Remaking Our Brains

BLOG #15, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REMAKING OUR BRAINS
April 15, 2015

This was the weekend of our annual Conifer Kiwanis Reading Celebration for the third-graders who attend six mountain elementary schools here in the Colorado Rockies. Also for a large consortium of homeschoolers.

Before we honored the kids for their reading improvement, I gathered close to 90 third-graders on the floor around me, and urged them to make reading central to their lives. Since I poured thirty years of observation and research into my 1992 book, TV on Trial, and one of my main doctoral concentrations had to do with the relationship between reading and writing, and since those areas have remained central to me during my entire academic teaching career, I felt this occasion offered me a golden opportunity to plant seeds in these young minds.

I pointed out to them that there are two ways they can feed their brains: Reading and Electronic Imagery. Reading has been with us clear back to ancient times, but most significantly since the advent of printing, some six centuries ago. Electronic imagery is much more recent: around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of moving pictures.

Today, electronic imagery has become so ubiquitous it increasingly has pushed reading onto the ropes, with some even questioning whether it can survive at all.

So, I pointed out to the third-graders that there are two significant differences between reading and electronic media: Reading is a creative process; electronic imagery tends to be creative only for those who create it. Reading is connotative. In other words, every time a person opens a book and begins reading, something exciting happens: that person’s brain shifts into its creative gear as the reader cranks out non-stop inner imagery that has the potential to actually change the brain into a powerhouse.

I introduced two contrasting word processes: “denotative” and “connotative.” Denotative has to do with the dictionary definition of a word. Let’s take, for instance, the word “father”; the dictionary definition is “a man who has begotten a child.” That’s all there is to it.

But the connotative process is so explosive it borders on the mind-numbing, for it has the potential, over time, to remake the brain. I pointed out that as you read the word “father,” if you have a loving father you adore, the mental image you create will tend to mirror that; but what if you have an abusive father? That would contribute to a much darker mental image. And no two readers ever create exactly the same mental imagery from the same words! For each individual is one-of-a-kind. That is why cloning would be such a terrible thing. As a person reads, word after word after word triggers the creation of mental imagery in the reader’s brain. So much so that just one book has the potential to create seismic differences in the reader’s outlook on life. But that’s not all, by any means. Each author writes in a different way from other authors; this is why Google enables teachers to catch plagiarists so easily, and why it borders on the impossible that an anonymous writer can long remain anonymous. The reader reads works by Alcott, Tolkien, Blume, Milne, Seuss, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—; those stylistic differences are stored in inner templates, each of which may be drawn from when the reader begins to write herself/himself.

Depending upon whether the reader reads from a wide variety of books, stories, essays, etc. written by authors worth reading as opposed to stalling out on mental pablum; the former is likely to develop into a powerhouse and the latter into straitjacketed narrowism.

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But what if individuals read no books and little of anything else, and instead feed the mind with electronic imagery (the norm for untold millions today), what happens to their minds? When one is watching television, cinema, video, or other electronic genres, whether one person is watching a given source or a billion people are watching it, every last one is internalizing the same picture! Reason being that the receiver’s brain has had nothing to do with the image’s creation—someone else did that. In fact, the receiver’s brain is completely bypassed: BAM! The image is blasted into the receiver’s brain. But it is not internalized for it is a foreign object. It is a self-standing entity that just sits there. Over time, as these foreign objects take up more and more space in the receiver’s brain, that person all but loses the creative potential that individual was born with.

In the collegiate freshman composition classes I’ve taught over the years, I’ve seen replayed the two species again, again, and again. When I tell a class, “Take out a blank piece of paper. We are going to write. . . . Now write!” It matters little whether I give them a subject to write about or let them choose, the results are the same each time: the reader, having all the internalized imagery of many authors’ books and stories synthesized into the memory banks, stylistic templates too, can hardly wait to start writing—and then the pen races across the page. The non-reader, almost invariably, just sits there glassy-eyed, like Bambi on ice. Since there is precious little in their brains that wasn’t created by someone else, there isn’t much they can draw from. And since they don’t read, they don’t know how to write either. Structurally, they are equally at sea. Since electronic imagery explodes at them from all directions, little of it structured, their thought-processes tend to be equally unstructured and disjointed. This is also true when they speak in public.

