Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Value of Reading Novels


I'll be the first to admit that while I love reading fiction I'm not a consistent novel reader. I enjoy non-fiction loaded with facts, theories, and analysis. I don't always have the patience for narrative. Given the results of some new research, maybe I should reconsider that.
A new study claims that reading novels makes us nicer and more empathetic, psychologists at the New School for Social Research have found. Emanuele Castano, the study author, said that fiction "forces you as a reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character."
Canadian researchers have also found that reading fiction increases our ability to be empathetic to others.
• A 2010 York University study of 4- to 6-year-old children found that greater exposure to children's literature, but not children's television programs, correlated with children having a greater sense of empathy. The study authors concluded that "engagement with fictional narratives provides one with information about the social world," exposing children to worlds outside their own.
• A 2006 University of Toronto study found that avid readers of fiction were far more socially adept than avid readers of non-fiction: "Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels." In addition, the researchers concluded that the ability of a reader to become absorbed in a story was related their ability to feel empathy.
Yet tragically, we've seen a decline of the humanities in America. Given how aggressive and violent our culture can be (have you noticed that the new DVD movies are overwhelmingly "action" films, a euphemism for "violence-filled," often with thousands of deaths per movie, often accompanied by one-liners and other inhumane commentary?), perhaps we should be encouraging more reading, novels in particular.
Award-winning novelist Philip Roth said:
The passion for specificity is at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction of every last American thing. fiction's lifeblood. From this physicalness the realistic novel derives its ruthless intimacy.
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates Roth's point. The narrator is a young adolescent boy who at the start of the novel shares the pro-slavery views of the state he grew up in. Gradually, however, as he travels with the runaway slave Jim, he comes to moderate his views (long after the reader has) and eventually assists Jim. It is a moral tale disguised as a children's adventure story.
Novels, when done well, are about life, and introspection upon the depths of human experience. We can all gain from more reflection.
Novels can also focus our attention (and empathy) on a single character. Charles Dickens was a master novelist of sentimental novels, and while the protagonists triumphed over adversity and evil through his own and other good people's efforts, there was usually a waif who was not as lucky, who succumbed to the harshness of society. The most famous of these was Little Nell, the innocent young girl in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) who faces the villainous Quilp, the ugliness of industrial England, and an otherwise kindly grandfather whose gambling addiction leads him to steal what few resources Little Nell has. As each new chapter of the novel emerged, readers speculated on Nell's fate, and as her condition drew more desperate, Dickens received many letters urging him to spare Little Nell. By the time of the chapter where Little Nell died arrived, Americans flocked to the docks to greet the ships arriving with the latest chapter and inquired whether Little Nell was still alive.Grown men wept when they read the chapter. While Dickens openly discouraged any statues of himself to be erected, there is one of him and the character of Little Nell in Clark Park in Philadelphia, and every year a child is chosen to crown the statue of Nell with a wreath of flowers.
Powerful novels demand that we slow down and process how we are creating and destroying in our lives. The rabbis taught that amidst so much destructive behavior we must stop and reflect upon the world we exist in.
When the Holy One created Adam, He took him for a tour of all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: See how My works are so glorious and pleasant! All of this, I have created for you! Make sure that you do not ruin and destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be able to fix it after you are gone! (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba).
Reading can broaden our imagination and our sensitivity toward the human condition. Novels can even affect society. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) helped personalize and simplify slavery to many Americans, provided an international boost to the abolitionist movement, and may literally have helped bring about the Civil War. John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, publicized the plight of the people of Oklahoma who fled from the Dust Bowl and tried to find work in California. As a result, Congressional hearings were held on the conditions of migrant worker camps in California, and some labor laws were enacted to help these struggling Americans. Both novels increased the empathy of readers for the vulnerable and oppressed.
Many novels have endured for their timeless themes. Cervantes' Don Quixote has spurred countless retellings that pit romantic idealism versus cynicism, Victor Hugo's Les Misérablesdepicts the human capacity for transformation versus an implacable, harsh interpretation of the law, and many Russian novelists (for example, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev) explored complex philosophical and theological concepts throughout their works. Needless to say, all impart knowledge of history as well.
For those not motivated or disciplined to read, maybe join a book club or start a chevruta (learning partnership). We can all use some help in raising our level of empathy and moral imagination.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

In Defense Of 'Difficult' Books

by Claire Fallon

The recent launch of the speed-reading app Spritz has thrown the reading community into something of a tizzy. By combining speed-reading ideals with e-book technology, the app makes speed-reading easily accessible to those who weren't motivated to become speed-readers the old-fashioned way, through classes on specialized techniques like "chunking." The app works by flashing words or groups of short words (up to 13 characters) in quick succession into one stationary window. This allows users to read a passage without moving the eyes or shifting focus; the app delivers each new bite of text directly to your focal point instead. Gone is the exhaustion of moving your eyes over the page, straining the ocular muscles to their breaking point! At last, long after the washing machine and the dishwasher, we readers have a labor-saving device to end our needless physical exertions.
The apparent assumption of Spritz's founders here is that without the energy devoted to eye movements, which they claim takes up 80 percent of our reading time, we can devote the full 100 percent, instead of the current 20 percent, to understanding the content itself. This assertion is suspiciously similar to the old myth that humans use 10 percent of their brain at a time, meaning only the failure to unlock the other 90 percent is keeping us from genius. (Sorry, not so much.) Though it may be true that we spend a considerable amount of reading time moving our eyes, it's quite a leap to suggest that we could read equally effectively but at significantly higher speeds only by removing the task of eye movement. In my experience, most of us continue to think about the meaning of the text even as we move our eyes, calling into question whether the elimination of movement would really add any time for faster comprehension.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Top 10 reading comprehension strategies of excellent readers


