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Read & Renew

Feed your mind and lighten your load with books recommended by your colleagues.

By Sabrina Holcomb

A journey through a great book can be the ultimate mental road trip and your ticket to a renewed sense of purpose. But with almost 200,000 new books published in America each year, where do you start? Never fear. NEA educators have assembled a perfect road map to summer reading you’ll benefit from all year long—tips of the trade and favorite books to help refresh your professional skills, recharge your imagination, and rejuvenate your spirit.

Never judge a book by its movie.

J.W. Eagan

You can read the signs, the telltale clues that your school is shedding its winter coat as summer fast approaches. The students are restless, everyone is a little giddy with graduation fever, and you’re asking yourself that all-important question: How can you make the most of that brief stretch of promise and possibility between the end of this school year and the start of a new one?

Remember that splendid booklist you’re painstakingly preparing for your students as a way to broaden their summer horizons? What about taking a page from your own list? You don’t even have to feel guilty about reading for personal pleasure, says NEA reading specialist Barbara Kapinus. Researchers have found that whether teachers read for personal fulfillment, professional inspiration, or just plain fun, their reading informs their instruction and adds an extra dimension to their teaching.

You’re already adept at getting sheer joy out of a good book. Here’s what the experts say about getting pleasure and pragmatic benefits from your booklist this summer—and well into the next school year.

Read Out of Your Field

Think in terms of “multi-level” books, says Kapinus—one level helps you in your personal life; another helps you in your classroom. For instance, self-help books like Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First can inspire educators in all areas of their lives, she says.

Or try reading one book this summer in an entirely new field. “When educators explore topics such as business, sociology, history, and science, there’s great potential for new ideas,” Kapinus explains. “Creation happens when two fields meet.” Ordinarily an educator wouldn’t choose a business book like Good to Great by Jim Collins. “But it will help anyone, no matter what their job, do their best,” says Kapinus.

“Read poetry, blogs, magazines, letters to the editor, and books on other cultures and countries,” suggests Michelle Commeyras, professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia and co-editor of Teachers as Readers: The Importance of Reading in Teachers’ Classrooms and Lives. She also recommends sharing your literary musings on a free journaling Web site such as and inviting other educators to join the electronic discussion. “It’s fun and, for some teachers, really transformative.”

Join a Professional Book Club

For truly transformative summer reading, nothing beats the shared experience of a professional book group, say devotees of the practice. Running the gamut from ad hoc book groups started by like-minded colleagues to professionally sanctioned Teachers as Readers (TAR) groups, such gatherings offer educators the opportunity to enjoy literature, commune with colleagues, and get peer support for a heady exchange of new ideas.

“Reading and talking about literature has made me a better, more reflective reader,” says Michelle Shreeves, a first-grade teacher and chair of the Maryland TAR Council. “It’s also made me a better teacher because I get to practice what I preach.” An added benefit, says fellow book club member and middle school teacher Teresa McCain, is that “we get to interact with fellow professionals we normally wouldn’t mix with because we’re in different schools and grade levels.”

Each TAR group has its own personality and culture: some read strictly for professional development, some for personal enjoyment, and some balance both. “We choose books that reflect our lives as educators,” says Marianne George, a member of a Chicago TAR group that reads mostly fiction and holds its monthly meetings at a family-style Italian restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere, great food, and “nice quiet corners where we can talk.”

George, a former elementary school teacher who now teaches introductory literacy courses at the University of Illinois in Chicago, describes the group’s rationale. “We make a conscious decision to read books that give us different cultural lenses, which is so important in today’s classrooms.” One of George’s favorites is My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, a thought-provoking story about a girl who’s conceived to provide her sister with a bone marrow transplant. “It makes you think about the choices people make and the reason for those choices,” says George. “The parents of our students have to make choices we may not always understand, and there’s more to the story than what’s obvious.”

Try Audio

Just as sharing books can bring an extra dimension to reading, so can hearing them. Books on tape are often portrayed as a great alternative for busy people who don’t have the time to really read, but there’s actually a different dynamic to hearing some books that may surprise you.

