The launch of the first week of school is always exciting, and it’s great to see the campus hum with energy and enthusiasm after the eerily quiet weeks of June and July. But I’m also mourning the end of summer and the opportunities to spend quality family time with Jennifer, Ben, and Claire, to venture out beyond Huntsville for a trip or two, and to dive into a stack of books that I’ve had my eye on for a good long while.
We enjoyed our annual trek to Texas (one night we went to a Rangers game and sat four rows behind Nolan Ryan and the next night to the Weatherford rodeo), we had a great long weekend at the beach in Jacksonville, Florida, and we were going to cap off our travel with a few days in Maine with my father and sister. But the connecting flight from Detroit to Bangor was canceled close to midnight because of weather, and with no hotels available we hunkered down in the airport for a very uncomfortable and (to me, at least) incredibly cold few hours on the floor. I looked over at Claire and saw how snugly she fit into a chair, and had to admit that there are some advantages to being four years old and very nimble!
The worst part of the trip was finding out from Delta very early that Friday morning that it wouldn’t be until Sunday that they could get us to our destination. So we cut our losses and headed back to Huntsville, full of pointless self pity and simmering irritation at the inefficiency of the airline industry. After a day of licking our wounds, we recovered and decided to head to Oxford, Mississippi, a place I’ve always wanted to visit because of its history and because it might just be the best place that a bibliophile can be in the South. With the heritage of William Faulkner and other Southern writers in its past, Oxford boasts some dynamite book stores that are yet another reminder that we’re never finished with our learning.
And in that spirit, I thought I would offer a few reflections (some random, some eclectic) on my summer reading, which is definitely one of my favorite pastimes when I’m not so busy with school. Here are a few highlights:
John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School: This was the faculty read for the summer, and we talked about the book at length during our recent in-service. Medina, a molecular biologist, presents current brain research that shows how important exercise, sleep, curiosity, and multiple senses are to optimum cognitive performance, and how multi-tasking, acute stress, and over stimulation erode our ability to make good decisions.
Jim Collins, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Companies Thrive Despite Them All: For Collins aficionados, this is another engaging study of the business world, including suggestions about consistency, focus, and the importance of interweaving creativity with discipline and empiricism that should speak to all of us.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: After twice starting this massive tome and giving up, I was able to get past the point of no return and ended up loving this literary classic about life in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. Not for the faint-hearted, War and Peace takes on the great questions of our existence and confronts the age-old question of how history happens and how fate and fortune intermingle with planning and preparation to create a future that no one can predict.
John R. Erickson, The Case of the Missing Bird Dog: Our son, Ben, is a lover of Hank the Cow Dog and has now read all 59 in the series. I haven’t yet mustered that kind of enthusiasm, but it was fun for us to read a book together and talk about our favorite characters.
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: I’ve always hovered right on the edge of the introvert/extrovert personality type (I was once disturbed to learn that my Myers-Briggs personality type—INTJ—is shared by only 2% of Americans, including Richard Nixon!) and really enjoyed this exploration of the many ways that extroverts shut out the many contributions of those who are a little quieter, a little more reflective, and a little more creative. This is a great book for all of us who are proud parents of introverts.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: I forced myself to finish a book that I found really depressing and unappealing. The sci-fi, dystopian genre is a bummer for me, but I do have a renewed appreciation for how and why Katniss Everdeen appeals to Middle Schoolers, as well as a general sense of foreboding about how The Hunger Games compares to the Olympics that just finished up in London.
Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets: From queue jumping (did you know that there’s a company in Washington, D.C. that pays the homeless to hold a place in line for lobbyists to get a front-row seat at a Congressional hearing?) to paying drug-addicted mothers to sterilize themselves, to janitors insurance and death bonds, to selling the naming rights on police cars and fire hydrants, this is a provocative and insightful study into the importance of re-attaching morality to the public square and being open to the possibility that there really are (or at least should be) things that money can’t buy.
I love to read and enjoy the summer break as an opportunity to catch up on books that I’ve had to put aside. Truth be told, I’m also mildly addicted to mysteries, and plowed my way through a few of those, too. But it wasn’t until the end of the holiday and a chance encounter with Neil Postman’s and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity that I knew I’d had my fill of summer reading and was ready for the school year. Published in 1968, Teaching as a Subversive Activity is as relevant today as it has ever been. Postman and Weingartner recommend a re-imagination of education through a turn away from the teaching of pre-packaged content into an active exploration of inquiry driven by student interest. They are bold enough to pose questions for curricular emphasis that include deciding what’s worth living for, distinguishing between good and evil, understanding the difference between sound and spurious ideas, identifying what might be worth forgetting, and ultimately diving into what’s really worth knowing.
Teaching in this manner takes patience and skill, and we’re challenging ourselves this year at Randolph to take more time to listen well and engage each other and our students more fully. Sure we’re committed to the kinds of results that come in the form of grades and test scores, wins and losses, and concerts and performances. We always have been and always will be. But at the end of the day nothing matters nearly as much as a boy or girl leaving Randolph with a greater understanding of who he is, a clearer sense of what she believes, and a joyful appreciation that we’re never really done with our summer reading.
What books have you enjoyed most this summer?