Furthermore, even in the business world, non-readers are handicapped. Studies have shown that when employing CEOs test them to see which applicant would be the best fit for a job, they are often given a task composed of, say five, steps in which to reach desired completion. Deliberately and unannounced, the CEO leaves out a step. So a reader moves from step to step: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and E to F—only D to E is left out. The reader reaches this abyss, is puzzled , but doesn’t give up. Since the reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “library,” in which the brain talks to itself, the applicant, much like a spider, launches filaments out into the void, seeking for a terminus on the other side. Sooner or later, one of the filaments touches solid ground; the applicant now bridges to the other side and moves from E to F, and completes the task. The non-reader never can complete the task. Even when both applicants are college graduates with 4-point grade A averages, the results are still the same. A neighbor of mine, an executive himself, and a veteran administrator and employer, when I shared this study with him, explained, “So that’s it! I’ve long wondered why some top graduates could problem-solve and others failed so dismally. It makes sense!”

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Sadly, our society has yet to recognize just how essential reading is to life and career success, even in areas that are not generally considered as demanding a reading background.

Are Books Dead? Third-Grade Readers at the Crossroads

BLOG #8, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ARE BOOKS DEAD?
THIRD-GRADE READERS AT THE CROSSROADS
February 25, 2015

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Author Joe Wheeler, foreground left, and fellow Kiwanian Barry Sweeney, encouraged children to read by handing out certificates and books at Beaver Ranch on Feb. 3, 2007.

It appears to be a national consensus that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it is extremely unlikely that the child ever will. Because of this, thirteen years ago, the Conifer, Colorado Kiwanis Club launched out on uncharted waters. We had no guidebook, no map; we just knew something ought to be done about it. After all, every week, we recited the Kiwanis mantra, our reason for being: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world—one child and one community at a time. Kiwanis is for kids here, there, and everywhere.”

Over time, gradually, we felt our way, as we adopted five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Jeff, for short]. Recently, because there are so many homeschooling families in the Mountain Corridor, we added them as well.

Each year, we raise money for books; not bureaucracy or infrastructure—just books.

Because for us, this one thing we do, we have had an impact far greater than the size of our club would warrant. All our fund-raising is centered on reading. In my own case, every December, because every penny above cost of my books goes directly to third-grade readers, the largest grocery stores in the area permit us Kiwanians to set up inside the store. Kiwanians man the table and I inscribe from a very large selection of our in-print and out-of-print books. We also raise money by sponsoring a rest stop for bikers in the annual Triple Bypass Bike Race (“triple” meaning that it features three passes over 11,000 feet); drawing 4,000 – 6,000 bikers every year. And we also seek other sources of funding.

And every year, we Kiwanians hold a Reading Celebration for third-graders and their families, as well as their teachers and principals. On that occasion, the kids get to see Mr. Ron Lewis’s buffalo herd close up (he’s our club president), partake of refreshments, receive certificates of reading achievements, have one of my books (chosen by the child) personally inscribed as a gift from me. They will also join their teachers and principals, school by school, and tell us how last year’s money was spent, and how they feel about reading. They are then awarded the check for the upcoming year.

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That’s the fun part for me. During the past two weeks I have made appointments with area principals and third-grade teachers, to enter the classrooms and personally invite the third-graders to come to the Marshdale Reading Celebration. I brought with me fourteen of my books: ten collections of animal stories (series titled “The Good Lord Made Them All”), Showdown (sports stories for boys), Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls), The Talleyman Ghost (mystery stories for girls), and The Secrets of Creeping Desert (mystery stories for boys). Each attendee will choose one later, after first receiving parental permission to do so. Then I leave full-color posters depicting the 14 book covers with each teacher. By the time I leave, the kids are excited.

Often the teachers grant me time to talk with the kids about both reading and writing, and how they go together. At that age, being an author is a magical thing to them. When they’re told that I’ve written/edited 89 books so far, they are in awe. When I ask for questions, they are so excited, almost every hand is raised. Believe me, when all the third-grade sections are brought into one room for my annual visit, one section seated at their desks and the other sections seated on the floor (50 – 80 kids at a time), and seeing all those hands waving for my attention, it is an exciting thing to behold. Third-grade is a perfect grade to target for they are still excited about life and reading; fourth grade is too late.

This year, one of our schools, Elk Creek Elementary School, is being honored because its students made the 98th percentile in state-wide reading scores! Which gives Kiwanis validation for the thirteen years we’ve partnered with these area schools. And with parents–for unless they are partnering with us at home, our efforts are limited. But together, we can accomplish miracles!

As I see it, if my entire life were to be judged by just lighting the eyes of these children, one at a time, with the joy of learning, reading, writing, creating—it would be worth having lived.

Washington and Lincoln: Are They Still Relevant?