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

         Chinese proverb

“Some authors come from cultures with a strong history of oral storytelling, and hearing them speak their books is even richer than reading them,” says NEA’s Kapinus. “Hearing Toni Morrison read Song of Solomon takes my breath away and brings an intimacy to the experience. The same is true of Frank McCourt reading Angela’s Ashes.” Kapinus also recommends hearing author Tony Hillerman read The Leaphorn and Chee Audio Trilogy, a collection of his best-selling mystery series featuring detectives on a Navajo reservation. “Hillerman’s gravely voice is perfect for the novels’ Western setting,” says Kapinus. “You can just picture him, rocking on a dusty porch, telling his story.”

Audio books have become so popular, online book publishers are in fierce competition for a slice of the growing iPod market. Web sites like are offering free, serialized audio books that can be downloaded to iPods or other portable devices. But the hottest new trend in the audio book market is online book clubs that offer audio versions of books read by fans, not professional actors. Interested in volunteering your voice? You can read for Web sites like and, which has hundreds of volunteers from all over the world who record books in more than a half-dozen languages.

A Reading Map

Now that you’re ready to kick back and read, let your peers offer a few suggestions. Educators have recommended books—and other media—that have been especially helpful to them in four key categories.

Refresh Your Skills  

Professional Development

Rosalind Pijeaux Hale, an education professor displaced by Hurricane Katrina, is on leave from New Orleans’ Xavier University and currently teaching at Miles College in Birmingham. While many multicultural texts are geared toward White teachers working with students of color, Hale regularly tells her ed students, most of whom are Black, that they will most likely teach in an unfamiliar cultural setting. “The ethnicity may be the same, but the background is not.” Hale recommends How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Relevant Teaching Strategies by NEA member Bonnie M. Davis because it “gives you the opportunity to reflect and respond rather than react. That’s a big plus.” 

As she nears the end of her first year of teaching high school in Pleasant Hills, Montana, Jennifer Dunaway “can’t say enough fabulous things” about the path she’s taken down Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12. “People forget that we all teach reading,” says Dunaway. “Allen really approaches literacy from a cross-curriculum perspective. This is not just an English teacher’s book.” Allen uses cartoons for comic relief but also to illustrate how useful they can be pedagogically. Inspired by Allen’s example, Dunaway used a Charlie Brown strip with empty bubbles to teach dialogue and punctuation—with great success. “Too many books give you great ideas but not the tools to use them,” Dunaway says.

Looking for insight from a maverick mentor? Diane Keys recommends picking up one of John Taylor Gatto’s books, such as Dumbing Us Down or A Different Kind of Teacher. “He’s very valuable to a new teacher to show that we need to rise above mediocrity,” says Keys, a sixth-grade teacher in Anaheim, California. While in grad school, Keys drew on Gatto’s work for a paper about standardized testing and how students have become isolated from their elders. “Gatto’s point is that we should have less homework, more family time, and we should value family as an important structure,” says Keys. “He’s a big advocate for getting the corporate world involved as a form of community service. I used that quite a bit in my papers—it’s wonderful stuff for debates.”

It doesn’t just feel like you’re constantly making decisions in your classroom—you are. Teachers typically have 1,500 interactions with their students each day. Without a classroom management plan in place, the sheer volume of decisions can be overwhelming. Mark Lindholm of Los Alamitos, California, who came to teaching six years ago, found NEA’s Classroom Management kit for K–12 classrooms a well-organized introduction to the topic. “Overall,” says Lindholm, “it’s a good resource as a starting point for new teachers.” The small but intensive kit has a resource guide booklet, video, and CD-ROM featuring veteran teachers and paraprofessionals in their own classrooms sharing philosophies and advice about self-reflection, classroom arrangement, and establishing norms.

Rejuvenate Your Spirit  


Is there a better way to spend a summer afternoon than swinging in a hammock with a good book? Not if that book is Teaching With Fire, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner—a collection of poems culled specifically to inspire educators. Poems from Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda, and a host of others, including teachers, fill its pages with messages about art, creativity, purpose, and motivation. “Beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring poetry to encourage teachers,” observes Karen Kitt, a middle school language arts teacher in Redmond, Oregon. She’s in good company. Education luminaries Jonathan Kozol and Deborah Meier praise the book, with Kozol calling it “a glorious collection of the poetry that has restored the faith of teachers in the highest, most transcendent values of their work with children.”

It might seem surprising that a look at beleaguered workers in America, struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families with $6-an-hour jobs, would fall on anyone’s list of most- inspiring reads, but that’s just where Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling Nickel and Dimed lands for Illinois teacher Bonnie Muren. “Many of our school’s parents are low income,” she says. “The author’s experiences gave me real insight into the challenges our parents face daily”—and some common cents inspiration.

