Reading as an Act of Self-Care

A Discussion between

Laura Robb
& Jim Burke
Portsmouth, NH – Authors Laura Robb and Jim Burke were at the Heinemann offices, and we asked them to recommend a few great books for teachers, books that you could read as you relaxed on the beach but that also managed to get you inspired for teaching in the fall. Here’s what they said:

Laura: The book I’d like to talk about is Middle School Readers, by Nancy Allison. In the book, Allison gives lots of examples of lessons on teaching fiction and nonfiction. An interesting feature of the book is its unusual appendix, which recaps some of the big ideas very clearly and succinctly under categories like “the teacher on the sidelines of independent reading” and “clever matchmaking between readers and books.” Jim: Almost like CliffsNotes for her own book. Laura: That’s a perfect metaphor for it. Teachers will go back to it. I read it twice. I had the honor of writing the foreword to it. It’s very readable and rich with stories that I find I connect to. Jim, you would, too, as it talks about selfselected books just as you do in What’s the Big Idea?. Of course, the demands of high school are greater than middle school, which is what Allison focuses on, but the book goes way beyond a specific grade level. Jim: Self-selected reading is more challenging at the high school level, and in different ways. One of the books I want to talk about is an example. By senior 1

year many kids have pretty much established their identities as readers or non-readers. To counteract that, one of the books on our students’ summer required reading is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. It’s such an amazing novel and reading it reminded me that sometimes teachers need to read these engaging kids’ books too. I kept saying to myself, “I want to get to it.” And now that I have, it’s the book of the summer so far, the book I couldn’t put down. And I can’t wait to get back with kids in the fall and talk not only about this book but the next book in the series. Collins’s books are kind of like the new generation of Ender’s Game. Laura: I put off dinner because I wanted to finish a section in The Hunger Games. It’s interesting that you picked this book for high school students. A lot of middle school students read this book with great joy, but if you have upper grades reread it, they’ll bring their knowledge to it – of mythology, for example-- that a lot of middle school students don’t yet have. The book talks about the destruction of one society and the rebuilding of another. These ideas have a lot more impact when you’re older, but I do feel it’s fun for middle school students to read, too. Jim: Yes, absolutely, it works on many levels. Laura: I think Nancy Allison would support our choice. Jim: The other book I’d like to recommend is Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher. It talks about something that a lot of people are paying attention to (to make a pun on it) -- the extent to which books like Hunger Games grab hold of your attention and make you not want to make dinner for your family. A couple of other books I’ve been reading lately (like Carr’s The Shallows) talk about that kind of attention. They help me understand what it looks like in the lives of our kids. Self-selected reading is about getting kids reading because they want to pay attention. Laura: That leads me to my next pick, Adolescents on the Edge, by Jimmy Santiago Baca and Releah Lent. My reason stems from an experience I had several years ago. A literacy volunteer working with an illiterate high school student showed me video footage of this student singing the alphabet song, and when I saw it I started to cry. I knew this was no way to reach this young person and to develop literacy, a love of reading, and a desire to write and communicate with others. Reading Adolescents on the Edge, brought me that moment back. At nineteen, Baca was illiterate and in prison. While in prison he made the decision to choose the book and not the knife under his mattress, and that choice gave him freedom and power over his life. He says kids need a sense of community, of belonging to something. Up until the time that he decided he wanted to read, he’d let himself be led, instead of being responsible for himself and making choices, which takes us back to selfselection. I think it’s a very important book, because when you look at the 2

