Brain Gym to the Rescue

Three of us recently visited Grounds for Sculpture, a 42 acre park and museum located in New Jersey in Hamilton Township. If you love sculpture situated among beautiful gardens, this is the place to be. The number of sculptures there have probably exceeded three hundred at this point. And, if one is going to make the trip, then make a reservation at Rats restaurant located on the grounds next to a postcard-ready pond with vents periodically spraying mist.

When my friends and I sat down for lunch on the outside canopied patio, we discovered unexpected diners: ducks. Yes, several of them liked to come up from the banks and troll for crumbs under and around the tables. We were charmed, briefly observed their meanderings and then moved our attention to the menu.

What is charming for some is terrifying for others. I quickly noticed a young girl about tenish in age sitting at a round table occupied by three adults and a teenaged girl. This little one was paralyzed with fear when one of the ducks waddled near their table. She just couldn’t move. The teenager kept shooing away the duck, the mother kept attempting to calm her daughter and the other diners kept watching the drama.

Something had to be done, so I got up and went over to the table. As a licensed Brain Gym practitioner I knew I could help. I asked permission to help the girl calm down which was immediately granted. I then guided her into doing a hook-up, one of 26 simple movements which make up Brain Gym. In the book Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition the authors Paul and Gail Dennison quote the usefulness of doing a hook-up as follows: When the attention is focused on the body’s extremities in a fight-or-flight response, doing hook-ups draws the attention back to the body’s midline and core postural muscles, supporting higher-order thinking and choice making. Doing the activity invites calm while focusing and organizing scattered attention. Page 68 of their book explains how to do the movement.

As for our little one, the movement helped her as well as her mother. The girl was able to stay calm, get up from her chair, and  leave the patio with her family.

Hook-ups are useful to know when students are in a principal’s office, each giving their version of what happened during the fight. It’s good to get the body calmed first before reflective talking can occur. Hook-ups are also useful to teach students before taking tests. And they are wonderful to start class in the morning and after lunch to calmly refocus ourselves for learning. Our uses for doing hook-ups are only limited by our creativity.

 

Mentoring: Sprouting Student Writers

I bought a bag of sweet potatoes some months ago. I added them to our meals over the course of a week. I never got to the last one. We must have grown tired of them, so I just let it sit. I began to notice shoots beginning to grow from the vegetable which shouldn’t have surprised me as we were actually eating the plant’s tuberous root. But it did surprise me, and I became fascinated by the direction the leaves began to take. I expect it will eventually grow as a vine and maybe sport some flowers.

Watching this sweet potato grow has made me think of our students as writers. There is so much inside them already that can sprout in their writing. Ralph Fletcher says it well in What A Writer Needs when he writes “Most students write far far better than they will ever know. We have to let children in on the secret of how powerfully they write. We need to let them take inspiration from what they already do well.”

How do we as teachers of writing help sprout students as writers? Going back to my tuber, I didn’t put it in water or feed it plant food. What I did do was put it on a window sill in the sunlight. What sunlight do the students need? Certainly not writing assignments structured around topics the teacher selects. The sunlight is our ability to mentor a writer in the process of writing what the writer needs to sprout.

In his chapter on mentoring in the above-mentioned book, Fletcher describes four abilities a mentor needs. A mentor values originality and diversity, even when the writing is not the kind of writing we like. A mentor encourages a student to take risks. A mentor is passionate. A mentor looks at the big picture.

What a Writer Needs is the book that our faculty began to read in a study group as we began to move toward a writing workshop model. Many of us concluded that we had never had such mentors ourselves as student writers. For me in grammar school it was diagramming sentences. And so we read and talked and began to write ourselves. And we began to mentor each other. And we began to build our own confidence as writers.

We gave each other sunlight to sprout our own writing sweet potatoes. We began to understand what it takes to mentor our students writers.

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, When Is It Coaching And When Is It Supervising?

I taught myself how to swim when I was a young girl. How? I watched others. Then I tried. I managed to coordinate my body in a way that kept me afloat and moving through the water. Yet, I never felt I swam efficiently. When I decided recently to change my exercise routines by adding swimming once or twice a week, I hired a swimming coach.

