Listen

The morning of the marathon my running partner dropped her husband (running dude) and me off near the starting line.  She was not running this year because of an injury and we found ourselves alone without our caretaker and guide.

“Time to get our watches on I suppose” said running dude.

With a panicked look in my eye I turned to him and said, “I forgot mine.”

“YOU FORGOT IT?!?!” says running dude in a squeak, his eyes flashing a feeling of panic that he trying to hide.

This was bad.  I had trained all summer to run a certain speed.  I’m a slightly erratic runner and pace is a little bit of a problem.  Also, running like I was shot out of a cannon or like a racehorse is sometimes my style, and this is not the way to start a marathon.  I knew exactly what pace I was supposed to run to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but now I would have no idea if I was going to fast (and running the risk of crashing around mile 22) or going too slow for the cutoff.

After awhile of rising blood pressure, and a moment of “what would my running partner do?” I said, “You know, I think it will be fine.  I no longer will have something on my wrist pressuring me to go faster or slower.  I won’t be looking at it every minute and feeling bad that I’m not going the right speed.  I won’t get into my head with negative thoughts and panic.  I can just go out there, listen to the music, listen to my body and run.”

Before we had to line up we said our good-byes, wished each other luck and took a deep breath together….hoping the next time we saw each other we’d both be happy at the finish line and not in a first aid station along the way.

As I stood in my coral waiting to start people started turning on their pace watches and waiting for the satellite signals to kick in.  Panic started rising in me again as I wondered how I was going to have any idea if I was going the correct speed. Right before my coral started, and I started at the open streets of Minneapolis, I silently meditated:

Listen.

Run to the beat.

Listen.

Your running partner will guide you with the music.

Listen.

Your body will carry you.

Listen.

And with that, I was off to run the marathon.  The first song on my playlist started and it was “Easy on Sunday Morning” by Lionel Richie.  Hilarious.  I started at a nice easy pace, looked down at the pavement, and eased into the run while people were flying by me at a sprint.  Instead of joining in, I listened…..

And so it goes with raising children. Throughout my parenting journey I have discovered that listening to my children is many times the most important thing I can do.  I had to listen to #1 and #2 struggle to know it was time to figure out what was going on with their learning.  I had to listen to #2’s signals which told me his elementary school was failing him.  While I was homeschooling him I had to listen very closely to his signals.  I didn’t have any test scores telling me if he was progressing, I had to listen to his progress.  Sometimes I think test scores are like a pace watch.  We don’t listen to students, we simply wait for the score and adjust.  This feedback is helpful and necessary at times, but harmful when its the only thing you rely on.  I had also listened to his signals and decided he was ready to try going to a more traditional school again.

When #1 was having a very difficult time at his elementary school I had a series of meetings with teachers and administrators.  Every time I met with them they would have a stack of papers containing various test scores.  They would throw out numbers and tell me everything was fine. Because I am his mother, and I was listening to his signals I knew things weren’t fine.  Finally I said, “Has anyone in this room ever listened to him read? Just sat down and listened?” I received blank stares.  I was furious.  In the room was his classroom teacher of almost 2 years and his reading specialist of almost 2 years.  I had been raising concerns for 5 years about his reading progress and NO ONE had ever simply listened to him read a paragraph.  Everything they were telling me was based on a number that was spit out of a computer. They had never listened to what I was telling them or what #1 was telling them.

Ridiculous.

I replied, “I think if you listened to him read this would be a different conversation.  There are 6 adults here, perhaps someone could find 5 minutes to listen to him and then we can meet again in a week.”

Later that week the classroom teacher did listen to him, and she was shocked…..he couldn’t read anywhere near grade level. She said she had no idea.  However, it was nearing the end of 5th grade and the said there wasn’t much they could do that year.  They suggested lots of tutoring and summer school so he could improve over the summer and hopefully 6th grade would be better, but offered no help from the school.  I listened for solutions and signals that things would change, and there were none.  I took this as my exit sign.  Through listening, I heard it was time to get out.

I told them I was officially done with the school and they had failed two of my children.  Because they had refused to listen, they had failed.

Sometimes steps can be hard and painful, such as leaving your community and friends, but sometimes the best thing you can do is listen to what your environment is telling you.

And so it went with the marathon.

