Building a Better Bookshelf for School Leaders
Reading books for and about young people can help school leaders center student voices and create school cultures characterized by empathy.
Lately I’ve been exploring young adult (YA) novels in verse. As a poet and former English teacher, I’m embarrassed by how recently I learned that YA novels in verse exist. Then again, I’ve learned innumerable lessons about literature in the past two years—all of which have had a dramatic and positive effect on my work as a school principal.
Two summers ago, I took a long look at my bookshelf and was struck by how much my reading habits had changed since I became a principal. My personal stack was piled high with school leadership books and texts on the neuroscience of learning and best practices in teaching. I realized that while these books certainly deserve a place in a professional library, my stack was remarkably void of stories of personal experiences.
More concerning, not a single book in the stack was one that my students were reading. In my earnest effort to read my way into becoming a more effective principal, I’d missed key books that might help me read my way into becoming a more effective human being, especially with youth. I began to purposefully seek out YA and MG (middle grade) books that spoke to the diverse lived experiences I saw in my school communities.
Centering Students’ Voice and Perspective
I asked my students what books they’d read recently that they loved—and teachers on my staff what books they’d recently loved teaching. I shared that I was seeking new recommendations. I also gathered book lists from Project LIT, the National Council of Teachers of English, and Edutopia. I wanted both the authors and the characters in my new stack to reflect the multiplicity of stories in our school hallways.
Within a few weeks of starting this personal project, I began making references to the stories I was reading. This led the students in my life to notice a shift in my reading habits. They started sending me new titles over text and giving me copies of books they said they knew I’d love. (Let’s pause there. The young people in my life noticed that something was stirring in me as a reader and responded with their own book recommendations. The scholarly habits we model matter.)
Soon, YA and MG texts were flowing into my office. The voices of the characters I was reading became voices in my head. Sometimes a voice was angry, often rightfully so; other times it was awkwardly seeking connection; often it was teaching me something new. In short, characters’ voices—which so often mirrored student voices—had settled in right where they belonged: front and center in my consciousness.
Some books led me down culturally responsive rabbit holes, such as my aforementioned interest in YA novels in verse or my quest to discover more LGBTQIA+ affirming books for students. Often, when reading these YA texts, I met a character who reminded me of a young person I knew and loved. Often I found books I wanted to teach. As a principal, I don’t teach in the same ways anymore, so I gave copies of books to our teachers and initiated more book conversations with students. These moments have changed and improved my school leadership practice: They’ve reminded me of the bridge-building power of literature and provided new opportunities and mediums in which to connect with young people and educators through story, both written and lived.
Reading as Professional Development
Of all the professional development lessons I’ve learned in the principalship, reading strikes me as one we don’t talk enough about. What are principals reading? How often are we reading? Are the texts we choose ones that shed light on a wide range of lived experiences, including the cultures and experiences included in our student body? Do we connect enough with young people through books and reading experiences?
The last two years have affirmed my belief in the transformative power of literature. Reading more diversely has influenced the ways I teach, lead, and live. My new reading habits have also led to several reading initiatives in my school community, including a culturally responsive reading project for teachers, a reading list for middle school leaders, and a project on teaching for antiracism.
The worlds we imagine are based on the worlds in which we live—and this all informs the worlds we hope to create. In a time when so much is in need of repair, the right book might offer a starting place for empathy, understanding, or even action. In short, while the right book might not change the world, it could offer a catalyst for imagining new and better worlds with your students.
Here are 10 YA and MG books I discovered during this journey:
- Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
- Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
- The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney
- For Every One, by Jason Reynolds
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
- With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinkney
- Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
- We Are Displaced, by Malala Yousafzai
- The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis