It was meant to explain the importance of nutrition, and in a way, the phrase is literal. Food goes into our bodies and becomes part of us.
With so much streaming and digital consumption nowadays, I'd like to amend that phrase to either "You are what you consume," or "You are what you scroll," or better yet, "You are what you read."
As this school year winds down, here are my favorite books from this year. I've read 23 books cover to cover this past year, and I will break down the best of the best, AKA the ones I unabashedly recommend. However, I must point out this was an odd year of reading for me because I experimented with a boatload of books I didn't finish. I read more sci-fi and YA books, but it turns out I hardly was into any of them.
And let's be real from the beginning. Some I read, but I don't recommend. I probably stuck with them because they were short or easy reads. I found the following few overrated, and I do not recommend them: Drunk Tank Pink (2013) by Adam Alter, Dopamine Nation (2021) by Anna Lembke, Matched (2010) by Allie Condie, Presence (2015) by Amy Cuddy and Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston.
However, those above books should get props — props for marketing or popularity — because I actually did read them. I've heard that only 60 percent of books bought are ever opened. Books finished? That's hard to estimate. What is it? Ten percent, if that?
A couple years ago, I was reading a book about publishing by agent Jeff Herman, who on page 30 said, "If you are actually reading this, please email me and say 'hi.'" I did, and he responded later that day. Let me do the same thing and pretend this is page 30. If you are actually reading this, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and say "hi."
And congratulations to you! You are what you read, not what you scroll. Or you're so good at scrolling, you saw that — an Easter egg.
Without further adieu, here are the top 10 books I recommend from this year. I'll kind of cheat by counting two books by bell hooks as one spot.
1. Teaching Community (2003) and Teaching to Transgress (1994) by bell hooks. I must give props to a friend, Elysse Hind, for pointing me toward bell hooks. I absolutely loved these two books, and bell hooks framed teaching in a way that helps me see each day in the classroom as an act of love.
I've incorporated a lot of hooks' philosophy into my classroom. One huge takeaway is that it's silly to deny students' spirits in public classrooms. Oftentimes, our spirits, or souls, are tied to religion, and so a sad accident can be the denial of the spirit. I feel my basic job as an educator is to connect to students' spirits and uplift them.
Every year, I have students present a book they read to the class. I do the assignment, too, and presented Teaching Community in the fall. Bell hooks then passed away on Dec. 15. I feel fortunate to have read her work while she was still with us.
2. The Courage to Teach (1997) Parker Palmer
Bell hooks mentioned Parker Palmer in Teaching Community, and I looked him up and stumbled across The Courage to Teach. I absolutely loved it.
I was so naive when I started full-time teaching 14 years ago. I thought school was about education. I quickly learned that education only is a sliver of the equation of what school is. It takes courage to actually teach in cultures of assigning work, grading, indoctrination and the hullabaloo of it all.
Palmer inspired me to make an extra commitment to teaching, understand that true teaching is a revolutionary type of action and that I must develop my inner spirit to support my students.
4. The Biggest Bluff (2020) by Maria Konnikova
I liked this book so much I went back and read Konnikova's The Confidence Game (2016) too. Was I a mark for liking these books so much?
With poker legend Erik Seidel as her mentor, Konnikova becomes a legitimate poker player and celebrity, despite saying she knew nothing about poker and wanted to approach it from a psychologist's perspective. It was fun to read about her poker development and emotions during her wild ride to poker prominence.
5. How to Do Nothing (2019) by Jenny Odell
Bird watching is actually bird noticing. We're probably not going to see them, but listen. They're there.
With so much buzz and so many unintentional grabs of the cell phone, Odell helped me see that a lot of the "I'm on the phone too much" feelings I have are universal. Nowadays, it perhaps is an art form to simply do nothing and just be. This book helped me reclaim my life after being stuck in screen-time warp of daily nothingness.
9. Kids These Days (2017) by Malcolm Harris
I must admit that this Gen Xer falls into the trap of stereotyping my millennial brethren. Do they really know hard work? Do they ever look up from their phones? Is it possible to have a phone conversation with them?
The great thing about Kids These Days is that Harris dispels millennial stereotypes and has me see how human capital has shifted in the digital age. The reality is that millennials are doing more and getting less than previous generations. They're more educated than previous generations, but they're often buried under student-loan debt. Their extra education likely doesn't reflect their income.
If I can build off of Kids These Days, I will point out that the trends mentioned in the book are increasing with Gen Z. I see the modern culture of youth to be this anxiety-ridden, phone-addicted trudge to college. Ugh. It's basically counterculture for a teenager to have a healthy work-life balance. And how is that going to miraculously change when they're older?
10. Self-Compassion (2018) by Kristin Neff
For the final pick, I got to go with Self-Compassion. It edges out a bunch of books that I also recommend, including Digital Minimalism (2019) by Cal Newport, The Selection (2012) by Kiera Cass (a rare YA read and recommend from me), Play (2009) by Stuart Brown and Revolutionary Wealth (2006) by Heidi and Alvin Toffler.
As sad is it might sound, I never even knew self-compassion to be a concept until recently, and I see it as vital to one's health and to how one treats others. How can we truly be kind to others if we're not kind to ourselves?
Perhaps I grew up to understand that selfishness was bad and we should do our best to help others. Unfortunately, how we treat ourselves got lost in the shuffle for me. Self-care is huge nowadays in schools, and I agree that it's hugely important for educators and students. However, I see self-compassion as a precursor to self-care, and I believe we owe it to ourselves — and others around us — to treat ourselves with kindness.