results of the NAEP you see so many students on the edge who drop out of school, or who graduate with a less than basic ability to read and write. These kids are not going to be able to function in the 21st century because they don’t’ have the literacy skills to communicate, to be productive and to problem solve to get the jobs they need to make a living and feel that they’re contributing something to society. Jim: Laura, you bring up three main issues of the other book I wanted to talk about. It’s a very special book. I started to read it when I was developing The Teacher’s Daybook. David Whyte is a poet, but his new book, called The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationships discusses the concept of marriage in a wider sense than our relationship to the special person we have at home. He explains that our relationship to our work is really very much a marriage -- unfortunately for some, it’s a dysfunctional marriage. There’s also that marriage to the self, decisions about who you are and who you want to be in the world, like that moment in Baca’s memoir when he talks about his decision to become a poet. Whyte talks about the same experience in his own life. I have the book itself, but I also listen to it on my iPhone. Teachers sometimes feel they don’t have time because they have all this stuff to do, but there are ways to make time in your lives for the books you sometimes feel you don’t have time for. Laura: I agree. The drive to school and back can be the ideal time to hear a book read aloud. I know you and I also do a lot of that when we travel. I’m going to get that book. It intrigues me -- that idea of expanding the concept of marriage beyond the person you’re living with at home. Baca became married to freedom when he was in prison but he gained freedom through literacy. It’s very powerful. I don’t think we realize the power that resides in reading and writing and the relationship we develop with authors and the power get from talking about that material and those relationships. All of that gives us more insight into ourselves. Jim: Jimmy Baca’s work right now in essence represents a powerful new marriage. A major respected American poet, he has essentially sacrificed his work as a poet for this new marriage to his work with adolescents. I’m sure he must be writing poetry on the back of envelopes and things like that when he has time, but he’s demonstrating an incredible degree of passion and sacrifice for kids. I mean he’s giving basically all the money he’s making to support the work he’s doing with these kids. In fact, he and Releah Lent just led a book discussion on The English Companion Ning, and it was incredibly powerful.


Laura: Baca ‘s talks about community tie in with marriage because you have to have a marriage to something ---we’re all social, we all need to feel secure enough to share our stories --- even to hear our own stories inside our head instead of blocking them out with bravado, addiction, and all those negative acts. And you’re right, Baca has made a tremendous sacrifice. He goes into prisons and adolescent detention centers to try to give the young people there the freedom that literacy brings. Many years ago I read an essay by James Moffet on this very topic. He said that literacy breaks the cycle of negative behavior and negative thought because the act of reading great works has the power to change us. We all know kids who were changed by a book they read, by a connection to a character who helped them understand their own lives better. Jim: That’s why David Whyte’s stuff is so powerful. He’s a poet and he’s always talking about how certain poems are entry points into a conversation -- reading as a way of entering a conversation with ourselves. He began his working life in the nonprofit sector, but somewhere inside of him a voice was saying, “This is not what I want to do.” Through poetry he was able to have that conversation with himself. (Plus, if you listen to the audio, he’s got a great accent.) One of the things we all need to think about as teachers, both during the school year and summer months, is what I call "get-to" versus "have-to". There are books that I have to read; it’s not that I don’t want to but there’s a sense of obligation because they’re part of my work. There’s a different sense of obligation about books that you get to read --these are the books, like the titles I mentioned by David Whyte and Suzanne Collins, that you let yourself read fifteen minutes of as a reward. Teachers need to make room in their lives for this kind of reading. This is what rekindled my love of poetry. You can’t tell me there’s no time for a sonnet in the day, it’s only fifteen lines. We really need to make room for both the “have-to” and the “get-to.” Laura: I agree the “get to” nurtures your soul. It feeds you and expands your mind. I’m going to recommend a book to you, Jim, Nomansland by Leslie Hauge. I read the uncorrected proof, and it will be out in the fall. It’s about a world where the women have been taught that men are the enemy. It’s a dystopian novel: very powerful, in fact disturbingly powerful, in the best sense of the word. If a book disturbs me, it pops up in my dreams; I might wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. The other thing I would recommend teachers do during the summer is pursue something outside of reading that you love: if it’s music, listen to your music. If it’s taking long walks, take long walks. Do something that relaxes you, feeds you, and gives you an opportunity to reflect. Jim: You and I were talking the other day over dinner about gardening and how much that sustains each of us. 4

Laura: Yes, I’ve got a couple of holes begging for flowers in the wall by my house that‘s planted with my favorite annuals. It’s a great metaphor because the most powerful garden is the physical and metaphysical self. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can be sensitive, nurturing teachers. That’s what makes us better teachers, when we’re in touch with our own self we can be in touch with our students That’s why I felt such a close bond with you, Jim, because we both feel and think that way. It’s that reflective part of life that makes life very rich. Jim: What a beautiful way to end our conversation!

Want more? Click on the book covers below for more information on new and past titles by Jim Burke and Laura Robb.