Parent/Educator Resources
Parent/Educator Resources
Memoir, Biography, and Autobiography Books
Book Reviewed: Chavis, Ben, with Carey Blakely. (2009). Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City.

Why should parents read this book? This is a story of what can happen when a driven principal is given nearly 100% autonomy and authority to run a small school the way he sees fit. It’s a good example of how small schools can be transformed through the heroic efforts of one individual.

This book essentially tells the tale of the rise of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland during Ben Chavis’s reign as principal, in which the school went from being one of the worse performing academic schools into one of the best academic performing schools in Oakland. The school eventually won the National Blue Ribbon Award. Ben’s techniques as a principal were, shall we say, a bit unconventional.

Don’t expect a principal like Ben Chavis to be successful in your local middle school. Many communities and parents simply will not tolerate a principal such as Ben Chavis, as they will consider him to be egocentric, politically incorrect, and mean to kids. That said, this is an important book to read because it gives you an idea of an educational approach which may work in certain neighborhoods and with certain schools.

Why should teachers read this book? Running the school like a business and with a ruthless hand toward anyone who disagreed with his methods, Ben successfully transformed the 200 student population into a school of high performing kids. If you love strong-armed principals who don’t hesitate to make decisions and who enjoy altercations with those in power, you will probably love this book. If you don’t like principals telling you what to do, this book will not resonate with you.

Adopt some of the practices Ben Chavis uses in the book. Stop listening to your students whine and complain about what they don’t have or can’t get or how they are being mistreated by other adults. If you feel daring, talk like Chavis and tell your students to strap on their “big-boy” or “big-girl” pants and suck it up and start working hard.

Overall evaluation of the book: A telling example of what can happen when a school is run by a mostly benevolent, politically incorrect dictator. If you are school shopping, you may want to find a principal like Ben Chavis for your child. You may not like their methods, but you will like the results in some of the basic subjects. On the other hand, just don’t expect lots of creativity to spring forth from buildings run by principals like Chavis. Creativity and dictators rarely go hand in hand. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Eggers, Dave. (2006). What is the What. San Francisco: Vintage Books.

Why should parents read this book? What is the What is the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war who eventually came to America via Ethiopia and Kenya and settled in Atlanta as one of the famous “lost boys of Sudan.”

This is a good reminder of the hardships many refugee families and individuals continue to face after arriving in the United States. For many, the difficulties continue, albeit though in different forms and perhaps not with life or death outcomes, but problems persist. Your middle school child will almost certainly come in contact with children of refugees who have entered the United States from all over the world. Your child will need empathy and understanding and a willingness to learn from these strangers in their backyard. A first step will be for you to be conversant and aware of the plight many refugee families have overcome and the obstacles continuing to litter their path.

Why should teachers read this book? Have meaningful discussions with your students about the new families in the school. Don’t fall back on stereotypes and assume you know everything there is to know about the family which has moved into the house or apartment just down the block from the middle school. If your class doesn’t know anything about the new kids in the neighborhood, encourage them to do a little research and to introduce themselves to their new neighbors. There’s nothing like personal contact to unfreeze relations between cultures.

Don’t, however, make the incorrect assumption—and don’t let your students make wild assumptions either—that the new family in the area is inferior or subordinate in any way. They merely have had different experiences than their own family. Tell your students to imagine how they would feel if they were suddenly dropped into a foreign country with little understanding of the language or local customs? The simple things in life would suddenly become very difficult.

Overall evaluation of the book: A great read about the horrible circumstances which affected—and continues to affect—refugees from Sudan. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Esquith, Rafe. (2004). There are no Shortcuts: How an inner-city teacher-winner of the American Teacher Award—inspires his students and challenges us to rethink the way we educate our children. New York: Anchor Books.

Why should parents read this book? If you want to read a first-hand account of a superstar teacher who cuts against the grain and marches to his own drummer, this is a good selection for you. It’s also an interesting book to read because it pokes fun at many of the things we know can be problematic in education—administrators who can’t think outside of the rulebook, silly union rules, and school boards which continually chase after the next great school reform which will save the educational system.

