Spark Book Review: The Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the brain

Changing thinking about exercise and the brain

Written by bestselling author and psychiatrist John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a positive book that looks at how exercise can improve neuroplasticity, learning, and executive function. It suggests exercise as a helpful addition to medication, or sometimes even a replacement for medication in the treatment of depression, addiction, and ADHD.

Exercise and the brain

I found Spark to be full of practical advice for improving education, lifting depression, alleviating addiction, improving student achievement, managing ADHD in adults and children, increasing mental performance, and reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline. If you didn’t think exercise was a panacea before reading this book, Doctor John J. Ratey will make a believer of you by the end. His book is chock full of case studies, statistics, and experimental data that both convince and encourage. Exercise may not cure everything, but it seems to optimize the brain by re-balancing the brain’s chemical and electrical signals and triggering new connections.

Why exercise and the brain?

People evolved as hunter-gatherers who were always on the move. Similarly, our brains need the chemicals released by moderate and intense exercise to function best. People typically exercise to improve their health or extend their lives but Ratey says these motivations are secondary to the more important benefits: improving the brain.This book will change the way you think about your workout. I found myself reading it on the stationary bike.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it gets very technical for the average reader, especially in ebook form. The references to clinical trials and case studies make Ratey’s style is appropriate for a cutting-edge expert in his field. As a non-expert, I could have used some brain diagrams to help me absorb the scientific names for various brain regions, growth factors, neurotransmitters and so forth. There was a lot to learn and while Ratey explains things well, it would have been nice to have a cheat sheet or visual organizers.

Who should read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain?

I read this book with interest because of my work with children. The book leads off with a couple of fascinating studies relating how exercise can improve student achievement, contentment, and behaviour. There are sections devoted to ways in which exercise stimulates new learning and helps students with attention challenges. That said, there are sections on a wide range of maladies that affect adults from depression to Alsheimer’s Disease to addiction. This book will be useful to a broad range of readers, including those interested in practical suggestions to help stave off mental decline with age.

 

Richard Scrimger Interview

I was lucky enough to interview the witty, award-winning Canadian author, Richard Scrimger. Versatile, he writes for small children, middle grade, young adult, and adult categories. My current favorite is his YA novel Zomboy, in which a new student turns out to be undead, and unwanted, by unenlightened members of his community. Zomboy provokes thought but still delivers suspense and laughs. It has been nominated for a Red Maple award by the Ontario Library Association.

This year I am running a Silver Birch book club and a Red Maple book club. I’m looking forward to what my grade seven and eight club members have to say about Zomboy.

Enjoy the interview:

 

 

Shared Writing and the Classroom Novel

The popularity of fantasy adventure novels hasn’t dwindled since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Teachers capitalizing on this popularity can inspire student writing, without marking more pages than Lord of the Rings. Today, I’m going to talk about shared-world ‘novel’ writing. This is something I did with a class of gifted grade four students, but the format easily adapts to older students, all the way up to high school.

Design the architecture of the story a bit like a video game or a treasure hunt. The protagonists are searching for a special item, or group of special items that are keys to solve a puzzle, or which give magical powers to defeat an opponent. Each chapter depicts the protagonists’ search through a different world.

In the case of our student novel, World Pool, it began when a magic rock and a runaway science experiment tumbled our heroes into a series of water portals. The protagonists, a boy and a girl invented by the class in a chalkboard brainstorming session, moved from world to world having adventures. Don’t ask me how it worked scientifically. It was magic, and as long as the rules of magic are consistent in the story, your students can do just about anything.

Our intrepid heroes visited the soccer world, the stone age, the bronze age, the land of hockey, Formula 1 racing world, the magical jungle, a planet with heart-shaped people, and finished off by visiting the Wonderful Lizard of Paws…

When the chapters were edited, we collated them, photocopied, added a student-designed cover, and bound and distributed the finished product. If I were to do it again today, I would produce an ebook on Smashwords, and give the families a coupon code for unlimited free copies. That way there could be a colour cover, and the young authors’ families and friends could access their book worldwide, at no cost to the school.