There I was, going around the lakes in Minneapolis.  I had no idea what my pace was and I was caught in the middle of the pack.  I definitely knew I wasn’t going too fast, that was for sure.  But, I was enjoying the run and not worried about my time because I had no clue what it was!  After some slow songs the tempo started to pick up.  When “Girl on Fire” came on, I knew this was the signal from my running partner that it was OK for me to go for it.  A couple miles later along the Mississippi River I heard “Have You Got It In You?” My answer was yes, as I started passing more and more people.  As I entered my home turf of St. Paul for the homestretch down Summit Ave. where I would see many friends and family the song “Don’t Stop Believin'” was playing.  Suddenly a good friend from from my running group I call Team Varsity ran out and screamed “You’ve got this! Oh my god!  Just go!”  Around mile 24, during “The Rockafeller Skank” my beloved running partner was at the side of the road jumping up and down and screaming “You’ve got this baby!”  I couldn’t believe my body was telling me to go faster.  I still had no idea my time, and every step seemed to be taking increasing energy, but my body was telling me I had enough in me to get to the end, especially if I got there quickly.

mile 25

A friend took of picture of me running up the last hill of the coarse at mile 25.  I think the smile was gratefulness that I knew I wouldn’t have to climb another hill and I could sit down soon.

And then I was across the finish line.  I still had no idea my time, or what pace I had run, but it was over.  Soon I got a call from my running partner who said, “You did it! That was pretty amazing.”  Hearing her excitement was music to my ears.

Later that day my official results were in.  I had run an average pace of 8:30, the exact speed I planned to run, with negative splits through the marathon.  My time was 3:42:40, Boston Qualifying by a hair.

I had listened to my body.  Listened to the music.  Listened to my friends.  Proof that amazing things can happen when you listen to the signals around you.

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Show them what you’ve got

The marathon is 9 days away.  I have reached rest week.  Now I sit, sleep and eat for a week and get filled with nerves and questions of “What have I gotten myself into?”  Long runs are done.  Hill drills are done.  Track workouts, tempo runs, pace runs, long mid-week runs….all done.  The workout routine that I have come to love and rely on over the last year will take a break for awhile.  My overall goal has been achieved, which was to make it through a year with no major injury.  I have successfully come back from my major stress fracture and completing my second marathon, no matter my time, will be the icing on the cake.  On my last fast run this morning one of my running partners asked how I felt my summer marathon training had gone.  I commented that I could tell I had spent all winter and spring working incredibly hard to gain strength and endurance.  Last fall I worked hard to relearn how to run with my very condensed stride.  I had to concentrate on every step I took so I didn’t slip into my old habits.  During my marathon training this summer I never felt as tired as I felt last winter when I was doing yoga, skate skiing, running through snow drifts and forcing my body to do things I never thought possible for me.

#2 has also come back from an injury.  Both of us were crushed by his school experience, never knowing if he would re-enter a school after basically being told “we don’t know how to teach you and we don’t want to figure it out.”  At my last meeting with the staff the defining moment came when they told me they didn’t believe it was possible for him to read and write (he was only in 3rd grade at the time).  #2 was so downtrodden that he also never believed he would read or write.

We have worked for 1 1/2 years to build up his strength and confidence and prove his former school (and himself) wrong.  I worked long and hard teaching him how to read and write….and most importantly how to believe in himself again.  We started at the beginning, going over the letters and their sounds.  We worked longer and harder on basic reading, writing and math skills than I ever thought was possible.  He wrote paragraph after paragraph working on his form, spelling and trying to get faster and more automatic.  He read book after book out loud working on his decoding strategies, comprehension and reading fluency.

Near the end of the summer I decided it was time to send him into the world.  Because of all his work, his basic skills are much stronger than I thought was possible a couple years ago.  He can decode a word, understands how English works and can discuss what he has read.  The overall goals of homeschooling were met.  He learned to read at grade level, believes he is a reader, has the confidence and ability to express himself in written form, and is able to get spelling close enough for a spellcheck to help him…most of the time.  His work on the basic skills was done and it was time to apply them in a less controlled environment and work on some new goals, so I enrolled him in school.  He now attends Cyber Village Academy, a small charter school close to our house.  Like all the students on campus, he is at school 3 days a week and at home 2, which seems the perfect blend of homeschooling and traditional school.  Much of the reading and writing take place at home, on a computer.  We still tap out syllables for spelling, remind him about the -ed suffix, and I modify the work that isn’t appropriate for him.  I have had his first IEP meeting and they are working on his main goal of self-advocacy at school, a goal that is pretty difficult when your mother slightly stubborn mother is your only teacher.

