Tuesday, February 26, 2008


In the past I have been very conscious of protecting the identity of all of my students while sharing their stupendous artwork, clever writing and funny stories. Any pictures I post of them are always taken from the back for this reason. But today there was an article in Newsday featuring one of my fantastic students that I really wanted to share.

This young boy is a true artist. His drawings are very sophisticated and he writes with the wit of the innocent. (He wrote a fantastic story for our last writing celebration about his dislike for doing homework which made me smile.) Otherwise he is like any other child; sometimes happy, sometimes grumpy, but always a pleasure to have in class.

But Hunter is also dealing with some heavy issues which are outlined in this most recent article by Jamie Talan. What strikes me most is how small and young he looks outside of the context of the classroom. I always think this about all of my students when I see them in a different setting. To me, they are my world for a good part of my day, week after week, month after month and I don't really see them as little because they all have such big personalities. But they are small and young and deserve all the care we can give them. I have included the article below.

Creating Hope for Hunter

Hunter Cavanaugh has endured more stares than most 7-year-olds could tolerate. His face and neck have been disfigured since birth by benign tumors, reminiscent of those of John Merrick, whose life story unfolded in the classic movie "The Elephant Man." Hunter, who does not have the known genes linked to neurofibromatosism, or Elephant Man's disease, wants the "tumors gone," and a team of specialists at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan has taken on the daunting task.

They do not have a gene test they can do to confirm a diagnosis but presume Hunter has a rare disease called Proteus syndrome, which causes abnormal growth of tissue, bones and skin and is, in fact, the disease Merrick had.

Preparatory Procedures

In preparation for Hunter's groundbreaking surgery, the Manhattan first-grader, who also is profoundly deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, underwent several operations during this past year. In one of the procedures, Roosevelt doctors operated on his eye socket to push back a tumor resting close to his optic nerve, threatening blindness. In another operation they built up the bone in that socket because the weight of the tumors had caused it to drop inches, and they also aligned his eyes and made a bridge for his nose that had flattened. Finally came the surgery Hunter and his family had been waiting for: the removal of the tumors and the sculpting of a face that would not stand out in a crowd. "I want to go to school, and I want my friends to say, 'Look, Hunter has his tumors out," he told his parents.

No Guides for Surgery

So earlier this month, Hunter, who breathes through a tracheotomy tube, personally helped doctors start the project -- the first operation to restore his appearance. When doctors attached the anesthesia hose to the hole in his throat, the boy reached up to help them position it. Within moments he was asleep. With only the child's face exposed, Dr. Peter Costantino, co-director of Roosevelt's Center for Cranial Base Surgery, and three of his colleagues entered the face through a cut made near the left ear. Inside they found a mass of tumor the consistency of hard jelly. It was dense and spread in a wide swath from his cheek to his ear. Like an explorer, Costantino first had to hunt for the facial nerves so he didn't damage the boy's ability to move his muscles.

"This is a challenge. None of the guides we use are present," he said to his team as he worked deliberately, using a thin stimulating device that detects nerves. When he finally found the nerve he was searching for, it was distorted and fragile. He had to remove the insulation from his tool because the tissue was so hard to penetrate. Then he asked technicians to hand him a yellow wandlike device used to burn away tissue, and he proceeded on the benign tumor, piece by tiny piece. At one point during the five-hour surgery, the team was serenaded by John Lennon's "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy" as they labored, painstakingly avoiding the nerves.

After finishing the left side of his face and sculpting a new ear for Hunter where his had been deformed, the doctors decided to schedule another surgery for the smaller tumors on the right side. Hunter's face was too swollen to determine symmetry, and they thought his body had been through enough. Costantino explained, "We wanted Hunter to have even features. We wanted everything lined up so that he looks more normal."

Long Road Ahead

Doctors say it will take many surgeries and time before they will know whether the child can get his ultimate wish. "It's hard when he's so young," Costantino said. "He'll have to grow into his face. There is still a lot to do," including rebuilding his jaw and nose. A day after the surgery Hunter's father, Eric, said his son's face, even with swelling, was half the size it had been.

"And the ear was a total surprise," Eric Cavanaugh said. "It wasn't even on the agenda. "The story of Hunter's struggle first appeared in Newsday in October 2006, and afterward the surgeons at Roosevelt reached out to help him. The doctors and hospital also picked up the costs of the procedures.

It is only in recent years that Hunter seemed bothered by the insensitivity of strangers. He has a sharp sense of humor and is obsessed with superheroes. He was invited to the opening of last year's blockbuster "Spider-Man" movie by creator Stan Lee's team and met the star, Tobey Maguire. He even received a home visit from his superhero.

"His attitude is great," his father said. "He's a rock. He is so tough. He goes through so much, and he's so upbeat." His mother, Bianca, added, "We wanted Hunter to have what everyone else does, an opportunity to walk down the street without people staring at him.

