My Top 10 Reads of 2018

A couple of years ago, I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in a year. After recording the twenty-somewhat books of that year, my competitive nature showed itself and I decided I would read more the following year. I set a goal to read at least 25 books in 2018. I ended up reading 38. In addition to those titles I completed, I also abandoned a few. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have dared to not finish something I’d started, but I’ve come to that place in life where I no longer feel I’ve got something to prove. Life’s too short and there are far too many books out there to waste time on the ones that don’t thrill me.

This year, unlike last with My 18 Resolutions for 2018, I haven’t been able to decide what my goals for the new year will be yet. Sure, I want to get more fit and eat healthier, but that’s nothing new. I’d like to replace screen-time with face-time or even just me-time, but as for the big goals, this year I am going to have to wait to see what life unfolds. Whatever my intentions end up being, I know reading will be a part of it, so for those of you who also enjoy curling up with a good book, here (in no particular order) are the top 10 books from my year of reading.

  1. The Untethered Souby Michael A. Singer (Non-fiction/Self-Help)

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“You are capable of ceasing the absurdity of listening to the perpetual problems of your psyche. You can put an end to it. You can wake up in the morning, look forward to the day, and not worry about what will happen. Your daily life can be like a vacation. Work can be fun; family can be fun; you can just enjoy all of it.”

I’d first heard about this book when I listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations; I’d written about that experience in To Forgive, Divine, but at that time, I hadn’t read the book yet. Well, as the second book read last year, this one deserves a place on the list; it’s actually a great choice for starting a new year. This is the type of book you will want to read with a pen in hand. You’ll underline a phrase here and a quote there, and then eventually half of the page will be highlighted. You’ll write “WOW” in the margin or you’ll bracket off whole paragraphs that speak to you. There’s a reason it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller with more than one million copies sold.

  1. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA Fiction)

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

I’d had students who had read this book in the past and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t read it myself until I planned to include it as a book club choice for my students last year. The story centers around three teens who are unlikely friends in a small, southern town, but it’s more than just a book about friendship. The protagonist’s father is a religious man who is in prison, but the story behind his imprisonment is disturbing, to say the least.

At one point, I had to put the book down, then pick it up and reread, then put it down again. “Did that just happen?” I asked my husband who wasn’t reading the book and therefore had no idea what I was talking about. “I can’t believe that just happened.” Later, when my students were reading it, they’d come into my classroom at lunch or in the morning to ask me, “Did that really happen?” While it is a YA book, it certainly doesn’t read like one.

  1. Educated by Tara Westover (Memoir)

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“I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure; my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.” 

 Every now and again, I read a memoir that depicts a life that is so incredibly different from my own and from anyone else’s with whom I am acquainted that I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a work of fiction. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs was one, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was another, and Tara Westover’s Educated was a third. Westover beautifully tells the story of her childhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho with a father who did not believe in public education. She was seventeen when she first entered a traditional classroom yet ends up with a PhD from Cambridge University– although it came a a cost.

The quote above is a great example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a good reminder that not all students have the “luxury” of being engaged in school. This book has garnered a lot of praise and publicity this year, and it is definitely one that is worth the read.

  1. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (Sci-Fi)

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“It does no good to tell a beautiful woman how beautiful she is. If she already knows, it gives her power over the fool who tells her. If she does not, there is nothing that can be said to make her believe it.” 

Sci-Fi is not usually my genre of choice, but a girl who I went to high school with (who is now a librarian) posted about this book on social media and I thought, if a librarian is posting about a book, then it’s worth a shot. It was. This was one of those picked-it-up-and-read-it-in-a-day kind of books. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where any woman who attempts to bear a child dies, as does that child. The protagonist, the midwife, is a fiercely independent woman determined to help save humanity.

This is Book 1 in The Road to Nowhere series, but despite liking this one a lot, I haven’t checked out any of the others.

  1. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (Fiction)

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“We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.” 

If I had to pick ONE book that was my favorite read of the entire year, this would be it.

Girls Burn Brighter was not only beautifully written, but also told a story of friendship, love, and female empowerment unlike any other I’ve read. It was disturbing and heart-breaking, powerful and poignant. Every woman should add this book their list, then read it, then cry about it, then get together with friends and drink wine and talk about it together.

