Why Reading Matters

I just spent three exhilarating and informative days at the annual Closing the Gap Convention in Minneapolis MN. I gave 3 presentations on the topics of methodical assessment and the developmental integration of behavior management oriented and pre-literacy iPad Apps into treatment of youngsters with Autism and behavioral and reading challenges. I met and mingled with people from all over the world, learning and conversing with parents and professionals from the USA, Canada, Iceland, Holland, England, Australia, and India, just to name a few locations people hailed from. This convention attracts parents and professionals in the education/special education and technology arenas, who come together for 3 days of intensive sharing, growing, and problem solving re: some of the learning challenges facing children in need today. It was truly a historic event because many people including myself started global dialogues about the importance of using technology, i.e. specific iPad Apps, to target pre-literacy, literacy, and social communication development around the world.

The convention concluded on October 11, 2013, the date of another historic event in my life and the lives of many other women all over the globe; the UN’s International Day of the Girl Child. All eyes turned to Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, to see if the teenager (who was shot in the head by the Taliban and is an iconic advocate for education of girls) who bravely tried to go to school, would win the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. While she didn’t officially win, she won in my book. Her bravery and resiliency resonated with me as a humanitarian, a pediatric speech therapist, and a woman.

Another woman who made the news, because of her books/short stories and what they teach those that read them, is Alice Munro. In a succinctly written article about this Canadian author, and why she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, writer Maria Popova raises the age old question, what makes for great literature? “The invitation to continually discover and rediscover ourselves, both as readers and as writers, in the perpetually evolving experience of a good story.” In her Brain Picking Blogpost, she quotes Alice Munro, who was asked to give an analogy for a story, which she likened to a house. According to Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. <It> has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

That’s why the story of Malala touches us so deeply. That is why we remember the story of other girls around the world, such as those featured in the viral documentary Girl Rising and in the video on Charity: Water- September 2013 Campaign. Books have a way of scaffolding ideas in our head, making us more self aware and even empathetic. These are two psychological traits needed for orchestrating change; in ourselves and in the way we view the world around us. Neuropsychologists and Autism Specialists/pediatric speech therapists like myself call this Theory of Mind; the ability to have perspective and empathy for those we come in contact with; either in Real Time, on the written page, or in a Story seen on a screen big or small, visually transmitted or orally transferred. That is really why stories, and reading them, matter.

I personally have always loved reading. I read as a child all the time; to learn, to explore, and to share tales with my friends. Tales I later shared with the neighborhood children I babysat for, and the students I worked with as a speech therapist in the school system. I still remember my favorite childhood stories, which ran the gamut from the Mary Poppins books to Jules Verne, the Laura Ingalls series to Helen Keller. To this day, I love my library, and adore visiting book stores in the mall. I often joke that books help me “revv up” in terms of virtual mentorship and thought leadership from a variety of sources. I also joke that books help me “power down” after a long day of therapy sessions, giving seminars, or traveling on the road. The truth is that new research findings are starting to corroborate what I have always suspected and many educators have intuitively known for years.

The Huffington Post ran an article yesterday on the importance of reading. Writer Laura Schocker cited several unconventional reasons; which include stress management, enhancing sleep patterns, and keeping your brain activity level and even sharp, to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In an insightful blogpost by The Teacher’s Network, British educators Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis recently wrote that teachers in particular should read more children’s books themselves because of two reasons:

1. There is value in helping teachers become reading role models for the pupils they teach, and that developing teachers’ subject knowledge of children’s literature can contribute to a child or young person’s enjoyment of reading. 

2. Reading for pleasure can alleviate stress; escaping into the pages of a book at the end of a busy day, can help and support teachers. In order for reading to have wellbeing affects, readers should identify with the characters in a story and form an emotional connection with them. By doing so it is then easier for the reader to use situations in a book, to solve their own problems, and also realise that their problems are not unique to them, nor unsolvable.

Reading is about sharing ideas that revolutionize our thinking; literally and figuratively. Reading thus has the power to reshape individual Self Concept (especially when we read for fun to recharge our batteries) and behavior and collective deeds and actions as a nation.  Reading matters because one’s inner landscape, moral compass, and wellbeing can be profoundly and permanently transformed, through the cumulative intake of the written words and teachings of others. Reading is about discovering words that endure, and that are conveyed in a way that touches upon human truths and foibles, teaching timeless lessons for the mind, heart, and soul.

That is why it is increasingly disquieting and unnerving for me to read some of the words and ideas people sometimes post on their blogs and social media sites; about current events, educational trends, and especially about themselves. Social media sites are very much about living “in the moment”, where a short shelf life and even more shortsighted ideas can give a whole new meaning to “fifteen minutes in the spotlight”. Books on the other hand, are more lengthy and layered/nuanced, reflecting the buildup towards the writer or protagonist’s “Eureka Moment”. One that results in the climax or conflict resolution in the story. One which is all about bridging the past and future, and connecting all those moments and human interactions in between. Why? For the purpose of character development as well as the provision of a “teachable moment” for the reader.

At the end of the day, Claudio Gandelman’s excellent, cautionary article about the transiency of writings for social media are a timely reminder for entrepreneurs everywhere, trying to balance humanity and technology in an increasingly narcissistic arena. One where social media can showcase our increasing tendency to broadcast ourselves taking our emotional temperature and calling it “shared communication” online. In reality,  a person has the noble choice online (and offline) to preserve reflections, musings, and writings that add value to the human condition. Gandelman advises us to make sure to add it ” to the collective stream of knowledge….Put your thoughts in social media sites that actually make content permanent and searchable rather than ephemeral. Publish somewhere your words can matter today and hopefully matter 40,000 years from now.”

Calling all female entrepreneurs and enlightened men who care about the women (soon to be, and already blossomed) in his life: Here’s to devouring more books in the coming months, to set ourselves, and the Sisterhood, free. Here’s to reading for pleasure, and to reading for professional development, in that order. Here’s to getting more in touch with our inner child, and touching more lives of children, one book at a time. Here’s to more reading and reshaping the way future generations of girls can and should be educated, one page at a time.

Best,

Penina

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About penina4niceinitiative

Penina Rybak MA/CCC-SLP, TSHH, CEO of Socially Speaking LLC, is the author of "The NICE Reboot: A Guide to Becoming a Better Female Entrepreneur". She is an Autism specialist and educational technology consultant turned social entrepreneur. She is also a pediatric speech therapist and the creator of the Socially Speaking™ Program & iPad App. Her second book, "Autism Intervention in the iEra" was published in 2015. Since 2010, Penina has been a national/international speaker about social communication development, balancing humanity and technology, and best practices re: mobile and social technology. Connect with her on LinkedIn to learn more. You can also find her on Twitter: @PopGoesPenina, Facebook: Socially Speaking LLC, Google+ at The NICE Initiative for Female Entrepreneurship, and Pinterest and YouTube as well.
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