Thursday, November 29, 2007

A FAT City Moment: Auditory Processing and Wait Time

Many of us know smart kids who believe that they are stupid. Dumb. Losers.
Some of them are the kind of kids that you just know have more than two brain cells to rub together, but the grades, the schoolwork, and the homework just doesn't reflect what we know is there. For those who have always done well in school, it is hard to imagine what might be going on with these kids, and they get 'teacher's lounge' diagnoses.

You know what they are: lazy, oppositional, a problem child, gorked, and, of course, BAD PARENTING.

It's hard to look at perfectly normal looking kid who is not succeeding and imagine that the problem may be organic rather than moral. It's harder for someone to put themselves in the shoes of such a 'normal' child than it would be for, say someone in a wheelchair. You know, somebody who looks the part, so to speak, when it comes to having a disability.
And sometimes, it's even difficult for us--the parents--who know full well what the problems are to walk a mile in our LD or AS or AD/HD kiddo's shoes.

I had one of those experiences today.
I do not normally think of myself as having a learning disability. After all, I am an academic, I learn fast and do well on tests. But I do have problems with word finding and auditory processing. It is not usually a problem--if I have time to think.

Today it was a problem.
I had a mouse brain anatomy test.
For tests on our human brains, we would go into the lab,and using real brains that we had dissected, we have gone from station to station and looked at where the pin was located in a brain, and named the structure. No problem. If I was stuck, I just went back to the station later. We could spend some time looking at the structure and thinking about it, and if I was having word finding problems, I could think until the word came to me.

Today, the test was different. We never dissected a mouse brain. We used pictures of sections to study. We were not given the names of the structures on the pictures, we had to go on the internet and find the list of structures. But I think I could have compensated for that. What killed my A in the class was the format of the test.

We gathered in the classroom. We were handed a sheet with numbers and blanks. A slide was flashed up on the whiteboard and the professor used a laser pointer to point to the structure in question. She's say something like: "What is this tract here?" Then, after about 15 seconds, it was on to the next slide.

Since I am slow at handwriting, I often could not even write down the whole name of the structure before we went on to the next one.
And when I could not immediately retrieve the word, I was, as we used to say, SOL.
I knew that structure she was pointing to, and that one, too! But the words were not coming fast enough to me. Soon I was getting the lines that I had skipped mixed up, and then I couldn't hear anything at all.
Then she had us exchange papers to grade them.
Boy, did I feel stupid.

Now fortunately, at my age, I understand that one grade in one class is not the most important thing in the universe. In fact, it is not even that important in my life, one of several billion human lives on a small planet a third of the way out in the arm of a rather commonplace galaxy.
And I have a lot of evidence that I am, despite my performance today, a reasonably intelligent person.

But imagine having such experiences day after day.
Imagine having them and being told that grades are the most important thing your life right now. Imagine being told that your scores on high-stakes tests show that you are stupid.
I can imagine beginning to believe that the ubiquitous "they" who says all of these things are right. I can imagine that such kids would easily come to believe every teacher's lounge label that is put on them.

Every now and then, we all need to have experiences to remind us of what some kids go through every day of their school lives.
Smart kids. But they are kids who, with whatever other IDEA label they might carry, have problems with auditory processing and working memory.

For these kids, a couple of very easy interventions would make a world of difference. One is to structure tests so that the auditory working memory component does not mask their knowledge. In other words, avoid oral tests.
The other is really simple and yet universally ignored.

Wait time. If you ask a question or do a quick verbal check to see if students "got it" during a lesson, wait a long time--at least a minute, and sometimes more depending on the complexity of the problem, and do not let anyone answer in that time.

I knew that the first structure was the nucleus accumbens, and in a less stressful, less auditorily focused situation--one in which the wait time was long enough, I would have gotten it. I just needed time.
But as the test went on and I became more and more stressed, I began to get more and more questions wrong. I could retrieve fewer and fewer words.
What was being tested was not my knowledge of mouse brain anatomy.
What was being tested was whether or not I have a learning disabiltiy.

For me, it is not a big deal. I have plenty of academic success to buffer the blow. I am at a point where I can shrug my shoulders and move on, because I know that I know the mouse brain anatomy.

But for a child who experiences these failures over and over again, and who is told that grades will determine his whole future, this experience can be devastating.

It is important for me to walk a mile in the LD shoes now and then.
In fact, it is important for all teachers to do so.
This is why going to a FAT City workshop can be helpful. Richard LaVoie, the one who facilitates them, simulates what it is like to have a learning disability. He is so good that he actually gets grown men and women to throw papers and books on the floor and have temper tantrums. And then they get it.

They say: "This is what my students are going through."

My FAT City moment today reminded me of why I took N. out of school altogether.
And it reminded me that I, too, need to continue to walk a mile in his shoes. Because I get impatient with his auditory processing probems sometimes, too.
Sometimes I cannot help but compare him to the other kids I read about on the homeschool blogs.

And today I got a healthy reminder that he knows a lot. But he shows me what he knows differently.
The point is that he knows it, not how he shows it.

NOTE: I edited this blog because I spelled FAT City as FATT City. So much for my spelling ability! Richard LaVoie's video about his FAT City workshops is entitled: F.A.T. City: How Hard Can This Be? F.A.T. stands for 'frustration, anxiety, and tension.' I just wanted to add 'tired' to the mix.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Animal Tracks

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

This rodent was out in the sunrise, checking out the results of the snowstorm.

This rabbit was out before the dawn, and came across our driveway.

This rabbit had a bad morning, but the Coyote got some breakfast.

The deer were out before the morning light, too!

Three deer had crossed the trail, but I could only get the tracks of one in my camera lens. The group of three has been around since summer. These appear to be the tracks of the yearling.