The week before I sent him off to school we had a rest week at home.  I was filled with anxiety.  Would he be able to do this? Has he prepared well? Should I have drilled him more on vowel-consonant-e? Will he be able to keep up?

It was time for me to trust again and rely on the work we have done.  Trust myself.  Trust the school.  Trust the teachers.  And, trust #2.

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#2, Are you ready for this?  It’s going to be hard.  There will be times when you want to quit. You will need to constantly remind yourself that you have worked hard for this moment and you want to be here, especially when its hard.  I will be here to help you and encourage you, but its you that will need to do all the hard work.

His response….

Yes.  I’m ready.

I worked hard and I know I can do this.

Let me prove what I know.

I’m ready to show them what I’ve got.

Now can you PLEASE TAKE THE PICTURE SO WE CAN GET GOING?

And with that, he was off.

In 9 days I will also be doing something not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  I never thought I’d be a runner, but here I am proving myself wrong because of the work I have done, the self-discipline I have learn and the support I have received.  There will surely be moments during the 26.2 when I will want to quit.  But, there will be smiling faces and words of encouragement along the way telling me I can do this, rely on the work I’ve done for the past year, and remember to trust my body.

It’s time for me to show myself what I’ve got.

Questioning Summer

It’s July.  Summer is in full swing.  In July is when my marathon training really kicks in for the Twin Cities Marathon.  Soon I will be breathing a sigh of relief when I “only” run 15 miles early on a Saturday morning.  This is the third summer I have trained for the TCM.  I have yet to make it through an entire summer without some sort of major injury that sidelines me for months.  So far this summer, I am still feeling good.  The past 9 months I ran 3-4 times a week pretty consistently and found two new sports that I love and wish I had more time to pursue, yoga and skate skiing.  Because of yoga and skiing, my body is stronger than its ever been which has helped me a lot so far this marathon season, yet I remain anxious about an injury.

When I am running alone my brain doesn’t stop thinking, “Is that an injury? Or that? What about that?” THE ENTIRE TIME.  When I’m not obsessing about every little tweak I feel turning into a major injury I’m thinking, “Can I actually run a marathon again? Can I run it faster? Perhaps I should not worry about the time.  Maybe I shouldn’t run the marathon.  If I think this 14 mile run is tough what am I going to do when its 26.2? Why am I doing this to myself? Who do I think I am? When did I decide I was a runner? Am I lying to myself?”  No wonder I get exhausted.

Last weekend I was out on a country road alone and wanted to get my long run over with because my brain wouldn’t turn off (see above), even when I started singing Beatles songs to myself.  I slipped into a long stride which allows me to run pretty fast with many less steps.  It only took about 5 minutes before I felt the scar tissue in my upper hamstring remind me that this stride doesn’t work for my body.  My brain immediately flooded back to September, 2011 and I could picture a particularly painful 10 mile run that good friends dragged me along on (at my request!) before I decided the marathon just wasn’t going to happen for me that year because of the severe pain. The memory of that injury is always looming and I can feel myself hold back because of the fear of re-injury.  When I’m alone, I can never truly run free and enjoy the meditation of running….I have too much fear of what is to come that continually cycles through my inner-monologue.

This sort of anxious-anticipation-while-doing-something-you-love must be how summer break feels for a profoundly dyslexic child.

All of my children are completely immersed in summer.  Sports, camps, swimming lessons, afternoons with friends, trips to the cabin, planning our summer vacation to Yellowstone, lazy days flipping through the Guinness Book of World Records for the one billionth time, playing Monopoly with your siblings and flipping the board across the room when you land on Boardwalk (and you don’t own it, but your big brother does, with hotel)…..  #1, #2 and #3 all worked very hard in school this year to overcome their many challenges and made great strides.  I thought I would do more academic work with them this summer, but I quickly discovered we all needed a break from phonics, handwriting, writing assignments, spelling and splitting words into syllables.

We have all been enjoying the break from syllable division and flashcards.

