Part One of “The Power of Stories During Difficult Times:” My Conversation with Author Don Winn
Last month author Don Winn hosted a chat with me about the comfort reading can bring to children (and the rest of us) particularly during hard times. 2020 may be in the rearview mirror, but our challenges don’t seem to be letting up just yet. A daily dive into a good book with your child can be just the thing to bring you both comfort—and pay longterm dividends.
Here’s the video interview you can watch again or, if you prefer, read.
As the stressors of 2020 continue to increase—COVID-19, distance learning, an election, and a brutal fire season—filling our children’s and our own need for a daily space of respite is vital…
It’s more important than ever for (our children) to spend a part of their day lost in the pages of a good book.
LA ParentMagazine, November 2020
I had no idea, when I wrote “Escape through Reading” for the current issue of LA Parent Magazine last month, how deeply the truth of it would resonate this past week.
As my homeroom checked in via Zoom during morning meeting last week, fires were raging nearby and the tension and anxiety my fifth graders were feeling was palpable. One student and her family had evacuated their home at dawn, and so she joined our class from a hotel. Other students’ families were packing essentials and awaiting possible evacuation orders.
Fortunately, this is a group that feels safe with one another, so they could talk about what was happening and express their feelings fairly openly.
I don’t think I ever felt so grateful for the subject I teach as I did that day. The plan that morning was to finish reading a chapter together from the John D. Fitzgerald novel The Great Brain in which Tom, the novel’s title bearer, hatches a plot to get the harsh new teacher fired by framing him as a secret drinker. Talk about a great escape.
It was a relief for all of us, I think, to disappear into small town Utah of the 1890s to find out whether Tom could pull off his outrageous caper. He always seems to show the adults what’s what, which, of course, the kids love.
Diving into the story we learned that life wasn’t necessarily easy for kids back in the 19th century either. You’d have attended a one-room schoolhouse with kids of all ages and, if you got into trouble the teacher would paddle you—right in front of everybody! And so we rooted for this audacious and brilliant ten-year old hero who never fails to entertain and astonish us.
For a brief time we were transported far from our own troubling reality and enjoyed a respite from the fires, the virus, and even the distance that separates us.
What I’ve been reminded of again and again during this season of remote learning is that shared literature has the power to bring comfort and bridge the gap. It not only provides a welcome oasis from our current difficulties, but it also makes possible a sense of connection among us, even through Zoom.
Check out the November issue of LAParentMagazine on page 12 for my article “Escape through Reading”…5 tips for creating a shared reading experience in your family that will provide a powerful buffer through these challenging days.
The Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Mitigate Covid Slide
If you’re a parent worried about Covid-19’s long-term effects on not only your child’s academic growth, but their social-emotional well being too, you are not alone. “Covid Slide” is the new buzzphrase for the worry that students who miss out on regular school will have long-term gaps in their learning and struggle to catch up.
It’s an understandable concern. The Distance Learning programs that schools and school districts delivered during the final third of the school year varied widely. Some schools pivoted quickly into a fairly robust program, while others faltered and even petered out toward the end of the year.
Children have been out of physical school since March and, with the number of COVID cases spiking this summer, schools across the country are facing agonizing decisions about how school will take place in the fall.
The uncertainty of it all is bound to cause anxiety in parents. Sending their child back to some semblance of normalcy if their school does open under physically distanced circumstances, participating in their school’s distance learning program, or keeping them home and figuring it out for themselves are possibilities every parent will have to grapple with soon.
In the meantime, what can a parent do to help their child continue to grow academically and feel safe and healthy emotionally?
The single most important thing a parent can do during this time of school upheaval is to support their child’s love of reading. Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Two Critical Tools Every Child Needs
In The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, I explain the tools a parent bestows on their child through reading to them from the beginning that will affect their future school success. Here, I’ll explain just two as these are two of the most critical ones a child needs during this time.
Tool #1: Intellectual Curiosity
The child who reads will want to know more
One of the most important tools that a child who finds pleasure in reading gains is intellectual curiosity. It may sound lofty, but intellectual curiosity is simply the quality of wanting to know more about the world. Young children are innately curious, but I’ve learned through over thirty years in the classroom that this quality is easily lost if it isn’t nurtured. Children who read learn more than those who don’t, and, they are more curious than their non-reading peers.
Why is the cultivation of intellectual curiosity important during this time of interrupted school? A child who reads for pleasure during this time continues to want to know more and will read more in order to learn. They are intrinsically motivated to do this, regardless of whether they are in school or not. These students want to learn for learning’s sake. They are much less likely to fall behind and will be primed to resume regular instruction because they have not stopped learning.
Tool #2: The Ability to Find Joy Anytime, Anywhere
A child who reads for pleasure can find joy through being transported beyond their circumstances
Parents and all who care about children are not only concerned about academic slippage. Earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools re-open in the fall, despite spiking cases of COVID-19, for the sake of children’s social-emotional health.
Children need to be with other children, and face-to-face learning with a caring adult is ideal. But what if public health circumstances prevent this from happening in the fall? How then can a parent best support the social-emotional needs of their child?
Encouraging a love of reading is helpful here too. There are two ways a parent can promote their child’s emotional well-being through reading.