If this idea inspires you, try holding a few shared-writing brainstorm sessions with your students. This is a fruitful process but it can’t be rushed. Every student needs to feel implicated in the planning, writing, and peer-editing. The process is as important as the final product, and helps create team spirit.

Suggested procedure:

  • Set aside a daily time for work on this intense project
  • Set behaviour guidelines which allow only constructive criticism, and limit brainstorming to positive comments
  • Discuss the format, story genre, and types of characters students want for their story
  • Collaborate on a story architecture that will allow each chapter to be written by a pair of writers, inspired by a topic of personal interest to them
  • Dividing into pairs also keeps the number of chapters down to 15 or so
  • set chapter length limits (word count or page limits)
  • The class will need to collectively map out the book’s outline, including how it ends before writing begins (I like to use chart paper to keep and display our decisions)
  • One pair will write the first chapter, in which the protagonists are drawn into the first portal
  • One pair will write the final chapter where the protagonists return, victorious!
  • Make it fun! Creativity can ‘turn turtle’ under pressure
  • You may want to discuss writing characters of the opposite sex in a realistic way, and use mixed writing pairs, to avoid sexist clichés
  • Have groups ‘sign up’ for topics to avoid repeats (ex. there shouldn’t be two candy world or vampire world chapters in the same book)
  • Pairs should be given plenty of class time to write, peer-edit, and revise their chapters before the teacher edits them
  • Good copies need to be typed by each pair and submitted to the teacher as a digital file (for printing or ebook conversion)

For more information on formatting ebooks for distribution on a variety of devices, you might like to look at the Smashwords website, or the Kobo Writing Life website. Kindle Direct Publishing sets limits on what you are allowed to publish for free. If creating an ebook for Kindle interests you, check out Amazon’s fine print, or produce your .mobi (Kindle) files via Smashwords.

 

November Creative Updates

Creative Teaching Update

I Wish My Teacher Knew, the non-fiction online book I made to collect first-person stories about education and creativity, has received over 1050 reads on Wattpad. This is exciting because the more people read it, the more will contribute. The hope is that these stories will inform Creative Teacher Librarian with fresh ideas for renewing education. Find out more about it by clicking on the story below. Drop me a line if you have a story of your own to add. It would be great to hear from you.
 

 

Creative Writing Update

As of October 31, the new serial novel, Feeding Frenzy, is underway. Over a hundred readers have perused the first three chapters. As it grows, the hope is many more people will read it. Serial fiction is a great motivator and antidote for writers’ block. Since making a promise to update weekly, there is real pressure to follow through. Last week I posted chapters on Wednesday and Friday. Reader comments have been encouraging. Writing Feeding Frenzy is a nostalgia rush too, as it forces me to reflect on my first year of university, although mythical Loon Lake University is nothing like my alma mater, University of Toronto. If you like fiction with a little humour, mystery and paranormal suspense, this one may be for you.
 

 
The Wattpad experience has been stimulating in a lot of ways. I attended a second Toronto meetup at the Wattpad offices in October, which resulted in a new Halloween Story compilation. This platform makes it easy to engage online with writers and readers in their late teens and twenties. Who better to discuss creativity and new ideas in fiction?

Convention Update

My schedule for http://sfcontario.ca/ has firmed up. If you are in Toronto next weekend, and you are interested in speculative fiction, attending a convention is worth doing. I’m moderating three discussion panels and I’ll be running a flash fiction contest, open to attendees. If you are at the convention, be sure to say hello. Here is my schedule:

Reviews and Critiques – Saturday 11 AM
Tricorders in the Classroom – Saturday 12PM
Flash Fiction Slam  – Saturday 7PM
Sherlock vs Elementary – Sunday 1pm

In case you are wondering what a Flash Fiction Slam is, I admit I made it up. The idea is to have writers perform their own 500-1000 word stories, and have the audience choose the winners. In a traditional poetry slam, a couple of volunteers are chosen from the crowd who give each slammer a score of 0-10 for his or her performance. No props or costumes are allowed, and only 20% of the offering may be sung. Beyond that, there are few rules. Whatever the reader does to make the performance exciting is allowed. My idea is to take this format and apply it to flash fiction, all in aide of engaging entertainment.

