Monday, September 20, 2010

The Story of Reading

It has been nearly a year since I attended a conference on the brain in Boston. When I returned from the conference my own brain was filled with myriad new concepts and exciting ideas while being blurred from the exhaustion of travel and long days full of lectures, some stimulating and some not so much. I pushed the ideas to the back burner with promises to get back to them.

Now I have been asked to join others who went to the conference and others like it to present to the staff about what we learned. Yikes! What did I learn? What is worth sharing? Why didn't I take better notes?

One statement has stayed with me all these months. Let me paraphrase. "Human beings took about 2,000 years to develop a practical alphabet which allowed humans to read. We expect children to learn how to read in about 2,000 days." This idea was presented by Tufts University professor of child development Maryanne Wolf. To remind myself of what she said at the conference and to understand and expand on those thoughts, I just finished reading her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. This book proved to be a readable treatise that provides just what the title promises.

Since I can not do justice here to all that it has to say nor give you the time and space you deserve to really ponder the many ideas and concepts, I will just encourage you to read it. You will soon be thinking of what reading means to you, what really determines fluency, who is an expert reader, and what is the cause of dyslexia. Here are a couple of my favorite ideas and some thoughts about them.

Dyslexia, she states, is often accompanied by enhanced creativity. The book explains in some detail why this seems to be the case. The conclusion should be obvious but that is often not the case at all. Dyslexic people are often taunted for this complicated way that their brain functions. It is not unusual for peers and even teachers to call them stupid or lazy. The important thing for all of us is to remind dyslexic people of all ages of their special talents--help them find those talents and then put them to use while helping them learn strategies to acquire learning. As a society we run the risk of missing the next great thinkers, inventors, artists, and other potential world changers if we do not take the time to foster the growth of these people and utilize their amazing gifts.

Reading changes the way we utilize language and thus the way we understand our world. It is nearly impossible to read something without images, memories, and connections springing unbidden into your thinking. Wolf wonders what the impact of new formats for reading and writing will have on reading. Will digital reading with the ease of jumping from one thing to another, clicking to learn definitions, that "back" button waiting to lead us back to where we were, and the way information is organized radically change our idea of knowledge? Socrates worried that the alphabet would negatively impact our memories (perhaps it has) and that it would make us believe we had knowledge when all we had was information (again, perhaps it has). What will our newest technologies do to these same things? Will we assume that we have knowledge because we have done a Google search and copied and pasted ideas from someone else?

Can you tell that I have delved into many new thoughts after reading this book? That is what reading is all about.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ending Summer with a Bang

If you read my last entry, you know that I ended it by feeling a little disappointed that I had not read enough books that I truly loved this past summer. Thank goodness that I finished the summer with a great read--so great that I can't wait to talk about it.

Many people have enjoyed Silverwing, others in that series about bats, and various other titles by Kenneth Oppel. Now Oppel has a very different new book. Half Brother takes place in the 1970s when interest in human relationships with other species was growing. (Think of Koko and her kitten or the chimps that went into space.) At that same time of protest about many things there were the beginnings of animal activism, protesting testing on animals. Ben Tomlin, the narrator of this book, is thrown into the middle of all of this at age 13 when his family brings home a baby chimpanzee which they hope to teach to use sign language. If that is not unsettling enough, Ben has had to move across the country from Toronto to Vancouver where his father, a psychologist, will now be working. He is put in a private middle school and works to makes friends, especially with the very cute daughter of his dad's new boss. So there is some good old fashioned love interest and teen angst in this book. It offers a nice balance to the odd life that Ben lives with a chimp for a baby brother. He and his dad soon disagree about what role Zan, the chimp, has in the world. Is Zan a little brother or science experiment?

There is much here to enjoy. The writing is good and will tug at the heartstrings of all but the most jaded amongst us while offering up difficult questions to ponder about the importance of scientific investigation as well as the importance of keeping humans humane. I highly recommend this book to middle school readers and their older siblings and parents, too.