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2021 Summer Reading List: Books that’ll make me a better person

Maybe it’s the heat. Or maybe it’s too much AC.

Either way, it’s been hard to get started on the annual History Tech Summer Reading List. It’s been a tradition for as long as I’ve been in education. Back in the day, Mike Ortmann, a social studies rock star who taught down the hall from me in Derby Middle School, encouraged me to do something besides be a life guard during the summer.

“Read some books.” Mike said. “Talk to some people. Do some research. Get off your butt and become a better teacher,” he said.

So I did. And Mike was right. We need to keep learning, keep asking questions, keep moving forward. And what better time for that than between now and September? So every summer, I make a list of books I plan to read June, July, and August. Long time History Tech readers already know this.

They also know that not once, not ever, a couple of times I came close but never ever, have I actually finished the list.

I’m getting less and less optimistic that it will ever happen. It’s always something. I get distracted. This summer, we’ve got the Olympics and Euro 2020. And my wife and I are in the middle of a move. Don’t hold your breath.

But I am loving my 2021 list. So maybe, just maybe, this is the summer.

Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom
Matthew R. Kay

I ran across this as we were doing some research for a Library of Congress grant project. Despite what some are saying, race does need to be discussed in schools. And it needs to be discussed in appropriate and effective ways. Kay teaches at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and has some amazing tools and suggestions for making this happen. Looking forward to digging deeper into this one.

Reading for Action: Engaging Youth in Social Justice through Young Adult Literature
Ashley S. Boyd

Another book related to some projects we’ve been working on this last year and hope to next fall. The book is divided into chapters focusing on a variety of contemporary issues and ways to use literature as entry points to these topics. We don’t use lit enough as part of our instruction, this book can help us do it better.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Tiya Miles

“This is not a traditional history,” Miles writes in her introduction. “It leans toward evocation rather than argumentation, and is rather more meditation than monograph.” In the mid 19th century, a cotton sack was given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her nine year old daughter Ashley before Ashley’s enslaver sold her. In 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered the sack with an inscription describing the context and content: “. . . a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of Rose’s hair, and ‘my love always’.” Miles uses her detective skills to uncover the faint traces of these women and tell the history of the experience of slavery and the “uncertain freedom afterward.”

Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford

I’ve been to the Alamo. I got scolded by a security guard for talking too loudly. Because apparently normal conversation levels don’t indicate the appropriate level of respect for . . . whatever Alamo relics I was observing at the time. So, no disrespect to my Texas friends, I’m probably predetermined to enjoy this book. And, I get it, creation myths are hard to give up but the authors have done the research. We’ve conveniently chosen to ignore the real reasons for conflict between the Americans living in Mexico and the Mexican government, to forget the contributions of Tejanos who fought alongside the Americans, and the actual events of the battle itself. 

Humankind: A Hopeful History
Rutger Bregman

Bregman suggests that we are hardwired for kindness, geared more toward cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another. Using examples from a real-life Lord of the Flies, the solidarity shown by Londoners during the Blitz, and the hidden flaws in the Stanford prison experiment, Bregman shows us that believing in human generosity and collaboration is more than just wishful thinking. When we think the worst of people, it brings out the worst in our politics and economics. But when we believe in the good in others – what my good friend Tamara Konrade describes as “always assuming positive intent” – we’ll end up saving the world.

I so need this book right now.

Teaching in the Post Covid Classroom: Mindsets and Strategies to Cultivate Connection, Manage Behavior and Reduce Overwhelm in Classroom, Distance and Blended Learning
Grace Stevens

The back cover says that Grace will share positive mindsets and practical strategies that will “cultivate class community, help create effective learning plans, develop confidence using technology, reduce busy work and prioritize engaging curriculum, positively manage behavior, and reduce teacher workloads.

Yeah. I’m good with that.

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945
Ian W. Toll

I’ve had this book on the list for a couple of years. It’s the last of Toll’s three part series on the war in the Pacific and I loved the first two But, in hardback, it weighs at least 31 pounds and costs as much as a car. (Yes. I could read the Kindle version. But we’ve had this conversation before – it’s all about the tactile.) It’s finally coming out in paperback this summer and it might actually fit in my book bag.


It’s been a rough year for so many of you. So it’s okay to back away a bit from the table. But in a week or three, make some intentional time for some personal professional growth. Find a book. Listen to some podcasts. Chat up a colleague. (And if you’re in the Wichita metro area, keep an eye out for the new Kansas Council for the Social Studies Pub Chats. Cold adult beverages. Great convos. Bar patios. The perfect trifecta.)

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