compose a timeline depicting the milestones that are still "unwritten." The song "100 Years" tells students they have time to go after (and reach!) their goals, and encourages them to make good choices along the way.

Paul, high school science teacher in Florida:
I always remember watching Nick Nolte chuck the textbooks out the window in the movie "Teachers." I loved that moment. It sent the message that they were about to do something different, something important, something meaningful. … I also loved Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, especially how he asks, "Will today be something to remember, or something to forget?" I often think of this awesome challenge: to make every day something to remember, a worthwhile experience.

Allison, a kindergarten teacher in Colorado:
Peter Reynolds's The Dot inspires me each and every time I read it to my kindergartners, who are also captivated by the pictures and the relatable story! It is about a teacher helping children to be proud of their work, no matter how simple it might appear.

Ernie, a middle school electives teacher:
A magic moment in my life occurred when I was a high school senior in the Career Exploration Program, spending half of my day working with a 1st grade teacher. Mrs. Parke handed me a copy of James Herndon's The Way It's Spozed to Be. Published in 1965, Herndon’s book speaks to the same frustrations that we find in our schools today. Herndon identified the skills that his students had acquired and then pushed them to reach higher levels. Sounds like great teaching to me, but he was fired after his first year of teaching for not following his school's protocols for instruction. Is history repeating itself?

Ryan, a reading and language arts teacher:
"Dead Poets Society" offers a trove of inspiring moments for teachers and students, especially boys, whom we so often lose as passionate readers. I will always remember and echo John Keating's line, " ... the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

Elizabeth, a special education teacher:
I absolutely love the scene in "Dead Poet's Society" when Mr. Keating asks the students to stand on the table to see the world differently. This scene captures my goals: to teach beyond the walls of the classroom and to encourage kids to step beyond conformity and be individual thinkers. I want my students to become thinkers who have a solid sense of their own perspective while respecting and keeping an open mind to the views of others.

Alicia, an ELL teacher in Colorado:
I think about Bob Dylan’s song "My Back Pages": "In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand / At the mongrel dogs who teach / Fearing not that I'd become my enemy / In the instant that I preach." Every day when I walk into the classroom, I must have the passion, focus, and commitment to be an inspiring teacher. So many leave education because they burn out. This quote helps me remember that it is always possible to become the thing you have fought against, so you have to keep moving in the direction of becoming who you want to be, each and every day.

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