"There is hope the couple's dream for their son will happen."There is no miracle at the end of this process," Costantino explained. The disease is not fatal, but the tumors could grow back. However, Dr. Milton Waner, part of the team reconstructing Hunter's face, added there are some new medicines that can slow the tumor process, and "we can hope to give Hunter a better quality of life."

Related links
Home video of Hunter Cavanaugh Video
Hunter Cavanaugh Photos

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hope Between the Dreams

New York City Public school children and teachers enjoyed a Midwinter Recess this past week and I can tell you that it has been wonderful. This has been the first time in six years that I have enjoyed this particular break without any other educational obligations. College schedules do not mesh with the public school calendar so in the past I found myself trekking into NYC to attend class while also trying to write such and such paper and catch up on my readings.

This year I did a whole lot of nothing. I finally cracked open Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier about William Blake and the writing of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (which I adore) and have also become somewhat obsessed with Jack Johnson's new CD Sleep Through the Static.

This is the opening track and it is one that I listen to over and over again. It seems to fit my perspective on life these past few months.

Jack Johnson is the laid back, barefoot, musician who gave a voice to Curious George in the feature film. He is also an environmentally minded, earth loving father doing what he can to repair the damage we have heaped upon our little planet. What's not to love?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tips From My Mom #5

Lately I have been thinking a lot about balance.

Balance and perspective.

And as with most things in life these recurring themes have come at me from varied, unusual and seemingly unconnected sources; Dolly Parton, my mom and two children’s books I recently read titled Zen Shorts and Zen Ties by Jon J. Muth.

I have been grappling with these ideas in relation to the notion of selfishness. What does it mean to be ‘selfish’? Can we say another person is being ‘selfish’ without understanding the motives behind an action? Is it sometimes right and proper to be ‘selfish’ when it is necessary to continue one’s sense of well being?

Here are some scenerios…

I have a friend who used to work out regularly and would sometimes say that he couldn’t do such and such because he had to work out. Sometimes this would interfere with my plans and I would think “how selfish”. I figured he should be available to do as I wanted because he could work out anytime. But you know my perspective on that has changed greatly as I have gotten older. Because really, who was being selfish in that situation?

I have come to understand that taking care of ourselves and attending to the needs of our bodies and spirits is not at all selfish. If our bodies or spirits are lacking in some way, for instance either due to illness or depression, how can we then be available to others?

I read an interview with Dolly Parton this morning in which she spoke about the fact that she is not always happy but that she tries to be happy most of the time. In the article it became clear to me that although she is pushed and pulled every which way, by all kinds of folks, it is her inner strength and truth that allows her to be there for others and carry on. Dolly taking care of Dolly is not selfish, it is necessary to keep the machine running.

It is interesting that I should even have to debate this whole issue because growing up my mom was never big on laying down guilt. She was always intuitive enough to realize that her children had their own lives to live but that we would also continue to come back to home base when needed.

My mom always allowed us to be who we are. No judgements, no guilt. And she trusted that we would (and could) follow our inner Jiminy Cricket down the right path.

She understood that we needed to explore, learn, make mistakes and tend to our desires and needs. Unlike some parents she let us do just that. And through our teen years, when many children act out against their parents, we remained solid and loving towards one another.

Conversely, I have seen what can happen when individuals are not allowed to be ‘selfish’. Those perfect persons who constantly ignore their own needs in order to fulfill everyone else’s wishes usually end up paying the price in some way. They can become physically or mentally ill because they can not keep up the pace.

There must be balance; a balance between taking care of others and taking care of ourselves, a balance between meeting our responsibilities and finding time for ourselves.

It was in reading Zen Shorts and Zen Ties that this all came together for me. In simple terms these books bring the message of inner peace and looking inward. These are messages that my mom has always allowed us to live, although they were not necessarily spoken of.

I am grateful that I can begin to understand what it means to be ‘selfish’ in the very best ways so I can be there for others. I am
grateful that I can begin to understand that those who accuse and judge others are not quite there yet so I can release my desire to slap them silly and have some compassion.

And I am grateful that I have the opportunity to experience all of this, that I can question, that I can grow and that I can still shake my head in wonder.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Visit from Laura Ljungkvist

Our school librarian, Sara, was voted the best in New York City (or New York State or was it the world? I am not sure exactly but she is super).

Well, whatever the bestowment she is deserving of some positive attention and applause for providing us with a well run, well stocked library that continues to be the epicenter of our school community.

In addition to all of her day to day responsibilities she also makes it possible for guest authors/illustrators of exquisite children’s literature to visit us from time to time.

Recently she arranged a reading and book signing from Swedish-born artist Laura Ljungkvist. Laura’s books are unique in that she creates illustrations from a single continuous line that runs through all of the pages of each book. Many of her books include the words “Follow the Line” in the title and encourage children to do just that.

I was especially excited to meet her because I have been a fan of her book Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs since I first encountered it a few years ago. It is visually stunning. Vibrant clean colors, precise text and of course her signature ‘line’ all come together in a virtual feast of delight.

