Several years ago, I observed a primary grade classroom in which one of my patients was a student. This student was exceptionally bright; however, he was not exceptionally fast with new information. It took him the whole school day to process the information. When his teacher called on him, this student would have a blank look on his face or say something off topic. By the time he got home, though, he told his parents about all of the things he had learned, with great enthusiasm.
The class this student was in was for intellectually gifted students with very high levels of academic achievement. He had tested into the program. I attended a meeting during which his teacher restated what he had previously told the parents, which is that he “did not see” this boy’s giftedness. I knew this child well and had done his testing. Based on the findings of the testing, the fact that it took him more time to consolidate information into long-term memory was expected. This boy in particular, had difficulty expressing what he had just learned. After a few hours to digest the information, he could do it and the understanding he demonstrated was extremely high. I told his teacher this. The teacher changed his tact and complained that he had “no way of measuring” this child’s giftedness.
The implication was that this child did not belong in the program. I wish that during the meeting, I had learned that this teacher only evaluated his student’s based on their performance in class. He DID NOT look at the students’ homework. If I’d known about this, I would have said, “Hey, I know how you can measure his learning. You could grade his homework!”
This teacher isn’t a bad teacher or even a dolt. I have visited his classroom a few times. He is one of the most impressive teachers I have ever seen. He has won a national teaching award. He is extremely entertaining in the classroom. He explains sophisticated concepts in a highly skilled manner. When he reads a story to the classroom, he does all of the character voices like a very good actor. He is extremely funny. He moves fast and asks the students lots of questions.
He is an amazing teacher and I have known students who have done extremely well in his class. But he didn’t look at or grade homework. He had one way of measuring student success. He had one way of teaching. He wasn’t going to budge. If your brain did not fit his instruction, you didn’t belong in the gifted program even if you qualified to be there according to the same criteria used for other students there.
I have the wonderful fortune of knowing some exemplary teachers both in my professional and personal lives. I suspect they may not be the performer that the award winning teacher in their classroom. (After all, said teacher also had professional actor and improvisational comedian in his resume.) What these teachers do have, however, is an exemplary ability to teach that also includes responding to the variety of learning needs in a classroom. This is called differentiated instruction.
In other words, teaching is not one sized fits all. Not surprisingly, Nancy Stordahl, author of Cancer Was Not a Gift and It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person, is a teacher and the daughter of a teacher. She is also the author of the breast cancer blog, Nancy’s Point. One of Nancy’s main messages conveyed in her blog is that there is no one-sized-fits-all way to be a breast cancer patient or breast cancer survivor. Dealing with cancer is no doubt a learning experience as all major life experiences are. We all learn our own way and not necessarily while decked out in pink feathered boas.
Being a breast cancer blogger myself, I soon found myself reading Nancy’s excellent blog. I have also previously read her book, Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy. I didn’t have chemotherapy myself but impressed with Nancy’s practical, instructional, and well-researched blog, I bought the book for my Kindle and read it. Nancy has a way of explaining things in a very organized, straight-forward manner without a lot of flowery touches. And despite the lack of flowery touches, she also conveys a reassuring level of emotional support and empathy. Nancy has a way of being direct, concise, and practical without being cold. How does she do this?
The new book also has the tone of our no-nonsense Nancy with extra layers. This book is a memoir and in reading it, I learned more about Nancy. I have a personal relationship with Nancy as a fellow member of the blogging community. Nancy has always impressed me as being a very solid person who is very close to her family. Her breast cancer advocacy is intensely fueled by her love for her mother, who died from metastatic breast cancer just two before Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. Nancy’s ties to her family is a major theme of her book. Her love of her parents, husband, and children are apparent in her writing, which is respectful of her own as well as her family’s privacy. Nancy also describes solid ties to place, namely the U.S. Midwest, especially in her descriptions of the natural places that give her peace and are also places associated with extended family gatherings.
Nancy’s writing is an excellent example of the dance we all try to do in our experiences of loss. We balance the need for commonality and connection with others with our need to for individuality, our need to maintain the reality that our losses do not define our entire being. Nancy is not a black and white thinker. She does not see her life as all good or all bad. Likewise, Nancy does not attribute everything good or everything bad in her life to her experience with cancer.
It is simple to say that life is gray but harder live that way. If you want to read about someone who has spent the last several years navigating the uncertainties of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from a point of honesty, empathy, and respect, I think you will very much appreciate Nancy’s book.