Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Breathing and Anger

As giant fluffy flakes of snow powdered New England this morning, 200 some teachers sat in a high school auditorium listening to an expert on child anger and bullying. Despite being distracted by the prospect of driving home in two feet of snow, I listened to this man as intently as I could.  He said a lot, but it was really a single question and the one word answer that stuck with me. 

This man described bullies and victims of bullying and angry children.  I have many memories of Eric's experiences with teasing and staring and harassment, and I knew the anger that he felt at times as a result of the more pervasive and perpetual bullying.  This man described the brain activity of an angry person, which is so similar to someone with impaired executive functions and he explained that anger and fear result in the intense activation of the frontal lobe. Then he asked, "Do you know what is the best antidote for this intense activation?"  The answer:  Oxygen. There it was, in that one word... that gestalt, that instant moment of getting it. It's breathing, not medicine, that makes it better.  Breathing IS the medicine.

Strangely, this reminded me of an experience I had once with a crossword puzzle on an airplane.   I was a young mother, and my first experiences of mothering involved being intently vigilant about my son's breathing. I know lots of  us are awestruck by the fact that these tiny little creatures actually know what to do, and will continue breathing (and eating and sleeping) even if we aren't standing over them watching them, but my situation was different.  My son was born with a benign tumor that pushed on his airway, and for 7 weeks, until he got a tracheostomy, breathing was NOT a given for him.  And even after he got his trach, I was guarding his airway every moment of every day.  I knew what every one of his different breathing sounds meant, and because the trach tube blocked any air from passing over his vocal chords, the only way he could tell me anything was by the noises that came out of his trach.  His breathing sounds were our language. 

I was flying out to Indianapolis for a job interview when he was just under a year old, and I found myself alone for the first time. I tried to relax with a crossword puzzle.  I had an empty unsettled feeling from the moment I left him in my husband's arms, and now on the plane I was trying to fill the void with a puzzle.  I zipped over clues and filled in boxes as fast as I could - my usual strategy - until I came to these two words:  breathing sounds.  It was as though the light went on and an answer just flew onto my brainscreen.  My life for the last 11 months had been completely, totally, intensely focused on breathing sounds.  I guess I had known this in some unspoken way, somewhere in my body, but the crossword puzzle clue became a clue for learning about my own life.  The importance of the breath - my breath, and other people's breath , the singular power of the breath, became clear to me from reading the clue for 21 down.

I hate that people stare at Eric.  I hate that when we walk into a room, he is received in a way that most people are not.  I have been enraged at the mall, or on a ski lift, or in a restaurant because of people's behavior.  But remarkably, he is not.  He IS an inspiration.  He holds his head up and ignores the pimply teenagers at the mall, and he chats up the preppy blond haired blue eyed perfect people on the ski lift, and he smiles at the rubber-neckers in the restaurant until he has disarmed them all, and me, and then I am breathing again.  Just take a breath.  And then another, and another.  So simple, and yet so hard to remember.  I never knew that oxygen was the antidote, chemically, for these mysterious reactions in my frontal lobe.  But I think Eric has known all along.  I do know this:   if I keep listening to his breathing sounds, the inspirations will keep on coming.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Inspired by my favorite non-linear thinker

This morning, my 21 year old son told me he really wanted me to see these... he said I should show these to all the teachers I work with in Salem. After I watched them, I was very moved by his request and so I wanted to share them here on my blog.
I think this one is actually a wonderful support for workshop model for learning - a model which always includes choice, time, collaboration, authentic response and authentic purposes for reading/writing and learning:

and this one, which I think reminds us to keep thinking about what and how we teach and what and how students learn:

To put my son Eric's request in context, you should know that he was born with a cranial facial birth defect, has had innumerable hospitalizations and reconstructive surgeries and still has a tracheotomy for breathing. He is brilliant, funny and very musical. He is a voracious reader. He is a non-linear thinker, and is incredibly creative. He scores nearly perfectly on all standardized tests. He even scored a 5 on the AP calculus test although he was not allowed to take AP calc in high school - he just had one wonderful math teacher who advocated for him, gave him the book and told him to read it and take the test. And then she made sure when he graduated he got the a new award that they made just for him ... "the theoretical math" award.

Eric never did well in school as measured by grades, and he was identified as LD because of executive function disorder/ADD- he wanted to drop out when he was a junior. He was frequently called "unmotivated" despite the fact that people knew he was dealing with a chronic medical condition. A school psychologist once told me, "Jennie, sometimes we have to give up on the dreams we have for our children." His young and cool g 6th grade teacher said in an IEP meeting - "This kid is never going to make it in life. He needs a one-on-one aid just to get through the day" (which he did not have, nor did he need.)

In high school, his math teacher told me that "he doesn't belong in an honors class until he can learn how to keep a neat and organized binder." I finally just gave up and when I cried at graduation, it was because I was so relieved that is was finally over. But I haven't forgotten any of this, and Eric has helped me to keep thinking about what it really means to be a "highly qualified" teacher!

 p.s. Eric is doing well at Pace University in Manhattan...  he had the courage and the stamina to persevere and believe in himself, despite the medical and educational struggles he's been through.