10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day

10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day

by Lana Winter-Hébert

When was the last time you read a book, or a substantial magazine article? Do your daily reading habits center around tweets, Facebook updates, or the directions on your instant oatmeal packet? If you’re one of countless people who don’t make a habit of reading regularly, you might be missing out: reading has a significant number of benefits, and just a few benefits of reading are listed below.

1. Mental Stimulation

Studies have shown that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress of (or possibly even prevent) Alzheimer’s and Dementia, since keeping your brain active and engaged prevents it from losing power. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain requires exercise to keep it strong and healthy, so the phrase “use it or lose it” is particularly apt when it comes to your mind. Doing puzzles and playing games such as chess have also been found to be helpful with cognitive stimulation.

2. Stress Reduction

No matter how much stress you have at work, in your personal relationships, or countless other issues faced in daily life, it all just slips away when you lose yourself in a great story. A well-written novel can transport you to other realms, while an engaging article will distract you and keep you in the present moment, letting tensions drain away and allowing you to relax.

3. Knowledge

Everything you read fills your head with new bits of information, and you never know when it might come in handy. The more knowledge you have, the better-equipped you are to tackle any challenge you’ll ever face.

Additionally, here’s a bit of food for thought: should you ever find yourself in dire circumstances, remember that although you might lose everything else—your job, your possessions, your money, even your health—knowledge can never be taken from you.

4. Vocabulary Expansion

This goes with the above topic: the more you read, the more words you gain exposure to, and they’ll inevitably make their way into your everyday vocabulary. Being articulate and well-spoken is of great help in any profession, and knowing that you can speak to higher-ups with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem. It could even aid in your career, as those who are well-read, well-spoken, and knowledgeable on a variety of topics tend to get promotions more quickly (and more often) than those with smaller vocabularies and lack of awareness of literature, scientific breakthroughs, and global events.

Reading books is also vital for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which will ameliorate their own speaking and writing fluency.

5. Memory Improvement

When you read a book, you have to remember an assortment of characters, their backgrounds, ambitions, history, and nuances, as well as the various arcs and sub-plots that weave their way through every story. That’s a fair bit to remember, but brains are marvellous things and can remember these things with relative ease. Amazingly enough, every new memory you create forges new synapses (brain pathways)and strengthens existing ones, which assists in short-term memory recall as well as stabilizing moods. How cool is that?

6. Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills

Have you ever read an amazing mystery novel, and solved the mystery yourself before finishing the book? If so, you were able to put critical and analytical thinking to work by taking note of all the details provided and sorting them out to determine “whodunnit”.

That same ability to analyze details also comes in handy when it comes to critiquing the plot; determining whether it was a well-written piece, if the characters were properly developed, if the storyline ran smoothly, etc. Should you ever have an opportunity to discuss the book with others, you’ll be able to state your opinions clearly, as you’ve taken the time to really consider all the aspects involved.

7. Improved Focus and Concentration

In our internet-crazed world, attention is drawn in a million different directions at once as we multi-task through every day. In a single 5-minute span, the average person will divide their time between working on a task, checking email, chatting with a couple of people (via gchat, skype, etc.), keeping an eye on twitter, monitoring their smartphone, and interacting with co-workers. This type of ADD-like behaviour causes stress levels to rise, and lowers our productivity.

When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away, and you can immerse yourself in every fine detail you’re absorbing. Try reading for 15-20 minutes before work (i.e. on your morning commute, if you take public transit), and you’ll be surprised at how much more focused you are once you get to the office.

8. Better Writing Skills

This goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of your vocabulary: exposure to published, well-written work has a noted effect on one’s own writing, as observing the cadence, fluidity, and writing styles of other authors will invariably influence your own work. In the same way that musicians influence one another, and painters use techniques established by previous masters, so do writers learn how to craft prose by reading the works of others.

9. Tranquility

In addition to the relaxation that accompanies reading a good book, it’s possible that the subject you read about can bring about immense inner peace and tranquility. Reading spiritual texts can lower blood pressure and bring about an immense sense of calm, while reading self-help books has been shown to help people suffering from certain mood disorders and mild mental illnesses.

