Read More. Stress Less.

Oftentimes as educators, we witness patterns in our classrooms but aren’t taken seriously unless our theories have official scientific backing (the students, parents, and administrators won’t mind if I put my teaching on the back burner for a few weeks to conduct and review experiments, right?).  Having your empirical observations reinforced by data is gratifying because it substantiates what you have known to be true all along.

In my room, we read for the first ten minutes of class.  Every period.  Every day. This is non-negotiable. Within the first week of Independent Reading, I noticed a change in my students.  After reading, the students were calm and collected, ready to go into the lesson.  I did not have to use any of my various refocusing strategies to gain or maintain the attention of the group.  At first I thought I had entered an alternate universe – what had changed my 23 jittery, hungry, pre-lunch period juniors into group of students patiently seated at their desks?  Why were my chatty freshmen (21 girls and 5 boys) now quiet on their own accord? Each day, after the ten minutes of Independent Reading, my students were relaxed and ready to learn.

A few weeks after this beautiful change occurred, I happened upon an article citing a study done by Sussex University that discussed relaxation techniques and ways to reduce stress. The data was not surprising to me, because I had already witnessed it in my classroom.  This study concluded that reading for just six minutes a day can reduce stress by up to 68%.

In this study, Dr. David Lewis,  a cognitive neuropsychologist says: “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism. It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

In fact, reading seemed to be the activity that lowered stress levels the most.  It slows the heart rate and eases tension in muscles more than walking, listening to music, playing video games, or drinking a cup of tea.

According to Dr. Lewis, there is a reason for this: “[Reading] is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

And, I noticed, it didn’t matter what my students read.  They could be engrossed in American Sniper, TWEAK, Gone With the Wind, Outliers, Bossypants, or a book of poetry, and each of them, at the end of ten minutes had the same physiological evidence of relaxation: they looked and acted calm.

This study has been cited in many other places including the Wall Street Journal, but I’m a visual learner and take stock in what I see.  I witnessed further confirmation of this study’s findings recently when members from our department visited Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, NY. We have been lucky enough to forge a partnership with the teachers, department chair, principal and curriculum director as we have embarked on this Reading (R)evolution and they graciously allowed us to observe what they do.  Each classroom we entered seemed to be a mirror of the last and also an exact replica of my own: after reading, students were settled and clear-headed. What I was seeing in New York was happening with my students in Connecticut.

Students’ lives are stressful.  They are teenagers managing siblings, parents, peers, teachers, jobs, academics, standardized tests, and a host of other variables we may never be privy to. What’s the worst that can happen when we take ten minutes of class and put books in their hands? They read? Their heart rates lower and muscles become less tense? They use books as a positive way to escape their everyday pressures for a little while?  They emerge clear-headed and ready to learn?

What spectacular side effects of reading!

Read more. Stress less.

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