A daily family read-aloud time is a comforting oasis for both parent and child during a difficult time. Sharing a picture book or a novel together is an opportunity not only to escape into another world, but also to connect with each other through the experience. Having a parent’s full attention at some point each day has an enormously positive impact on a child’s well-being. Enjoying a story together offers an opportunity for conversations not only about the story, but also about a child’s feelings around it. This may even lead to other conversations that wouldn’t occur without the prompting of the story. A daily family read-aloud time is an excellent opportunity for bonding.
Having books to jump into independently can be a soothing haven for a child during a difficult time as well. Neuroscience has taught us much in recent years about the impact that reading for pleasure has on the brain.
What we now know that we didn’t understand before is that when we read fiction it impacts not just the language-processing portion of the brain, but all parts of the brain. Studies show that when we read, we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us. (Murphy Paul, 2012.) What this means for a child immersed in a book is that they are truly transported when they read; they experience the story as if they are actually participating in it. Studies also indicate that reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation and that it brings the same health benefits: deeper relaxation, inner calm, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression.
Reading provides a healthy escape from the monotony of being stuck at home.
Lest a parent worry that their child could grow into a reading recluse unable to relate to others, studies also show that reading fiction develops a person’s capacity for empathy. Entering into a story necessitates that a reader put themselves into a character’s shoes. With fiction we come to understand that others have viewpoints different from our own. These important ingredients for social-emotional wellness cultivated through reading can make a lasting impact on a child’s ability to understand others. (Mar, 103-134)
Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Come fall, whether or not schools reopen, no child will experience school in the way they’ve known it in the past. Regardless of your child’s school circumstances, encouraging their love of reading remains the one of the most important things you can do.
Last spring, as soon as my school announced that we were going into Distance Learning, one of my fifth grade students made a beeline for the school library and checked out 17 books. His ability to think ahead and plan for lost access to the library was impressive. The parents of another student of mine did a very smart thing too. They ordered every single Rick Riordan title from Amazon so that their son would have a complete library of his beloved series to read during the quarantine. By June this boy had read over 19 novels.
As a teacher I felt good about the language arts program I was able to deliver remotely to my students on such short notice. It wasn’t nearly as expansive as what I would have been able to offer in person, but except for a very few, most of my students remained active and engaged until the end of the year. The boys who were reading continually for fun were two I knew I didn’t need to worry about.
Parents can let go of some of their anxiety, too, through supporting their child’s love of reading. While not every parent can afford to buy an entire library of their child’s favorite author’s books, the public library, their child’s school’s library, or free books available online can provide a child with what they need to carry them through this time of disruption and build a strong foundation for their future.
Dickson, Kim Jocelyn. (2020). The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Coral Gables, FL/USA: Mango Publishing Group.
Mar, Raymond. (2011). Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 62: 103-134.
Murphy Paul, Annie. (2012). Your Brain on Fiction. New York Times.
If your family is feeling anxious and adrift in these uncertain times, a nightly read-aloud ritual can bring enormous comfort, not only to your children, but to you too.
Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
“Reading aloud nurtures the parent-child connection. When reading aloud is part of a daily family routine it provides a steady point of connection both parent and child can look forward to and count on. Practicing this daily ritual communicates not only that reading is important, but that the child is important. Snuggling and cuddling up together with a book creates feelings of warmth and can even provide a bit of an oasis from daily pressures and burdens.
Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine.
My son’s father and I divorced when he was quite young and our nightly story-time ritual meant a great deal to us both during those difficult days. One winter evening an old friend of mine from high school was visiting from out of town. After dinner and his bath my son, who was about five, trotted downstairs in his footed blue pjs, a book tucked under his arm. He marched right over to my friend who had settled into a rocking chair by the fire, and politely instructed her that she would have to move. A bit startled, she asked why.
“Because my mom and I have to toast our toes by the fire,” he answered matter-of-factly.
‘Toasting our toes by the fire’ was code for our nightly ritual of snuggling up in the rocker by the fireplace and reading together. My son was not about to let anything or anyone interfere with this. Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine. The warmth and closeness of cuddling together with a book at the end of a long day meant just as much to me….”
Social distancing is an opportunity to cultivate a family routine that benefits everyone
With children home from school and multiple disruptions in the daily routines that keep us grounded, families may be more in need than ever of new ways of being together that bring comfort. Reading together as a family can fill that need.
How to get started?
Sooner or later, you will need to develop a schedule for your family. Whether your work keeps you home or takes you away, your children will do best if they are provided with some structure that includes keeping up with school work, time for independent reading, and play.
Schedule a time in the day when your family gathers to share a read-aloud together and stick to it. This can be an enormously comforting way to wind down the day as you bond over a great story. Regardless of when you come together, what’s most important is that you create a ritual that everyone can look forward to and count on.
What to read?
Family read-alouds are the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the books they might not pick up on their own: the classics. (See resources below.)
What are the classics, and why are they such a great choice?
As I tell my students, the classics are stories that are so outstanding that they have stood the test of time, and appeal to readers regardless of their time in history.
They make excellent read-alouds for families because of their cross-generational appeal. Classic stories have complexity and universal themes, and lend themselves to rich discussions.
Reading the classics enriches us and enlarges us intellectually—and spiritually too. As screenwriter William Nicholson wrote in his biopic of C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.”
The daily comfort of connecting with characters in a gripping story, surrounded by the people you care most about, may just be the perfect port in this storm.