BLOG #7, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WASHINGTON AND LINCOLN
ARE THEY STILL RELEVANT?
February 18, 2015

Are they ever! Again and again, I hear back from readers of my two Lincoln books: Abraham Lincoln, A Man of Faith and Courage, 2008; and Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories, 2013 (both published by Howard/Simon & Schuster), comments such as these: “Do we ever need another Lincoln today!”, “I was deeply moved by your new Lincoln book.” Just ten days ago, a Parmalee Elementary School fourth-grader who walked up to me and asked, “Are you the writer of the animal books”? When I answered that I was, his face brightened as he said, “I have all ten of them–I love them all!” When I then asked him which one he liked best, without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Best of all? . . oh, that has to be the Lincoln book—I read it over and over!”

Though I haven’t yet put together a Washington story anthology, over the years I’ve gradually tracked down many of the most powerful such stories—they’re hard to find for they were written for a much more patriotic age than ours today. Sadly, neither civics nor American history are taught much any more.

Washington’s role in our history is every bit as significant as Lincoln’s, for he was the reason why we (with the timely help of the French fleet) eventually won our independence from England. Furthermore, without him, it is doubtful the perpetually squabbling colonies would ever have agreed to support any one leader as President.

So one man, more than any other, made possible the establishment of our republic, and another man, more than any other, made possible the preservation of our republic.

Which brings us to a key question: Just what are their most significant character traits?

I’d say, selflessness . . . persistency . . . determination to see something through to its desired end, no matter the cost, no matter how long it would take . . . strong belief in God and Providence . . . Humility (Washington refused to be crowned King) . . . Solid as a rock Integrity . . . accessibility to all . . . Fear of Power . . . Consideration for others . . . Ability to motivate thousands of people to join him in common cause . . . organizational skills . . . tact . . . love of family . . . far-seeing . . . ability to see the forest as well as the trees . . . fear of a permanent military establishment . . . visionary: could see far ahead . . . kindness . . . empathy . . . loyalty . . . willingness to be used, then gladly step aside for others . . . Wise foreign policy . . . fiscally astute . . . wise use of spoken and written words . . . consistency . . . unwillingness or reluctance to abridge freedom for longer than necessity demanded . . . no daylight between the talk and the walk.

These qualities and more are the key reasons so many people wish Lincoln and Washington were still with us today.

Of course, in a very real sense, they still are!

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Should you wish to pick up a copy of either or both of my Lincoln books from us, here’s how:

 

Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories: $22.99 (plus shipping – $6.00)

 

 

Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage: $22.00 (plus shipping – $6.00)

Both books are dust-jacketed hardbacks. Specify if you wish them to be personally or generically inscribed (no extra cost).

Our mailing address: Sage & Holly Distributors, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.

HAS AMERICA REACHED ITS TIPPING POINT?

BLOG #40, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
HAS AMERICA REACHED ITS TIPPING POINT?

October 1, 2014

Unbelievable that we could even be discussing such a thing, but recent events in Colorado are serving as not only a state-wide but national groundswell of concern on the issue. Might it be that we as a people have become so complacent about our 225-year-old democracy that we have missed the ominous cracks that are only now being taken seriously?

In history, rare is the great nation that remains great long-term. We, as a people, however, have blithely assumed we’re an exception to the rule in that respect.

IS COLORADO A WAKE-UP CALL?

This is a question many people across the nation are beginning to ponder. Since we locals are in the eye of the storm, so to speak, we tend to take for granted that most Americans are aware of the raging debate over Colorado’s Jefferson County School Board. Permit me to fill you in on the story:

An unusual situation developed during the last six months when three of five board member positions became open at the same time. Since many local citizens felt strongly that they had little voice in how the district was being run, three centrist locals decided to run for those seats. In spite of being greatly outspent media-wise by union supporters, all three were swept in, giving them a three-fifths majority.

What disturbs so many people is what followed: The media regularly categorizes the three new board members as “Christian extremists,” and passes up no opportunity to disparage or discredit them. The teachers’ union orders district teachers to storm the board meetings, along with union operatives from all over. Without defenders, these board members tremble as hecklers turn their deliberations into virtual lions’ dens. One of the new board member’s own children has been so viciously harassed that the parents were forced to pull the child out of a local school and transfer to a charter school some distance away. Teachers have so openly maligned and discredited these board members that many of the 85,000 students in this large district are now seething with hatred against them. So much so that these board members dare not even step foot in any of the classrooms they are legally in charge of.

