stephanie jones

great books we can learn from

I love fiction. I love staying up too late reading one more chapter in a book that I simply can’t close…not yet. I love thinking and speculating about the authors of books – about their craft, their social theories, their perspectives on education, their lives. Initially I choose books that hook me right away, but ultimately my favorite books push me intellectually when I am left contemplating the meaning of life, what I should do with my own in particular, and what “this all” has to do with education and society.

I also love nonfiction, especially when authors can popularize it by crafting informational texts in a way that engages a broad audience. When I read informational books that are well-written, they inspire me to reconsider the ways in which “teachers” of all ages of students present “content” and the kind of content we are presenting.

Some books that have pushed me recently:

Channeling Mark Twain by Carol Muske-Dukes is a must-read if you’re into poetry, literature, prison politics, and social justice. Holly, the protagonist, finds herself in complex situations where her ideals around social justice and feminism collide with material lives lived inside and outside a women’s prison walls. Fast-paced narratives are woven into the fabric of the poetic novel, the history of poetry and poets, and high/low brow poetry. This book will push you to make intertextual readings with familiar poems and research those unfamiliar to you – but particularly if you are a die-hard social justice warrior, it will make for great conversation about the age-old questions and debates about “power” “oppression” and “justice.” Everyone will enjoy being carried into the prison on Riker’s Island, if they haven’t been there themselves, to critically rethink the problems in our society and criminal justice system…and by default, our education system, social class, race, gender, and sexuality.

Blessed Unrest: How the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world by Paul Hawken is my new favorite book:). Call me slow, but I’ve been a bit resistant to talk about social justice issues alongside ecological justice issues, with my emphasis always on social justice. This book has offered me a new perspective, however, and I have a much better understanding about how free market fundamentalism, for example, not only marginalizes and dehumanizes workers and creates a greater disparity between the wealthy and the poor, but it also simultaneously destroys our planet. I began to imagine, in a way I haven’t before, how local/global “glocal” education that ties together ecological and human rights issues can firmly ground children and all of us to living locally, thinking globally, and inspiring hope and action in a way that could fundamentally change the materialism, consumerism, individualism that fuels classism and classist behaviors. Fighting for living wages, job security, and workers’ rights could be lived beside lessons on living simply – lessons we could learn from folks who don’t have the economic resources to produce much waste or emissions in the first place.

This book is engaging, informational, very well researched, and inspiring. Have fun reading it!

Prep: A novel by Curtis Sittenfeld

Working-class girl from the Midwest of the US gets a scholarship to attend a boarding school in the northeast and finds herself in the complex web of class relations both at school and then – to her surprise – at home with family. Delicious novel ripe for discussions about the gap in educational opportunities afforded to different classes of students, the gap in social and extracurricular opportunities afforded to different classes of students, and the complexities of attempting to straddle those vast gaps through class mobility.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

Fabulous book for literature buffs and any teacher of literacy/language arts. This genre-morphing, story of stories, story writers, and story readers will provide hours of fun for educator friends interested in the roles of narratives in our every day lives. Social issues abound, waiting to be explored through the lens of the main character (gender, criminal justice system, class, consumerism, family structures, and language are some ripe for exploration) as well as through the lens of literature’s purposes in society and lives. Pay attention though, or the narrative and literary theories woven throughout the text may get lost in your enjoyment of the fast-paced narrative itself.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A brilliant novel that explores the depth of class relations in Afghanistan and then in the United States. I couldn’t put this book down, even with disturbingly vivid descriptions of exploitation and abuse that made me wonder if there is hope for peace and respect in our world. Themes of religion, education, class, sexuality, gender, and war are ripe for picking throughout and can lead educators to think about how educational systems work, how we want them to work, and what we can do to create change.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Not quite the page-turner as his debut novel, but Hosseini doesn’t leave his readers disappointed in the least. This time with a lens on gender and class relations from the perspectives of girls and women, Hosseini more explicitly narrates experiences with education – both formal and informal – as well as the horrors of war and the impact on educational opportunities, aspirations, and ideology in schools. I am foregrounding, of course, issues that educators may like to ponder while reading this book, but the author continues his rich exploration of political, geographic, social, and economic structures that both oppress and liberate.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

The language of Brooks’ novel is delicious. She is proof that one can master a discourse outside her contemporary time and place – she takes readers to the year 1666 and forces them to imagine another moment in history when real crisis forced real people to make decisions about how to live their lives. I delighted in reading every page of this book, and in the end I was left with wondering why – and how – class, gender, and education are still intertwined so similarly more than three hundred years after this historical fiction was set. What are the crises facing us today (locally, regionally, nationally, globally), and how do we choose to live our lives in the face of such crises? These two questions might make for powerful discussion among many groups of people.

  1. What a great list Stephanie. I’m going to put it on my blog so others can have access to it too.

  2. […] my former T.C. professor, has a great list of books on her blog, Engaged Intellectuals, that will push your thinking about education and society. Unless you’re at the Univ. of Georgia, it’s going to be hard for you to take a course […]

  3. Thanks Stacey! Your blog is just terrific. Congratulations on making such a great impact on such an expansive audience!!

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