All the pictures were taken with my Sony Cybershot, Zeiss 15X zoom lens, at various zoom magnifications, on Saturday morning, November 24.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It's Not Another Shot in the Ritalin Wars

A few weeks ago a neuroimaging study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Normally, many such studies are published in various journals in science and medicine without a whole lot of fanfare. But this one had a magic phrase in the title. The phrase was one that gets ideologues everywhere very excited. The title of the study is:

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation

The magic phrase? Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
In the weeks since the study was published, the press and blog worlds have been having a great deal of fun making the conclusions into another shot in the ideological "Ritalin Wars."
Some writers have claimed that AD/HD does not exist. Others have used it to claim that AD/HD is an artifact of poor diet, bad parenting, and/or curriculum reform in the public schools. Some have actually come to the conclusion that the title might suggest, that AD/HD is definitively a form of developmental delay. As we shall see, though, despite the way you might read the title, that is not the conclusion of the study.

Being a scientist myself, I decided that I would not weigh in on the conclusions until I had the chance to actually read the study. Today, as I procrastinate on a research paper I am writing, seemed like the ideal time to do so. So I went to the NY Times article from a few weeks ago and got the journal title for the article, as well as the name of the first author. Then I connected to my university library system -the joys of technology are without number!--and in five minutes I had used the e-journal finder to navigate to Highwire Press and download a pdf file copy of the study.

You can try this at home, but you may have to pay a fee to download the study. Most journals are made available to students and researchers via institutional subscriptions to publishers and databases. The article was published earlier this month in the PNAS. It is in the current issue.
The citation is:
Shaw, P. et. al. (2007). Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (49) 19649 - 19654.

It is a very good study. The methodology was good, the number of subjects was impressive--446 human subjects--and the conclusions made matched the data that was published. This study overall is an excellent advance in tracking brain anatomy differences between subjects that carry the diagnosis of AD/HD and those that do not.

In the abstract the researchers say:
There is controversy over the nature of the disturbance in brain development that underpins attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In particular, it is unclear whether the disorder results from a delay in brain maturation or whether it represents a complete deviation from the template of typical development.

They are telling us the purpose of the study: to get evidence that might solve the controversy in the field. But pay attention to the wording. The controversy is not whether or not the disorder results from a delay in brain maturation, but whether or not it "represents a complete deviation from the template of typical development." The question they is whether or not AD/HD can result partly from a delay in brain maturation.

The authors repeat this in different words in the introductory paragraph:
Since its earliest descriptions, there has been debate as to whether the disorder is a consequence partly of delay in brain maturation or as a complete deviation from the template of typical development.

As I have said above, the data from their work does support their hypothesis that AD/HD is "a consequence partly of delay in brain maturation." That means they have done a good study. But one study does not an etiology make. It is important for the non-scientist to get it that one does not prove or disprove a hypothesis from one study, even one so well constructed as this one. Good scientists know this, and in the discussion section of any well-written scientific report, they will report caveats and weaknesses and any possible confounding variables. This is so that, when future studies are done, they (or others) can try to fill in the gaps for the study. That's usually done by fiddling with the methodology.

This study was a well-written study by good scientists and they do point out weaknesses that might be fixed in future work. In the very beginning they point out that many studies using physiological data (this study uses anatomical data)--that is how the brain is actually working--support their hypothesis, but there are also many other studies that find "a quantitatively distinct neurophysiology, with unique architecture of the (EEG) and some highly anomylous findings in functional imaging studies, more in keeping with ADHD as a deviation from typical development." This is interesting. When I first heard of the study and heard that it was done using anatomical imaging, I wondered about what functional imaging would show. If I want, I can check it out.

Geek Alert! A question I now have is this: fMRI studies require the use of fluorescent dyes or other ways of getting the signal above ground. These are not usually done on children (for obvious reasons). So I wonder if these confounding studies are targeting an adult population with ADHD? If so, it could be that we are dealing with two very different populations. After all, adults with ADHD would be the children who did not grow out of it.

Another issue: The study was done using anatomical imaging and not functional imaging. The researchers used very good techniques to get at the maturational rate of various parts of the brain, but ultimately they were still measuing gray matter (neuron cell bodies) cortical thickness. Two questions: Are there differences between the two populations in the percentage of gray matter v. white matter (glia and myelenation)? And what about physiological differences? Do the brains work differently? I saw an fMRI study just this morning that showed differences in activation in the pre-frontal cortex (Brodman 9) for adults with ADHD (little to no activation) and typical adults.

In other words, anatomy is not the whole story here.
And to be fair, it was not the authors who claimed that it was.
That would be the press and pundits and ideologues. In other words, those who either did not bother to read the study carefully or those who have an axe to grind when it comes to issues about AD/HD.

So what did we find out from this study? We found out that part of the difference between kids with a diagnosis of ADHD and those without, is in the rate of brain maturation. Kids with AD/HD diagnoses (it was a mixed group of kids with primarily hyperactive, primarily inattentive and combined types) have brains in which the cortices mature more slowly, delayed by approximately 3 years, with a very significant p value. And we found out that in these kids, the brain development trajectory was the same for kids with and without ADHD.

But the researchers also analyzed the data for specific brain areas. And these tests showed that the trajectory of the brain development for all cortical areas was not identical. The kids with ADHD tended to have faster motor area maturation than those without. And they had slower executive function (frontal lobes!) maturation.
What does James Webb say of gifted kids? Farrari motor and dune buggy driver! It looks like the same developmental pattern is true for kids with ADHD.

This is very useful information. It is particularly useful for people who treat kids with ADHD as well as for people who teach them. It is very helpful in planning interventions to help these kids learn academically and function socially to know that their executive function maturity may be more than three years behind the average kid. As a teacher, as a researcher, and as a parent, I find this information to be extremely helpful and very interesting.

But it is not another shot in the Ritalin wars.

The authors did not say that ADHD does not exist. In fact, in their first paragraph, they define it as a neurological disorder. They describe the delayed maturation of the cortices of the brain as a "characterizing" ADHD. It is, then, a characteristic that could be used to differentiate people who have ADHD and people with other psychiatric diagnoses.