“Let’s see what you got,” she said as she watched me swim in the pool. “Not bad.” She now knew where to begin. She told me I could become a better swimmer by keeping my knees from bending and learning how to breathe properly as I swam. I appreciated the feedback, and our lessons began. I’ve been practicing between sessions. She keeps seeing progress.

Our sessions are working because I was ready to learn. I had a goal. I requested coaching.  James Flaherty in his marvelous book Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others calls a request for coaching an opening. These openings can also include performance reviews, the need for a new skill or finishing a project. We as coaches need to understand that the opening exists with the client and how a potential client interprets how coaching may support him or her.

The tricky part to openings in coaching is not letting the opening be centered on ourselves as coaches when we feel it is time for us to help improve a person’s performance. I already see this happening in education with all the teacher evaluation mania occurring these days. I received a call recently from a school asking me to coach teachers who were receiving scores of 2 or 3 rather than a 4 on specific criteria on their teacher evaluation instrument. What they were requesting was an intervention and calling it coaching. Flaherty points out that what I was actually being asked to do is “behavior modification with all the accompanying techniques and coercive force of that approach”. I also view intervention as a supervisory issue, not a coaching issue.

So let’s be careful what we’re calling coaching.

 

How Do We Know When Meaningful Work Is Over?

Early in my entrepreneurial career in the field of education, I was more of a trainer than a consultant. I presented a lot of one-day workshops, mostly around the issues of literacy. In those days I was perfecting my craft as a presenter and workshop designer. I wasn’t hired to do any follow-through and had to rely on the district to do so. Therefore, I never really knew how well my workshops had been implemented.

As my work developed, I began to appreciate the importance in building relationships over time with a school community. Why? Because time invites collaboration, and I have found collaboration is an effective way to promote change, a tangible change that I can assess. A powerful assumption behind collaboration is the understanding that as a consultant I only have a part of the story. What I bring to the dance needs to mix with the rhythms of the district and its current needs.

Collaboration over time brings another challenge, however. I may now see changes occurring, yet when do I know my work is over? Of course, it’s over when there is a limited amount of money for my services. Beyond that is another issue. When do we as consultants know our work is over?

I believe it is not by chance that our unique, particular services are contracted. I believe what we have to offer is what that particular situation needs at that time. We are there not only to provide content; we are also there to provide emotional support. We may seem like a godsend, and we are. Then, without any wrong doing on our part or at an inconvenient time, the district brings the relationship to an end. Sometimes the district may act up or force us to take a stand. What we must realize is that their need has been met, their desire fulfilled; their work is done. They have gone as far as they can go. And they don’t know how else to express the end of their learning except in negative ways.

It is important to leave knowing we did our best. The lesson for us to learn is that it’s not personal. It just  is what it is.

How much control do you have over your death?

How much control do you want over the final days, weeks and months of your life?

A. I don’t want to think about that. I’m confident that the medical profession will do what’s right by me.

B. I don’t want to think about that, but I have a sense I should do something. The medical profession seems to focus on keeping people alive as long as possible with little or no consideration about quality of life.

C. I want as much control as possible. I have no way of knowing if my process of dying will have any semblance of grace and dignity. But I don’t know where to start looking.

If you answered “A” you can delete this and get on with your day. If you answered “B” or “C” please read on.

I won’t go into detail about the big picture, which is well documented by Compassion and Choices (C&C), a national “death with dignity” advocacy group. It’s all there at compassionandchoices.org. Evan Nison is the New Jersey contact person at enison@compassionandchoices.org. (908-812-0473)

The immediate focus in New Jersey is the New Jersey Death With Dignity Act, which recently cleared an assembly committee. The act (A2270 and S382) would give people access to a full range of options in the final stages of life to alleviate pain and suffering and, if desired, allow for self-administered medication to end life for people who are terminally ill with a six-month or less prognosis.

This type of law is in place in Washington, Montana and Vermont and is supported by up to 63% of New Jersey voters.

A good way to start your process is to spend some time on the C&C website and, if so inclined, sign on as a supporter of the Death With Dignity Act.

I’ll have more personal reflections on this extremely important issue in future blogs.

