On Being the Change: Step 2- Read More. Look in the Mirror Less.

Step 2: Read More. Look in the Mirror Less.

Reading is good for you; it is exercise for the brain and food for the soul. In fact, reading has documented health benefits like reducing stress, improving memory and increasing focus. It also has social-emotional benefits and can help us connect to others, develop empathy and understand differences.

There are lots of ways to read. You can read a novel curled up in your favorite chair with the sun shining over your shoulder. You can read a magazine in the doctor’s office and learn 25 healthy ways to cook chicken while you wait. Or, like Dr. Seuss, you can read with your eyes shut (fun, but not recommended). My favorite way to read is snuggled in bed with my children. We read anything from adventurous chapter books to picture book classics to maps of museums we recently have visited.

boy-reading-city-map-at-resort-s_105

After years of sharing children’s books with young readers, I have noticed that as much as I love the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are or other “classics”, these stories do not generate nearly as much conversation as when I read books that offer new perspectives. For example, my children and I can identify with not wanting to try a new food that appears different like “green eggs and ham”, but then being surprised at how good it actually tastes and admitting that they would eat it here, there or anywhere. Since this experience is familiar to us and mirrors our own lives, it does not generate lots of questions. However, when we read in the world atlas that South Africa has eleven official languages, we begin to wonder: What language do they use for street signs? What languages are taught in school?

These wonderings about the world have led me to look for windows in books. What do I mean? Well, many of the books we read are like mirrors; they reflect our own lives. However, when we read books with windows they give us a glimpse into a new world. They help us look at our lives and every day occurrences from new perspectives.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There may be moments for some of us when there are no mirrors. We can’t find books on the shelves that reflect our lives, and we realize our story seems to be missing. This happened to me when I stood in the library looking for picture book biographies that represented my family and I could only find two that focused on the abilities of individuals with exceptionalities. When we find this gap and are left searching, it is time to pick up the pen and tell our story. We need diverse books.

OUR FAVORITE WINDOW BOOKS

With my son, Nolan, acting as editor of this post, we have included a few of our favorite books that create windows and conversations:

 You And Me Together    Cool Drink of Water

How do you spend time as a family? How do you drink your water? Do people around the world spend time with family or drink water the same way? In Barbara Kerley’s You and Me Together: Moms, Dads & Kids Around the World and A Cool Drink of Water, readers get to peer through windows around the world. Stunning photographs in both books show lives very familiar and very different from your own. The images are woven together with repetitive and lyrical phrases that connect you to each image and humanity.

 Emmanuels Dream

“He proved that one leg is enough to do great things- and one person is enough to change the world.”

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls is a recommended read aloud for every home and classroom. This picture book biography is about, Emmanuel, a young man from Ghana who is born with a limb difference. In the story, Emmanuel embraces his exceptionality and pushes past limitations others try to impose on him. With a vision for a better world and a bike from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Emmanuel sets off on a journey across Ghana to raise awareness and hope for people with disabilities. Emmanuel’s story inspires and empowers readers to believe that “one person can change the world.”

Finally, everyone should read I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. And now, with her story available in both picture book and chapter book formats, everyone can hear this powerful story of how one girl challenged systems of oppression and changed the word.

malala-quotes

So for step two in being a part of the change, I will READ. I will look in the mirror less and try to find windows by reading more diverse books that challenge my perspectives and help me grow. And if at times I don’t find a mirror, I will WRITE because “ONE BOOK, ONE PEN CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.”

Believe in the Possible,

Jen

On Being the Change- Step 1: Choose Your Words Carefully

Step 1: Choose your words carefully.

Words are powerful. Words can evoke strong emotions. When they are selected carefully, they can educate, empower and inspire. They can be used to change the ideas of one individual or to generate a movement among thousands.

When words simply spill out into the world, they can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions. Misplaced words can create pain and disappointment. They can even build barriers and breakdown the human spirit. How do you plan to use your words?

