Teachers Benefit from Yearly Book Club

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Each year, our school staff participates in a book club. In the fall, teachers nominate books and introduce them to the rest of the staff. We select one book to read and discuss as a group. Our book club has been instrumental in building community, offering inspiration and unofficially unifying our collective vision as a school.

One of the first books we read was Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. It was a natural choice for us because of our school’s focus on environmental education. Louv’s book describes research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. The book not only validated our mission to connect students with the outdoors, but also helped us focus our vision and school philosophy. We even bought extra copies to keep in the office to lend to parents who want to know more.

Another year we read Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama by Daniel Goleman. This book recounts a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and leading Western neuroscientists. We learned about the brain science behind emotions and applied it to working with children. Researchers found that students cannot learn if they are not calm. The book taught us practical steps for calming upset children and described tools students can use to calm themselves. These lessons were especially significant for us that year because we had many children in our school with emotional disorders. As a bonus, we learned how to relax ourselves.

This year’s selection was Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds Its Own Curriculum by Steven Levy. In his introduction, Levy writes about how teachers are in a constant state of preparation or recovery, always feeling as if they are not doing enough. Every book club member admitted to feeling this way, sharing fears of inadequacy and similar struggles with guilt. I was surprised because I teach with an extraordinarily strong group of educators. I was also relieved to learn that I was not the only one experiencing these emotions!

Levy’s book sparked new life into our curriculum planning. After a recent meeting, the sixth-grade science teacher said that Levy’s approach to teaching has pushed her to look at what she does in a whole new way. She was especially inspired by the way Levy integrated subjects. He taught math, science, language arts and history all through an intensive yearlong study of the pilgrims. Our teacher said that she couldn’t wait for the next school year to start so she could put some of the ideas in action. She wondered what essential topic or story would enable her to make connections to other subjects.

Over the summer my colleagues and I read Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, and it has been instrumental in reshaping our approach to discipline. Consistency was one of our school’s biggest challenges in the past: Each teacher set different behavioral expectations for her class. Now we all use similar vocabulary and pull from the same pool of resources when disciplining students. We recommend the book to parents when they have questions about how we handle discipline in school or when they are struggling with their children at home.

The key to being a great teacher is continuing to learn. Book clubs can be an important piece of teacher education. They also offer an opportunity for teachers to socialize with and to support one another. In short, they help build community. Our book club has made us stronger. Sure, it requires a little extra time outside of school, but it’s well worth it.

Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.