 

 

 

Ideamancy – Ideas for Back-To-School Magic

A running start to Fall.
A running start to Fall.

The first week of school is over. Routines are starting to gel, kids are on their best behaviour and starting to make friends. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief. It’s the honeymoon period for elementary teachers. This glistening doorway of opportunity, lit by September magic, will not stay open long.

Invite all the kids in, before that dull ‘day-to-day feeling’ arrives. Hook them with creativity. Kids love to be stimulated and challenged to imagine. They want your teaching to take them places they could never go on their own. Surprise them and help them stretch their minds, and they will know you are on their side when things get harder.

With this goal in mind, here are a few book suggestions for September:

Steal Like an Artist. Long books on creativity can be counterproductive. This short book by Austen Kleon is full of art, poetry ideas and inspiration for teacher-artists, or anyone who wants to live more creatively. I recently reread it and find it excellent for visual, material, dramatic and literary artists.

Kleon suggests that you take whatever artistic thing you do to procrastinate and do more of it. He gives practical advice for artists like ‘learn about money,’ and describes ethical ways to draw inspiration from the work of others. One of his big projects is Newspaper Blackout, a website which begat a bestselling poetry book.

You could have a lot of fun doing newspaper blackout poetry with your students. How? Students take fat markers and strike out words on a newspaper page, until the remaining words form a poem. The result might be a simple message like “Eat your vegetables!” More sophisticated students could juxtapose the title of the original article against their ‘secret’ message. For example, they could take an article about war and block out words to reveal “give peace a chance,” or “support our troops.”

 

Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends appeals to boys and girls. It’s not new material but his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” is a guaranteed giggle. I introduce it by telling kids how my Dad used to recite it to me when I was little. “Sylvia Stout,” is a good model for student ‘chore’ poems or poems about garbage. With Green Philosophy paramount in modern schools, it’s time for young Silversteins-in-the-making to write recycling poems. If you like his style, there are videos of many of his poems and songs available on YouTube. “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor,” is fun to sing with young children. Just be careful, not all Silverstein material is safe for school. Ever heard “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh?”

 

Make your own crazy character mix and match flip book. Have you ever played this game? Fold over a small stack of paper and staple to make a booklet. Make two scissor cuts to divide the book in three, top-to-bottom. Students draw the head of a character or creature in the top box, the body in the middle and the feet at the bottom. Students open the booklet to the next page and pass it to the next student. This student continues by drawing another monster, athlete, animal or character, aligning the head, body and legs in the correct box. This process continues until all pages are filled and the books are returned for sharing, flipping and discussing. This little art and creativity project can be a jumping off point for writing “What if” stories or just a fun get-to-know you activity. Enjoy!

 

‘What if’ story starters:

  • What if you woke up with the legs of an Olympic runner?
  • What if you had the chest of a fish and could breathe under water?
  • What if you had the body of a bird and could fly?
  • What if your head was an octopus, legs and all?
  • What if you woke up with a hairy gorilla body?
  • What if you woke up with the pitching arm of a pro baseball player?

 

Here are some examples of different flip books:

http://www.firstpalette.com/Craft_themes/People/Body_Flip_Book/Body_Flipbook.html

http://sketchbookchallenge.blogspot.ca/2011/11/flip-book-animals.html

 

This one is just for writers. As a writing book junkie, I procrastinate by reading about writing. What better way to goof off and still feel productive? In my home office, I have a bookshelf of reference and writing advice books. Other titles I’ve purchased as ebooks or borrowed from the library. I’m not proud of my addiction, but it puts this next statement in context.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, is the best book on fiction editing I have ever read. Reading it feels like having an editor at my side, pointing out potential flaws and providing techniques for reworking and deepening the second draft of my novel-in-progress. The chapters on polish and proofreading are short compared to those on style, craft and characterization. This is no grammar book for beginners.