I plan to use my words to make the world a better place. I will use my words to embrace others and unleash their potential. Here are a few ways I plan to use my words to be the change I wish to see in the world:

1. Disabled to Exceptional. My son, Nolan, was born prematurely. From his very first moments on Earth, he struggled to coordinate the instinctual skills of sucking, swallowing and breathing. These seemingly innate actions needed to be coached. Actually, he was delayed in learning all the early developmental skills like crawling, walking and talking and required hours of intensive therapy. Now, at the age of ten, he has mastered most developmentally appropriate skills. Writing remains a laborious task, and tying his shoes seems to elude him. Fortunately, technology can replace the pencil, and Velcro can secure his shoes.

After nearly a decade of triumphs and tribulations, we have come to realize that Nolan’s brain is wired differently. According to the CDC, he is “disabled.” However, this label seems amazingly inaccurate for my son. The word “disabled” unfairly places limitations on Nolan’s abilities and potential. It creates barriers and makes me want to shout, “He can do ANYTHING!” His learning differences are beautiful. His unique brain deserves to be celebrated.

When I talk about Nolan and the challenges he faces, I choose my words carefully. I use them to empower and unleash all of the potential in my son. This is why I tell the world: “MY SON IS EXCEPTIONAL!” DSC_0541    And then I smile, knowing I have used my words to make the world a better place for him.

2. Handicap to Accessible. I recently learned about 3ELOVE (www.3elove.com ). It is the brainchild of Annie and Stevie Hopkins, two exceptional individuals, who are re-conceptualizing the International Sign of Accessibility that was originally developed in 1968. The redesigned symbol is being used to EMBRACE, EDUCATE and EMPOWER the world about individuals with exceptionalities.

Accessiblity Sign3e_love_embrace_educate_empower_sticker__80183

My children and I immediately connected with the 3ELOVE message and bought various 3ELOVE products including t-shirts. When the t-shirts arrived, the kids couldn’t wait to wear them.

Caitlin proudly wore hers to a birthday party, but I wasn’t totally prepared for what happened. On the ride home from the party, she told me a peer asked her, “Why are you wearing a handicap sign?” I asked her how she responded and, un-phased by the incident, she stated, “I told her it was my wheelchair rugby shirt.” Nolan reported a similar experience at school, but his response to the question was, “It’s about 3ELOVE.”

I then realized I hadn’t prepared my children with the accurate words. So, I explained to them that when we see this symbol posted in parking lots, on bathroom doors or on buttons near doorways that it means “accessible.” The symbol is there to let everyone know that if you need more space to move or if you need the door to open for you, it is available. It does not mean “handicap.” When we choose our words carefully, this International Symbol of Accessibility means: “All are welcome here.

Accessible2010

3. Impossible to Possible. In the winter of 2010 when I was teaching full time at the college-level, working on my doctoral degree and raising two children under the age of five, I was overwhelmed. I was considering giving up on my studies. All I could see were barriers. Then, I made a critical decision. I got rid of the word “impossible.” By removing that word from my vocabulary, I was forced to think of everything including balancing work, studies and family life as “possible.” Ridding myself of this word shifted my thinking. This resulted in me finding new ways to make it all work. Some solutions were simple like asking family members to babysit more. Some solutions were hard like getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write papers. But, it all became possible. And finally, in May 2013, I received my doctoral degree and my children cheered for me as I proudly walked across the stage.

This idea of possible versus impossible has became even more evident during my interviews with Nick Springer. Becoming a quad amputee at the age of 14, Nick embodies all things possible. Despite his amputations, he can drive, send funny text messages, travel around the world and play a very mean game of wheelchair rugby.

Nick Blocking

In fact, the more I research athletes who play adaptive sports, the more I realize that anything is possible. For example, Mark Stutzman, member of the US Archery team and 2012 silver medalist in the London Paralympic Games, can shoot a bow with incredible precision using his foot and mouth. He also hunts and raises his three boys with his wife, Amber.

stutzman_matt_2_600x375

When we choose our words carefully, we can create change in ourselves and in others. What does this change look like or sound like? It appears in simple moments. Here is what happened recently in my home when my daughter was completing her math homework:

Mommy, the problem says Brendan has two bandages on his fingers and they want to know how many fingers don’t have bandages. I think they want me to write 10-2=8, but it depends. It could be 5-2=3 or something else. It all depends.”

