The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: Book Review

It’s rare that I read an informational book in the same “can’t put it down until I finish reading it” method that I use for novels, but Sam Kean’s book, The Tale of the Deuling Neurosurgeons, was definitely one such read.

Kean’s wit and humour marry with his descriptive explanations and advanced vocabulary to lead the reader on a delightful tour of the brain.  He uses masterfully crafted anecdotes of individuals whose less-than-fortunate experiences and abnormalities led to discoveries of the human brain.

Many familiar brains, such as H.M. and Phineas Gage, make an appearance, but the lesser known details surrounding their circumstances provide context and bring their stories to life in a fresh way.  The book also provides a plethora of lesser-known stories of lesser-known legends.  He recounts stories of siamese twins who can see through each others’ eyes, of phantom limb pain numbed by mirrors, of electrical impulses on the tongue to counteract a loss of balance and of clicking tongues to help the blind ‘see’.   He tells of brain preservation gone right and brain preservation gone wrong, and of an autopsy being secretly performed on a cadaver that was supposed to be at its own funeral.

Kean preserves the humanity and highlights the resiliency of the characters in his stories, while enticing the reader to read on in disbelief.  We owe much gratitude to those who willingly underwent risky surgery or who not-so-willingly fell to the hands of fate and dove into the neurological unknown, before the days of MRIs and other modern technology, and taught us what we know about the brain.  Likewise, we have learned much from the doctors, surgeons, and neuroscientists who acted on finesse, persistence, and wisdom, (or in some cases, sheer ignorance, carelessness, and lack of thought) to discover the mysterious organ contained inside our skulls.

For anyone with an interest in human biology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, or history, this is a delightfully entertaining read that will push you to the end of your seat and leave you with a better understanding of the human brain.  Fortunately for you, your brain will remain intact and untouched, but you will learn and be challenged by those who weren’t so lucky.

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Picture Books to Encourage Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of growth mindset is something that has significantly impacted the education world in the last decade (I’ve given further explanation of the concept here).  I strive to bring that growth mindset into my classroom, but doing so requires some intentionality.

Although the students I currently teach are in grade six, I often use picture books in my teaching.  This summer, I decided to purchase a number of picture books that support growth mindset so that I could use them as a tool for reinforcing the concept of growth mindset with my students.  I stumbled upon a few books that I quite love:

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  photo (28)

I adore this book!

When it came in the mail, I was disappointed.  I hadn’t realized that it was a board book – the kind written on thick, cardboard-like pages that’s intended for toddlers?  As soon as I read it, however, that was an irrelevant detail.

Each page includes some type of error but offers the reader the opportunity to interact with the page to discover how the mistake was turned into something beautiful.  There is no storyline in this one, but its tactile nature leaves a strong impression and it makes its point very clear: mistakes are often the precursor to masterpieces.

The Perfect Percival Priggs by Julie-Anne Graham photo (31)

I really appreciate this one because it parallels what I see in so many of my students.  The main character, Percival Priggs, is an extreme overachiever.  He fears failure because he associates it with his sense of worth and thinks that he will lose his parents’ love if he fails.  He participates in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, most of which he doesn’t enjoy, but he feels that they, too, help to establish his worth.  Predictably, Percival messes up and creates a bit of a disaster.  To his surprise, not only does it not alter his parents’ love for him, but it opens up a dialogue about his fears.  He discovers that, contrary to his prior beliefs, his parents aren’t perfect, either.

A fantastic message, wonderful illustrations, and some creative humour create an enjoyable read that drives home some important messages: we are loveable even though we make mistakes, and it’s important to pursue things that we enjoy.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deakphoto (32)

This one is a true non-fiction, informational book.  It gives an overview of the functions of the different regions of the brain and focuses on the concept of neuroplasticity.  Brain research shows that the brain has a continuous capacity to grow and develop (see more on that here) and this book explains that in a way that is understandable for children.  It also speaks of the importance of developing new skills and persevering to develop skills in areas that are difficult for us.  Additionally, it gives several great statements about the importance of making mistakes.

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr photo 2 (12)

Todd Parr uses his trademark catchy art style to deliver an important messages about accepting imperfections.  I particularly appreciate the fact that he not only mentions typical mistakes, but he also touches on character traits or other tendencies that are not mistakes, as such, but are things that we might have difficulties accepting about ourselves.  He mentions such things as getting upset, being forgetful, and being clumsy and normalizes them in an easy-to-understand manner.

Pack of Dorks: Book Review

“What’s wrong with them?” I whispered to Dad…

“They’re noticing that Molly has Down syndrome.”

“Oh” I said, “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” Dad sighed and stood again.  “That’s it.”

“But she’s still a baby.  I mean, they wanted to see a baby.  She’s a baby.”

Vrabel, Beth. Pack of Dorks. New York: Sky Pony, 2014. 102-103. Print.

Synopsis:  
Lucy is a grade four student who is popular in her school but then finds herself on the receiving end of a constant stream of belittling from a ‘friend’ who intentionally removes Lucy from the popular group.  While this is happening at school, her home life is turned upside down when her sister, Molly, is born with Down syndrome.  Lucy is accepting of her sister and is beautifully indifferent to her Down syndrome, but struggles with feeling neglected by her parents who go through a period of major adjustment after Molly’s birth.  Through a study of wolves which teaches her a powerful metaphorical lesson and through the steadfast loyalty of a true friend, she arrives at the decision to ditch her quest for popularity and let her true self shine.  Her authenticity is rewarded with far more satisfaction than she ever enjoyed in her days of highest popularity.

Reading level:
– easier than Young Adult fiction but similar in terms of being highly relevant and engaging.
– would be a great read for students who enjoy the story lines of Young Adult realistic fiction stories but find them too linguistically challenging.

Key Messages:
– Acceptance of diversity
– Authenticity over popularity

“Our class has packs, too.  There are some people who think they’re alphas.  People who think they can act however they want or do whatever they want because, for some reason, they act powerful.  But real alpha wolves take care of the rest of the pack.  They aren’t just in charge in order to be cruel.  Here, the kids who think they’re the most popular, or the coolest, they’re usually the biggest jerks.”

Vrabel, Beth. Pack of Dorks. New York: Sky Pony, 2014. 210. Print.

photo (21)