 

Spill the Beans: Share Your Reading Life

As I collaborate with teachers who are implementing reading workshop, I share with them categories for mini-lessons. There are the procedural lessons in the beginning of the year. There are the lessons on reading skills. There are the lessons on reading strategies. There are the lessons on ways to develop our reading habits. I include in this last category the importance in sharing with students our own reading habits. Not as teacher to student but as reader to reader.

Sharing our reading lives with students becomes particularly important for students who do not have family members who read. I suggest teaching a mini-lesson series on how we find books to read. Actually, I think  books find me, and they find me in different ways. I love biographies, but not everyone’s life interests me. The ones I love to read are about the actors during the golden years of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I get book ideas when I read reviews in newspapers or magazines. I get book recommendations from friends who are readers, and I make recommendations myself. If a particular topic interests me, I’ll look through the bibliography and find another book to read on that topic. If there is a movie I want to see based on a book, I’ll read the book first. World War I has been a major interest of mine. I have read novels, poetry and nonfiction of that time period.

I wouldn’t overwhelm a mini-lesson with all the ways I use to find what I want to read. Each way would be a lesson. These lessons become great topics for our reading conferences where we can  invite students to share ways they use to find what they want to read.

Spill the beans. Share your reading life. It is a wonderful way to build reader-to-reader relationships with your students.

Underwire Bra Delays Brain Gym Training

I was sure I had it all wired for my first Brain Gym workshop in a prison. I was hired to introduce Brain Gym to 15 teachers who work with prisoners ranging in age from 18 to 30. My contact person, a supervisor, informed me about what I could or could not bring. My training cart full of resources was out. A glass water bottle was out. Bringing in my own lunch was out. I could eat in the cafeteria. I could bring in my handouts, books and two cd’s.

I was prepared, but when I went through the security frame just as I have in airports, I didn’t get clearance. I went through several times more. Nope. Something metal was setting it off. No, I was not wearing a belt. What I was wearing was underwire. Yes, underwire in my bra! The supervisor never mentioned that.

No clearance. No entrance. So now a new venue had to be found. Class was to start at 9:00 A.M. It took 45 minutes to find a new training site. The board room was large enough for all of us. After we all introduced ourselves, a new tangle developed. I clarified when breaks and lunch would occur and that we would be ending at 3:00 P.M. These times I had received from the director of their educational programs. Well, half the group was from another correctional prison and had been told by their supervisor that the workshop would be over by 1:00 P.M. I could feel an insurrection rising. I asked to have my supervisory contact sort out the confusion. She came out of the prison, into the boardroom and clarified. They listened, but that second group was not happy.

The supervisor left. It was now 10:15 A.M.  I had yet to start the class. I had to chill out these teachers and myself. I began teaching the group PACE. PACE consists of four physical movements which helps every individual find his/her optimal rhythm, timing and flow for learning. Those four movements are a part of 26 movements which are the foundation of Brain Gym. When we did the movements, I could feel the tension in the room begin to evaporate.

As the day progressed, I taught the teachers more of the movements and their applications. Teachers began to see possibilities with specific students. The range of teaching experience in my workshop spanned 35 years to first year teachers. The veteran teachers had never heard of Brain Gym. I was glad they had new strategies to add to their teaching experiences. Several teachers were in their first year of teaching. I was glad they had new strategies as well. They all benefited, particularly their students.

We ended at 3:00 P.M. I received applause. It was another good Brain Gym day.

 

What Are You Reading?

I’m always curious about the reading lives of people, so I ask them,”What are you reading?” Their responses fall into an informal rubric I’ve developed over the years. Some share immediately. Ah, a reader I’m thinking. Some pause, ponder, then share. Hmm . . . readers but haven’t been reading lately I’m thinking. Some are embarrassed. Readers once but not what they do any more I’m thinking. Some just quizzically stare. Non-readers I’m thinking.

I also ask this question when service folks come calling. The handyman who has come to fix the handle on our storm door. The man who comes to clean out our septic tank. The women who come to clean twice a month because my husband and I gave ourselves a gift for 24 cleaning sessions from a local cleaning service. Nice gift! Only five sessions left. Withdrawal is imminent.

