I’ve heard it said that a book can change your life. And while this might seem cliche or hyperbole, I have lived this experience.
That book finally arrived — nearly one month after pre-ordering — in the middle of midterm report cards, and in the middle of November, one of the cruelest months in teaching. My husband greeted me at the front door, at the end of the school day, a familiar thin brown cardboard package welcoming me with equal warmth.
I had a feeling it was the book that I’d been waiting for so eagerly, and after pulling the perforated tab, sliding the thin volume out, I knew this was the one, its familiar cover art. But, I had no time tonight. I decided,
“Maybe I can pick it up during the scheduled reading at the beginning of class. Maybe this would lift me in the ways that 180 Days had.”
A great deal of unrecognized hope permeated that moment but, I also didn’t realize just how this book could change me in the middle of midterm report cards, in the middle of November, one of the cruelest months in teaching. Each school day has been softened and nourished with 15 to 20 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of class, a practice changed by Kittle and Gallagher’s book. Now, resting into their new book, I began the opening chapter: “Teaching the ESSAY as an Art Form”.
For the past five or more years, I’ve been leading teams of teachers and working to disrupt the five paragraph essay which stubbornly persists with such ubiquity, I have sometimes wondered if my attempts were misguided, or so far on the margins, that I was missing some crucial pedagogical considerations. Then, after reading John Warner’s book, I decided last year to completely abandon this unforgiving form moving instead to personal writing, lots of unstructured writing, and then analysis of secondary sources affirming a student’s own reading of a book as more accurate than a secondary source. They supported their own thinking in writing. I’ll be honest. It was exhausting. I had to facilitate in ways that I’m still processing. I do know one this: these were the most important student essays that I have ever read.
In this silent reading time, I usually gravitate to fiction and leave the nonfiction for after school hours, but hope propelled me forward into the pages. I savoured the phrases that framed the possibilities of essay writing written in the pages of 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency. This didn’t feel like a teacher’s book at all. This felt like art explaining art, metaphor showing me metaphor, and I vibrated with energy and enthusiasm.
“In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a real need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.” (Katherine Bomer, 2016)
This one book brought me out of midterm despair, out of the cruelest month, and into possibilities.