10. Free Entertainment

Though many of us like to buy books so we can annotate them and dog-ear pages for future reference, they can be quite pricey. For low-budget entertainment, you can visit your local library and bask in the glory of the countless tomes available there for free. Libraries have books on every subject imaginable, and since they rotate their stock and constantly get new books, you’ll never run out of reading materials.

If you happen to live in an area that doesn’t have a local library, or if you’re mobility-impaired and can’t get to one easily, most libraries have their books available in PDF or ePub format so you can read them on your e-reader, iPad, or your computer screen. There are also many sources online where you can download free e-books, so go hunting for something new to read!

There’s a reading genre for every literate person on the planet, and whether your tastes lie in classical literature, poetry, fashion magazines, biographies, religious texts, young adult books, self-help guides, street lit, or romance novels, there’s something out there to capture your curiosity and imagination. Step away from your computer for a little while, crack open a book, and replenish your soul for a little while.

Just say yes? The rise of ‘study drugs’ in college

Just say yes? The rise of ‘study drugs’ in college

By Arianna Yanes

Around this time of year, you’re more likely to find college students in the library cramming for final exams than out partying. In an environment where the workload is endless and there’s always more to be done, a quick fix to help buckle down and power through becomes very tempting.

Prescription ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are becoming increasingly popular for overworked and overscheduled college students — who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD.
Experts reevaluate ADHD drug study

“Our biggest concern … is the increase we have observed in this behavior over the past decade,” says Sean McCabe, research associate professor at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center.

Full-time college students were twice as likely to have used Adderall non-medically as their counterparts who were not full-time students, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health report released in 2009.

The numbers vary significantly by school, with the greatest proportion of users at private and “elite” universities. Some researchers estimate about 30% of students use stimulants non-medically.

More students think marijuana is OK

“When we look at upperclassmen, the number really begins to jump,” says Alan DeSantis, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky who has conducted research on stimulant use in college. “The more time you stay on campus, the more likely you are to use.”

Of course, by and large the most common use is to concentrate while studying, with more than 90% of users doing it for this purpose.

ADHD stimulants “strengthen the brain’s brakes, its inhibitory capacities, so it can control its power more effectively,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and ADHD expert. “They do this by increasing the amount of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.”

Students say they take these stimulants for the “right reasons,” to be more productive in classes and to stay afloat in the sea of intense competition.

In a 2008 study of 1,800 college students, 81% of students interviewed (DeSantis 2008) thought illicit use of ADHD medication was “not dangerous at all” or “slightly dangerous.” While the picture of a methamphetamine user has hollowed cheeks, rotting teeth, and skin sores, an amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (Adderall) user looks just like anybody else.

“It helps me stay focused and be more efficient, which is very helpful with the chaos of college,” says one university student who takes Adderall anywhere from once a month to a few times a week, depending on her schedule and workload. Students did not want to be identified because of their illegal use of the prescription drugs.

Yet these drugs are Schedule II substances, sitting pretty on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list right next to cocaine, meth and morphine.

“College students tend to underestimate the potential harms associated with the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants,” McCabe says.

Students may not know the stimulant’s documented contraindications (situations in which a drug might be harmful) or recommended precautions or how it may interact with other drugs, McCabe says. Hallowell is also concerned that students taking controlled substances without prescriptions and physician supervision, noting that they may not know the dosage.

Short-term adverse consequences include sleep difficulties, restlessness, headaches, irritability and depressed feelings. Other side effects include loss of appetite, nervousness, and changes in sex drive.

The long term risk of psychological and physical dependence is of concern for routine users that may find they do not feel they can function optimally without it. Schedule II substances are classified by the DEA as having a high potential for abuse.

While students’ knowledge of the health dangers are limited, even less consideration is given to the illegality of use. Obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions, as the vast majority of college students do, seems less dangerous and illegal than buying drugs off the street.

“The fact that it’s illegal really doesn’t cross my mind,” one student says. “It’s not something that I get nervous about because it’s so widespread and simple.”

The biggest barrier to changing attitudes is the effectiveness of stimulants on campuses where the ends justify the means, researchers believe. After those late library nights, many students praise the little pill that got them through their hefty textbooks and into the morning.

After taking Adderall, says one university student, “I just feel very alive and awake and ready for challenges that come my way.”

