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Monday, November 8, 2010

Suggested Reading In A Warm Spot On A Cold Night

Today's surprise snowfall is a stark reminder of the vagaries of weather and the premature arrival of winter. I enjoy this season, in part because of the holidays that bring people together and serve to remind us to re-examine our priorities and be thankful for the good fortune we too often take for granted. And, although I appreciate the beauty of winter and the unique opportunities to experience the snow, I use the real cold weather to be a great excuse to find a warm and comfortable spot at home to relax and appreciate a good book.

If you also use the frigid temperatures (my apologies to skiers, snowmobilers, and especially people who ice fish) as a reason to seek comfort in an interesting story then I will gladly share a few books that you might find interesting. First, I hope that you've checked out the books listed in my profile as my favorites. But, the books I will feature in this Blog post each offer an intriguing and different vantage point on education and entrepreneurship. They are all well written, with an easy flowing narrative that avoids research and instead focuses on human dynamics, social climate, and making a difference.

The first recommendation, The Water is Wide, may be a difficult book to find.  It was written by Pat Conroy and published in 1972. You may recognize the author's name because years after the release of this book he became a famous best seller of such books as The Prince of Tides; The Great Santini;  Beach Music; and most recently, South of Broad. The commercial success of these latter books obscures the fact that he began as a writer of non-fiction. It remains a personal and sentimental favorite of mine because, as I mentioned in an earlier post (No Man Is An Island: October 18), I began my educational career teaching in a hardscrabble community on an island off the coast of Maine three years after this book was released.

The Water is Wide chronicled Conroy's experience as a new teacher struggling to teach impoverished children who lived on Yamacraw Island, across the wide tidal river that separated the tiny piece of land from the South Carolina coastline of his home. The difference in culture and the past, present, and future of the teacher and his learners was striking. He is a Caucasian college graduate while the entire class is comprised of black children confined by generations of poverty.

It was a school casually neglected by those who administered it from afar on the mainland. His story reveals how he came to experience personal growth that rivaled that of his learners. He offers a perspective on the learning process that is both insightful and humorous. It is a view with clarity that challenges the conventional frameworks of public schools. I gained a great deal from reading this book.

The second and third books are both written by Greg Mortenson. The first of this pair of stories in entitled, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ...One School at a Time. Mortenson explains how he discovered his passion for making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others after he fell ill and injured during a mountaineering expedition in the high peaks of the Himalayas. Lost and disoriented, he was found by a man from a tiny village who took him in and cared for him. Upon returning to good health he pledged to repay the man and his village once he returned from a trip back to America. Rather than receive money or any other material good, the man asked for help building a school so the local children in the remote village could become educated.

Return he did, with a vow to grow people in a mission that eventually spread across the small villages up and down the valley that hugged the sides of the tallest mountain range in the world. He fought against the ever increasing reaches of terrorist ideology with education. This book was eventually considered required reading for U.S. Army officers stationed in Afghanistan as a means of learning how to appreciate local customs and effectively interact with important tribal elders of the area.

Mortenson empowered children and enabled them to create their futures and improve the quality of life and the prospects of each and every village that sprouted a school building. He required the commitment of the village elders and triumphed over adversity. During this time he started the Central Asia Institute designed to promote opportunities for those who sponsored a school. When my father passed away, the staff of the school where I served as principal made a generous donation to the CAI in his name.

This is a book I've read twice. It's fascinating and casts an intriguing and enlightening observation on a region f the world that is otherwise off the radar of almost everyone.The fact that I read the book on a flight to an Islamic country also provided me with the background necessary to understand the people and beliefs of the country I was visiting.

Mortenson's second book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, continues to describe his commitment to education as a vehicle to forge a better future. Both of these books are easy reading and move swiftly with a writing style that often borders on the elements of a spellbinding spy novel. His exploits are both daring and demanding. He is an outstanding example of how one person can really make a difference in the lives of many.

The last book is actually one I am currently reading. I came across it at the bookstore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy this last Saturday. The book is entitled, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. The author, Jacqueline Novogratz, has recently been selected for an award that recognizes the power of entrepreneurship. She will be featured at three different events at the college campus during the next two weeks. Her book is a description of her own transformation as she left the corporate banking world behind to make a difference in impoverished African communities while working for various not-for-profit non-governmental organizations throughout Africa. It's an engrossing read that opens the eyes of those who have struggled to find solutions to problems plaguing the poor in third world countries. Her perspective offers an alternative view that is distinctly different than the many well intentioned government sponsored agencies that have expended great amounts of money with paltry benefits to show for the expense. It is a moving story of one person's determination to make a difference.

As a final note, my son will be joining the Peace Corps in March and traveling to eastern Europe to teach English to the inhabitants of one of the following countries - Moldavia, Montenegro, Romania, Albania, or Ukraine. I am proud of his interest in helping people and learning about the culture and customs of foreign lands as a way to expand his perception of the world - and make a difference in the lives of others.

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