Monthly Archives: September 2015

Reading and the Brain

This week, I have been absorbed in the world of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, set in a fictional town in Colorado. My friend Anna gave the book to me for my birthday and told me I would love it. I really did. The writing is flawless and the stories of different people living in various states of abandonment (being left, leaving, being pushed away) and homecoming are going to haunt me for a long time.

Readers who count this book as one of their all time favorites will have a lot of different opinions about which character’s story is the most compelling. But for me, it is the story of two brothers deep into their bachelorhood who take in a pregnant teenager whose mother has thrown her out.

They are hesitant to take her in not because they judge her predicament harshly, but because they are so unaccustomed to caring for anyone other than themselves. The humble, unconditional love they almost immediately feel for her is so surprising and so permanent that it compels the reader to question what she herself would do — and makes clear the power of empathy.

The girl, Victoria, needs the protection of these virtual strangers very much. So does the child she’s carrying. And the brothers embrace an opportunity to demonstrate unyielding care to a total stranger.

A recent study out of Emory University looks at the neural effects of reading and supports what so many of us already know and believe: that reading stories not only helps children to become literate, but also develops their empathy and sense of self. Says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “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.”

To read more about the study, visit

Dialogue & Cultural Competency

This week, I heard Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee speak about what it means to be a culturally competent educator. She is an unusually dynamic teacher who doesn’t hold back or attenuate her message about the responsibility that adults who work with children have to create classrooms where difference is not just tolerated, but celebrated.

One of Lee’s important points is that what teachers don’t talk about can have as much of an impact as what we do discuss. The absence of dialogue around a topic can be significant. When we don’t talk about issues that students are thinking about or facing, we can give them the impression that we don’t think they should be concerned with those things in the first place.

Which I think is true. And which is why I was so impressed with this week’s video out of Durham Academy featuring students singing a brilliant a capella mashup of top 40 songs called “Lost in the Game: A Musical Story of Relationships, Sex, and Gender Politics.”

As the students explained, their video was “a meditation on the unhealthy sexual relationships and gender stereotypes contained in the messages of popular music and culture.” Conversations about these topics, so commonly expressed in mainstream music and culture, are vitally important to have in and out of the classroom.

As this video suggests, when students are asked, and feel empowered, to engage with these issues, powerful messages can take shape.

Failing and Rising

Two new books — The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey, and Rising Strong, by Brene Brown — take up the merits of making mistakes and being vulnerable.

Lahey’s book, targeted toward parents, teachers, and coaches, reminds us that we learned best when we struggled through challenges, and that our children and students need to be strong enough to do the same. Brown’s book takes the topic in a slightly different direction, arguing that we grow in significant ways when we act without any guarantee of results, when we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we may stumble or never achieve what we set out to.

Both of these books are about coping with discomfort, about reckoning what we hope for with what we have, and I think most adults quickly recognize the merits of their wisdom. But do young people relate? I often hear from my own daughter and some of my students that we (adults) don’t understand how much pressure they feel to never fail, to always be perfect, and to always hew as close to the lines as possible.

I try to really listen when I hear this, and I think back to when I was teaching American Literature. One of the best days of the year was when I took my students outside to lie in the grass and read or reflect on Thoreau’s Walden.  I told them they could get ahead on the homework or lie in the grass and do nothing. It was ok to “waste” an hour if that was what they wanted to do, because Thoreau “wasted” two years and two days just living, observing, and writing, and look what he had to show for it.

Inevitably, some students got down to work and worked for the entire hour. Some stared at the sky, some fell asleep. But all reported a very good time and begged to do it again, which I always meant to do, but never did. Today, I thought about how much good these kinds of low stakes experiences can do in terms of showing young people what we mean when we say that failing and taking risks is not only ok, but sometimes even fun.

Short Stories, Lasting Connections


Yesterday, on the plane from Charlotte to New York for a family wedding, I found myself with an idle half hour. My children were listening to music and watching videos. My husband was sorting through the contents of his briefcase and looking over a long and tedious document.

In my haste to get out the door at 6:30 in the morning, I hadn’t brought my usual lifeline – a book. But there at the bottom of my bag was a rumpled New Yorker. Relief spread over me as I began to look over the table of contents and found a short story by one of my favorite authors, Alice McDermott. That would surely pass the time.

I love the New Yorker for many reasons, one of which is the way the editors pair visual images with text. But the photograph accompanying McDermott’s haunting story was not easy to make out at first, and the story, about a suicide, a nun, and the small, private rebellions people commit, was equally difficult to understand.

Indeed, the story’s title, “These Short, Dark Days,” was hardly beckoning to a traveler on an airplane cutting across a blue sky. I looked over at my family members to see if anyone had any interest in talking to me, but they were happy just where they were.

So I tried again to get into the magic of the words on the page, and on the third attempt, I was in it completely and began to see its meaning. A young man took his life, leaving his pregnant wife alone and impoverished. An old nun on her way home from a day of begging entered the building that the man had nearly exploded, to give aid that was not asked for.

And then, in a eureka moment that made me exclaim out loud, I saw the tendrils of James Joyce’s Dubliners running like golden threads through McDermott’s tale. I flipped back to the black and white photograph and saw what I hadn’t seen before – the black and white of a devoted Sister’s habit.

Joyce’s stories about everyday citizens in a Catholic community, stories that had challenged and amazed me in college and graduate school, came flooding back to me in a wave of recharged meaning. Through reading and rereading – the same stories and different stories, old and new – I had made a highly satisfying connection.

My husband turned a quizzical eye on me to see me smiling. “It’s an homage to Dubliners,” I said. The glow of that connection carried me all the way to a smooth landing in New York.