If you’re like me, you ended the school year with summer goals: work-related tasks, household chores, educational books to read, and so on. You may have been assigned a book by your administrator, or perhaps you’re taking a class that requires intensive reading. As an English major, lifelong reader, and elementary teacher-librarian, I believe in the power of stories. And as much as I enjoy reading books that help me become a better teacher, I also like to read positive and inspirational stories about students and teachers.
So, put down your educational texts for a moment and read a few wonderful stories about teachers who have made a difference or students who come to value the power of education. Here are a few that I enjoyed:
- The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (a YA book): This book is one of my all-time favorites. Run to the bookstore right now and buy a copy because you’ll want to read this again and again. The Wednesday Wars is historical fiction, set in the Vietnam War era; the book is sweet, funny, and makes you think. Holling Hoodhood is a student in Mrs. Baker’s middle school English class. On Wednesday afternoons, all of the kids but Holling leave to go to religious classes at their temples and churches—Holling is a Presbyterian and does not have to go. First, Mrs. Baker puts him to work cleaning erasers and running errands. Eventually, she begins having Holling read and discuss the works of Shakespeare. Throughout the story, Holling is sure that Mrs. Baker is the most strict, hard-nosed teacher ever—until he gets to know her. The two develop a strong appreciation for one another, and in the end, Mrs. Baker learns as much from Holling as he learns from her.
- Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell (a middle grade book): Sahara Special is about a girl, Sahara, who is struggling personally. Her father has left and she is repeating the fifth grade because she has stopped doing her coursework. In fact, she was previously put into a special program and her classmates started calling her Sahara Special. But no one knows that Sahara reads and writes constantly at home and wants to be a writer someday. When Sahara repeats the fifth grade, she gets a new teacher, Miss Poitier, who changes how Sahara feels about herself and school. (Note: If you like this book, read the memoir on teaching by Esme Raji Codell titled Educating Esme. It’s another great read!)
- Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (a middle grade book): Amal is a girl in Pakistan who loves going to school. She loves to read, and her deepest wish is to someday become a teacher. However, times are tough in her small village as well as in her family. She goes to the market alone one afternoon and makes a huge mistake—a mistake that forces her into indentured servitude. The rest of the book focuses on her journey to work her way back home to her books, friends, and school. In a time when we Americans take our education for granted, this book helps show us the true value of schools and teachers.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl (a middle grade book): I was a huge Roald Dahl fan as a kid, but I didn’t read this gem until I was an adult. Matilda is a brilliant little girl, reading like crazy and doing difficult math problems at a young age. However, her parents could not care less about her. She is enrolled in a horrible school where the principal is out to get her. Things seem pretty grim for Matilda until she meets Miss Honey, a teacher who is the exact opposite of the vile Headmistress Trunchbull. In the end, Matilda’s resilience and her connection to Miss Honey make all the difference.
- The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (a middle grade and up series of books): If you haven’t gotten on the Harry Potter bandwagon yet, then let me twist your arm. This is possibly the best series out there in children’s literature. Rowling’s series, mostly taking place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, captures rich and complex relationships between teachers and students. The three main characters—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—learn, grow, and change together thanks to amazing professors like McGonagall, Lupin, and more. Even the cynical Professor Snape has an important role to play in these books. In addition to the theme of school, these books provide fantasy, adventure, mystery, and a focus on friendship and persistence.
- Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco (a picture book): Each year, I read this book to my third-grade library students. And each year, though I’ve read this book many times to my own kids as well as to students, I tear up when I reach the end. Tricia moves to Michigan to live with her father. She has always had trouble in school, and she wants a fresh start. When Tricia learns that she’s been placed in Mrs. Peterson’s class, otherwise known as “The Junkyard,” she is heartbroken. Mrs. Peterson, however, will not let the kids suffer because they are different; instead, she teaches them to see their own gifts and talents, and to show these talents to the world. Even if you don’t teach younger students, check this book out. It will inspire you to be a kind, encouraging, and thoughtful teacher. (If you like this book, you’ll also like Thank You, Mr. Falker, another great read by Polacco.)
There you have it: a list of fabulous fiction books that will guide your teaching as much as any nonfiction texts you’ll pick up this summer. I will leave you with this quote from The Wednesday Wars—and like this quote, the list of books above will give you inspiration, entertainment, and comfort. Enjoy!
"And it really doesn't matter if we're under our desks with our hands over our heads or not, does it?
No, said Mrs. Baker. It doesn't really matter.
So, why are we practicing?
She thought for a minute. Because it gives comfort, she said. People like to think that if they're prepared then nothing bad can really happen. And perhaps we practice because we feel as if there's nothing else we can do because sometimes it feels as if life is governed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
Gary D. Schmidt
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