My 2021 in Books

While still trapped in a pandemic this year, I was able to mentally and emotionally escape it with some wonderful books. I began 2021 on a reading tear, way ahead of my goal of 33 books, but my pace slowed in the fall as I found myself producing more writing than I was consuming through books. I finished the year with 35. Here’s my attempt to look back on and capture my journey through books.

Book clubs and rereading
I owe gratitude to two book clubs that I joined in 2021. The first, the “Continuing the Conversation” group at my school, was a socially-minded book club of 10-ish staff members at my school who gathered on Zoom to discuss books, podcasts, and thought-provoking articles. In the spring we discussed two juggernauts: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. Both were amazing and the perfect books to discuss in the company of other educators. I found myself referencing The Autobiography of Malcolm X many times after reading it. It even moved my colleagues and me to visit Malcolm’s gravesite to pay homage to him on his birthday. As a white teacher, Mis-Education got me questioning all sorts of things — including the appropriateness of a bunch of white folks reading it in the presence of a Black person. Both books moved me to learn more about Malcolm and Woodson, so I read Black Minded by Michael Sawyer and Fugitive Pedagogy by Jarvis R. Givens.

The other book club that I was a part of was organized by two teachers at MƒA and focused on Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 2020, but found most of it so dense that I needed to reread it this year to better understand Freire’s message. Let’s just say I think I need another reading! I’m slow.

Speaking of rereading, I reread four other books this year: The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I loved each of these books the first time I read them on paper, but this year elected to listen to them as audiobooks. Appealing to my growing love for the spoken word, this was a refreshing experience and offered me new takeaways.

I don’t often read books about education — like pedagogy — mainly because they can feel textbook-y and make me feel like I’m back in college. That said, I was pulled to read these five: Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl, Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman, Ratchetdemic by Christopher Emdin, Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen, and Teaching Math with Examples by my friend Michael Pershan. I’m grateful that I picked them up because they were all great. In their own unique way, each got me rethinking my practice and experimenting with what I do every day. Emdin and Gillen were more big picture — more theoretical — nudging me to reevaluate some of my assumptions. Liljedahl, Pershan, and Feldman piled on the research, but were more practical. Liljedahl and Pershan even compelled me to write blog posts about their books (here and here).

In an interesting twist, two books found me by way of recommendation. The first was All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum, which was gifted to me in June by a history teacher at my school. The book was more endearing than I expected and filled my heart. If I’m ever in need of a good pick-me-up, I’m reaching for it.

The second recommendation was from a student. Last year — as miserable as it was — I often used class time to discuss all sorts of things with my kids. One day, a student and I got to discussing books and I asked her if she had a favorite. Without hesitation, she introduced me to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Based on her enthusiasm, I vowed to read it and eventually did two months later. It was a superb book that made me angry, made me laugh, and made me want to cry all on the same page. In a unique turn of events, she invited me and two colleagues (who also read the book upon her recommendation) to a Zoom chat to discuss the book over spring break. Our unforgettable talk lasted an hour and was one of a few bright moments during what was a somber school year.

My growing appreciation for storytelling permitted five works of fiction to meander their way onto my reading list this year. Three of them, in particular, were excellent: The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and The Underground Railroad also by Colson Whitehead. I was inspired to read The Queens Gambit and The Underground Railroad partly because I wanted to watch the novels play out on TV while I read them (each has its own series on Netflix and Amazon, respectively). I would read a few chapters and then watch an episode or two of the series and continue doing this until it was finished. It was captivating to have an image of a book in my mind and then see it recreated on TV a few days later. This experience reinforced the story and its message and I found myself more invested in it than I would have been otherwise.

At some point this year I realized that I was reading a lot of history. First, there was the audiobook of Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, which was lively and highly engaging. Then there was The World’s Fastest Man by Michael Kranish, a stellar biography of cyclist Major Taylor which I read while watching this year’s Tour de France. After a trip to the Schomburg Center in early summer, I was encouraged to learn more about the Mississippi Freedom Schools from 1964, so I read The Freedom Schools by Jon N. Hale, which I loved. Another was The Strike That Changed New York by Jerald Podair, which struck close to home and revealed an important side of New York City and the UFT that I didn’t know about. It also compelled me to listen to the School Colors podcast, which was outstanding.

Honorable Mentions
There are four books that I read that don’t fall into any of the above categories, but deserve to be highlighted. The first is Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis. I’ve seen this book on so many reading lists through the years, how have I avoided it for this long? Stirring and unafraid, Davis speaks truth to power. She makes plain how our struggles in the US around justice are necessarily situated in the global struggle for freedom. The next is The Devil You Know by Charles M. Blow. Astute and persuasive as hell, this one was hard to put down. In addition to jibing with his call to action for Black folks living in America, I really appreciated Blow’s writing. He packed a punch with style.

The third honorable mention is The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova, which was utterly fascinating. Having never played poker before, she vividly shares her grassroots training and attempt to conquer the World Series of Poker. She took me into the game from a psychologists’ perspective and on the way showed me how poker is a perfect model for the messiness of life. I’m not a poker player in the least bit but fell hard for her book. The last book I have to lift up is Conpassionomics by physicians Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli. Although centered on the important role compassion has in the medical field, this book had a significant impact on my pedagogy and how I think about my students. Not only that, but it galvanized colleagues at my school to reflect on how and why compassion shows up in our practice. The experience was so uplifting that it led me to facilitate a one-hour workshop on compassion at MfA’s Summer Think conference in July.

Here’s to another year of reading — and escaping.


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