FeatureReview

Staff Reads: Our Experience with Summer Book Club

*Please see this month’s editorial for more context on this article.

Introduction: What We Did

Becoming a “Lifelong Explorer” is one of our school’s “Portrait of a Graduate” goals for all students. As staff members and educators, we want to live into those same goals and values as we aim to mold students into the kind of servants who will care for and restore God’s world. Through conversations with different staff members about how to build community in the framework of lifelong learning and exploration, “Staff Reads” was born. The goal of Staff Reads is to grow in our understanding of topics relevant to our roles as Christian educators and also to provide an opportunity to build community among all staff.[2] 

We shared the idea with the staff in spring 2019, and a variety of people had the opportunity to suggest titles that would be relevant to our work as lifelong explorers. Ultimately, three nonfiction titles were selected, along with a fourth fiction option that is read in one of our English courses (The Hate U Give). Books were distributed at our end-of-the-year luncheon so that staff had the summer to read. During our professional development week in August, staff members who volunteered led discussion groups that ranged in size from six to eight people.

We were able to purchase all the titles through an undesignated monetary gift given to the school. I also sought out educator discounts at Baker Book House (a local Christian bookstore) and Barnes & Noble, which significantly reduced the final cost.

Looking ahead, we plan to choose books for future Staff Reads with specific themes in mind. Our 2020 theme will be “Culturally Competent,” which is another goal from our “Portrait of a Graduate.”

Nick DeKoster, director of academic and innovative programs

Review of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood by Jean Twenge

Jean Twenge’s iGen is compelling, enlightening, and at times frightening. As a social worker, I felt most drawn to the research pertaining to the emotional well-being of the iGens (kids born after 1995). These kids are experiencing a mental health crisis, with a rise in anxiety, isolation, and fear that ranges in expression from social rejection to terrorism. The culprit, Twenge argues, is technology but, more specifically, constant connectivity to a virtual world of text messaging, social media, video games, and news stories. Since the smartphone was introduced, iGens (and their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents) have been able to consume the contents of the internet 24/7, which has resulted in less face-to-face interaction and more comparison, horror stories, and instant gratification at our fingertips. Young people are especially vulnerable to what they read, hear, and see due to their developing emotional regulation skills, and they have become even more at risk without moderation or supervision. Reading this book changed how I wanted to speak to students and parents about cell phone use, and since then I have created more opportunities to intervene.[3] 

At the beginning of the school year, Staff Reads provided an opportunity to connect with my coworkers, both professionally and personally, to process the many facets of iGen. Our group was made up of colleagues from different generations and backgrounds, some who were parents and some who were not. We discussed our school’s new classroom policy to leave cell phones behind and our hopes for more meaningful interactions with students. We confided in how difficult it can be, as adults, to put our phones down or regulate the time we spend on our phones. We contemplated how consumerism and the appeal of using the newest technology to keep kids safe have actually created more anxiety and fear in parents.If we had more time, I’m sure our conversation could have lasted another hour and stayed just as stimulating and engaging.

Casey McMahon, school social worker

Review of Becoming Brilliant by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

The main thesis of Becoming Brilliant is “content is not enough.” Students need each of the six Cs—collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence—to be brilliant and successful in life. This book turns the tiger mom concept on its head. The message is directed at a number of stakeholders (teachers, parents, academics), and this is both a strength and a weakness. The book isn’t a how-to manual but more of a Gladwellian soft-science thought provoker. I’ll need to unpack and revisit the messages over time if they are going to influence my teaching practice, and since our group only met once, this limited my processing. I noticed that teachers who are also young parents composed a significant number of our group’s members. For them, the message was directly applicable. As I read the book I was wistful, feeling the “horse was already out of the barn” because both our students and our faculty are already set in their ways[4] . So many of the six Cs seem embedded in affluent white suburban meritocracy, and without anyone outside this experience in our discussion group, we missed alternative lenses regarding the book’s messages. In general, the discussion in our group was thin. Did people really read the book? Did we each feel safe enough to speak our minds? Did some of the participants lack the “confidence” and “communication” Cs themselves? During the school year, the six Cs are present for me in discussions, enlivened by individual teachers’ comments, but they often come up as deficits noted—we expect these things to already be baked into our students. I need encouragement, accountability, and tools to coach students to use these concepts in their daily learning lives. Becoming Brilliant is a valuable read, but there is room for improvement. That is a good thing.

