Four stirring books for summer reading / Joe Nathan’s Column

Joe Nathan

Readers sometimes ask for advice about books to read over the summer. Here are four books that I think offer a mixture of encouragement, inspiration, passion, perspective, challenge and controversy.

For people seeking inspiration and insight into the challenges and rewards of teaching, I’d suggest two books. The first is “Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach” ( The second is “Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach” ( Both were edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner.

Each book contains dozens of poems and one-page essays by educators explaining how the poem touches them. Contributors include district and charter educators, union leaders and college faculty. These are great books to read for 10 minutes or several hours.

The third book is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson ( It contains extraordinary stories of 6 million African-Americans who moved from the American South to the North between 1919 and 1970. Wilkerson’s parents were part of this movement. Her research included more than 1,000 interviews. The stirring true stories are infuriating and inspirational. The book appeared on many “best books of the year” lists when published in 2010.

Award-winning, controversial and challenging educator Howard Fuller is one of many millions who moved north. I strongly recommend his book, co-authored with Lisa Frazier Page, “No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform” (

Fuller spent his early years with his mother and grandmother in Louisiana. Then the family moved to Milwaukee. His mother married, unfortunately to an alcoholic, abusive man. An outstanding athlete, Fuller was the only African-American at Carroll College in Wisconsin.

Fuller has held an array of jobs. He’s been a business agent for the union of maids, custodians and janitors at Duke University in North Carolina; a community organizer; a co-founder of Malcolm X Liberation University; a dean at Milwaukee Technical College; a Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent; a Marquette University professor; and the founder of Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Fuller has been beaten by police and jailed for his civil rights efforts, which span more than 50 years. His book’s title comes from a speech by civil rights activist Frederick Douglass.

Fuller has become one of the country’s most eloquent, passionate promoters of chartered public schools and vouchers for students from low-income families. I agree with him on the charter idea and disagree about vouchers. But I think that regardless of a person’s position on these issues, Fuller’s insights, involvement and ideas are very much worth considering.

So are his responses to those who insist that he is being “used” by conservative groups: “My criteria for accepting financial support is that it must allow the organizations with which I am most intimately involved to stay true to our mission. … I find it a complete waste of time to debate which people and organizations are considered acceptable donors and which ones are not.”

Some disdain people like Fuller for viewing school choice as an extension of the civil rights movement. Critics should consider Fuller’s decades of expanding and improving opportunities in housing, health care and education with and for low-income African-American families.

Fuller does not believe that schools alone can solve all the problems of youth. But Fuller has concluded: “Education offers the best route out of poverty for individuals. … For me, putting poor children on that path is today’s most urgent struggle.”

I know of no more provocative, passionate and powerful book for people who care about students from low-income families and the schools serving them.

Each of these books offers insights and inspiration that stay with you long after this summer.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.