If you want to do more substantive editing before you submit your work to a professional, this book is an excellent reference to read, and reread. The checklists at the end of each chapter help diagnose weak points and prioritize the complex processes of rewriting: adding, subtracting and re-imagining to enrich voice, style and emotion.

Takatsu Cell Phone Novelist

Takatsu wrote the first North American cell phone novel. I met with him to speak about creativity, multimedia art, writing, and education reform. His current project, Espresso Love, is a Wattpad novel. You can look at the video trailer, which he produced himself using Animoto to add mysterious signs to the urban landscape. His multimedia productions include songwriting, stories, video and graphic arts.

Takatsu praised the rigour of the Japanese school system and the close relationships and teamwork inherent in Japanese culture. Paradoxically, the strictness and high expectations bring out students’ talents and develop their abilities. Takatsu says that by working inside such a strong box, students learn to think outside it.

The same students who work together on a rigorous curriculum during school, and then clean their classrooms together, must participate in one club after school. These clubs involve many hours of daily practice in one area chosen by the student according to interest and talent. Choices include music, sports, visual arts and drama. The creative or athletic skills developed last a lifetime. Takatsu laments that in North America, although many people have a passion for the arts, many forget their talents once they enter the workforce.

There is a place for teachers on platforms like Wattpad, according to Takatsu. Educators are needed for collaboration, to teach net etiquette and also to mentor and teach writing skills.

I hope you enjoy this interview in which Takatsu speaks passionately about art and education. You can find his multimedia projects at Takatsu.tk.

 

Creative Teaching Newsletter – Poetry Slam

The very first Creative Teacher Librarian newsletter has been sent. Subscribers will receive a mini unit introducing spoken word or ‘slam’ poetry. Tips, instructions, useful links and a Spoken Word Rules page are included. Lessons can be adapted for a wide range of ages from grade school to high school.

 

Back-To-School with Feeling: Poetry in September

Poetry gets a bad rap ;-). Quick, when you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Spring? Acrostics? Singsong rhymes? Archaic language?

Students tire of poetry if they associate it with sappy greeting cards or bygone eras or a cookbook approach that emphasizes rigid form over self-expression.

Don’t miss out because of old stereotypes. In September, poetry makes an excellent get-to-know-you and formative assessment tool. In a two or three week poetry unit, students will produce many short poems on different topics and in different forms, affording the teacher multiple chances to assess written and spoken language. The trick is to make it fresh and relevant for young people.

— from the September Newsletter

 

 

Cursed Dishes by Jennifer Lott

I recently enjoyed interviewing Jennifer Lott about her first chapter book. As an early childhood educator, she had insights into writing for children and teaching as well. Cursed Dishes is based on a ‘revenge’ story Lott wrote when she was sixteen about her uncooperative younger sisters. Ten years later this completely reworked version is volume one in the Family Magic series, published by Reality Skimming Press. Told with humour and with illustrations by Doriano Strologo, the story dramatizes conflict between three sisters entangled in a messy little curse.

I hope you find Jennifer’s story inspiring. This was my first Skype author interview and hers as well. Using Skype to connect your classes with authors is free and simple and requires only that you and the author both have a Skype account, and that you ‘add’ each other to your Skype address books. I used a H2N Zoom microphone but most newer computers and laptops come with built-in microphones and cameras that make the process easy. Read Kate Messner’s article in School Library Journal for more information about setting up Skype for author visits. You can also read up about it on the Skype website.

Make a Chapbook or Booklet – DIY Video

Getting Started with Chapbooks and Brochures

Give your students recognition for their excellent creative writing by publishing a short story anthology, or connect school and home with a booklet of favorite family recipes, or a homework guide for parents. From poetry chapbooks to collections of cartoons, publishing little books helps generate excitement for literacy. When you arrange a book launch for student authors and their families, their pride is palpable. I will never forget when one of my student’s poems was accepted into a school board anthology. It was gratifying to see her get recognized for her originality. You can create the same kind of emotion in your school, library or classroom.