They did not say that children with ADHD should not be treated with stimulants like Ritalin. In fact, one possible confounding variable they mention is that 80% of the clinical population in the study (clinical = those with ADHD diagnoses) were being treated with stimulant medication. They do say that stimulant medication can be an effective short-acting treatment.

Finally, by calling the maturational delay a characteristic, the authors imply that there is another, more ultimate cause. They discuss this further in the last part of the discussion. The differences cannot be attibuted to intelligence or sociocultural factors because these were controlled in the design of the study. There is definite evidence that the differences are partly due to genetics because brain growth and development is controlled by molecules called neurotrophins and "polymorphisms within the brain-derived neurotrophic factor and
nerve growth-factor 3 genes have already been tentatively linked with ADHD."

A polymorphism is a difference in DNA base sequences from one individual to another.

A claim that genetics is involved in causing a neurological disorder does not mean that environment does not play a role. It is likely that something as complicated as differences in brain development is controlled by quite a few genes, that is, it is polygenic. It is also likely that some of those genes effect a number of different systems, that is, they are pleiotrophic. And of course, environment does affect gene expression--that is what proteins the genes make and when they are activated.

So that's it, folks. It is a very good study. It was done well, and as in most well-done scientific studies, it raises more questions for future work.

And the findings do not provide fuel for the ideologues among us.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's That Time Again...

It's come down to the last two weeks of the semester for me and for MLC.

She had a paper due today and one due Wednesday.

I have a paper due on Thursday. It's the one about the neurogenic hypothesis for depression. It was interesting. It was exciting. Until about 1 PM today, when I realized that I still have about 5 pages to write and I am absolutely sick of the subject! I will be glad--glad!--when I hear that the hypothesis isn't so hot after all!

I have reached that point where I find myself dreaming about French Polynesia in the middle of a sentence about how SSRI's up regulate adult neurogenesis in the granular layer of the hippocampus. Soon I will be asking myself the existential questions:

Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going?

And I know that I will truly have had enough when begin I answer them in neuroscientific jargon (with apologies to Paul Gauguin):

Where do we come from? Our memory for location appears to be formed in the posterior portions of the hippocampus.

What are we? Neurons that fire together wire together.

Where are we going? A genetic predisposition for depression can be triggered by environmental influences such as stress.

But my questions will continue with the one that plagues all graduate students as the final weeks of the semester loom large before them:

What was I thinking, anyway?

But no, I refuse to even try to answer that one!

French Polynesia is looking better and better. Sun. Sand. Palm trees...

...and no environmental stress.

I wonder if I have enough frequent flyer miles?

Hmmm. I'll check that out, as soon as I finish discussing the problems with the neurogenic hypothesis.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

After the Snow, A Winter Wonderland

This morning the dawn broke over a sparkling winter wonderland created by the combination of snow and freezing fog from the Thanksgiving snowstorm.

At dawn the temperature was 15.6 degrees F.

The storm was lifting up it's skirts and heading to the northeast, leaving the Sandias coated with a delicate white frosting.

We knew it would soon be gone, so we got bundled up to take the dogs for a Shabbat walk.

We had planned only a short walk because it was cold, but even thought the temperature was in the teens there was no wind and the sun was intense and warm on our faces as we headed up the new road into the high meadow.

As the clouds retreated, the sky took on that intense blue of winter in snow at high altitudes.

Despite the cold, the dogs were frisky and happy to be outside after the storm.

The animals had already been out and about their business like shoppers venturing out to fill the larder after a big snow.

Here, in the woods, we found rabbit tracks venturing out of the brush and into a small glade.

We also saw coyote tracks, deer tracks, and the tracks of field mice. At one place in the meadow we saw the tracks of a coyote overcome those of a field mouse. The field mouse had become the coyote's breakfast tidbit.

The grasses and trees were coated with horfrost from the freezing fog, with snow frosting lightly over the frost.
As the sun rose up over the mountain, the whole meadow and woods became blue, white, and gold with diamond points of light so intense that we could not look directly at them.

The houses of Rancho Verde Road look like pueblos agains the shadows and snow of South Mountain.

Winter is still new and wonderous now and this snow will not last. As I write, it is dripping and sliding off the metal roof, melting away in the solar heat of midday.

But the ground will be colder and frozen and the next time it snows, all of it will remain as more falls.

We are thankful this Thanksgiving weekend for the snow which brought much needed moisture to our mountains. And we are ever mindful of the beauty of our mountains that unfolds differently with the coming of each new evening and every new morning.

Friday, November 23, 2007

White Friday

For some people, today is black Friday--the day of shopping madness that begins the Madison Avenue version of the Christmas season.

For us, it's white Friday.

It actually started last night.

We had finished our Albuquerque Turkey with all the trimmings, and had eaten pumpkin pie with "real whipped cream," as N. calls it. You know, the kind you whip up with a mixer.
We had had our after-dinner cup of tea, washed the dishes and put the crystal away.

N. kept going to the window to see if had started yet.

We settled into our living room--usable once again, now that the floor is done--when we heard the sleet against the skylights.

Doesn't the living room look nice? We got the rug on sale at the hardware store. N. helped pick it out. I wanted a softer, more expensive one, but as N. pointed out: "Mom, we have two dogs, two cats and me!" So I bought a can of spray-on scotch guard and the more practical, inexpensive rug.

But I digress! As I was saying,
the long-predicted storm had finally come!
But we were snuggled on the couches--me and N. on one, the dogs on the other, and Bruce in his recliner, to watch It's a Wonderful Life, as is our custom every Thanksgiving after dinner. I did snap a picture of two when we took the dogs out of the first snow with accumulation of the season. As we walked the dogs in the falling snow last night, Bruce and N. gave us a rousing chorus of Over the River and Through the Woods. We are easily pleased!

