Personal and Professional Reading: Making Time for What We Love Most

Jim Burke, an English teacher at Middle College at the College of San Mateo, has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and has written more than twenty-five books about teaching and literacy. He has received numerous awards, including the Exemplary Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English and the Distinguished Service Award from the California Association of Teachers of English. In addition to his commitment to his own classroom, he has served as an advisor for the College Board’s Advanced Placement English Language and Literature Courses and Exams Review Commission. This post originally appeared on the Uncharted Territory blog.

Author: Jim Burke

The question I am asked most often by my fellow teachers, whether we are chatting in the halls at a conference, talking about teaching at the Norton booth while they look at a copy of Uncharted Territory, or trading ideas online is: How do you manage to read so much while still teaching full-time? It is a very important question.

Before I talk about how I do all that reading while still teaching (eleventh-grade English the last few years, FWIW) let me say a few things about why I read so much and why I hope you will make time in your personal and professional life this year to read as much as you can. As you will learn when you read “A Personal Prologue,” my literacy narrative in Uncharted Territory, I read very little growing up. In fact, the only book I can honestly recall having read for high school was Bless the Beasts and Children, which turned out to be a life-changing moment for me, though I could not know it then.

As you will see in other literacy narratives in Uncharted Territory, Second Edition, first-generation college students such as myself, Mike Rose, Tara Westover, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and autodidacts such as Frederick Douglass often have some moment of intellectual awakening through an encounter with a book that they stumble upon. Once I began reading after high school, while fumbling my way through that first semester at a local community college and working in a printing factory doing the most menial tasks imaginable (collating the pages of books manually in the bindery, ironically), I became a reader. Once I began reading, I found myself caught up in the virtuous cycle of seeing myself more and more as a student, as a reader, as someone who thought and was curious about things—which led me to read about them, and so it continued. 

Once Jimmy Santiago Baca began reading in the shadowy recesses of his prison cell, there was no way back to the person he had been; so it was for Mike Rose, so it was for Tara Westover, for Frederick Douglass, and for me. Years later, in my first years of teaching, I became friends with Carol Jago, who always asked if I had read the latest New Yorker or some novel by Pat Barker or Toni Morrison, or all the other authors she exposed me to. So I began reading to be able to be part of the conversation with colleagues about books, teaching, and so much more. She was the first of what would become my reading mentors—those people who guide us through the uncharted territory of other lives, worlds, and experiences. But what she really did, as did others along the way in those early years, was make me realize that I wanted to be someone who continued to learn alongside the students I taught, to not lose sight of the pleasure and passion that had led me to want to become an English teacher in the first place.

At the end of “A Personal Prologue,” I explain that when my students ask me what I believe in during those rich conversations we are always hoping to have with our kids, “my answer to this question has always been the same: I believe in education.” But the deeper, more personal answer is that I believe in reading, in that personal journey we must all undertake to become ourselves. As one of my three children said recently in response to my growing passion for fly-fishing, “Oh, you know Dad is really into something when he starts reading about it.”

As for how I get all that reading done? I think it mostly comes down to curiosity. The other day, I listened to Ezra Klein interview Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones on his podcast. They talked about the texts they always teach in their classes for the quality of their writing. Coates went on at length about Kathleen Schulz’s essay about earthquakes titled, “The Really Big One”—I had to read that. And when Hannah-Jones talked about one of Coates’s essays, I went back and read that. This was actually a rare occasion when I listened to a podcast, for they are not texts that we can easily use in the classroom nor which I can include in Uncharted Territory. They are wonderful, but as I am trying to challenge my students through complex texts, they are not of much use to me. What are of great use to me and I highly encourage you to check out are audiobooks. Though I have used Audible for many years, Scribd is a tremendous value for teachers and is a bit more like Netflix for readers. There, for less than nine bucks a month, I can read widely—ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and much more—in the quest for great texts to share with teachers and students in Uncharted Territory.

There are so many other resources I could share and which I find useful, but my point is that it has never been easier to be reading all the time—not out of a sense of obligation but a sense of joy and exploration. At the moment, as I prepare to return to school, I am reading Michael Lewis’s wonderful The Premonition in print in the evenings; listening to David Blight’s magnificent Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom as I make my breakfast and tend to various chores around the house; sipping from Phillip Lopate’s delicious The Contemporary American Essay; sneaking in an essay by David Brooks from the latest Atlantic on all the things he now thinks he got wrong about America in his previous books; spending time before returning to school to read and really think about Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening, which is so insightful and useful; and, finally, because she remains, after all these years, a good friend and constant guide to books, waiting to begin reading the book Carol Jago most recently said I had to read: The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villivicencio.

By the time I sat down to begin sorting and choosing texts for this newest edition of Uncharted Territory, I had about three times more to choose from than I had room to include. But this is what makes Uncharted a special book to me: I am always reading what seems interesting to me but would also be of interest and use to you and all my fellow English teachers. Even now, with this Second Edition finished and coming out, I am already on the hunt for new pieces for the next edition that will come out years from now. In the meantime, you will find me here, in this blog, thinking about the challenges we face together and doing my best to share what I think will help you navigate your way through them in the year ahead.

Leave a Reply