“I’m on page 15 (of my paper) in just a few hours … and I’m very confident in it.”

Five children’s books with the best leadership lessons for adults

Five children’s books with the best leadership lessons for adults

By Vickie Elmer

Managers may rely on a multitude of tropes but seldom do we
hear them encouraging their teams to “ride the wise eagle.”

Yet their workers could chase away evil worms and cultivate courage by reading and sharing Neil Gaiman‘s Instructions (2010)a 40-page children’s book that may resonate with leaders or anyone steering their business into unknown territories.

Every year, authors produce a sea of business and leadership books with titles such as Rita Gunther McGrath’s The End of Competitive Advantage and Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office. They share strategy and corporate stories and may be useful in leadership development or managing change.

Yet few are as compelling, as concise or magical, as a simple journey into a child’s picture book.

“People can chose easily to get stuck in the known and lose sight of the potential,” said Pam Rogers, who spent 15 years in finance, auditing and leadership roles at KPMG and the American Red Cross before becoming a children’s librarian and consultant for the  New Orleans Public Library.  “I make those connections all the time about books I wish I had known about when I had a difficult meeting on budgets and strategic planning.”

Gaiman’s book, according to Kirkus Review, “could be instructions for a child, a writer, a newly minted adult or an elder.” Gaiman’s messages are clear and beautiful: “Trust those who you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart and trust your story.”

Here are five such excellent stories, chosen by Rogers for different leadership moments:

  • The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated and retold by Jon J. Muth.

    This book, published in 2002, “will resonate with leaders in all industries,” Rogers said. The New York Times reviewer called it “quietly life-changing.” A young lad is seeking answers to clear, pointed questions: “What is the right thing to do?” and “Who is the most important one?”
  • First the Egg. This simple book from 2007 by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

    could work during a product launch or group presentation, Rogers said.  The story forces people to “think about what came first, the vision that leads to a new product, the lab mistake that leads to a new invention….” It also may show lessons of transformation or the “playground of perception.”
  • The Lost Thing.

    This magical tale published in 2000 by Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan, encourages leaders to “be generous; through generosity know that your team can come together,” Rogers suggests. It tells of a boy who befriends a strange, humongous creature and kindly agrees to take him in. Eventually, they must wander through a bureaucratic terrain to find the Thing’s real home. The book grew into a short film that won an Academy Award in 2011.
  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

    In this 2012 book by Wiliam Joyce, a man loves, nurtures, and repairs books. He follows a woman into an enchanted library where books are alive and gets to know them. As he ages, he decides to write his own story, which flies onto the shoulder of a young girl when it’s done. The lessons that fly out of this encourage managers to “foster good talent” and learn to leave a legacy of wisdom and sharing. (Interestingly, the animated short film version came first, and won an Oscar in 2012.)
  • The Tale I Told Sasha. This story by Nancy Willard (1999)

    will work well for those setting out on a new business venture—”one with a great deal of unchartered waters,” said Rogers. It follows a girl chasing her yellow ball through magical lands, over the Bridge of Butterflies and meets the King of Keys who the author writes “whistled twice ‘Believe! Believe!’” It reminds leaders to stay the course and believe in their vision. All good leaders need reminders to slow down, be generous, and remember their role within the whole company.

The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

by Beth Morrow

Each day that you enter your classroom, are you educating students?

Or are you teaching at them?

Do your lessons only improve their academic knowledge?

Or do they foster their personal growth?

We all want our teaching to make a difference—otherwise, we wouldn’t spend our nights, weekends, planning periods, and, often, our own money putting together dynamic lessons we think will help students learn.

Here’s the rub: some teachers really do have student engagement going on. You know what I mean—despite the struggles we all face, their lessons always appear to be a success. Student absences are a rarity and discipline problems almost nonexistent—no one skips their class to hide out in the bathroom.

And you want that for yourself: maximum student engagement. If you just had a handful of the magic fairy dust that teacher is spreading, you’d be great, too.

But nothing you do seems to matter. New units, fresh seating charts, rewards systems (if you buy into that), class work, group work, computer work, individual work…yet nothing’s working. Maybe you need to put every lesson on the computer. Or nothing on computers. Should you adjust your lessons to read fewer books, show better movies, make more videos, have more rewards…?