This morning we woke up to a nice, snowy White Friday. We had about an inch of snow on the ground at 7 AM, when MLC called from Dallas. Bruce was actually thinking of driving into to town because the "Chinese store" had a six hour sale on various tools. But the snowplow did not come, and I am opposed to shopping on this day anyway, so we took a good walk with the dogs instead.
I love it when Mother Nature conspires to help me remain steadfast in my resolve not to go shopping the day after Thanksgiving!
It has been snowing off and on all day, with bouts of lowering clouds and freezing fog. The temperature in Tijeras is 30 degrees, with wind, and here in Sedillo it is 27. A good day to refrain from driving.

It is a wonderful day to enjoy the beauty of our mountains, rejoice in the first measurable precipitation since October 19th, and stay home and snuggle.

We had laid up a good supply of hot chocolate, spiced cider, and of course we have leftovers from our Thanksgiving Dinner.

I am enjoying White Friday more than I would have enjoyed Black Friday.

It is a nice way to have downtime before the frenzy that marks the end of the university semester begins! And Hannukah comes early this year, too!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Albuquerque Turkey

In honor of our yearly pilgrimage to the shrine of the bird, we bring you the famous Albuquerque Turkey song.

Sung to the tune of "Oh, My Darling Clementine--sort of.

Albuquerque had a turkey,
it was feathered, it was fine.
And it wobbled as it gobbled,
and it's absolutely mine.

It's the best pet you can get yet,
better than a dog or cat!
It's my Albuquerque Turkey
and I'm awefully proud of that!
Now my Albuquerque Turkey is
sleeping snuggled in his bed,
And for our Thanksgiving dinner
we'll have egg foo-yung instead.

But seriously, folks, our Albuquerque Turkey is browning nicely in the oven.
After a nice walk in the woods, we are just getting ready to get the trimmings heated up so we can sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here's a wish that you are having a wonderful day with family and friends near and far!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Homeschool Blog Awards: The Nominations are Posted

For those of you who are participating, the HSBA site team has posted the nominations. You can't vote until December, but there's quite a list, so you might want to check them out soon.

Ragamuffin Studies was nominated in the Live What You Believe category. Thanks so much, the three of you who nominated this blog! I know about one of you, but the others are anonymous. Two or three of the blogs I nominated apparently got other nominations, but most of my nominees did not make the final cut. So I will post the blogs I nominated here:

Best Homeschool Mom: The Thinking Mother

Best Homeschool Dad: Deliberate Wanderer

Best Artistic Content: Woman of the Tiger Moon

Best Crafts, Plans and Projects: Boy Story...and Beyond!

Best Family or Group: Life Without School

Best Live What You Believe: Barefoot Meandering

Best Unschooling or Eclectic Blog: Tribe of Autodidacts

Best Geographical Blog: Nurtured by Love (British Columbia)

Funniest Blog: News from Hawkhill Acres

Best Thrifty Blog: Mom in Madison

Best Nitty-Gritty Blog: Kitchen Table Learners

Best New Homeschool Blog: Magpie Ima

OOPS! I almost forgot the Best Political etc.: Consent of the Governed

And, Best Cyber-buddy: Dewey's Treehouse

These are some really interesting blogs, and I urge you to check them out, too, even if they didn't make the final cut!


Nearly Wordless Wednesday

I am feeling thankful this week as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving very quietly.

I am thankful to be alive on days like the one on which I took this picture and the one below.

This was taken on UNM Main Campus looking north toward the Centenial Library from Logan Hall.

This picture brings to mind the little doggerel I wrote looking at a gold and orange oak tree against the blue October sky in 1976:

"...And it hurt with piercing sadness
that the autumn with her gold
would woo us with her tangy gladness
and betray us to the winter's cold."
EHC October 1976

There is something bittersweet about the vibrant colors of autumn--they cannot stay long, nor do we want them to. And that creates a sudden sense of joy and a lifting of the heart towards the infinite.

And I am thankful for my long-suffering husband who did not intend to move the rest of the furniture last night, but did so anyway, simply because I asked him to.

Great are our blessings! How fortunate are we for our lives, our families and the beauty of our surroundings.

Enjoy the real blessings of Thanksgiving Day
along with the Turkey and Pie.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Floor Update: Getting My Living Room Back

Stop the Presses!

This is a special report. Last night, Bruce and N. got the living room floor done.
Since Rosh Hashanah, we have had living room furniture in the dining room and in our bedroom and sitting room.

Tonight, with the aid of Bruce's long-suffering friend from work, the massive entertainment center will be put back--right where Bruce is sitting in this picture. He is working on the plate to cover the area where speaker wires will be coming from the wall.

I am really, really happy that we will have the living room back for Thanksgiving and Hannukah--which starts in two weeks.

I think the guys did a wonderful job, but it has all taken quite a bit longer than we expected. Much of that was due to the fall holidays.

We still have two offices and N.'s bedroom to do. However, we have decided to take a break until after Hannukah and the UNM semester's end before we start moving furniture for the next room. We really need a few weeks with an intact house and some free weekends.

Putting in our own floor is true sweat equity!

Carnival of Homeschooling #99 at Homeschool Buzz

The Carnival of Homeschooling for Thanksgiving Week is up over at Homeschool Buzz.

There are quite a few articles this week, and between cleaning and getting the living room back in order, I intend to go on over and do some mental digestion. It will keep me from sampling my pies early!

I am sure that all of us can think of a good excuse or two to partake in the Carnival even during this busy week!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Physical Activity: A Necessary Component of Learning

On Saturday, when our 30-day trial was up, we made the decision to enroll N. in the Black Belt Club at his Taekwondo school, Blackman TKD. It was a no brainer really. There are numerous benefits to the club. First, we get nearly a 50% discount on what we would pay otherwise for a two-year membership. Secondly, N. will get discounts of sparring equipment, seminars, competitions and private lessons. Thirdly, N. is making a long-term commitment to work toward a goal. As we all know by now, self-concept and confidence is gotten from the disciplined work that leads to achievement. Despite the persistent messages we all heard from the recovery movement in the '80's and '90's, there is no shortcut to good self-concept to be gained by being praised just for breathing.