Where do you fall in the two categories—victim or owner—that author Steve Chandler lays out in his book, Reinventing Yourself: How To Become the Person You’ve Always Wanted To Be? For instance, do you describe yourself as “focused” on your many tasks or “swamped”? The book helped Arizona alternative high school teacher Joe Thomas become a focuser. At 192 pages, it’s a short, easy read, with lots of payoff. “He focuses on avoiding ‘right or wrong’ decision-making; talking about values and agreements instead of rules and expectations; and managing agreements, not people,” says Thomas. Think any of that could come in handy when school starts? We do, too.

It jumped off movie screens in 1988, commanding attention and respect, just like its subjects. Stand and Deliver was so powerful that, nearly 20 years later, the story of Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante empowering his troubled, low-income students to ace the Advanced Placement calculus exam still resonates. Forty percent of you crowned Escalante’s story—as depicted by Edward James Olmos and a cast of talented (and mostly unknown) teens—the “Most Inspiring” in our online Silver Screen Awards poll. Why not rent it and remind yourself how great it feels to be an awe-inspiring teacher?

Recharge Your Imagination 


The single most recommended book by NEA members, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, is “delightful!” exclaims Devon Hamner, a Nebraska kindergarten teacher. In this coming-of-age story, a neglected 14-year-old flees her home with a single clue to her dead mother’s origins. If you haven’t read it already—it was on the New York Times best-seller list in 2002—your colleagues urge you to exercise that library card immediately. “It reminded me of why I’m there for my students, even when they don’t want me to be,” says Amanda Pickrell, an Indianapolis elementary school teacher.

No beach bag is complete without detective fiction—something to make you shiver in the heat! If you’ve already cased the joint with Stephanie Plum, the snoop at the center of Janet Evanovich’s ever-popular series, then introduce yourself to a fellow teacher-turned-detective. Amanda Pepper, an English teacher at an elite Philadelphia private school, starts digging for more than misplaced modifiers when she finds a fellow educator dead on her couch. The first in a series by Gillian Roberts, Caught Dead in Philadelphia won an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery Novel. “English teachers, we are not alone!” crows Lynne Ravas, a middle school English teacher in Pennsylvania. “Have a good laugh over another teacher’s headaches.”

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s powerful novel about a Zulu pastor searching for his son in apartheid South Africa, is a deeply moving experience. “It’s such a passionate book, and has so many surprises!” says special education teacher Marie Headings. “One of the things I liked: it takes the abstractness of apartheid and makes it so personal, and you can see that people can be good, even under horrible circumstances.” Before you turn a single page, try this, Headings suggests. Listen to the book on tape or CD. The African place names are like music, and the voices of Paton’s rich characters will haunt your summer naps.

It’s not just another country, it’s another world in Georges Lopez’s one-room French countryside school—but a recognizable one. Like yours, his students delight in new lessons and despair when their good pants get muddy. They fight. They grieve. They giggle. But unlike yours, it all happens on film. Called Être et Avoir or To Be and To Have, this award-winning documentary is sweet, but real. Shortly after filming, Lopez retired from 35 years of teaching.

Review with Students  

Resources to Share

Puzzles, patterns, and possibilities abound in Blue Balliett’s and Brett Helquist’s Chasing Vermeer. Chicago sixth-graders Petra and Calder, who share a love of art and blue M&Ms, are hot on the trail of a thief who has stolen a Vermeer painting, sparking international outrage. Will they piece the clues together before the painting is lost forever? Middle-grade readers can help solve the mystery and decode hidden messages in some of the book’s illustrations. “It’s kind of like a Da Vinci Code for kids,” says Teresa McCain, a sixth-grade teacher in Salisbury, Maryland.

What ever happened to service with a smile? Why are we plagued by road rage? When did individual rights become more important than civic harmony? Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter addresses issues of trust, generosity, and the state of manners in his latest book, Civility. “If you’ve ever wondered how society evolved to include such high levels of rudeness, this book is a great read,” says Catherine Kellerman, a substitute teacher in Newaygo County, Michigan.

In 12 short stories, Francisco Jiménez, who illegally entered California with his family as a boy, narrates his childhood experiences and academic struggles as a Mexican migrant farm worker. ”The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child is a book that my Latino students can identify with,” says elementary school teacher Milagro Orantes. “Last year, one of my sixth-graders told me he didn’t like reading. But when I gave him this book, he came back to school after just one weekend and was elated talking about it!”