Or, even more radical, you could shift your perspective to stop teaching at students and begin learning about them.

Teaching and Learning: The Chicken and the Egg

You can’t have teaching without learning something. And, as with all conundrums, there is no learning without teaching. Learning does not require a formal teacher, just a lesson with an integral meaning that speaks in a way that you understand.

But when teachers forget that a large part of being a successful educator relies on being a learner yourself, student perception begins to shift. Instead of creating a meaningful classroom experience, the classroom becomes “just a place to do work.” Instead of feeling invested in their learning, students only see more “stuff” to do.

This dichotomy cuts to the heart of the student engagement myth: that adding or changing classroom elements, doing a new project, or exposing a student to a new technology or method of instruction will magically transform apathy into a white-hot fire of curiosity.

And that couldn’t be more wrong. Igniting student passion isn’t about adding more options. Sure, there’s a value to trying a variety of approaches for the sake of exposure. But like throwing spaghetti against a wall, these changes won’t stick for long.

Why? Because you’re applying an external solution to an internal problem.

What Did the Teacher Learn Today?

True engagement comes when a teacher knows a student’s strengths and interests beyond the classroom and uses that knowledge to deepen relationships. If we go into our rooms each day to teach but not connect, we can’t expect students to care beyond a test score, if that.

Can you answer these questions about your students? If you can, how do you apply that knowledge to connect with them?

*What home issues are affecting their work?

*Do they have a non-academic passion?

*What are their favorite shows, games, songs, or books?

*Do they have a preferred learning style?

*What is their hidden talent?

*What goals do they have for themselves in the future?

And if you can’t answer those questions, it’s time to start learning. Because caring about students beyond the boundaries of the classroom is the first step of sparking engagement.

If You Want To Feel Safe On The Internet, You’re Doing It Wrong

If You Want To Feel Safe On The Internet, You’re Doing It Wrong

By Chrissy Stockton

Recently Lena Dunham’s alma matter, Oberlin College, published a guide for its professors on how to correctly use trigger warnings while teaching so that none of their students would be offended. The goal was to make the classroom a “safe space” for learning.

The guide was created by the school’s administrator’s, people who are invested in student’s happiness and satisfaction with their experience, not the quality of their education or whether they are learning to think. Oberlin’s professors were surprised (and unhappy) about the school’s idea that critical thinking and dialogue could ever exist in such a sanitized environment.

As one professor explained:

In the faculty’s eyes, trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom but the intrinsic nature of the liberal arts educational model. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” explained [Oberlin Political Science professor] Blecher. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.

If you want to feel “safe,” you do not value learning, it’s as simple as that. This is like asking an athlete to train for the Olympics without going through the pain and discomfort of exercising.

But it’s a movement that’s growing — calls to  take down offensive posts and moderate comments (or delete comments sections entirely). Creating safe spaces, or taking actions with the only goal of making people less comfortable is doing them (and everyone else) a disservice. A safe space is, essentially, somewhere where you will run into zero stimuli. It is a synthetic environment where the only interaction you have is with people who agree with everything you say, it’s a request to be surrounded by yes men, essentially.

I don’t agree with the concept of creating “safe” space because in doing so you necessarily create a space where no growth can take place. If there is no stimulus to provoke change, there will not be any change. There will be no learning, no teaching, no conversation. I don’t think anyone’s goal should be encouraging people to stick their head in the sand and plant their feet firmly and wait it out until they die.

What about people who are bullied? Shouldn’t they have a safe space to not be bullied?

Well… I’m not sure. Safe spaces are a big, fat road to nowhere, I can’t, in good faith, recommend a dead end to anyone. If we’re creating safe spaces for the sake of the emotional health of a person being attacked, we might do well to remember that sheltering someone doesn’t create growth towards health — adversity does. If that’s the case, sheltering someone is harmful rather than helpful. What if our parents never let us walk because they wanted us to be safe — to protect us against a fall?