But there is another benefit to this kind of physical training that is not often discussed in this day and age of No Child Left on the Playground. Physical activity and training is extremely important for the health and development of the brain. In all of our discussions of school reform and school achievement from Sputnik to A Nation at Risk, this is one area that has been consistently forgotten. The politics and theories of education, especially K-12 education, often conceive of children as nothing more than disembodied brains into which we can pour a fund of knowledge made from a predetermined, standardized mix. This is kind of like the space-age futuristics of the 1960's, when we thought that we would get all our nutrients from pills and our Vitamin C from Tang. But here it is, already the 21st century, and we find that there are numerous health benefits to be gotten from actually eating!

Now we find ourselves in the age of No Child Left Untested and we still have the idea that we can somehow force children to learn the same stuff at the same rate if we just take away playground equipment and spend recess time remediating them with endless worksheets--a kind of drill-and-kill method of standardizing the minds of children. I suppose that this is to expected of a society that denies that there is such a thing as human nature as well as denying our evolutionary origins within nature.

But try as we might, we still have to deal with the pesky fact that the systems of our intellect require the use of the whole body to develop well. Motor skills are intimately involved with such amazing intellectual feats as "reading and 'riting and 'rithmatic." And motor coordination is developed by the use of the body. Essentially, it takes brains to develop coordinated movement and it takes coordinated movement to wire brains. After all, a disembodied brain would have no reason to function, since the whole point of the brain is to take in and process information of all kinds in order to make decisions about activities that will enhance the survival of the organism in which it resides!

In the past decade, even as we have busily put kids behind the flickering screen for hours, removing them from the physical world, the field of neuroscience has been busy discovering the biological basis for the importance of physical activity for intellectual development and, even more basically, mental health.

In 1997, a paper published in Nature described an experiment that demonstrated that neurogenesis (the formation of new, functional neurons) occurs in the adult human brain. This means that the brain continues to develop throughout the lifespan. The concept of neuroplasticity--which means that the brain changes based on how it is used--could now be demonstrated from the very basic level of the cell. Since that time, new information has been accumulated by neuroscientists that demonstrates that genetic and environmental factors both influence neurogenesis. What has been most thouroughly investigaged is the neural cell bodies in the hippocampus, an important part of the mammalian brain, which is the place where learning takes place and memories are formed. The kind of long-term electrical potentials that are required for learning are dependent upon a neurotransmitter called serotonin (5-HT). What is interesting is that we are learning that the neurogenesis of serotonergic neurons in the hippocampus can be upregulated by such environmental factors as physical activity, as well as an enriched environment, estrogen, and growth factors. There are other environmental factors that will do this as well, such as traumatic brain injury or ischemic events (oxygen deprivation from stroke or heart attack) and electroconvulsive shock therapy--but I don't think we want to go there!

Now consider the mental health problems that we know are correlated with low amounts of serotonin in the neural synapse: depression, anxiety, attention deficits, perseverations and so forth. Please note that I am not saying that it is the lack of serotonin in the synapses that cause all of these--in fact, what happens is an imbalance in a number of transmitters due to developmental differences in the brain's structure that make a person susceptible to these neurological problems--but we know from research and drug therapies that increased serotonin in the synapses greatly alleviate these problems and that environmental factors such as ongoing stress increases them. Furthermore, we know that many neurological syndromes such as ADHD, OCD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), share symptoms such as anxiety and depression and perseverations.

Essentially, physical activity is important for mental health for all of us. Yesterday, when I was reading abstracts from journals in order to formulate a review paper I am writing for Neurophysiology class about adult hippocampal neurogenesis of serotonergic neurons and depression, I counted at least ten papers published in the past year or two that discussed (at least in part) the benefits of physical activity on neurogenesis and the upregulation of serotonin. And it is really important for our children who have such neurological problems as ADHD or depression or ASD. Although physical activity is not a cure for these developmental problems, it is part of the treatment.

Our children need and deserve plenty of time playing outside in the physical environment. Among mammals, play is important work that develops strength, reflexes and ultimately, develops the brain and the intellect. This is not just leisure activity to be used to fill in the time when they are not learning. As John Holt used to say, we are "learning all the time."

So when your kids are playing outside, running, jumping, and climbing trees, they are learning. Or when they are playing catch in yard, swimming, or practicing their Taekwondo, they are learning. And when someone asks why they are not inside doing more worksheets, smile sweetly and tell the person that your kids are getting physical activity in an enriched environment and are thus growing serotonergic neurons in the hippocampus.

I promise that if you say this, when they are done checking their dictionaries, they'll never mess with you again!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Among Scientists...

I have really enjoyed being among the neuroscience grad students and researchers for the past two semesters. This group has been through two tough courses together: Neurobiology--which was essentially the physics, chemistry and molecular biology of the brain--and Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology--which is exactly what the name promises. We have spent every Thursday afternoon this fall in a poorly ventilated lab on the third floor of the Basic Medical Sciences Building. For the first 12 weeks, we dissected the human brain and learned to identify structures and their connections and what they do. The past 3 weeks have been spent on learning the mouse brain and doing histology thin-sections of it.

This picture is of Vint--the guy in the front, who is my lab partner and future neurologist, as well as Jenny and Steve, future neuroscientists.

Here, we are looking at a sagittal section of the mouse brain on Allen Neuroscience Brain Atlases. For our final lab practical, we are going to have to be able to line up coronal sections rostral (nose) to caudal (back of the mouse brain).

These courses have been hard for me, because being away from primary research in science for 10 years is like being away for a lifetime. So much is being learned every day--and the revolution in science caused by genomics and proteonomics (genomes and how they work) has changed everything! It was just starting when I left the laboratory for the classroom.