Chapbooks are a well-respected form among poets, including professionals. Making a chapbook can be as easy as printing out a manuscript and photocopying. A simple chapbook can be formatted using software such as Word or Publisher. Once you have printed out the booklet, fold the paper in half to make your book. For added panache, add a separate cover using heavy stock before you staple it together.

To find simple instructions for designing a booklet, I searched the internet for templates. Unfortunately, a lot of the available templates are for tri-fold brochures or one-page flyers. In the spirit of DIY, here is a quick instructional video to get you started making chapbooks using Word for Windows 8. My version has a cover, an automatically generated table of contents, and odd and even page numbers. Click the link to watch the video: DIY Chapbook Video

I also found online instructions for making a chapbook using Windows 2002 as well as a YouTube video for using previous versions of Windows to make a booklet.

 

 

Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson

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Book Review

Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative with Sir Ken Robinson

When you research creativity in education, it is impossible not to come across Ken Robinson’s provocative work. His book, Out of Our Minds, published in 2001, revised in 2011, is still fresh and powerful. In part a scathing critique of the factory model of education, Robinson supports individual educators, and acknowledges that many of us are working within the system to support student creativity.

Part of his work is a well-researched attack on academic hierarchy. While he champions literacy, Robinson asks why mathematics and Language should be considered supremely important, while drama and dance are treated like expendable extras. Unless the goal of all students is to become university professors, he argues, this approach is wrongheaded.

Threatened by global and ecological crises as never before, he says humanity is going to need creative thinking if we are to thrive and survive as a species. Globally, the rate of change of technology means children we teach today will work in industries that haven’t been invented, use tools we’ve never seen, and interact in ways we can’t imagine. The outsourcing of well-paid high tech work is only one reason I agree with Robinson’s arguments. As adults, today’s children will compete globally to earn a living.

‘Back-to-basics’ teaching focussed on rankings and standardized testing is not preparing students for employment. According to Robinson, business leaders want “thoughtful, creative, self-confident people… who are literate, numerate, who can analyze information and ideas; who can generate new ideas of their own and help to implement them; who can communicate clearly and work well with other people.”

Before you ask how writing poems is going to help with that, consider Robinson’s definition of creativity. He suggests we should recognize more forms of human intelligence than those measured by I.Q. testing or the SATs. For Robinson, these outdated tests only reinforce modern society’s harmfully narrow view of intelligence. He claims the unemployed high school dropout and the underemployed college graduate were both let down by the education system, because neither discovered their creative potential.

Human beings think and exert intelligence in diverse ways depending on the medium of our creative work.

When people find their medium, they discover their real creative strengths and come into their own. Helping people connect with their personal creative capacities is the surest way to release the best they have to offer.

Robinson calls for a celebration of diversity in human thinking which will alter societal attitudes to ability and disability; and also help humanity adapt to exponential population growth, unpredictable technological change and growing environmental concerns.

He calls creativity “applied imagination,” and “a process of having original ideas that have value.” This value cuts across all domains from pure science research to filmmaking.

Robinson’s chapter, “Being Creative,” provides practical tips on how to boost innovation through technique. All people are born imaginative, but this ability can be enhanced or squelched by one’s environment. Unlocking the “constant promise of alternative ways of seeing, of thinking and of doing,” is essential. Educators, parents and community leaders can do a lot to foster diverse talents, instead of feeding the myth that creativity is just for ‘special people.’

There is a saying among teachers in my school that ‘gifted teaching is just good teaching.’ Robinson’s book reinforces this idea. We must interact with all our students in ways that bring out their gifts and talents, and be open to exploring domains that allow them to think, whether they think best through drama, dance or mathematical equations. It’s a tall order and no educator can do it on his or her own, but informing our teaching practice with a philosophy that nurtures creativity is an excellent place to start.