Study: Reading a novel boosts the brain

Reading a novel causes boosts brain function for at least five days, according to Emory researchers, reports The Independent.

. . . reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.

. . . “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Twenty-one students read Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris. (I read it before visiting the ruins of Pompeii.)  It was chosen for its gripping plot: The main character sees the signs of volcanic activity outside the city and tries to warn the inhabitants.

I wonder if literary fiction would produce the scannable brain changes.


One book for students who don’t like to read

Choosing a single book for new students to read over the summer is not easy, writes Carolyn Foster Segal, who teaches English at Cedar Crest College, in Inside Higher Ed. Her  women’s college picked This I Believe, a selection of radio essays by famous and ordinary folks assembled by NPR. It’s a popular choice for colleges seeking a common reading experience, supplanting Tuesdays With Morrie. With lots of short snippets, it’s a perfect book for students who don’t like to read, a colleague explained.

 This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices.

I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” — the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” — which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish — and downright unempathetic — not to agree.

But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections — instead of this radio spot — into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students — quickly — to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects — from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.

The book’s brevity was one selling point. It also stresses leadership, which is in the mission statement, and leads to an obvious assignment:  Students can be told to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.

Segal  no longer wishes to know what her students believe.

 Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.

And why not ask students to share a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction, Segal asks. ” There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.”

There is for me. But, then, I like to read.

I think Reading Lolita in Tehran would be a terrific choice, especially for young women.

Parent sue over book on slavery

A book on the horrors of slavery has lead to a racial discrimination lawsuit in Warren, Michigan, reports the Detroit News: Parents charge their African-American daughter suffered emotional distress and racial harassment when her fifth-grade teacher read parts of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road by Julius Lester. In one passage, an auctioneer says:  “Step right up! New shipment of n—–s just in.” And, “Nine months after you buy one of these n—–s, you will have a plantation full of n—-r babies,” according to the lawsuit.

Parents moved the girl from Margaret Black Elementary, a high-performing, predominantly white and middle-class school, to a school in a different county.

Lester, a black civil rights activist, writer and professor (and a convert to Judaism!), worked with artist Rod Brown to create a graphic depiction of slavery — including whippings and lynchings — and emancipation. Readers are asked to imagine what it’s like to be a slave, a slave master and an abolitionist.

The book is supposed to be suitable for children 10 to 15 years old, but Amazon reviewers — including two middle-school teachers — warn that the pictures and text are very disturbing. One teacher suggests sending permission slips home to parents.

” This is powerful, expect to see emotions from your students. I would not use it with students any younger than 8th grade, and that might be pushing it.”

The book may be too much for fifth graders to handle. But overestimating students’ maturity isn’t racial discrimination.

The lawsuit isn’t likely to succeed, writes Eugene Volokh on Volokh Conspiracy. The parents would have to prove “severe or pervasive” actions created “a racially offensive educational environment for the plaintiff and for a reasonable person.”

Dangerous (and educational) things for kids

Boing Boing recommends a children’s activity book called Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) by Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler. Activities include gluing your fingers together, playing with fire, looking at the sun, walking home from school, kissing hello like the French, playing in a hailstorm, diving in a dumpster, melting glass, sleeping in the wild and whittling.

Via Gotham Schools.

Buy this book

The hardcover edition of my book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds,  is out of stock, but new copies are available from Amazon resellers (at a discount). You can buy the paperback here.

Flowers, Sausages, Book

Mrs. Mimi has turned her blog into a book, which will come out in September.  It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages, subtitled My Adventures in Second Grade, can be ordered on Amazon.

Ms. Mimi is a Harlem schoolteacher who loves kids. And teaching. And stickers. And post-its. And what her kids do every day. . . . Inside we’ll meet characters like Curly, the kid that teachers dream about. All wide eyes and a mind that drinks up knowledge like a sponge, he’s the stereotypical teacher’s pet that reminds Ms. Mimi why she’s teaching. We’ll also meet The Weave, the school administrator that doesn’t seem to remember what teaching is; The Bacon Hunter, a teacher who seems to have partially checked out; Little Crooked Glasses, a child who warms your heart just because he’s so sweet and… clumsy . . .

You can warm my heart by ordering a copy of Our School while you’re online.