I was thrilled to hear we were going to read together as a community. I read all the books and picked the group to attend that I thought most interesting for teacher engagement. It takes three to five years, according to research, to reach a baseline of teaching expertise, so I knew this was just the pilot, the foretaste of things to come. That we as a school were reading together is what mattered. The biggest weaknesses were lack of facilitation and perhaps lack of direction for the readers when we met together. Someone has to be the facilitator, especially since we lacked experience with this type of activity. Our discussion was primitive, but you do have to start somewhere. We might have set some norms, but for my group, the lack of discussion pointed to either failure to establish trust or to the fact that perhaps not everyone actually read the book. Direction while reading is important, and not all teachers are English teachers, so annotation, sticky notes, and a highlighter aren’t going to be the first thing everyone reaches for when reading intentionally. Establishing reading goals might be useful and could also help accountability. Of course, I enjoyed the process of just sitting and sharing a text with people I am bonded with; serving the God we all worship is precious. Next year let’s pilot again but maybe all read the same book or give more structure and have some continuity by having groups that meet over time. We could even invite students to join. Learning is an adventure that is best done with others. I’m glad we were brought together around meaningful texts!

Mary Pflug, educational support services tutor

Review of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I found The Hate U Give to be a very powerful story that highlights struggles that stem from the past and that we, as African Americans, still face every day. It depicts how, from a young age, we are forced to choose and create false priorities based on society’s expectations. It also points out how racial profiling and gang violence can affect an entire community. The negativity we portray to our children, whether intentional or not, will eventually show up in some way.

I liked that the story draws you in, like you are part of the community. I did not like the strong language or that it had a completely different ending from the movie.

The book is a reminder for me that kids have a lot of issues they face on a daily basis. I am the first person the students encounter each day. My goal as an office staff member is to ensure they receive a warm smile and a positive greeting, so no matter how tough their day starts out, they feel loved, needed, and that their lives matter. Thomas’s story is a strong reminder to reach out and show love and compassion to our students.[5] 

I really enjoyed the Staff Reads activity. Our book was a reminder of how we try to fit into society by wearing a mask and hiding who we really are just to survive. Speaking the truth to find justice can mean opening the door to an unforeseeable future.

In terms of the logistics of the program, I would suggest that administrators set the time for the book discussion meeting far in advance so that all who want to participate in the meeting can make it.

Marlita Paul, administrative assistant

Review of Restless Faith by Richard Mouw

As an English teacher, I of course thought this staff book club idea was a great one. I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but I had already read (and actually teach) the one fiction option in the set—The Hate U Give—so I knew I was in for a challenge already. I in particular don’t read a lot of devotional writing, but I was intrigued by the title of Richard Mouw’s latest book, Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels. The word restless seemed to promise an investigation of how faith “slips and laughs and rallies,” as Dickinson writes (“This World is Not Conclusion”). I was hoping for an honest assessment of how to realistically hold Christian beliefs in modern political society.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get it. While I wanted emphasis on “restless,” the most important word in the title is evangelical. Mouw really wants to talk about whether the word evangelical still holds water in a society where it has been politicized.[6]  His decision, spoiled in the first few chapters, is that it does, and so Christians should continue to use the word. I disagreed with his claim, but I thought perhaps he could explain to me why the word is still important to him. He goes on several tangents in an attempt to do that, discussing the beloved hymns he sang as a kid in church and name-dropping influential evangelical pastors like Billy Graham and other men that I, as a twentysomething, have never heard of. I couldn’t quite figure out how these chapters supported his claim, and I think the problem lies in the fact that every other page in the book has a footnote that reads “____ originally appeared in Mouw’s book ____.” These notes confirmed my sneaking suspicion that Mouw had just collected a bunch of his previous writing and strung it together in a semi-coherent argument, maybe because he just wanted to publish another book. The pieces didn’t flow and didn’t convince me that the word evangelical should be used anymore.

What I did appreciate about the book was his explanation of what evangelical means. I realized as I began reading that while I had lots of feelings about the connotation of the word, I didn’t actually have a working definition of it. I learned some light theology as Mouw introduced me to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, and I have a better understanding now of what people who identify as evangelical believe in and hold dear.

I was pleased to discover that many of the people in my discussion group felt the same way. I was the very informal facilitator of the group, so I had a few questions ready for the group. We didn’t need to use many because we ended up discussing some of our own faith backgrounds and then having a great chat about the word evangelical and the place it holds in the US’s political realm. What I really appreciated about the Staff Reads activity was that it wasn’t just faculty—tutors, office staff, counselors, and teachers participated. I don’t always get to interact with these staff as much as I’d like, and it was lovely to spend just a few minutes eating lunch together and chatting about the book.

Abby Zwart, English teacher

Works Reviewed

Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us about Raising Successful Children. American Psychological Association, 2016.

Mouw, Richard. Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels. Brazos, 2019.

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Twenge, by Jean. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Atria Books, 2017.