The true story of a high school coach and his team, Remember the Titans, chronicles the 1971 school year when Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, was hired as head coach of a racially divided and hostile football team, the T.C. Williams Titans. In our Silver Screen Awards online poll, Washington beat out Gene Hackman in Hoosiers and Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter, among others, for Best Coach in a movie. If that’s not reason enough to watch it with your students, do so for its lessons of trust and unity, to foster team and character-building, and because it’ll make you feel good.

—with contributions by Mary Ellen Flannery,Cynthia Kopkowski, Cindy Long, and Rebecca L. Weber

A Tale of Two Book Clubs

Teacher book clubs range from district-sponsored professional development groups to cozy book salons with their own unique brand. NEA Today takes a look at both.

Can We Talk?

With promises of coffee and conversation, NEA Today lured Virginia educators Beth Yankey, Diane Sunshine, Susan Briscoe, and Brenda Lewis to a local Barnes and Noble café to chat about the amazing success of their Teachers as Readers book club.

As the ladies unwind over strawberry and cream smoothies, a story unfolds that’s straight out of the pages of a good book. It’s got heroes, adversity, secrets—even an underdog. An unsuspecting educator is hired as the principal of an elementary school only to find out after she’s accepted the job that the school is on a needs improvement list and rated dead last in the county in math scores. Undaunted, our heroine pulls a phoenix out of the ashes, and one dedicated staff, three book clubs, and seven years later, Loch Lomond Elementary has made annual yearly progress (AYP) for three years in a row and is a fully accredited Prince William County School of Excellence. “It’s a great story,” says library/media specialist Beth Yankey.

Teachers as Readers played a big role in turning the school around, explains reading specialist Diane Sunshine. “We’ve got three TAR groups in one school, and that’s almost unheard of,” she says. The group agrees that reading and, most important, sharing what they’ve read, has been central to their success. “We don’t just read professional development books for the sake of reading,” says principal Brenda Lewis. “We choose books with strategies we can apply right away.”

Kindergarten teacher Susan Briscoe waves her copy of Literacy Links by Laura Robb, a book of practical strategies for developing emergent literacy in at-risk children. “I started reading this book and the very next day, I used three great ideas from it in my classroom. That’s how good it is.” Everyone agrees that it’s the best book they’ve read as a team. “We’re writing a grant proposal based on some of the ideas from the book about bringing school, home, and community together,” Yankey says, adding that their reading often reinforces what they’re doing in the classroom. “What we read often affirms what we’re already doing,” she says. “And it sparks conversation between colleagues. Everyone benefits, whether or not they’re in the book club.”

Now that the school year is coming to a close, the book lovers plan to catch up on their personal reading—for business and pleasure. But, in lieu of the school library, they’ll gather on their back porches with a large plate of cookies and a cold pitcher of lemonade.

Book Buzz

If the story of the Loch Lomond Teachers as Readers group belongs in a novel, then the members of Maryland’s Hebbville Teachers book club are ready for the movies. From their celestial name, the Heavenly Honies, to their beehive logo worn on personalized T-shirts, the Honies do everything with flair.

Just a year and a half old, the Heavenly Honies is the brainchild of paraeducator Orlando Felton and fourth-grade teacher Danielle Lewis, who bonded over their love of books. “We both love to read,” says Felton, “and one day we were talking about books and it was so obvious—we should start a book club for the teachers at our school!”

The popular book group—18 members and growing—gathers monthly at Lewis’ house, where her library provides a perfect setting. “We gather in a beautiful room with a crackling fireplace and lots of candles, Felton says. “It’s the perfect place to talk about books.”

It’s also a perfect place to share delicious potluck feasts and prepare wonderful gift baskets for the authors Felton invites to speak to the group, says Valerie Clark, the group’s historian. That’s right—the book club actually has a historian who keeps a scrapbook of photos and keepsakes commemorating the gatherings.

Clark, a special ed paraeducator, talks enthusiastically about the impact the book club has had on her teaching. “I read more with my kids now—exploring stories and asking questions, which is important, because they need the extra help,” she says. But the biggest benefit of all may be the group’s influence on collegial relationships. “Reading together has helped us relax and get to know each other as people,” confides Clark. It’s helped all of us be better colleagues.”

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