Oberlin made the mistake of prioritizing short-term user experience over the higher, long-term goal of mental and emotional growth. Let’s learn from their mistake and stop with the idea that creating “safe space” is in any way helpful

Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice To The Young On Kindness, Computers, Community, And The Power Of Great Teachers

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young
on Kindness, Computers, Community, and the Power of Great Teachers

by Maria Popova

“Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”

Kurt Vonnegut was a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, a kind of modern sage and poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad. After the publication of his now-legendary 1969 satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut added another point of excellence to his résumé: He became one of the country’s most celebrated and sought-after commencement speakers, and like other masters of the genre — including Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett — he bestowed his gift of wit and wisdom upon throngs of eager young people entering the so-called “real world.”

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library) collects the graduation addresses the beloved writer delivered at nine different colleges over the quarter century between 1978 and 2004, among which are his poignant and heartening remarks to the women of the graduating class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, delivered on May 15, 1999 — the speech from which this entire collection borrows its title.

With his signature self-deprecation, Vonnegut reflects on the gift of compassion and how we — as a civilization, a culture, and as individuals — have failed it:

I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?” What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.

Though Vonnegut described himself as a Humanist — a secular set of beliefs to which Isaac Asimov also subscribed as an alternative to religion — and even called himself an atheist in another commencement address, he points to the story of Jesus Christ not as a religious teaching but as a cultural narrative that bequeaths a valuable moral disposition:

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”

His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s “E = mc2.”

Vonnegut makes sure his disposition toward religion isn’t misunderstood and the religiosity of these tales doesn’t obscure his larger point:

I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.

This disposition, Vonnegut argues, is a personal choice, an individual moral obligation, something to cultivate within ourselves — even it means going against the cultural current:

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on…

But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same — so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.

He then turns an optimistic eye toward the creative arts — the music, painting, literature, film, theater, and all the humane ideas that “make us feel honored to be members of the human race” — urging the graduating women to consider how they would contribute to that world and offering them a gender-appropriate revision of Robert Browning’s famous line, replacing his word “man,” an old-timey linguistic convention denoting a human being, with “woman”:

A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Vonnegut turns to the nature of human relationships and what he considers to be the only true source of friction for lovers, often mistaken for more superficial motives:

You should know that when a husband and wife fight, it may seem to be about money or sex or power.

But what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people.”

[…]

If you determine that that really is what they’ve been yelling at each other about, tell them to become more people for each other by joining a synthetic extended family — like the Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or the American Humanist Association, with headquarters in Amherst, New York — or the nearest church.

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.” Such counsel seems, in hindsight, particularly at odds with something else he proclaimed when he stood before the women of Agnes Scott College that spring afternoon in 1999:

Computers are no more your friends, and no more increasers of your brainpower, than slot machines…

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

The latter, of course, is something only a man can say — but given what a warm-hearted and thoughtful man Vonnegut was, the safe and decent thing to do would be to attribute such a well-meaning but ignorant remark not to ill intent but to his all too deeply engrained Y chromosome, or more precisely to his having unwittingly swum with the current his whole life.

More importantly, however, it’s interesting to consider that Vonnegut — writing in 1999, before Facebook and Twitter and most current thriving online communities existed — so readily dismisses the connective potentiality of “computers” (and even advises those women who may want to pursue motherhood to “keep that kid the hell away from computers… unless you want it to be a lonesome imbecile”) while in the same breath urging us to seek out “a synthetic extended family.” He even admonishes: “Don’t try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet. Get yourself a Harley and join the Hell’s Angels instead.” One ought to wonder how Vonnegut might feel if he were alive today to witness many of these initially online-only “ghostly” connections blossom into deep and real relationships offline, the best of them of the lifelong kind.

A curmudgeonly celebrator at heart but a celebrator above all, Vonnegut then returns to his optimistic vision for these young women’s lives:

By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.

[…]

Most of you are preparing to enter fields unattractive to greedy persons, such as education and the healing arts. Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.

(A necessary aside here: If any of Vonnegut’s words to the young women appear patronizing, this is more a function of the genre than of the man: Lest we forget, the basic rhetoric of the commencement address is one where a patronly “father figure” (or a matronly “mother figure”) gets up in front of a green crop of young minds and proceeds to dispense wisdom on how to live — wisdom that comes from a hard-earned, know-better place of having lived it himself or herself. The very point of a commencement address, it’s safe to say, is to be willingly patronized.)