But even though the coursework has required a lot of catching up on my part, it has been wonderful to be among scientists again.
The most important aspect of the undergraduate education of a scientist is to teach her how to think in very specific ways. The specific background of the field is also important, but is secondary to thinking like a scientist. As my daughter is finding out, this way of thinking is unique to science and changes one for life. So being among scientists, speaking the language of science again, is a bit like going home after a long absense. No one understands your habits of mind and even your wacky sense of humor quite like other scientists.

Here are some of my colleagues, staining the thin-sections with serum proteins specific for certain cells that have flourescent labels attached. We have two such labels, blue for neuron cell nucleii found in the hippocampus, and red for dividing stell cells to label adult neurogenesis in the dendate gyrus of the hippocampus.

To the right is an image of a montage of two images of our thin section taken with two different flourescent filters from a camera fitted to a bionocular mocroscope. The blue-labeled nuclei outline the mouse hippocampus. The tooth shape is the dentate gyrus, where we expect to see neurogenesis from dividing stem cells. The red labeled cells on the inside are the dividing stem cells. As we were playing with the microscope to get the images, Kevin said: "Imagine if we had done this 50 years ago! We'd be on our way to Stockholm!" To which Vint replied: "Or we'd have been locked up as nutcases for saying that adults actually have stem cells and that they do make new neurons."

This image is a close-up of the dividing stem cells taken with the rhodescence filter. Amazing--new neurons form in adults, in form and function! And neurogenesis in adults is important to the plasticity of the brain on into old age. You can teach an old mouse new tricks!

I am beginning to feel a little sad. When we finish this course, we will have run out of full-semester courses in the neurosciences. Most of my remaining courses will be in the Psychology Department over on main campus. That will be very interesting, too. But I will miss my neuroscience colleagues very much.

Two semester sweating together over neural cellular structure, immediate early genes, g-protein coupled receptors, ion channels, trasmitter production and function, the physiology of sensory experience, proprioception, motor activity, and the enteric nervous system. Not to mention identifying the caudate, putamen, cingulate cortex, the cerebellum, the cerebral peduncles, the cerebellar folia, and more. All of this has bonded us. I imagine that I will not forget Vint's zany anatomy humor. "These are the mammillary bodies--'Thanks for all the Mammillaries...'" And the menomics: "On old Olympus towering top, a Finn and German viewed some hops." This translates to the twelve cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, ocular-motor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory (vestibular-cochlear), vagus, spinal-accessory, and hypoglossal.

And my favorite for the functions of the cranial nerves: Some say Marilyn Monroe, but my brother says Brigite Bardot! Mmmm, mmmm. (sensory, sensory, motor, motor, both, motor, both, sensory, both, both, motor, motor).

Well, you get the picture. I have really, really enjoyed being back among scientists again. Like NAGC or ALPS--which is summer camp for gifted adults--it's another form of going home.

And you can go home again!

Home, home in the lab,
where the neurons and glia still play.
Where often is heard that discouraging word,
"Dr. Cunningham give back my brain!"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Busy Week in Lake Wobegon...

Nearly Wordless Wednesday
on Thursday this Week
I am getting used to what state I am now in again. But the transition from the Land of 10,000 Stories was difficult. And I am still humming "Tell Me Why?" It is the song that Garrison Keillor had us sing at the end of his stories.
Here are some pictures to keep the spirit of Lake Wobegon fresh in my mind:
A view of the lawn outside the Minneapolis Convention Center and looking above it at downtown.

The weather was quite mild, really. Just a little snow on Saturday morning to remind us that we were in the North with a capital 'N'.

Despite some other errands to the midwest, I managed to meet my friend Bonnie from Virginia by the Free Spirit booth at NAGC. We met in front of that same booth in Louisville, Kentucky two years ago. We have been in close contact and room together each year now.

I guess we'll continue as long as she can put up with me.

This is a view of the walkway from the hotels to the convention center. Minneapolis has built over 30 miles of covered "skywalks" so that visitors don't have to go out in the snow.

A local on the Light Rail to Bloomington told me that now that they are built the winters have become mild. "Global warming." he said.

I did manage to get to the Mall of the Americas. It is...well, a mall. It's a big mall. It's got an amusement park in the middle. But it's a mall. I got some Minnesota presents for my family there, though.

The people are really nice in Minnesota.

I guess that's where they get the phrase "Minnesota Nice." I did not open a door for myself the whole time I was there. What a contrast from New Mexico.

"Well that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average..."

The last phrase is why Garrison Keillor spoke to the NAGC!

There wasn't a dry seat in the house.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Participating in the Homeschool Blog Awards--with Some Trepidation

I have decided to nominate some of my favorite blogs in the 2007 Homeschool Blog Awards, with some trepidation.

Why do I have some trepidation?

It is not because of the rules, although some of those might be cause to disqualify my blog, in the unlikely event that I am nominated. I do not know if my blog will be considered "nice to other bloggers," especially since I do discuss controversial topics and I state my opinions forthrightly. And although I consider my blog 'family friendly' I do not know what that really means, so it may not be 'G-rated' according to someone else because I do not toe the line on matters of conservative politics. But the people who have spent many hours putting this together have their standards and 'those that do the work get to make the rules,' as my grandmother (z"l) would say. So I have decided to participate anyway.

For more on the controversy over rude language please go over to Dana's post at Principled Discovery. I think she has very good insight into this concern. Personally, I do not like to put nasty words (according to my standards) on my own blog, as I am responsible for the content. I have edited comments a few times myself for this reason.

My concern is a new policy this year that a blog must have three nominations in a category in order to be short-listed as a nominee for an award. I can understand the justification given for this policy change. This policy is an attempt to get people to think about the blogs they nominate and then to read those in the categories that they vote on. In other words, it is an attempt to make this something other than a popularity contest. And that goal is admirable.