But be careful of judging your child’s teachers too harshly when comparing them against Rafe’s grueling work schedule. Not many teachers are willing to work 60-70 hours a week for $50,000 a year and have no weekends free. Would you? (Essentially, this is what Esquith does.)

Why should teachers read this book? Rafe works his students hard. Many of them arrive to school at 6:30 a.m. and leave school at 5:30 p.m. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture for his students because he tells them there are no shortcuts and they better be prepared to work hard if they want do well in his class. While teaching his poverty-stricken students, Rafe accepts no excuses and doesn’t even pretend that life should be fair—because in his mind it is not. Even though other kids may have more money and their parents’ English speaking skills are more refined, and their parents are better connected in the community, he doesn’t accept any of these as excuses for a student not to work hard.

Take the major educational themes that Rafe Esquith uses in his classroom and incorporate them into your own classroom. For example, follow his lead and tell your students constantly, that “There are no shortcuts. Be nice. Work hard.” There is much wisdom in such simple declarative statements. Stop listening to your students whine and complain about all the problems and obstacles preventing them from doing this or that. Ask yourself what Rafe would do. (Hint: He’d tell them to quit complaining and start working.)

Overall evaluation of the book: Traditionalists will love this book because the author doesn’t excuse poor effort and behavior from anybody—including students, administrators, and fellow teachers. It is also a testament to what the human spirit can accomplish when driven by an intense passion. If you are a parent, you’d probably want Rafe—or someone like them—to teach your child. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Moore, Wes. (2010). The Other West Moore: One Name, Two Fates. New York: Random House.

Why should parents read this book? Two individuals named Wes Moore lived in Baltimore, a few streets apart from one another. One of them is now currently in prison servicing a life sentence for murder while the other is a successful author and US army veteran. The book is an intriguing view into the circumstances that existed at the time both West Moore’s were growing up and sheds some light as to why one of the individual’s lives turned out so badly while the other one’s life turned out so well. The book goes back and forth from one Wes Moore to the other Wes More, highlighting both the lows and highs in each individual’s life.

This is a good example of how important a supporting family environment is to a child growing up. When reading this book, it becomes abundantly clear that the Wes Moore, who eventually ended up in prison, had very little parental supervision and family support, while the other Wes Moore, who had a determined mother and helpful grandparents, who spent their retirement money so their West could attend military school, had lots of parental supervision and family support. It’s a very clear reminder on why some kids make it and some kids don’t—a lot has to do with the proximity of their parents, other role models and how often they have contact with them.

Why should teachers read this book? If your students try to disengage from you, remember the message of this book and work hard at keeping them under your wing and under close supervision. Give them room to grow and become more independent. But under few circumstances should middle school kids be left to their whims the vast majority of the day—especially if they have little to no contact with positive and supportive adults. Never, ever, give up on a middle school kid, even when they make it hard for you to like them.

Overall evaluation of the book An interesting read which supports the importance of the family and supportive adults. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Pausch, Randy. (2008). The Last Lecture. New York: Hyperion Books.

Why should parents read this book? This nugget of wisdom is all about what you would say if you knew you were going to die. What advice would you give the world? What would you say? How would you recommend people lead their lives? Well, in Randy Pausch’s case, this scenario was real and he detailed his thoughts in this famous reflection of his life.

Both you and your middle school child are given one life to live. Help your child by living your own life to the fullest and then help your child by encouraging them to lead an active, wonderful life with lots of different activities and opportunities to interact with people not like themselves, in places they ordinarily would not go. The message of this thin book is timeless. It’s really not about Randy’s horrible cancer or his own personal dream as an Imagineer, but about following your passion in life, accepting feedback from those who work closely with you, and working hard in breaking down any psychological brick walls which try to stop you from achieving your dream.

Why should teachers read this book? This is a good reminder about life and the importance of encouraging kids to step out of their comfort zone and try new things. Middle school kids haven’t been alive on this planet for very long and they don’t have lots of life experiences to draw from. How do they know what they do and don’t like if they haven’t done much? Randy Pausch can reflect back on his life and zero in on a few times that were important to him but he first had to experience them to know he was interested in them.

