Better Than Before

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Better Than Before Photo Credit: GretchenRubin.comTheoretically, one of the nicest things about being a teacher is the long summer break. And next summer, I’m sure I will enjoy the break to its fullest (especially with a wedding, honeymoon and hopefully some camping thrown into the mix). But this year, the summer isn’t exactly downtime. After all, I’ve been a full-time student for the majority of the year. With impending student loan repayments, upcoming wedding costs, a big trip to the UK and day-to-day living expenses, I can’t really afford to put my feet up completely. And, as I discovered in this interesting new read from Gretchen Rubin, I actually don’t think I’m wired that way anyway.

Athough I’m working until late August (I’ve picked up some off and on temp work, and continue to write for Avenue Calgary amid other freelancing opportunities), it’s the kind of work that leaves time for fun reading. Enter Better Than Before, the latest offering from the author of The Happiness Project (which, incidentally, was the first book I ever blogged about here). Rubin has a lot going on in this book, which offers up a study of different personality types (which she calls the Four Tendencies), how they are affected by habits (good and bad), and how each type can actively work to develop and foster new habits. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing habits, but Rubin observes that habits and happiness are often intertwined.

I didn’t find that this book broke a ton of new ground (after all, isn’t it just common sense to notice that people are different from one another, and therefore that people are motivated by different internal and external factors as they pursue individual goals?), but what I really liked was Rubin’s straightforward way of explaining why some people find it easier for habits to stick than others.

She identifies a Four Tendencies framework that is really simple, but effective. Broadly, your tendency is your personality type – in other words, whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, a rule follower or a rule-breaker, etc. You can read more about the tendencies on Rubin’s website (or even better, you should read this book). The tendencies are Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel, and according to Rubin, most people are Obligers or Questioners. Even before I came across the quiz at the back, I immediately identified as an Upholder. I'm An Upholder

“Upholders respond readily to both outer and inner expectations: they meet deadlines and keep New Year’s resolutions without much struggle or supervision. Upholders take great satisfaction from moving smoothly through their daily schedule and their to-do lists. They meet others’ expectations—and their expectations for themselves. 

However, Upholders may feel uneasy when expectations aren’t clear, when they’re worried that they’re breaking the rules, or when they feel overwhelmed by expectations they seek to meet. They enjoy habits, and form habits fairly easily.”

It’s not every day that you find most of the core elements of your personality laid out so clearly. I think that because I identified myself so quickly in the Four Tendencies, I really enjoyed what followed, which is Rubin’s (also an Upholder) analysis of habit as it relates to each personality type.

I guess, like the author, I don’t always remember that everyone is not like me (or like each other, for that matter). What I found most useful about Better Than Before had less to do with my own habits – Upholders tend to be pretty self-motivated, anyway – and more to do with other peoples’ habits. For example, I immediately spotted Matt as a Questioner (and I’m sure that he Questioned me asking him to take a personality quiz on the train from Edinburgh to Manchester to confirm my suspicions). His habits are different than mine because his motivations are different. As they should be, because we’re not the same person!

Like I said, I’m not sure the content is groundbreaking if you have a pretty strong awareness of yourself. But this one really stuck with me (kind of like 10% Happier stuck with me), and if you enjoyed The Happiness Project, this will probably be right up your alley.

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A Long Way Home

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A Long Way Home (Photo: Penguin)When I first saw Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home on a table at the bookstore, I knew it was a story that I needed to read.

This book has been getting a lot of great buzz since it came out (most recently, a film deal off the back of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Looks like the movie will be called Lion and production will begin in August). All you need to do is skim the back to know that it’s a captivating story.

Saroo had become lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.

Despite being happy in his new family, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. When he was a young man the advent of Google Earth led him to pore over satellite images of the country for landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for.

How can you pass this kind of story up?

I think what drew me in – aside from the fact that Brierley’s circumstances and story are extraordinary – is that we’re nearly the same age. I’m 29, Brierley is in his early 30s. We grew up (mostly) with the same sense of Western privilege, the same access to technology. But I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my family, to not know where I came from.

This is a really quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone. I polished it off on a single flight to Nova Scotia (Matt and I are spending a couple of weeks on the east coast of Canada, visiting his family, catching up with friends and getting my Anne of Green Gables fix on Prince Edward Island), and I was struck by Brierley’s self-awareness, resourcefulness and tenacity.

Anyone who has a fascination with technology – especially Google – survival stories, resilience and the ‘smallness’ of our very big world needs to read A Long Way Home. I’m so glad I did.

Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.

Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.