But I don't think the policy is going to make the goal attainable. For a blog to be nominated three times in a single category, it must already be a popular blog among those readers who will be doing the nominations. And the readers must all like it for the same reason. That makes it unlikely that new and interesting blogs will make it to final voting because good blogs may fit into several categories. So we are likely to get 'the same old, same old' when it comes right down to the winners.

Last year I found some really good blogs that I have since added to my list of "must reads" from the final cut. Such blogs were often new and different, and few of them were nominated more than once. But I had the chance to view them and vote on them. Now, the representation in the final voting will be limited and the voters will be precluded from choosing them as best, even if we think they are, in fact, better than the ones chosen by the committee. Personally, I'd prefer a more democratic approach and I think it would be more encouraging to diverse bloggers in the homeschool world.

But I still like the idea of the awards in general, and I think the committee has done much to reassure those of us who are not in the mainstream for our political views or religious practice to participate. So, despite my trepidation, I'll play.

If you want to know the truth, I really want the opportunity to honor some really interesting blogs.

If you want to play, go to the link above by Saturday and make your nominations. You can nominate yourself--I am just to too much of a Midwesterner to consider that Kosher.

Carnival of Homeschooling #98: Thanksgiving Edition

It's late fall and the harvest is in here in the northern hemisphere.

Our Canadian friends have already celebrated Thanksgiving. And we did, too, over a month ago at Sukkot. Now it is nearing time for those of us in the United States to remember our blessings.

Nerdmom over at the Nerd Family blog is counting all of the blessings that she is thankful for that are related to homeschooling.

There are so many fruits of what we are doing for our children to consider and so there are many, many articles up over at the Thanksgiving Edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling.

As I go about the chores of late fall--chores like raking pine needles up around the outside, trimming the bushes and cutting back the deadfall, writing a paper on adult neurogenesis and depression, writing an anotated bibliography about alternative intelligence testing for second-language speakers, studying for final exams, and (my favorite) baking pumpkin pies--as I go about these chores, it is very helpful to be reminded that they, too, are something to be thankful for! Really!

So many of us are so blessed with abundance in this country with many different kinds of blessings. At COH this week, there are homeschoolers standing ready to share their experience and wisdom on a variety of topics.

Take a few moments during this busy time of visiting, family, remembering and giving, to nourish your mind with the wit, wisdom and understanding of your fellow homeschoolers.

When I have some downtime in my preparations for the holiday, I plan to make a nice cup of hot cider and head on over to the Nerd family!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Red Herring Question: Social Skills and Schools Today

I am home again after a whirlwind tour of the mid-west.
I will have lots to say later about everything and pictures to post, too!
But I want to get an article written for the Carnival of Homeschooling and the deadline is fast approaching.

I am, as you know, working on a Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis in the Neurospychology of Twice-Exceptional People with ASD. And whenever I tell colleagues from around the country in gifted ed that I am homeschooling my gifted-AS kid, I get the usual question. You all know what it is. You have probably heard it many times. Shall we repeat it together?

I have taken to answering the question with a question: Are schools today a place where students actually are taught or learn appropriate social skills? The question usually causes a long silence, since it requires the original asker to actually think about her assumptions. And then I begin to hear answers with references to rudeness, bullying, lockstep age-grading, reduced recess and lunch time, silent lunches, and so forth. All of these things are barriers to social interaction in schools and social interaction is how social skills are learned. It is an amazing experience each time this happens to me. Here are educators who have questioned many assumptions about the needs of gifted learners, but still need a prompt to think about their assumptions that school is where children learn social skills.

Yesterday, I was vindicated! I went to hear Dr. Sanford Cohn, an educational psychologist specializing in the psychology of gifted children from Arizona State University discuss the issue. His talk had a provocative title. In fact, it was so provocative that I almost did not go. I was wondering if it was going to be one of those presentations that is inflammatory but not scholarly.

For the curious among you, the title was: Good Intentions, Unanticipated Consequences: Creating a Generation of Brilliant Psychopaths.

See what I mean?

Dr. Cohn sat at a table and held the mike in his hand. He did not have slides. He did not pace, bluster or entertain. His voice was even and measured, and displayed just an edge of passion. And the audience listened intently and silently. We were on the edges of our seats, leaning forward to catch every word. Because we knew that what he had to say was true and important.

He started out by discussing the requirements for learning for every child--those who are intellectually gifted and those with average and above average intelligence. And those are novelty and complexity i.e. we have to get their interest and sustain it. He then went on to discuss the disaster of the concept of inclusion--something I will discuss at length at another time--which is the idea that one teacher can differentiate curriculum for a full range of students in one classroom. At this point he condemned the PC ideas that underpin these philosophies and discussed the social consequences for, but not limited to, gifted kids.

His take-home message is that when the system refuses to use effective placement and pacing to meet the intellectual needs of any child (and remember, school is supposed to be about meeting educational needs, not social engineering), you are telling that child, "You don't matter" at the level of action, even though your words may be otherwise. And the kids see the hypocrisy. And the more educators protest otherwise, the more we look like "self-deluded fools" in the eyes of our kids. In fact, the current institutions, politcal, social and educational, that society holds up as exemplars, are overwhelming our children with hypocrisy. We have a media that devalues the individual and uses sexual overtones and imagery to sell anything. We have politicians that lie to the people with impunity. And an educational establishment that is, in effect, "educating for contempt and disdain."
In fact, said Dr. Cohn, we could not do a better job or this if we had actually set out to do this on purpose.

In this mileau, it is very difficult to teach ordinary social manners and mores. Studies of the brain--particularly the recent discovery of mirror neurons and their effect on imitation suggest that human beings do not, in general, learn to "do as I say, not as I do."

As Dr. Cohn finished his presentation, I was thinking: This is the overarching reason why I took my son out of school. There are a lot of small reasons--they could not meet his needs, give him the individual attention he needed for his AS or giftedness, etc. But over all, in the eyes of the educational establishment, my son, as an individual, is unimportant. Their social engineering goals--however poorly founded--are more important than his education. And in that environment, learning appropriate social skills--compassion and caring for others as individuals and the manners and graciousness to show it--is impossible.