The moral to your story as an educator is to give your students lots of varied activities and experiences. Get their noses out of textbooks and worksheets and into worthwhile projects which cause them to meet diverse and interesting people. You don’t know where your creative classes and teaching methods will lead your students, but you can be sure of one thing—they are going to remember you. And how do you want them to remember you and your classes?

Overall evaluation of the book: A good reminder that in order to have fond memories, the memories must be first be created. As the phrase goes, “Carpe Diem!” Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Urrea, Luis Alberto. (1998). Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Why should parents read this book? If you can get past the crude language Urrea uses on a regular basis, the book will be a magical glimpse into a culture which may appear alien to you and your child—especially if you are Caucasian and were raised in a Caucasian world. The situations Urrea finds himself are both comical and tragic. Many times you don’t know whether you should laugh or cry at the situations he faces while growing up.

Along his life journey, Urrea lives with a father who once wore a sparkling uniform while he lived in Mexico but who eventually has to work in a bowling alley in the United States. We also meet a mother accustomed to elegant living in aristocratic surroundings who is eventually forced to live in a Tijuana barrio, a grandmother who burns incense to ward off ghosts, Black and Hispanic kids who regularly thump one another and then sit politely side by side in school wearing the same goofy outfits, reflections on what Hispanics had done to cowboys in Laramie, Wyoming to make them hate Hispanics so much, and evenings filled watching American and Mexican soaps on the television.

I am recommending this book because the world is clearly changing into a more pluralistic society—or haven’t you noticed? By approximately the year 2050 the minority will become the majority and the majority will get to experience what the minority have been experiencing for years. By the year 2050, we (adults) may mostly dead but your child will in their late 40’s or early 50’s and living in a very different world than the one they are living in now. Help them prepare for it.

Why should teachers read this book? Ensure that your students have contact with kids of different nationalities and backgrounds. Why? It’s because we all live on the same planet and need to work together so we don’t eventually annihilate one another through war or sheer stupidity. When a new student arrives in your classroom, take the time to have a discussion with them about the background and culture of the “new kid on the block.” Encourage your students to take the initiative to talk with kids they normally don’t associate with. Encourage your students to find out what the other kids like—what books, websites, music, art, and sports do they enjoy? Your primary purpose will be to get your students out of their comfortable box and interacting with other middle school kids, even those who are not exactly like them. Because of what is possible with technology, this should be a lot easier to do than you think it will be.

Overall evaluation of the book: Funny. Irreverent. Insightful. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Yang, Kao Kalia. (2008). The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.

Why should parents read this book? This memoir brings alive the hopes and dreams and trials of a Hmong family as they work to keep their family together during a time of great upheaval and crisis. After reading this memoir, you will realize your own family probably doesn’t have much to complain about and instead has much for which to be thankful for. If your middle school child goes to school or lives in a neighborhood with Hmong families and children, you have even more incentive to read the book. It will help both you and your child understand your neighbors better.

Help your child understand that not all families and children have experienced the same set of events, happenings, and occurrences as what they have. This book is readable for kids with decent comprehension skills and I wouldn’t hesitate to offer it to your middle school child as an opportunity to both improve their reading skills and understanding of Hmong cultures. As a bonus, they may even learn something about themselves—their prejudices, stereotypes, and lack of knowledge about people who are different from them. Engage in discussions with your child about the material in the book. What did they find interesting? What surprised them? What did they learn?

Why should teachers read this book? This memoir tells the story of Yang’s family as they moved into a refugee camp in Thailand, fleeing along with thousands of other Hmong after the American troops pulled out of Southeast Asia in the 1970’s. Yang spent the first six years of her life in a refugee camp, learning how to survive and navigate the peculiarities of living in a place in which few Americans have any comprehension or understanding. Because Hmong has no written language, this memoir is part of her attempt to keep the stories of her family alive for future generations.

Use the learnings in this book to help understand students who don’t have similar family backgrounds. Have some of the classroom activities revolve around the lineage and history of the family. Continually reinforce the belief that family and cultural and geographic differences is what makes the classroom stronger.

Overall evaluation of the book: A solid bridge to better understanding the Hmong culture and history and the obstacles some individuals have had to overcome in order to survive and thrive. Five Stars ★★★★★

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