The evil queen is simply fabulous!

I shared my joy with Laura over Snow White but she confided with me – and now I share that with you, I hope she does not mind – that this book was a compromise with her publisher.

She prefers her other books which are original ideas rather than a reworking of a well known fairy tale. This book came about after 9/11 and in her author’s notes she writes “The completion of this book marks the beginning of a road lined with challenges and miracles”.

Don’t tell her but this one is still my favorite.

After Laura’s readings (she had two sessions with our preschool and lower elementary classes) she stayed to have lunch with our aspiring artists. I was very much impressed with the fact that she didn’t seem to want to get out of there.

She was relaxed and ‘present’ with the students. She answered all of their questions and really listened to what they had to share. It is visits like this that the children will remember.

Afterwards she was kind enough to pose for a picture with me. Because of Sara I am getting quite an notable album of photos and autographed works. I love it.

Finally Laura shared a copy of her upcoming book Follow the Line Around the World which I believe she said comes out in May.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Celebration

As I approach my 100th post (this is my 96th) I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the impetus for undertaking this little endeavor in the first place, which was to celebrate and share my journey as a teacher. And I am not alone in feeling a great joy and pride in what I honestly equate to as a ‘calling’. There are countless teachers across this country and the world who could not imagine spending their time doing anything else. Exhausted, disrespected teachers still manage to muddle through all of the political muck to find an overwhelming sense of fulfillment in helping others learn.

On Thursday, January 31, 2008 I was fortunate to celebrate with a group of dedicated professionals as they completed the rigorous 18 credit Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Certificate Program at the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University in New York City. You can learn more about the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation here.

The 28 men and women celebrating that night represented the 7th Cohort of teachers receiving scholarships to teach “Young Readers at Risk”. These are children with learning differences such as dyslexia who often fall through the cracks of the educational system. In training educators to look for and understand a child with a learning difference those teachers can in turn make a ‘difference’ in the life of a child.

This notion becomes even more touching and real when it is given a personal touch. When we read the struggles of Ennis himself, when educators share how they had previously missed an opportunity to reach a child because they did not have the necessary knowledge but have now gained it as a result of the scholarship and when we are told of the thousands of lives that have been touched as a result of this program.

Graduation ceremonies seem to breed these sorts of inspirational speeches.

And then there are the other speeches. On January 31st the ‘other’ speech was delivered by me and my friend and colleague Cayne. We are both former Cosby Scholars ourselves (I love that title), Cayne was in Cohort 1 and I was in Cohort 3. Cayne and I teach the practicum course which prepares and oversees the twice weekly tutoring sessions. We decided to present a speech that evening that was both humorous and touching with a little witty banter bouncing back and forth between us. And with the aid of Cayne’s lovely wife Vanessa, who sat through our rehearsal and provided valuable feedback (thanks Vanessa!), I think we pulled it off.

Here is the opening, written and delivered by Cayne…

I think I speak for Gary and I when I say that we would like to begin with an apology for the following speech. You see due to the current writer's strike Gary and I were forced write and prepare our own material this year.

My bits were all smiles and energy while his were informative and clever. But our main message was to send a great, big BRAVO to the graduates.

And the good news is that there will be a Cohort 9!

If you are a NYC public school teacher interested in teaching struggling readers please come to one of the open houses. You can click on the advertisement on the left to see the information more clearly.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

How Do You Stay Healthy?

Our Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in conjunction with the teachers in our dual language preschool program have joined together in an effort to raise money for some of our teachers to travel to Italy to see the Reggio Emilia schools there.

One fundraising idea involves creating cards using children's artwork. Sets of cards will be sold at our school dance this coming Friday. The cards that have been created thus far are so beautiful. Each class has been encouraged to submit drawings to be scanned and folded into 3.5" x 5" cards. For whatever reason I had not taken the time to speak with our students about this and had not collected any of their fantastic artwork.

But, this past Friday our physical education teacher, Dan, asked them to draw or write about different ways they can stay healthy. Not only has he been making sure that their bodies get the exercise they need, but he has also been teaching them healthy habits. When he brought us their artwork I immediately thought they would make an amazing packet of cards with a 'Stay Healthy' theme.

Here are the things they came up with...

Jogging -

Biking -

Doing Jumping Jacks -

Lots of Weight Lifting -

And if you lift, you too can have an arm like this -

Eating healthy foods (this guy is eating an apple) -

And my FAVORITE: Jumping on a snake! -

So, if you are interested in a set of these 'Stay Healthy' cards please let me know and I will see what I can do.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Garden of Love

Inspired by Reya I have joined the blogging community for Blog Poetry Slam. This poem by the poet and artist William Blake was published in 1794 in his masterpience Songs of Experience. It was brought to my attention by a former love. I should have known something was up.


I went to the Garden of Love.

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel wsa built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;

So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,

That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.


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