Summer Reading

I’ll admit that this summer I read at least as much detective fiction as I did books for work, Sherlock Holmes and Kurt Wallander jockeying for time alongside more educational titles. Summer should be a time for books on a towel in the sand, and I’ve always found Håkan Nesser more welcome at Moonlight Beach than Carol Dweck. Well, maybe I’m making that up; Mindset should be read everywhere.

Three books stood out to me this summer as interesting reads before starting the school year at Diegueño Middle School: Getting to Calm by Laura S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt, The Drama Years by Haley Kilpatrick, and Secrets from the Middle by Elyse S. Scott. I liked the combination of these three, as they addressed the three major forces working with kids: Parents, Students, and Teachers.

A parent myself, Getting to Calm was a great reminder of the importance of keeping perspective and poise when raising kids. I have two elementary age kids at home, and see opportunities in my parenting them to make decisions that will support, encourage, and help them grow. I also know that at some point, sweet as they are, they’ll probably call me names. Well, at least roll their eyes and make a decision or two that I wouldn’t at this point in my life. As a middle school principal, I know that the same is true of my work with my 900 or so 7th and 8th graders. Staying grounded, understanding options, listening with empathy, and creating a plan that can lead to positive results is as important to a school administrator as it is a parent, and both the dad and principal in me appreciated the clarity and common sense in the book.

With specific examples (that rang true, based on my own parenting experience of a now 24 year old, as well as my 20 years in education), Getting to Calm helped to underscore the power a family has in determining a student’s success. Parents shape their students’ lives, and the scenarios in this book underscored the importance of the choices we parents make as we respond to the decisions of our tweens and teens. Adolescence isn’t a time without challenges, but when families and educators work together these challenges can be opportunities for growth. I could see this as a nice resource for parents navigating the waters of adolescence for the first time.

Another good guide for the tempest of middle school is The Drama Years. Subtitled “Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School –Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More,” the book stresses three hallmarks of a plan for staying safe, sane, and strong in 7th and 8th grade: finding an “anchor” activity, having a “big-sister” type mentor, and giving back to the community. While I’m usually dubious of books with hyperbolic titles, the points made about these three tools for success were spot on. I’ve seen thousands of students in my time as a teacher and school administrator, and overwhelmingly those who struggle most are those who lack the perspective that all will, ultimately, be well.

To have an activity separate from school classes (acting, singing, athletics, robotics, tai chi etc.), to have someone to talk with (a mentor, older teen or adult, who can listen with empathy), and to have the understanding that comes from volunteering (that while middle school is tough, life can be even tougher for some), these things help girls (and boys) put the daily, and very real, stresses of their school experience in perspective. As I strive to make Diegueño a place where students feel connected, supported, and free to become the people they will be, The Drama Years was a nice primer on the challenges students face and how we as adults can help them do more than survive; we can help them succeed.

Secrets from the Middle was recommended to me by our superintendent, and was an interesting read from the point of view of a retired middle school English teacher who maintained that success in the classroom was more than just vocabulary lists mastered or sentences diagramed. Her premise in this thin but powerful book was that teachers need to allow themselves to be human as they work with students, to stay true to themselves as they connect with kids. With 30 years of teaching experience, hers was a voice I’d like all my new teachers to hear. She stayed positive, real, and honest about what it’s like to work with 7th and 8th grade students. Stressing structure, engagement, playfulness, and rigor, she described a teaching philosophy that was good for kids. As she said well, “I rarely backed off from my guiding principles through the years, and I let students know why I believed in them.” Engaging students in the “why” of things not only helps them in school, but helps them in life.

True experience can only be won on the ground, not read about in books, but these three short volumes were a great addition to my professional bookshelf, and provided nice perspective on the middle school years before classes begin on August 26th. It’s then I’ll look forward to watching great teachers connect with kids, have opportunities to keep calm, and do my best to keep the drama confined to our two periods of theater. I know that every year brings challenges, and I honestly feel that after reading these three books I’m a little better prepared for whatever happens when soon, to put it in Sherlockian terms: “The game is afoot!”

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