  1. There There by Tommy Orange (Fiction)

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“This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.” 

This book has harvested a lot of accolades this year. Told from the perspective of ten different characters whose stories come together in the end at the Big Oakland Powwow, Tommy Orange gives voice to the urban American Indian, a voice not heard nearly enough in modern literature. While I loved the Indian legends and lore peppered throughout this tale, it was quotes like the one above that made me stop and re-read entire passages and then just sit with it for a few minutes only to go back to the page and read it again.

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Literary Fiction)

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“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

Years ago, I read Silver Sparrow by this same author and I friggin’ loved it, so when I realized this was also by her, I knew it would be a great read. It’s a story about love and marriage and race and family and everything in between. Reading the letters sent between Roy and Celeste felt deeply intimate and immediately drew me into this story that satisfied me all the way to the very end.

  1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (Non-fiction/Education)

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“We treasure the occasional story about a child who climbs out of poverty, graduates from a prestigious university, and goes on to success. Since it’s possible for a handful, we cling to the view that nothing is broken in America. But it is. Education has become the modern American caste system. We fuzz up the issue in a sea of statistics about test-score-gaps, suggesting that social inequity is a classroom issue. We bemoan the achievement gap but dwell on the wrong ‘achievement’ and the wrong ‘gap.’ Achievement should be based on challenging real-world problems, not standardized tests that amount to little more than timed performance on crossword puzzles and Sudoku. The gap we need to face is how much more we spend to educate our rich children than our poor. We can test until the cows come home, and we won’t begin to bring meaningful equity to our youth. As an educator in the Midwest noted, ‘If a cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.’”

I already raved about this book on social media and wrote about it in Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, but I had to include it in my top ten list too. I found the book to be inspirational and thought-provoking for anyone who is involved in education or policy-reform. The quote above is my favorite from the book. I considered getting it as a tattoo, but it’s a tad long.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Fiction/Drama)

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“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

 I still think Firefly Lane is my favorite Kristin Hannah book, but it was the first of hers I’d ever read, and I have a habit of latching on to firsts (i.e. My Sister’s Keeper is still my favorite Jodi Picoult and Looking for Alaska is still my favorite John Green). For some reason, I refused to buy this book since it was still in hardcover, and I had to wait ages for it at the library, which may be why I didn’t love it as much as I should have.

My mom read it first, and once I finally got it she kept asking me what I thought. It really was a great read, but it was also over 400 pages, and I really hated the protagonist’s father, Ernt. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I got sick of his shit and kind of lost momentum as a result. Still, it deserves a place on the list. It may not have been worth waiting months for, but it’s worth the eighteen bucks to not be cheap and buy it.

  1. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo (Fiction/Romance)

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“What I wanted to tell you is that there are lots of ways to love people and I know that you’ll love someone else again. Even if it’s not the same, some of it might be better.” 

Last, but not least. One of my favorite people told me about this book and I had the title written on a notes page in my phone for a few months, but then, I saw a former student post about it on social media and it reminded me to check it out from the library. It was another can’t-put-it-down book that I texted every reader in my life when I was done to tell them about. This is a book you can lose a day in, and even though I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, this book won my heart (and gave me a bit of a book-hangover too.)

Well, that’s it… for now. I’ve got The One Thing by Gary Keller and Michelle Obama’s Becoming to start off 2019.

What are you reading this year?

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And We’re Off…

The 2016-2017 school year has officially begun. The students are present, the bells are ringing, and the emails are finding their way to my inbox.

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Every year I require my students to read books independently outside of what I assign them to read. I pick our class novels and other literature that we study; they pick their books for independent reading. This is where students get to read more high-interest books that will hopefully turn them into life-long readers.

Even teaching honors students, many of them still don’t like to read. Every year I wrestle with the independent reading requirement and work to find the magic recipe that will make it less of a struggle. I’ve had years where students had to read a certain number of pages, years where they earned points based on the quality and length of book they selected, and years where students had to read one book a month. There were years where students had to complete projects for their books, years where they did a combination of projects and presentations, and last year, where they simply had to conference with me about their books.