Vonnegut’s closing remarks are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gladdening celebration of books and reading:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

He concludes with a wonderful anecdote about his Uncle Alex, from which this entire collection borrows its title:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And just to drive his point home in the most heartfelt way possible, Vonnegut ends with a soul-warming exercise:

That’s one favor I’ve asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? is a spectacular read in its entirety, brimming with Vonnegut’s unflinching convictions and timeless advice to the young.

The College Contraction Has Begun

The College Contraction Has Begun

by Hamilton Nolan

Last year, US college enrollment registered a notable decline for the first time in decades. The college boom had peaked. Now, the contraction begins.

It starts around the margins—community colleges and shitty “for profit” colleges losing students who recognize that they are not necessarily a good investment. A year ago, experts said that “signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years.” That prediction appears to be coming true.

Bloomberg today surveys the doom that is now creeping into the smaller, weaker, less popular, less financially stable class of private four year colleges. As their own enrollment declines—and without the huge endowments necessary to fill the holes—they risk falling into “death spirals” of continuing cuts and falling popularity, until nothing is left. After the shock of the recession, the weak of higher education are beginning to fall by the wayside:

Moody’s, which rates more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, downgraded an average of 28 institutions annually in the five years through 2013, more than double the average of 12 in the prior five-year period.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted that as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years.

Assuming this comes true, it sure does suck for the poor beleaguered bastards trying to build a career as a college professor—but not so much for college students, whose financial burden is so high that having a relatively higher quality pool of institutions to attend could be a net positive. If people find out that college degrees don’t pay off in the way they thought, they will not enroll in colleges, and some colleges will fail. Better, in the long run, than a bunch of zombie schools desperately trying to suck in any revenue stream at all to stay alive. That’s ultimately a waste of a lot of time, money, and effort.

Many deserted college campuses would make great paintball fields.

Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

The oft-neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

by Andrew Simmons
16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society’s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There’s also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling. Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.

I have always rejected these clichéd mischaracterizations born of ignorance, bad movies, and uninspired teaching. Yet I haven’t been stirred to fill my lessons with Pound and Eliot as my 11th grade teacher did. I loved poetry in high school. I wrote it. I read it. Today, I slip scripture into an analysis of The Day of the Locust. A Nikki Giovanni piece appears in The Bluest Eye unit. Poetry has become an afterthought, a supplement, not something to study on its own.

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit. All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.

Yet, despite all of the benefits poetry brings to the classroom, I have been hesitant to use poems as a mere tool for teaching grammar conventions. Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes: “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that literature should be mystifying. It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly. I am confident my 12th graders know how to write essays. I know they can mine a text for subtle messages. But I worry sometimes if they’ve learned this lesson. In May, a month before they graduate, I may read some poetry with my seniors—to drive home that and nothing more.

 

How Engaged Are Students and Teachers in American Schools?

How Engaged Are Students and Teachers in American Schools?

By Anya Kamenetz

Gallup recently released a major report on the State of American Schools. Their data paints a picture of schools performing as a complex ecosystem, with the wellbeing, engagement, and performance of teachers, students, and principals all intertwined.

The report combines decades of surveys of 5 million American teachers and principals with the results of the Gallup Student Poll, now billed as the largest survey of American students with 600,000 5th through 12 grade participants, and several large follow-up studies. Gallup’s also drawing on its background developing the Employee Engagement Survey, which has been administered to a total of almost 30 million people in all professions.

The Gallup polls ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school. While these qualities may seem like frills, they’ve been demonstrated over time to have powerful correlations with harder metrics, like a company’s profits or a school’s test scores. For example, in 2009, Gallup studied 78,000 students in 160 schools in eight states, finding that a one-percentage-point uptick in a school’s average student engagement was connected to an average six-point increase in reading achievement and eight points in math. Similarly, Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, says that in some ways, the point Gallup is making with this line of research is even more “provocative.” “We definitely want to show that these quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores,” he said. “But we’re also asking: is engagement more important or are grades more important? If you ask a parent whether they’d rather have a kid who is getting mostly As and is only mildly interested in what they’re learning or mostly Bs and is super engaged, I can tell you what most parents would pick.”

