It’s brain gym, but not as we know it

Posted on: 12 Dec 2017

Charlotte Weatherley, assistant head at Knighton House School, outlines the many benefits in getting children to read, benefits which go far beyond the exam treadmill.

It has long been known that reading, particularly early reading, stimulates a child’s brain to profound activity, connections being made which lay the foundation for all its future learning. Currently, most educational theorists agree that the ‘constructivist’ approach to children’s learning is the best way to educate them, (this is how children construct new learning by relating it to their own knowledge of the world and their personal experiences of it), but other theories about how to ‘activate’ young brains persist, such as the idea of teaching children to their preferred learning style and, despite being roundly ridiculed for its pseudo-scientific claims, the jury continues to deliberate the benefits of ‘brain gym’ to children’s learning.

I am rather keen on the brain gym model myself, having just emerged from a strenuous work out of my own, but in my case, I was going for the burn in a different way altogether; no ‘hook ups’ or ‘cross crawls’ for me (find those on the Web); no, what I did was read a book (The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer) which brought me back to the many benefits of getting children to read, benefits which go far beyond the exam treadmill.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel is 754 pages long and I had to stop and think hard about every single one of them. What was the author’s intention in writing this book? What did he want me to think about? What was I meant to learn? Who was I meant to identify with: Adele? Hadassah? Abrahm? Asa? Brooding the answers on hilltops, it took me a month to read the book, but when I finished, a fitter and leaner me emerged, my frontal lobe like that of a high-performance athlete. Could I now tackle the great experimental novels of the 19th century, those which elevate deep thinking to an Olympic standard; furthermore, could the act of reading ‘difficult’ books, I asked myself, be one way to help children access hard parts of the curriculum and stimulate them to better problem solving and critical thinking?

My brain gym began straightforwardly; problem statement: Isaac Bashevis Singer is a writer who wants distance from the narrowness of a highly observant religious community and the novel is a criticism of faith over the creative impulse. Almost immediately I realised that my problem statement did not tally with the fact that the author continued to write his novels in Yiddish, even after he left his native Poland and settled in America, nor with the loving, albeit unflinchingly brutal, eye which the author trains upon every aspect of the Moskat family affairs. Problem solver type? Ineffective.

But dendrons a-pinging, I deliberated instead that the author wanted me to identify with Asa Heshel, the main character (or the one who ties many of the characters in the novel together), who embraces the thinking of Spinoza and eschews his Jewish faith. Having supposed I was now on the right track here, I then thought how much Asa Heshel has in common with the story of the ‘Wandering Jew’, never at peace, never able to settle; furthermore, Heshel was a very hard character with which to empathise (I wanted to shout at him very often) and thus I began to doubt he was Singer’s motivation for the story; even factoring in the appeal of an anti-hero, he seems to take the reader down nothing but blind alleys. In the novel, he loves three women and has children by two of them, but family, fatherhood, never bring him solace, and he is never able to put down roots. Family life certainly gives him no consolation for his existential anguish (his ‘mental speculations’ as they are called in the book) it leads him nowhere, certainly to no new understanding of himself or mankind in general; so also, my train of thought – a dead end. No heuristics for me; no mental shortcut seemed possible in making sense of this difficult book.

Mental toughness my mantra, I thought really hard, and then I had it: Singer wants me to understand the vitality of a true faith; but then again, what if what he wants me to see is the importance of ritual in giving boundaries to our disordered emotions? In fact, I decided, The Family Moskat is really about the binding power of religion and the ability of the Jewish faith to answer fundamental questions about existence. But just as suddenly I knew for certain that the whole book was a study on family relationships and the tough business of living. That was before I reached the last page of the novel and the lines spoken by Hertz Yanovar: ‘The Messiah will come soon…Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.’ Wow, I thought, talk about cortex strengthening, that statement is going to burn some serious calories in the contemplating. Further, to continue our fitness analogy, I thought how much reading really is the definitive ‘work out’ (for the brain) and then naturally I found myself writing a fantasy exercise programme for YA readers and their younger brothers and sisters.

For your Dynamic Warm Up

For sophisticated YAs, everything published by Peirene Press; these are contemporary, European short stories or novellas (of 200 pages or less), designed to be read in one hit. Portrait of a Young Mother by Friedrich Christian Delius is written as one long sentence; a sort of cardio blast for the brain. YAs might also like the high-octane moment of revelation in Nicola Yoon’s novel Everything, Everything. For KS2/3, Italian Folktales collected by Italo Calvino; short shots of energy leading to something chunkier; see below.

High Intensity Interval Training

Intense bursts of exercise followed by short recovery periods, such as the highs induced by reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others; round and round in your head go the words ‘I am free’ and then round and round goes the counter argument ‘but I am responsible’. Great for the enrichment programme’s Philosophy club. For younger readers, this can only refer to the rollercoaster of inhabiting the whole mythical universe created by the writer Tonke Dragt in her book Letter to the King.

The Strength Training

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil: many, many, many pages, with character and ideas taking precedence over plot. Your synapses may implode trying to problem-solve the main character’s existential crisis, so not recommended for early teens - what with hormonal turmoil and the demands of social media, they need safe and secure in their reading matter, not literary experimentation. Better to try The Wind on Fire series by William Nicholson; the three books in the series are all equally demanding and all equally well-written. I don’t know another series which stimulates your neural network so comprehensively. For the Early Years, Baby Loves Quantum Mechanics and Baby Loves Thermodynamics by Ruth Spiro will surely sprout thousands of new dendrons (or is it dendrites?); either way, new linguistic connections will abound.

Boot Camp

You’ve got stuck on the reading equivalent of old television show reboots, what you need is a high-class book that demands all your mental engagement; reading Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński is to contemplate the drama of 20th century history all over again and to get a glimmer of the inevitability of what came afterwards. It’s reading’s apologia to those born in the two decades before Brexit, still coming to terms with the ‘Leave’ vote of their parents and grandparents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Book 11) by Jeff Kinney and lots of David Walliams? Nothing wrong with those, but My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley gives a more enduring synapse burst with its clever historical ‘what if’?

Foam Rolling

A form of massage ‘to loosen tight muscles and improve mobility’ which in reading terms must be the equivalent of reading Oswald Wynd’s book The Ginger Tree: travelling to China as a young bride at the beginning of the last century, marrying a veritable stranger, losing your head to a Japanese samurai, falling on desperate times but battling on and finally, creating a fulfilled existence, independent of disapproving society. For much younger readers and those who love their clever picture books, Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect, induce the said wonderful state of looseness and a sense that everything is possible.

Active Recovery

This is what you do on your ‘rest day’, and there is no better way to actively recover from high impact neural activity than by reading books which speak in a universal tongue: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1984 by George Orwell, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; but really, substitute any comfort read to speed up your recovery.

It’s brain gym, but not as we know it.

About Charlotte Weatherley

Charlotte Weatherley is assistant head at Knighton House School in Dorset.