In this series, called On Reading, Middle School reading teacher Karen Suter interviews Haverford School community members on their reading habits and book recommendations. In this blog post, history teacher LaJuan Foust describes the books on his shelf and how they got there. He is in his second year of teaching history at Haverford, but he’s been teaching for a little over a decade. In addition to his work in the classroom, he is also an assistant JV soccer coach and works with the speech and debate team.
I am a history teacher, obviously, but I’m one of those folks that stumbled upon history. I was a sociology major as an undergraduate. My original thought was that I’d attend law school. I worked in an academic enrichment summer camp for students of promise at my alma mater, the University School in Cleveland. After I graduated from high school, I worked there as an undergrad. That got me into teaching.
My reading habits have shifted mightily since I started teaching. I was an active reader for pleasure when I was in high school and an undergrad. When my undergraduate degree was finished and I transitioned to being a teacher, a lot of my reading was based on history, filling in gaps or reengaging with certain aspects of history. My freshman college history class was a traditional western civilizations class. I read maybe three to four western civilization books by Mary Beard. Her books are great for people interested in delving deep into ancient Rome. She wrote SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, which gives an overview of things in that time period, which was great. She also wrote about how comedy impacted the Roman Empire (Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up). As a comedian myself I was drawn into it. Her books are a great way for the modern day person to learn about Rome. That took a lot of my reading time, catching up on ancient civilizations. Becoming a speech and debate coach shifted my reading again. I became more engrossed in the news, more involved with reading about current events. I coach extemporaneous speaking, a current event-based event in which students need to research a topic, then prepare and give a speech on it all within 30 minutes. I need to know the structure of the event and also to know what’s going on in the world. I did not compete in that event in high school, as I did the interpretive events, which are more acting based. When I moved to Massachusetts to work at Milton Academy, they had a speech team and I had to read a lot of literature, which, to this day, is my weak point. (The questions that destroy me on the Jeopardy exam? The literature questions.) I had to start reading literature because the speech events involved the interpretation and summarization of plays and literature. Students had to tell at least one story arc in 10 minutes. That speech preparation became a big part of my reading. When I got to Delbarton about 6 years ago, I didn’t have as many speakers. They were more of the debaters; the boys liked to argue with each other. I continued doing the reading for poems and short stories and books, and then I realized that I would never get as many speech guys there. My reading absolutely stopped. Ground to a halt. But I’ve started to pick up over the last couple of years and have started reading books I had acquired earlier and never had a chance to read. One of my favorites from the last two to three years is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert Reilly. It looks at the years from the beginning of the country to around the early 2000s through all these different court cases. I found this book through reading Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution by John A. Garraty. I got it from a nurse when I went to see my doctor years ago. The nurse asked me questions about what I was interested in, and he gave that book to me. It propelled my desire to go into law and I considered becoming a legal historian. Another book that engaged me and has helped mold my thinking is Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power, by Christine Acham. This book looks at the concept not just of black power but of black people on prime time television. It explores shows like Sanford and Son, and The Flip Wilson Show, which itself had so many things to look at—characters who were “super black” for that time and characters where he was dressed like a woman. It also looked at Richard Pryor and his show, and the meta parts of that where he would put into his show issues he had with the network. I feel like I’m the same way with my teaching style. I think to myself, “I know I’m gonna get emails about this but we’re gonna do this anyway.”
I’m a fan of the game show genre and, as a young child, if you had asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said a game show host. I really enjoyed Alex Trebek’s autobiography. Reading his book gave me more insight into the man and raised my already high respect for him—especially the way he looked at things that happened in the last years of his life. Just looking at his story, his life story, really inspired me to appreciate what I have even more. It was written not as a traditional autobiography but more as a collection of short stories. Alex Trebek was telling these stories, and each story has a theme. He would write about his mother, father, first job in college, and then things are revisited in later stories. He wrote short, engaging chapters making the book a quick and entertaining read.
I will always find a book. I was always one of those folks who enjoyed going to a bookstore. I would just look and see if something caught my eye. That’s how I ended up finding America on Trial. I went to get a textbook for a course and I went to the sale table and saw that book there. A lot of the time I’m an Amazon guy—that’s how I got the Alex Trebek book. That’s one reason why my reading was tampered, actually, because there is no bookstore near me. In college I had book stores in both directions; it was dreamland.
There is a series I’m intrigued by—Popular Culture and Philosophy—which looks at philosophy through things like The Simpsons. That series influences my teaching. A lot of the books I pick up are about things I am already interested in and are extensions of how I teach. I like taking topics and connecting them to modern events. I stumbled on a graphic novel on FDR and the New Deal in a book store after an improv workshop on the west side of Cleveland. A lot just happens by chance. I will occasionally get something gifted but usually it’s about perfect timing.
A lot of my research when I was writing my master's essay happened in coffee shops, all the way in the back corner in a large booth or a comfy chair. My ideal reading spot, even if I create my own personal coffee shop at home, would be a comfy chair with music in the background, classical or smooth jazz. I get so much work done in a chair or a desk with jazz or classical playing and a nice tall cup of coffee that I can refill.
Reading is important to me because knowledge is power. When I was in graduate school it was one of the “aha” moments I had. It was in a course on the American Revolution and the professor was talking about these books we had to read. One of my classmates said how hard everything was for students, and the professor said “the biggest difference between you and me is that I’ve just read more, that’s it.” That’s why I started to read—to fill in those gaps. It was one of those moments that not only made him seem like a mere mortal like the rest of us, but also just made so much sense. I need to be able to read these things to benefit myself and to pass some of this down to younger people. In the end, I feel like a lot of us are in bubbles. Being able to read all these different sources gives me the opportunity to get these guys to think about what's on the other side of the bubble. I see myself as preparing them for what’s about to happen. The more students understand what's going on outside their bubble, the better prepared they will be when they have to make their way outside.
I’m a book pack rat. I try to organize my bookshelves, but when I start reading things I don’t always put them back or they get out of order. I tried to make one shelf that was just history. Another is all of the black history books, because I started to get a whole lot more of those. When I first went into teaching I didn’t want to be stereotypical and go into black history. But, my thesis and reading now are largely focused on black history. A whole other shelf is stuff from speech and debate. It becomes a mess because I don’t put things back. So, I try.