It’s possible to almos relax and forget how hard academic work is September-May….almost.  Dyslexia pops up nearly every day, sometimes when we least expect it.  The library reading program now requires children to write a book review, not just the name of the book.  Great idea, but not for my boys.  It takes them almost as long to write a short paragraph as it does for them to read the entire book.  None of us wanted to deal with the tears of forced writing assignments in the summer.  A camp counselor called to discuss #2’s journalling project during a week of nature/science camp.  #1 receives e-mails from friends and has a hard time responding without his mother to help with spelling.  #3 is asked to read and write something at his piano lesson.  Although dyslexia is not at the forefront of our lives in the summer and things are going pretty smooth, the anxiety and frustration are still there and I can see the anticipation on their faces when they are entering a new situation.

I’m continually wondering if I’m doing too much, or too little, or not the right approach, or the right approach but not enough of it, or too many camps, or too few, or the wrong camps, or enforcing reading too much, or perhaps not enough, and what about writing, and should we be doing math worksheets?  Exhausting.

Yesterday I stumbled across this article, Summer Fun, by Kyle Redford on the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity site.  He writes:

“Balance is important to all children, but one could argue that it is particularly important when a child feels that his life has been hijacked by a learning disability.  The amount of time, energy and thought aimed at coping with dyslexia is significant. Since dyslexics spend nine months out of the year grappling with difficult school tasks that frequently lead to despair, summer is a relished opportunity to refuel and recharge.  Summer vacation is also an important time for a child to pursue activities that are fun and fulfilling, not frustrating.”

The article also has great tips about inspiring reading in your children during the summer that I was really happy to see we already do.  Listen to audiobooks! Listen to NPR!  Listen to RadioLab!!!!  We have been doing plenty of science this summer since #2 and I started a vegetable garden at the end of May and everyone has been pitching in to help.  #3 found milkweed in our yard this week and has been anxiously waiting for Monarch Butterflies to visit.  But the article also brought out my anxiety again.  Tutors? Special camps for dyslexic students? Academic remediation? Should I be focusing more on those flashcards and syllables this summer? Oh the doubt.  Where is that crystal ball I wish I could look in to see 10 years down the road and know if I’m doing the right thing.

Perhaps the summer is like the off-season of my running and the school year is the training.  Summer is the time to keep up with your skills without exhausting yourself.  Summer is the time to figure out new things you can do and feel good about.  Summer is the time to enjoy what you are good at, not to reinforce the things that are hard.

So, they will continue to work in the vegetable garden,

Megan in vegetable garden

see how far they can jump off a diving board,

Eddie jumping in pool

build their dreams,

Leonardo's Basement Rocket

experiment in the kitchen,

Leonardo's Basement Test Kitchen

and fish with their grandparents.

Fishing at Sand Lake

Near the end of the article it states, “Educating a child with dyslexia is a marathon, not a sprint.”

At least I’ve picked the right sport to carry me through this journey.

 One less thing to question.

Make cookies

On Friday afternoons we take a break from traditional academia in homeschool land.  Sometimes it’s time to watch a documentary, other times we go skiing or on a bike ride.  #2’s favorite is a cooking project.

He loves to make cookies.  #4 helps too.  He reads the recipe, does the math (when we double a recipe), follows directions, plans ahead (when he gets out all the ingredients before he starts…something I’m guilty of failing to do very often!) and cleans up.  All valuable life skills.

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My favorite cookie is chocolate chip.  I like this recipe so much because when I get up too late before an early morning run to have breakfast, which is always, I can shove 2 of them in my mouth and call it nutritious because of the oatmeal.  Right?

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Chocolate Chip Cookies (my grandma’s recipe)

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon hot water
1 package chocolate chips
2 cups oatmeal
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugars.  Add eggs.  Dissolve soda in water and add.  Add vanilla.  Add flour and salt, and then fold in the rest of the ingredients.

Grease cookie sheets and warm them.  Roll dough balls, place on cookie sheets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (they will still look a little raw) .  Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

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Typing

Teach your kids to type and  provide a lot of time (years?) to practice.  Many children with dyslexia also have dysgraphia, which is a specific learning difficulty in handwriting.  For some reason dysgraphia does not effect drawing, violin playing, building with legos or typing.  Another one of those things that I suppose I should read about, but at this point I’m just going with what works.

My kids use the program Typing Instructor.  I like that I can manage the words per minute goal to give them a sense of accomplishment and prevent frustration.