The cleaning folks are not always the same;  and, of course,  I ask them all what they are reading.

One young woman in her early twenties whom I’ll call Lisa answered immediately. She had just finished another Ellen Louise Hopkins book. She has been a fan since high school when she began with Hopkins’ first book Crank. She told me she, her sister and two other friends always go to the book store together when another of her  books comes out. I asked Lisa what drew her to Crank. I expected her response would focus on the controversial drug-centered life of the main character, a  female teenager. You know, reading about a forbidden topic in graphic detail. I was surprised by her answer. She said her mother had been a drug addict when Lisa  was growing up. Lisa explained that she used the books to help her grow up, a parenting guide in a world gone crazy. The teenager in the book was also pregnant. Lisa disclosed that she also had a child during her teenage years.

Wow.

How many times in my reading workshop trainings have I preached the importance of cultivating the reading interests of students. I have always pointed out that life-long readers are people who have discovered topics and stories that interest them. I am a passionate reader. My interests range far and wide, yet it was Lisa who reminded me again  how books can act as parents for our emotional wounds. Ellen Hopkins spoke to Lisa through her books because Hopkins’ own daughter was a drug addict, and she claims that about 60% of the book is based on her daughter’s life. It’s real and Lisa could relate to that realness.

And Lisa’s reading continues. She told me she and her sister, with respective families, were going camping the coming weekend. Her sister was bringing a novel set in the location where they had grown up. They planned to read it out loud to each other around the camp fire. Sounds like life-long reading to me.

 

Bullies and Naivete’

An upper elementary teacher I am coaching asked me recently if I knew of some strategies to address the bullying she was encountering in her classroom. She said she had talked to the class and spoken privately to individual students. It wasn’t working.

I suggested she show parts of a sixty-minute DVD from PBS entitled Animal Odd Couples. Or do a read aloud from the New York Times Bestseller Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland which tells about 47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom. The stories are short and captivating. Two picture books I also love are Tarra & Bella by Carol Buckley and Owen and Mzee told by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paula Kahumbu.

Now, it’s naive to think that showing a DVD or reading a story about unusual animal friendships is enough to stop bullying. It invites discussion. Questions to consider. What are the dispositions of these disparate animals? What dispositions do they share in common? What conditions were present that might have supported their friendship? How do these two animals interact with other animals? What draws us to these stories? What are the animals teaching us? Do animals bully? If so, under what circumstances? I have found that exploring these unusual friendships helps students move into a discussion about bullying?

I also shared with the teacher the March, 2013, Volume 20, Number 3, issue of Voices from the Middle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. The entire issue is focused on tolerance. Articles in the issue offered a variety of clearly explained lessons on bullying as well as a list of young adult books students could read on the topic. A good source for book titles on bullying can also be found at www.readwritethink.org/parent-afterschool-resources/podcast-episodes/books-about-bullying-30778.html

Even with the suggestions offered above, I am not naive enough to think that it will cure bullying. Bullying comes from a place of fear and our culture these days is pandemic with fear. When we as teachers provide lessons on bullying, we need to provide an environment of emotional safety. How emotionally safe do we feel ourselves? What fears do we have to let go of before we explore bullying?

They’re Great Now But Wait Until the Afternoon

I recently gave a Brain Gym® workshop from 8:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. to 25 people, teachers and aids, who teach special needs students. I was there to have them experience easily learned physical movements that would support themselves and their students during the school day. As I explained to the participants, Brain Gym® helps them maintain their energy and focus while they work through the many challenges they face every day. I also showed everyone how to adapt the movements to the individual needs of the students.

During the morning break one of the supervisors in attendance disclosed to me how surprised she was at how well everyone was participating. The mood was great. But, they were notorious for losing their focus by the afternoon. She was just letting me know. And I’m sure a lot of her concern centered around a history of endless PowerPoint presentations. I’ve had my own rebellious afternoon moods as a particpant in those circumstances.

Well, that change of mood never happened.  My lecturettes were constantly balanced with getting people up on their feet and trying things out. With music. With laughter. With fun. Word on the street was that everyone learned a lot and enjoyed themselves.

For those curious about Brain Gym®, www.braingym.org/faq   is a good place to start.