I actually liked conferencing with my students. It was nice to have face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with them about books. The problem is that I had to have ten conferences per student throughout the year. I had over 120 freshmen honors students last year. Go ahead, do the math. These book talks would not take more than five minutes, but that’s still 6000 minutes or 100 hours outside of class time talking about the books they read. Granted, not all of my students read their ten books, but I still spent hours upon hours in conferences. Add in the fact that high school students often wait till the very last minute and what I would get the week of a deadline was a line of students snaking out of my classroom door beginning at seven in the morning, all through my half-hour “duty-free” lunch, and again after school.

This year, I was given a fifth section of honors English and I knew that there would be no way I could strictly conference. I also know that research supports that assignment tied to independent reading are counter-intuitive to instilling a genuine love for reading, but if I just “trust” that they will read, we both know what will happen.

Last year’s students said that a book a month (ten for the year) was too much. The result: drop the requirement to two books per quarter (eight for the year) and give them four ways to “prove” they’ve read the books.

The first is still the conference with me. Like I said, I enjoyed talking to my students about books. Not only did I get to know them better and build relationships, but I also got some great book recommendations for myself and to share with the rest of my classes. Yet by making them only conference with me on two of the eight books for the year, I should only be putting in about 28 hours of my time outside of class.

Another thing they will do is present two of their books to the class. They get to create any type of presentation they want—a video, a Prezi, a PowerPoint, or even a book trailer. They can read passages from their book or simply convince their audience why they should or should not read the book.

Twice they will need to write a letter to me or a friend sharing their thoughts on their book. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And then twice, I have asked my students to talk about their book with their mom or dad. (GASP!) I know, I know…I am requiring teenagers to speak to their parents. Since I am not there to witness these conversations, I have asked both student and parents to write a brief response about their discussion. I suggested a half-page of writing.

Then I sent home the requirements along with a slip of paper for parents to sign saying that they were informed of the independent reading expectation in my class, and I went home to bed thinking I had it all figured out.

What I hadn’t planned on was defending the purpose behind asking parents to write a response.

Educators are asked, heck-evaluated even-on how we build partnerships with families. We have school statements that affirm things like: we believe parents are an integral part in their child’s education. We are asked to find ways to involve parents in our classrooms, something that becomes harder and harder to do at the high school level.

Visit an elementary school on Back-to-School night and see the halls swarming with parents; visit a high school and you may get as many as five parents in a class of 35 who actually show up. Parents love to volunteer in elementary classrooms. In sixteen years of teaching, I’ve never once had a parent offer to volunteer in my class. When I have an assignment that involves parents in what we are doing in my class, I see it as a win-win.

When we study Romeo and Juliet, I ask my students to interview their parents on “the perfect mate.” It’s always an animated class discussion when students compare the type of partner their parents would choose for them versus the kind of partner they would choose for themselves. I envisioned a similar outcome for this assignment.

Just the other night, I sat at my own daughter’s Back-to-School night and listened as her teacher said, “I don’t know how you all feel about this, but the third grade teachers have decided not to give homework packets this year.” That’s not to say that the kids don’t have homework. They are expected to read nightly and they will do math practice on the computer, but the third grade teachers won’t be sending home the traditional homework folders that my daughter grew accustomed to in first and second grade. They came home on Monday and went back on Thursday and every night she completed a worksheet or two.

Sitting there I thought: Oh, ok…How do I feel about this? And then I immediately thought, I trust my daughter’s teacher to know what’s going to be the best approach to educating my child. Because that’s her job. My job is to be the parent, and her job is to teach my kid. If she, and all the other teachers of that grade, think this is best, then it probably is. I will support her however I can. If that means buying extra Kleenex for the class, I will. If that means helping my daughter memorize her multiplication tables this year, I will. And if that means that I simply trust in the decisions she is making in the classroom, I will.

You see, we teachers really do plan and reflect and revise in an effort to get it a little bit more right each year.

I can only hope that the parents of my students will also trust me as their child’s teacher. But I also secretly hope that they will participate in these book talks with their children and have really nice conversations, ones that don’t center around emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dogs, ones that don’t involve discipline or disappointment, ones where maybe they gain an insight into their children that they didn’t have before. Because these kids grow up and change so fast.

Lately, the eight-year old version of my daughter has a totally different mind than the one I knew a few months ago. I’m awestruck each time I talk to her these days. And these days, she still wants to talk to me. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, I don’t know if that will still be the case. So when she is, if her teacher makes her talk to me, the only thing I might communicate is my sincerest thanks.