Outside of a Dog, a Book Review is a Teacher’s Best Friend; Inside of a Dog, It’s Too Dark to Read— Or: So Many Book Recommendations So Little Time

Jan Karsvlaam recently took a hiatus from teaching seventh grade science at Terra Ceia Christian School in Pantego, North Carolina after an experiment using lard to teach students about the insulating properties of whale blubber resulted in the largest lard fight the state has ever known. Karsvlaam is reportedly applying to be assistant principal in several Christian schools, saying the lard experience “taught me a lot about classroom management.” Terra Ceia is still getting lard out of the ventilation system. 

Principal Bentley VanderHaar asked Bedlam Christian’s remarkable staff to make a few suggestions to help fellow teachers who might be looking for some good summer reading that can help them improve their teaching. The following is a sample of what he found in his mailbox in response to this request:

Name: Gord Winkle

Position: industrial arts teacher

Book Recommended: Spam-Ku: Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf, by John Cho

Review: As teachers, one of the most important things we can do is be knowledgeable about more than our own disciplinary area. As an industrial arts teacher, of course I know about chop saws, how to weld, and the difference between types of hardwood, but in my interactions with students, I also need to know about other subjects. What I love about the book Spam-Ku is that, like a good integrated unit, it brings together elements of home economics and literature studies. Consider this offering of Cho’s: “Mother’s rough finger/ stirs water into the Tang/ and glazes the Spam.” Combining themes of maternal love and culinary creativity, this sort of poetry may be just the ticket for me to connect with some of my students who don’t know a Phillips-head screwdriver from a socket wrench—but you can bet they know what Spam is. Just writing about it is making me drool. I am going to go make a sandwich.

Name: Christina Lopez

Position: English teacher

Book Recommended: The Multicultural Mystique: The Liberal Case Against Diversity, by H. E. Baber Review: Joining the staff at Bedlam as its first Latina teacher, I had the joy of widening my cultural background as I explored a new cultural setting. Unfortunately, my attempts to do so were often cut short by well-meaning colleagues. For chapel, I was asked to speak on the church in Latin America. Home economics students came to me for a flan recipe. The head of my department asked if I was interested in introducing a unit on Latino literature to the sophomore curriculum. All of this was meant kindly, as a way of appreciating my background. I understood that, but I also felt trapped. I was “the Latina teacher” and nothing else. People’s attempt to respect my background actually limited my self-expression. The Multicultural Mystique will challenge many good-hearted people to reevaluate their positions on multiculturalism.

Name: Jon Kleinhut

Position: librarian

Book Recommended: Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, by Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon

Review: Listen, if the brokenness of sin is complete, what do you think that does to the truth? It makes it hidden and secret and hard to get a handle on, right? Now I am not saying that the conspiracy theories in this book are real—I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that. I am just saying that we have a responsibility to learn the truth, right? Now, let’s be honest here, if your principal catches you reading a book like this one, he or she is likely to get one of those expressions that mean everyone thinks you are crazy or something. So do what I do: laugh it off. Pretend like the whole thing is a big joke. In the meantime, though, you’ll be reading the real story behind the Ford Pinto, the committee of 300, the Bohemian Club, and the shape-shifting alien lizards from Alpha Draconus who are really calling the shots on this planet.

Name: Rex Kane

Position: physical education teacher

Book Recommended: Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater From a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You’ll Never Meet, by Kendall Crolius

Review: Back in my college days, the hair of the dog was something I drank Saturday mornings to recover from the night before. Not anymore. Thanks to Kendall Crolius, the expression now means sitting down to enjoy my favorite new hobby—extreme knitting. The goal of extreme knitting is to find new sources of fiber with which to make extravagant clothing. This book offers clear and simple instructions for carding, cleaning, and spinning different animal hairs. This book has transformed how I gather material. I like to think of it as “knitting green.” I now only use recycled materials, such as the hair of my golden retriever, for new projects. Once I even collected enough of my own hair from the shower drain to knit a holiday scarf for my friend Gord.

Name: Jane VanderAsch

Position: math teacher

Book Recommended: Logicomix: An Epic Search of Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

Review: I have been teaching math for over thirty-five years, and frankly I have seen just about everything. Sometimes I feel like there is nothing new under the sun and the only thing I can get really passionate about is my retirement. Recently, though, my nephew Jimmy gave me a copy of Logicomix. It is a graphic novel (which doesn’t mean what I first thought it did!). Graphic novels are, as near as I can figure, overgrown comic books. Of course, this was a little out of my normal reading (I usually only read true-life murder mysteries set in Australia), but my nephew forced me to read a couple of pages, and I got hooked. This book is the story of Bertrand Russell, that great mathematician and philosopher, and how he struggled to make sense of his own childhood and also find real truth. As he bounces from mathematics to philosophy he runs into people like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Godel! This book got me excited about mathematics again for the first time in well over a decade. If you teach math, you should buy this book. (I don’t know about sharing it with the students, though. There are a couple of mildly racy bits—in a math book!)

Name: Cal VanderMeer

Position: Bible teacher

Book recommended: What’s So Amazing About Grace?, by Philip Yancey

Review: Yes, it is an older book. Yes, it was a bestseller that many of you may have already read. Yes, it is not directly related to any particular discipline at school. Still, this book is maybe the single best explication of grace I’ve ever read. Yancey is faithful to scripture and to logic as he gets us to see (some of us, maybe, for the first time) how scandalous grace is and how necessary. We all stand in desperate need of receiving it, but we so often fail to impart it. Yancey shows us stories of ungrace and of grace, and in both cases we see how powerful and life-altering grace truly is. As teachers in a Christian school, what better book than one that reminds us of our ultimate goals, not just in teaching, but in living a life worthy of Christ.

Name: Bentley VanderHaar

Position: principal

Book Recommended: How to Deal with Parents who are Angry, Troubled, of Just Plain Crazy, by Elaine McEwan-Adkins

Review: Let me be honest with you: I haven’t actually read this book. Look, my day is filled with everything from unclogging stuck toilets because the janitor is at the hardware store buying new plungers, to trying to settle a dispute between a kid who claims that another kid jammed a rock up his nose, and the second kid who claims that the rock going up the first kid’s nose was an accident. Besides that, I average four meetings per night. I’ll read when I retire.

Until then, though, I have found this book to be terrifically helpful nonetheless. I keep it on a corner of my desk. When disgruntled, upset, or irrational parents come to talk to me, their faces twisted in anger, I make some excuse and leave them alone in my office for a while. When they see the title of the book, I think they get so embarrassed that I might think of them as falling into one of the categories on the cover of the book that when I come back in, they merely encourage me for the great job our school is doing and depart sheepishly. It is the best book I have ever owned.