On My Bookshelf: Lecturer Sarah Leibel
Harvard Teacher Fellows Program Master Teacher in Residence
Favorite book from childhood:
It's a classic favorite: The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Every night when my father came home from work at the family shoe store he would read to me. I have precious memories of this. We marveled together at the puns in this book.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The thing that drew you to it:
I've been collaborating with a high school English teacher who was actually my mentor when I was getting my M.A.T. He has been teaching at a high-need urban school for more than two decades. We are currently coteaching a unit on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Teaching a book is one way to love it. I get to deeply explore the language, the themes, the characters, and the period, with an attentiveness I might not bring if I was reading simply for myself. Yesterday one young woman said the kind of comment that just makes an English teacher's day: "Thinking about how Janie [the protagonist] finds her voice is making me reflect on my own search for voice."
Your favorite genre:
Fiction. When I taught high school I always had this essential question hanging in my classroom: "How do reading and writing help us better understand the world, ourselves and each other?" Albert Camus said, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." For me, it's also where I seek truth, company, mystery, inspiration, escape, and empathy. I don't know what I would do without books.
Favorite book about the craft of writing:
They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein truly demystifies academic writing. This book has been so important to many young writers trying to wrap their minds around what college-level argument writing really is and has helped writing teachers scaffold skills for their students.
Last book you read that surprised you and why:
I loved Kwame Alexander's The Crossover, a young adult book written in free verse poetry, about two adolescent brothers who play serious basketball. The climax really shook me. I was also surprised — and delighted — by the mischief of El Deafo, another young adult read, about a girl whose Phonic Ear, a hearing aid, gives her superpowers, some of which will make you laugh.
The one book you keep meaning to read but just never get to:
The Cave by José Saramago. There, I said it. Now maybe I will get to it this year!
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The first page is incredible and devastating. She begins with, "Jarvious Cotton cannot vote" because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a convicted felon. She describes how five generations of men in Cotton's family were denied the right to vote — by slavery, by the KKK, and by literacy tests and poll taxes. From the very first page this is a call to action.