At first, the storm of media negativity was general: in essence, trying to make life such hell for the new board members that at least one of them would resign. And daily life for each of the three has become just that. “Daily discouragement” a mild term for how they feel from day to day—and unpaid positions at that!

They were first attacked for hiring a new district superintendent [the original one resigned rather than work with the new board members] who was empathetic to the desire of ordinary citizens to have a say in the running of the district.

They were next attacked for their attempts to tie pay-increases to excellence in teaching. The two original board members voted against it. The union unleashed a storm of outrage that the poorest-performing teachers wouldn’t get the same salary increases the best-performing teachers would.

Then there is the latest storm of outrage over the board decision that some form of positive patriotism in the teaching of U.S. history be encouraged. Deconstructionists raged: How dare they encourage patriotism when so many terrible things have been done in the past!

During the last week, teachers have been disrupting family-life by staging sick-ins; by not showing up for classes, parents are forced to stay home with their kids.

Well-founded rumor now has it that as soon as the fall election is over, a massive recall of the three new board members will be organized and funded.

All this is making many people, not only in Colorado but across the country, wonder what has happened to our nation that such things can be? That such tactics of intimidation and poisoning the well against an opponent can be condoned. Indeed, locally and nationally, Republican candidates are blistered in a media frenzy of attack ads for their right-to-life stances (which is in essence an attack on all American Christians who believe in the sanctity of life).

Woven through all this is a nation-wide tide of ridicule and scorn directed at all conservatives, Christians, and people who still dare to defend traditional marriage and family. One of the new board members’ cars had a Defense of Family bumper sticker depicting stick-figures of a man, woman, two children, and a dog defaced during the last week: defaced by the addition of a painted-on meteor on collision course with the family.

I’m in a personal quandary here because I have wonderful relationships with area teachers and administrators in five area elementary schools, where I’ve worked in tandem with them for eleven years now, as we together try our best to get more elementary students into reading. There are so many individual teachers who continue giving their all each day.

Reflecting national concern over one aspect of this controversy is a September 27-8, 2014 Wall Street Journal major opinion essay titled “Democracy Requires a Patriotic Education” by Donald Kagan (Yale University historian and professor emeritus), in which he weighs in on the issue in observations such as these:

“Our schools have retreated from the idea of moral education, except for some attempts of what is called ‘Values Clarification,’ which is generally a cloak for moral relativism verging on nihilism of the sort that asserts that whatever feels good is good.”

“Just as an individual must have an appropriate love of himself if he is to perform well, an appropriate love of family if he and it are to prosper, so, too, must he love his country if it is to survive.”

“Neither family nor nation can flourish without love, support, and defense.”

“Assaults on patriotism are failures of character. They are made by privileged people who enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest, but they lack the basic decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands. But honor, of course, is also an object of their derision.”

“The encouragement of patriotism is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt. This would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.”

“The story of this country’s vision of a free, democratic republic and of its struggles to achieve it need not fear the most thorough examination and can proudly stand comparison with that of any other land.”

* * * * *

So, my question is this: What can each of us do to help avert further cracks in the foundational structure of our republic? Is our current culture of disparaging, discrediting, and ridiculing conservatives, Christians, right-to-lifers, defenders of traditional marriage, and defenders of traditional family, irreversible? If it is not, what can each of us do to help fix it?

The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mysteries for Girls

BLOG #33, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE TALLEYMAN GHOST AND OTHER
MYSTERIES FOR GIRLS
August 13, 2014

N E W S    R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 88th book. In last week’s blog, I discussed with our readers the three-and-a-half-year fuse that led to the eventual publishing of The Talleyman Ghost and The Secrets of Creeping Desert. How it was thanks to Larry Weeden (Editorial Director ) and Bill Flandermeyer (then bookstore manager) at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs that these two books came to be.

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In this case, our discussion that December 3, 1910 evening centered on the individualized book needs for boy-readers and girl-readers. We concluded that both boys and girls love mysteries. After all, generations of young readers have grown up reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery stories. Both Weeden and Flandermeyer urged me to consider putting together mystery story collections for both audiences. Finally, three and a half years later, here they are.

I have raided the entire twentieth century for its most memorable girl-related mystery stories. I chose the very best by popular authors whose stories have stood the test of time; not easy given how few stories survive for two generations. A number of the writers were already familiar to me: prolifically published writers such as Catherine R. Britton, May Hurley Ashworth, Albert Payson Terhune (America’s greatest dog story writer), Augusta Huiell Seaman, Eric Philbrook Kelly (renowned writer of stories dealing with Poland and Europe), and Malura T. Weaver.