So how are we doing on these soft measures? According to the survey, 55% of American students scored high on engagement, and just one in three score high on all three measures of hope, engagement and well-being.

Engagement measures have a lot to do with relationships and feeling valued. So it’s not surprising that there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of teachers. As the saying goes, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which puts them on par with the workforce as a whole. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in–which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors–seem to tug against their happiness. “The real bummer is they don’t feel their opinions matter,” Busteed says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

This takes the measure directly to the top. Gallup’s study found that principal talent had a powerful impact on teacher engagement, which in turn affects student engagement. They recommend that principals adopt a more collaborative management style and help new teachers acclimate by putting them together to form partnerships with more experienced teachers.

Surveys and polls aren’t perfect, of course. But overall, the message of this research is a powerful indicator that we need to do a better job at looking at the full range of factors that affect school performance. Gallup is promoting its student poll to districts as another means of making decisions about what really counts in school.

Changing Our Education System One Programmer At A Time

Changing Our Education System One Programmer At A Time

by Jon Auerbach

In the off chance you’ve been sleeping under a rock with no Wi-Fi for the past 20 years, here’s some news: The U.S. educational system is under attack from multiple fronts and is on the verge of being reshaped by a profound entrepreneurial uprising.

This is acutely evident in higher education. Colleges are in an unsustainable arms race of spending on non-teaching lures – football stadiums and sushi-laden cafeterias – to attract students who can neither afford the cost of education nor find jobs to repay their debt once they’re out in the real world.

With more than $1.1 trillion of outstanding student debt, up to 40 percent of recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed. In 2010, the unemployment rate for young workers aged 16-24 hit 19.6 percent, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment in 1947. The next time you go to an amusement park, think that one in four park workers has a college degree.

As is often the case, change is coming from entrepreneurs looking to reshape education. After all, this stems from a real need on the part of startups to attract and retain great engineers. In most startups, the hardest jobs to fill are positions in core technology, product design and product management.

Educational startups used to be off-limits for entrepreneurs. The space was filled with a collection of schools and administrators resisting change and innovation. But in the past few years, two things have happened that offer real opportunity. First, the state of education is being challenged by systemic problems. And as software has become more approachable to the masses, it has led to a grassroots movement toward innovation in education.

The first forays into educational overhaul were companies like Khan Academy, which that took educational content and re-packaged it into forms that youth could relate to. The snack-size learning modules of Khan Academy mirrored videos that students were watching in their free time, and they became hits in their own right on YouTube.

A second wave of entrepreneurs then created massive open online courses, or MOOCs, with more in-depth content in the form of start-to-finish courses. Companies like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy and others give students an opportunity to take longer-length classes on their own time and often for free. And they aren’t alone. In the last several years, we’ve seen the rise of other online coding programs like Codecademy, which became popular after helping its students get into coding through its initial New Year’s Resolution challenge. In fewer than 48 hours, Codecademy was able to sign up 97,000 students.

These companies are all exploiting a huge gap in American education. In 2013, only about 31,000 students in the U.S. took the Advanced Placement Computer Science (CS) exam. This was less than 1 percent of total AP exams for the year and about the same number as those who took the Studio Art 2-D Design AP exam. By contrast, nearly half a million American students took the AP English exam. One reason for this disparity is a dearth of trained CS teachers in middle and high schools. With few trained teachers, even students interested in learning CS in high school have no formal option – last year, one student in the entire state of Mississippi took the AP CS exam.

Now a third wave of startups is sprouting up to tackle the dearth of vocational CS training with intense, in-person training. Companies like The Flatiron School, which I recently invested in, and the Turing School, are teaching students in short-term immersion programs. They tend to attract very motivated students, many of them mid-career in non-technical professions, who spend day and night learning coding over short periods of time. After completing their programs, the students have the technical skills employers are looking for, and they are highly marketable. In fact, Flatiron boasts nearly 100 percent job placement.

These schools are tapping into a large societal demand. Vocational training is the wedge to begin a 21st century institution of higher learning. And the schools are in good company. As Avi Flombaum, one of Flatiron’s founders, likes to remind people that Harvard was started in 1636 as a vocational training school to prepare a future generation of clergymen.