Few modeled this better than Abraham Lincoln. Amid the chaos of a nation divided, Lincoln always found time to read widely and deeply. It began in his childhood. Late at night he could be found reading by candlelight. He borrowed books from whoever he could. As president, he had the habit of waking up early in the morning to spend quiet time reading alone.
And it wasn’t historical or philosophical treatises on war and conflict that dominated his reading. If you look at the works that occupied his time as president, you will see more poetry and fiction than anything else. There was lots of Shakespeare, as well as Pride and Prejudice, Paradise Lost, and the poems of Browning, Byron, and Burns among so many others.
What this demonstrates is that, as teachers, we need to not solely read professional books to grow. When we are caught up in the madness of writing lesson plans, grading papers, department meetings, and parent phone calls, we can escape it all with the certainty of a good book. We can nourish our spirit with words and ideas when so many forces seek to drain it. As Lincoln validates so comprehensively, it need not be within our discipline or profession. We can achieve a more-perfect union of our individual self with our teaching self if we just find great books whose ideals speak to something foundational in all of us.
Here are six non-teaching books that offer something dignified and beautiful that will impact your teaching and your spirit.
To Kill a Mockingbird -- It has to be first on my list because it is a book I have returned to again and again in my life, and it has yet to disappoint. Lee takes us through the eyes of a child to see the injustice of the adult world and how one parent’s love and crusade to represent the underrepresented teaches us all lessons in humility and compassion.
Van Gogh: The Life -- His genius was also his downfall. Van Gogh’s need for his mother’s love, his “erratic and tumultuous romantic life, his bouts of depression and mental illness” all came together in the violent brushstrokes and intense colors on his canvas. In seeking to understand Van Gogh the painter, we will undoubtedly grow to understand those students that suffer. We will see those that have compulsions, that need to create, that yearn for something they can’t have, and that are disturbed, in a more empathetic way, and this will enable us to recognize what we can do to make them feel safe, respected, and valued.
Steve Jobs -- Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review wrote, “ Here is an encyclopedic survey of all that Mr. Jobs accomplished, replete with the passion and excitement that it deserves.” It is a book about how transformative creativity can be when it questions assumptions and defies long-standing conventions. It has taught me that to be innovative, in the classroom or in life, we need to “think different” about what we do and why we do it.
Leaves of Grass -- My wife gave me the “deathbed edition” back when we were in college and it remains one of my most treasured books. Sometimes, when I am copying rubrics, graphic organizers, or study guides in my school’s copy room I think about “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” In it Whitman writes, “When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them… How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,” and I begin to think less about the busyness of handouts and think more about how I can get my students to “Look up in perfect silence at the stars.” There are too many great poems in this collection to name completely but “O Me, O Life!” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” would be three worth beginning with.
The Giving Tree -- I have read this book dozens upon dozens of times to my son and each time it would stir my emotions. As teachers we sacrifice so much for our students -- our time, our energy, and our emotions. Shel Silverstein’s book reminds us of the tenderness of the relationship between the giver and someone too young, too naive to realize just how much has been sacrificed. Ultimately, it reinforces the power of patience to receive the mutual capacity of love.
The Last Lecture -- If you only read it to realize that “the brick walls are there for a reason,” this book would be worth reading. Yet Randy Pausch offers so much more from childhood to adulthood. While it is a book about maintain the preciousness of our dreams, the true gift of this book is that in dying, Pausch shows us with humor and humility how to truly live.
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