Why the Hell Didn’t Someone Put These Books in My Hand When I Was Younger?

Reflections from our friend Nathan Bowling, Washington State Teacher of the Year. 

I should read more than I do. Everyone should. I think we’d be better off as a nation and a species if we all read more. Teachers have a unique role in fostering a love of reading and engendering an appreciation for the power of books. As I think over my life, most of my philosophical evolution, the changes to my worldview, and pivots on important issues were driven by the written word.

I was a College Republican, until I discovered Orwell. I hated sci-fi, until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. I hated sci-fi, until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought environmentalism was hokey, until I discovered Derek Jensen.I only survived my fourth year of teaching, because I discovered Vicktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” More recently, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” changed how I deal with public acts of racial aggression (I groan—I don’t sigh).

My blog is called “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind.” I try to model in my professional practice and personal advocacy what it means to “learn publicly.”

Two summers ago, I was traveling in Spain and read “The Fire Next Time” basically in one sitting. I turned to my wife, with tears in my eyes, and asked, “Why the hell didn’t someone put this in my hands when I was younger?”

Last school year, following the election, we started a political book club for our students. Baldwin was one of the first selections we read.

Many of my students had the same “scales falling from their eyes” experience that I had on that bus to Gijon. This is what we get to do as teachers. We get to introduce students to just the right book, at just the right moments in their lives.

This is a privilege, but at the same time can be daunting.

Over the last year members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year have curated a “Social Justice Booklist” with selections by grade band and subject matter, and including book recommendations for teachers. It’s a collective effort by some of the best teachers in the country and it’s a great place to start when looking for books for students.

Some of my favorites from the list:

  • “Esperanza Rising,” a middle-grades book, shows the long, complicated relationship between the US and Mexican-Americans looking for a better life and opportunities.
  • “War Against the Weak,” a high-school book, discusses the (often well-intended, but clearly misguided) history of the eugenics movement in the US and elsewhere. I read this book in college with my jaw in my lap.
  • “This is Not a Test,” a book for teachers, written by #Educolor Founder Jose Vilson. Vilson was one of the first folks I saw online describe my own frustration of being a teacher of color, unsatisfied with the status quo, and simultaneously feeling dissatisfaction with the reform movement.

And even though it’s not on the list, for me, put Baldwin in every kid’s hand you can. Don’t let the Nates in your class be 35 before they read “The Fire Next Time.”

An original version of this post appeared on A Teacher’s Evolving Mind as The Power of Books: The NNSTOY Social Justice Booklist.
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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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