The question of social skills in schools--an environment in which children are often told one thing and see another--is one that educators ought to ponder themselves before they impose it on the one million or more homeschoolers in the nation. As parents, we are taking the responsibility to place our children in environments where they will hear and see how respect, graciousness, caring and compassion are implemented in every day life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Carnival of Homeschooling #97: Homeschool U is Open for Classes

It's November, and every graduate student I know is up their ears and eyeballs in tests and projects. So this is a good time to get some on-line education in a different major.

The Carnival of Homeschooling--Homeschool U edition--is up over a Principled Discovery. Dean of Students Dana has made sure to develop a well-rounded schedule of classes that can fit any student's area of interest. And the tuition is very economical, too!
So head on over to Homeschool U! I'll bet the student union has comfy chairs and nice warm drinks for you fall studying pleasure.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Loss of Awe and Ecophobia

Yes, another post about environmental science, but from a different perspective. This time, I am going to talk about environmental education. I started thinking about this because of something that Judy Aron said over at Consent of the Governed. She mentioned that some of the science education about global climate change was "scaring little children."

I am also preparing a talk for the National Association for Gifted Children annual conference about the uses of wilderness awareness curricula for meeting a variety of goals in the education of gifted children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. So ideas about environmental education are fresh in my mind.

First, a few definitions. The first two are from
Awe: n.
A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might: We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach. The observers were in awe of the destructive power of the new weapon.

Natural history: n
1. The study and description of organisms and natural objects, especially their origins, evolution, and interrelationships.
a. A collection of facts about the development of a natural process or entity: the natural history of early hominids as revealed in the fossil record.
b. A work or treatise containing such facts.

This last one is defined by David Sobel in his book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in Nature Education.

Ecophobia n.: a morbid fear of one's home or morbid or excessive fear of ecological disaster or deterioration.

So what is the problem? School-based science curricula have been developed to teach children about the prospects of global warming, the destruction of the rainforest, and the movement of pollutants through the food web while at the same time they do not teach children about the natural wonders in their own backyards. Children as young as first grade are taught about rainforest ecology and the loss of habitat in which they learn that in the time between recess and lunch "tens of thousands of acres of rainforest will be cut down in order to make way for fast-food 'hamburgerable' cattle," as Sobel puts it.

There are several problems with this approach to teaching about the environment. To begin with, small children need hands-on instruction in science. When a person has been on the planet only six or seven years, he has had little chance to experience the vacant lot next door or the woods outside of town, let alone be required to worry about the end of nature. Most of them, in North America at least, have never seen a rainforest and they have little idea of where one is or what it might look like.

Secondly, the science of ecology requires the student to understand a large number of complex biological interactions that happen at the organismal, community and ecosytem levels. These interactions between species, and between species and the environment require a basic understanding of non-biological concepts such as energy, and laws of conservation. And you can't see or touch these interactions. Although there are probably a few, highly gifted first and second graders who could imagine these large ideas, most little children would be better off without them for a while longer.

Does this mean little children cannot learn about ecology and the environment? Not at all. But why not go local? For one thing, it is right in front of us. Take the kids out and show them how the bees and butterflies pollinate flowers, which develop into fruits that we can eat. In this way, a small child will learn about the vital role that pollinators play in the environment. And the schools will not need to buy expensive curricula with all the bells and whistles. All a teacher would need is some library books, some inexpensive hand-lenses, and access to the outdoors over a period of time. A guest speaker from the university biology department who will talk to the kids for free would be an added bonus.

Really, the first thing we want to teach our small children about the environment is as close as the door garden, the trees at the back of the schoolyard, the garden, or the desert across at the edge of town. Because what we want to teach them is wonder and awe. We want them to have time to satisfy their curiosity about how a tadpole becomes a frog and what makes a plant grow 'big and strong.'

There will be plenty of time for them to learn about species interactions in rainforests far away, once they have experienced the joy of watching ants follow their little trails of formic acid to get food and bring it safely back to the anthill. They will be better equipped to take responsibility for whole ecosystems after they have taken responsibility for the family aquarium or birdfeeder. The study of rainforest ecology is much more appropriate for mid-schoolers and high schoolers, who have developed at least some ability for abstract thought.

Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods notes that most scientists started out their careers as small chasers of snakes, catchers of spiders and collectors of leaves. The great natural historians of the past began like E.O. Wilson, who spent the days of his childhood roaming the shores of Mobile Bay, bringing home shells and starfish, and exulting in the power of the waves and the awesome winds of storms. Or like the 'grand old man of Rocky Mountain Geology, David Love, who grew up roaming the mountains of Wyoming, testing his mettle against the blizzards and the droughts.

When I was a child roaming the woods and fields of Central Illinois, I did not imagine that I would be an ecologist who would do statistics at the computer. In fact, the only computer I knew of took up a whole floor of the IAA building downtown, and was kept behind glass windows in a clean room. No, I imagined being a geologist, roaming the hills and mountains, collecting rocks. Or a paleontologist, spending my days running the soft shales of the Morrison formation in my hands, finding the spectactular fossil of my dreams. Or as a Naturalist, studying how the plants and animals of the tall-grass prairie made a living.

It is not necessary to induce ecophobia into our kids in order to get them to care about nature. In fact, it may even be counter-productive. Inducing unnamable worries into the hearts of our children may even cause them to avoid thinking about nature. It may make them feel like aliens who don't belong to the earth. As the naturalist Robert Pyle wisely observed: "What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?"

As homeschoolers, we have taken the power of our children's education into our own hands. We don't need to let them be taught to fear nature. We are there with them, day after day. Take the little ones outside. Let them experience the power of the sun's heat, the smell of rain on a dusty road, the softness of freshly turned soil in their hands on a spring day in the garden. Take them outside every day and teach them awe and wonder.