There are many reading comprehension strategies that excellent readers can do to make reading successful. The more reading strategies that are in place, the better the reader will do at reading. There is so much research on reading comprehension strategies, many can be successfully implemented, but one of my favorite resources for reading success ideas are from my own classroom of 6th grade students.
My 6th graders came up with the best ideas for reading comprehension strategies to use when we were brainstorming and documenting ideas on chart paper to display in the classroom.
Here you will find the top 10 reading comprehension strategies that my classroom students picked as the most important:
Make Time to Read Often
The old adage still holds true that the more you read, the better you will get. Taking the time to just sit down and read is one of the most important ways to build strong reading comprehension strategies.
Going back and rereading the text is a great reading comprehension strategy to implement in case the reader missed something in the first reading and needs to gain a better understanding of the text.
Visualizing the story in your mind while reading is an excellent way to take the meaning of the text to a deeper comprehension level.
Make Connections
When you make connections from your own life to the text, it helps to gain a better understanding of the message that the writer is trying to convey.
Predicting what will happen next in the story can help the reader to make the story even more exciting and also help the reader to want to read more.
Drawing a conclusion upon reading a specific amount of text will aid the reader in thinking more intently about the story and also gain a deeper understanding of the text.
Take Notes
Using post-its or lined paper to jot down thoughts and ideas while reading is an excellent way to document thinking and the reader can also always go back and look at their notes for a refresher on what the text was about.
Find Your Appropriate Reading Level
Reading a book that is not too easy or too hard and is just right is an excellent way to get the most out of your reading experience.
Recommend Books
Recommending good books and taking suggestions for good books helps to make the excitement for reading increase. Sharing suggestions for good books is an excellent reading strategy to keep readers engaged and planning for future readings.
Read a Variety of Genres
Experiencing a variety of genres gives the reader a more in depth look at a range of writings. A reader can get stuck in one genre and could be missing out on a plethora of outstanding books.
Becoming an excellent reader entails the use of a range of reading comprehension strategies, but practice does make perfect so continual reading is imperative for reading success!
Centennial Elementary 6th Graders, Elgin School District U-46, Elgin, IL

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Importance of Reading for All of Us


Earlier this month, Stephanie Vanderslice posted an article here at The Huffington Post entitled"Should I Read or Should I Write?" There, she mentions that I find reading to be essential for my life as a writer but that, when tasks pile up, "it's often the activity that gets squeezed out." If I'm short on time, I should be writing because I'm a writer. Even those of us who enjoy reading put it aside to accomplish other things in life, sometimes pretty mundane things like housework.
Of course, writers tend to think a lot about reading, and we value the time we spend reading because it counts toward our career goals. As I point out in "The Excitement of Influence" in the new anthology Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, "Some writers limit reading because they fear being unduly influenced." But, for the most part, we "can understand specific techniques by practicing them, discover new areas of interest or skill, and more deeply know our own habits, individual voices, and styles by engaging with the works of other[s]."
So writers tend to read selfishly, often in the manner that Francine Prose suggests inReading Like a Writer, noticing how sentences and paragraphs are formed. Reading attentively, with appreciation, becomes second nature for writers. Richard Bausch, in his ""Letter to a Young Writer" goes so far as to say, "You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing." He suggests that writers take the great work of others into themselves and, rather than analyzing like a literary scholar, get to know favorites by heart.
But reading can be important for just about everyone. Last month, Forbesclaimed, "If You Want to Succeed in Business, Read More Novels." That article points to "studies that show reading fiction actually increases people's emotional intelligence: their accurate awareness of themselves and others, and their ability to create positive relationships with others based on managing their own reactions." In other words, when we read about fictional characters, we become better at understanding real people and real situations. And these skills make us better at our jobs.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Information Overload - The Scope Of The Problem


You often hear about how much information is being generated each day. Perhaps you are aware of how fast information is growing because of how challenging it has become to stay abreast of the important facts that effect your work. This enormous growth is probable far greater than you ever suspected. This article will elucidate the extent of the information explosion and how it is affecting your success.
You often hear about how much information is being generated each day. Perhaps you are aware of how fast information is growing because of how challenging it has become to stay abreast of the important facts that effect your work. This enormous growth is probable far greater than you ever suspected. This article will elucidate the extent of the information explosion and how it is effecting your success.
Did you know that more information is published each week than in all of human history through the year 1800? It is true. In fact, in a single week there is as much information printed in the New York Times as someone who lived in the 18th century would have to learn during their entire lifetime. Yet the average individual only reads about 200 words per minute, about the same speed people read during the 18th century. It is little wonder that you feel overwhelmed by how much you need to know. In fact, information now doubles every six months. Thanks to the internet you now have access to all of this information. Information that has created a plethora of problems. Let me give you a few examples.
Did you know that 40% of high school students fail to graduate? As shocking as that statistic may appear, it is even worst when you look at the academic level of the students who do not drop out. Were you aware that 28% of high school seniors can not read at the 8th grade level, or that 38% can not perform simple math?
Here is another alarming statistic, over 90% of high school graduates are not ready for college. In fact, 50% of students in four year college drop out, and 70% in two year colleges. Our students also rank lowest in the industrialized world in science and math. The two fields most important for driving innovation and technology. Is it little wonder our economy is shattered?
You can easily see that the information explosion has left many people bewildered by how much there is to learn. With today's economy driven by information learning faster is no longer an option it is an necessity.

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