With carefully chosen words, one person can create change. It’s time for you to decide, “What will I do with my words today? Will I break down or build up?”

I plan to choose my words carefully and to use them to educate, empower and inspire change.

robinwilliams

Believe in the Possible,

Jen

Be the change you wish to see in the world. –Gandhi

This is my mantra. This is the foundation from which I teach my students and my children. However, change is challenging, uncomfortable and at times frightening. But is the challenge real or perceived? Is the discomfort physical or mental? And is my fear grounded in fact or fiction?

For me the challenge is often perceived. The discomfort is usually only mental, and the fear is grounded in more fiction than facts. Therefore, I force myself to move forward outside my comfort zone into the realm of “CHANGE.”

Unexpectedly, the push to change my career path came to me on my short drive to work this fall. It wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to teach. In fact, I was excited to share my love of teaching reading with a fantastic group of pre-service teachers. They were discovering for themselves that supporting early readers is the merge of magic and science.

So what happened? It was an epiphany of sorts resulting from critical reflection on an incident that occurred last year when my daughter, Caitlin, was in kindergarten.

It started over dinner when she was deciding what to bring in for “show and tell” at school. Remembering her recent visit to my office, she asked if she could bring in the poster of her cousin that hung on my door. Excited about her decision, I agreed and told her that I would get it for her the next day.

The following afternoon, I carefully pulled the tape from the back and rolled up the poster of Nick in his Team USA uniform with gold and silver medals hanging around his neck. I, then, tucked it into my bag and headed home. That night after dinner, the kids argued which one of them would get to share the poster first. My son, Nolan, who was in third grade, stated that he wanted to take the poster to school on Thursday because Caitlin did not have “show and tell” until Friday. This seemed a reasonable request, but I said I would email their teachers and wait to hear back from them.

I sent their teachers links to articles about Nick’s accomplishments and video clips from the Beijing Games, along with a photo of the poster. Nolan’s teacher responded that night saying she had shared Nick’s story with her family and how they were all inspired by his success. Yes, like many world-class athletes, his story is inspiring.

I didn’t hear from Caitlin’s teacher until the next morning. She explained that she had forwarded my email to the principal and that she was concerned the poster would “scare” the children. I was appalled.

Nick Springer is Caitlin’s cousin. Nick Springer is a gold and silver medalist in the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics. Nick Springer is a world-class athlete who plays wheelchair rugby. Nick Springer is a survivor of meningococcal meningitis. Nick Springer is a quad amputee.

IMG_0609

Unfortunately, the only label her teacher could see was the last, and she found it frightening.

The next day, I received a call at work from the school principal. Here is a bit from my side of the conversation:

“It is not if Caitlin will share the poster, but when.”

“How can we be okay with sharing images like Captain Hook with young children, yet we are afraid to share a photo of someone who represented our country in the Paralympics?”

“I find it more frightening that we have an educator who feels unprepared to embrace diversity in her classroom. If she can’t handle this conversation, what other conversations are not occurring?”

On the following Friday, with the support and guidance from the principal, Caitlin shared the poster. And, how did her classmates react? They thought her cousin was totally awesome!

Proud Cousin

However, I never found peace with the situation. Well… until this fateful car ride to work.

A book. A tool. That was it, I would write a children’s book celebrating Nick’s story, and it would be a tool for Caitlin’s former teacher and every educator to discuss, embrace and celebrate differences.

Thus, my journey began and I started researching picture book biographies. Over the past three months, I have read 44 picture book biographies. So far, only two have featured a person with a disability, Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull (1996) and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant (2014). Of the 44 picture book biographies, 10 have been about athletes, but not one has featured a Paralympian. According to the CDC and the 2010 census, approximately 20% of adults in the US are disabled. Yet, individuals with disabilities remain a vastly underrepresented group in children’s literature.

My plan is to change this. I will be the “CHANGE” (or at least be a part of it). I will research and write the amazing life stories of people with disabilities or more accurately stated, “people with exceptionalities.” Yes, I will write stories of people who lead exceptional lives that educate, empower and inspire others.

If you have an amazing story to tell, please share it. Let’s be the change we wish to see in the world.

Believe in the possible,

Jen