And when frustration rears its ugly head, tell them stories about your typing class in high school….with real, actual typewriters.  They will look at you like you landed here from another planet when you describe the white-out sheet you had to use when you made a mistake.  It will make them quickly appreciate typing on a computer.

Not exactly helpful

I have found that when you have a child struggling with something….academic, health, behavior, etc….it’s tempting to turn to the internet to look for a quick fix.

In March the New York Times had a short article about dyslexia, Video Games may Aid Children with Dyslexia.

Students trained (?!?) in action video games showed that they had improved reading scores. WOW!  Time to get to Target and load up on all those Wii games I say N-O to.  That’s it?  I can just shove my boys in front of the Wii with ACTION (non-action games didn’t have as dramatic of an effect) games and they will read well? Done and done.

But wait, the last paragraph of the article is this:

“The correlation between attention improvement and reading improvement was very high,” said the co-first author of the study, Simone Gori, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padua. “The change in attentional abilities translates into better reading ability.”

Wait, is this news?  Of course your reading will be better if your attention is better, isn’t that the trick I wrote about yesterday?

I would argue that instead of plopping your child in front of a video game and hoping that they become a better reader (they won’t), they go outside and exercise to increase attention.  Shouldn’t the goal be healthy children who are confident about their reading skills and engaged in learning….instead of children nagging about needing to play more video games and THEN they will do their homework.

The New York Times has published many articles about the benefits of exercise, even while Phy Ed. and recess time are being cut.  In the last paragraph of Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter by Gretchen Reynolds she writes:

“But for now, the takeaway is clear. “More aerobic exercise” for young people, Mr. Kuhn said. Mr. Hillman agreed. So get kids moving, he added, and preferably away from their Wiis. A still-unpublished study from his lab compared the cognitive impact in young people of 20 minutes of running on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity. Running improved test scores immediately afterward. Playing video games did not.”

Hiking in Glacier

Get outside and play!

2 ends of the spectrum

Yesterday I wore shorts on my morning run. Today I hit off on the alarm and went back to sleep after I looked at the weather report and it said “WINTER STORM WARNING!”  Sometimes I just can’t deal with the continual shift between extremes and I want to shut down.

This was the scene on our front patio this weekend, ice melt next to sidewalk chalk.  Two ends of the weather spectrum are flip flopping.

winter and spring

This is also the life of a person with dyslexia, it operates at two extremes.  Even though my brain operates like this, I find it very difficult to teach to two extremes.

One of the essential pieces of teaching a student with dyslexia is progressing very SLOW through basic skills.  The student needs to gain automaticity so their working memory isn’t overloaded. When automaticity is achieved they can take in new knowledge instead of focusing on how to sound out a word or spell a word.  The more profound the dyslexia, the more practice and repetition is needed.

At the same time that basic skills are incredibly difficult, these children are also very intelligent and outrageously curious.  Many times critical thinking skills are well developed at an early age.  Children who can’t remember that -ed is placed at the end of a past tense verb can remember and put knowledge together about history (or another complex subject) very easily.

And that is where the difficulty lies.  I believe that basic knowledge of how to read and write are essential for education (I was a first grade teacher after all!), and the rest will follow.  How do you teach a very bright child that is yearning for more and more knowledge but takes a month of daily practice to learn the -ed ending? How do you keep him stimulated but teach the basic skills without completely boring him and even worse, having him believe that learning is the equivalent to shoveling snow in May (aka: horrible and to be avoided)?  Luckily, history and -ed both deal with the past tense.

To keep motivation up #2 is starting a project about Russian history.  Worksheets, flashcards and drills, while essential to helping him gain the amount of practice he needs, quickly bore him and he daydreams easily.  Also, I think he was getting a little tired of my blank stares when he would ask me questions about the political motivation of Stalin before, during and after World War II and I would answer with a weak, “Ummm…. let’s Google that.”  When I had no idea how to find Chechnya on a map (without Googling it) I realized I needed a little Russian history too.

Throughout this month we will flip flop between the complex history of Russia and summarizing what he learns by writing sentences in the past tense.  He will be practicing the skills he has learned this year with the Wilson Language System (syllables and suffixes) while learning about a subject he is interested in.  Check back throughout May and I’ll share other projects I come up with to help him review his basic skills from 4th grade.