It is much more difficult today to choose mystery stories that uplift rather than degrade, that help inculcate values worth living by rather than those likely to darken the inner skies of its readers. Not surprisingly, I discovered that most of the best stories had been written earlier on rather than today.

Since far more girls than boys are enthusiastic readers today, I have no fears for the popularity of this collection.

Over the years it has become abundantly clear to me that, generally speaking, book covers are the determining factors in terms of which books are purchased and which are passed over by bookstore browsers. I’ve been lucky with most of our covers; however, two were just plain awful. Not surprisingly, the sales correlate. I’d guess that 95% of impulse book-buying is almost predetermined by the cover illustrations and graphics.

Which brings me to the covers for Talleyman Ghost and Secrets of the Creeping Desert. When Todd Hoyt (president of eChristian/Mission Books) sent us sample cover illustrations for each book, it gave me a brainstorm: quite a few years ago it was when Kiwanis of Conifer members decided to put most all their fund-raising eggs in one basket. Since Kiwanians recite every week this mantra: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one community and one child at a time,” our only question had to do with how we’d focus our energies. We concluded that it had to do with reading. Reason being that for several decades now our national reading test scores have continued their prolonged death-plunge. Reason being: most parents today are themselves non-readers; consequently there are hardly any books, magazines, or newspapers to be seen in their homes. And gone too, for the most part, is the traditional story hour during which parents read to their children. The results add up to a national catastrophe.

Since studies continue to show, conclusively, that if a child fails to fall in love with reading by the third grade—it’s not likely to ever happen at all, we decided to make addressing that need our first priority. Since I’ve directed our Kiwanis Reading Program since its inception, I’ve been deeply involved in helping to make it happen. We’ve raised over $70,000 to buy books for the students (third-graders, highest priority) in five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jeff elementary schools in the Colorado Front Range. Each year, at our annual reading celebration for third-graders, I personally invite all the kids to attend at Ron Lewis’s barn in Marshdale. We give them a great time, including a chance to personally check out Lewis’s buffalo and elk herds, get their faces painted, get to have one of my books (of their choice) inscribed as a gift from me, and be part of the receiving groups when annual checks are handed out (usually $1,500 or so per school). Last two years, since we have a vibrant homeschooling community here in the mountains, we added them in as well.

So, when the subject of choosing covers for these two books came up, I decided to corral Wendy Woodland, principal of West Jeff Elementary School, and ask her if she thought third-graders would get a kick out of helping to choose two book covers before they were published. Woodland loved the idea. “It would be a real first for them!” was her response.

She felt boys would choose a mysterious-looking cover devoid of frills, and implying overt action. But, as for girls, she prophesied that since they tend to recoil from covers that convey graphic violence, much preferring understated covers that, while they appear mysterious and perhaps mystical, lean toward beauty rather than crude or overt action. “And,” she added, “girls love cursive writing more than block writing. Mark my words, they’ll, hands down, choose the mystical green cover with swirly cursive writing.” She was right: the boys gravitated to the one you’ll see on Secrets of Creeping Desert and the girls almost unanimously chose the one that graces Talleyman Ghost. I can’t wait to show the students these covers this fall when they are fourth-graders.

Here are the chosen stories included in the book:

“The Talleyman Ghost,” by Catherine R. Britton
“The Clock Stopped,” by Mae Hurley Ashworth
“Portia and Xenophon,” by Albert Payson Terhune
“That Darling Chin,” by Grace Lyon Benjamin
“Aunt Honoria’s Legacy,” by Helen Minshall Young
“Butterfly Ranch,” by Mary Beth Oliver
“The Mallory Inheritance,” by Augusta Huiell Seaman
“A Royal Mystery – Unsolved,” by Eric Philbrook Kelly
“The Missing Chessman,” by Dorothea Castelhun
“Wings of the Wind,” by Kenneth Payson Kempton
“Buried Treasure,” by Mabel Cleland
“The Ebony Box,” by Malura T. Weaver

Girls of all ages will revel in this timeless collection. As you’re making up your Christmas stocking list, write down the names of your girls, granddaughters, nieces, godchildren, etc., and have me inscribe the books personally to them. Ditto for birthdays or other special occasions.
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ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 144
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost. You may secure your copies from us, so give us a call or email or letter, and we’ll fill your order for you,

Mail your request to Dr. Joe Wheeler, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.
Or Phone to 303-838-2333.
Or send an email to: mountainauthor@gmail.com.