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Storytelling – raising awareness of IBD

Hi Everyone,

I am veering slightly off path for this post to honour and raise awareness for Crohns and Colitis Awareness Week (Dec 1 -7th). My husband Blair suffers from Crohns Disease (CD), a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of the GI tract. It causes all sorts of symptoms, but is primarily associated with GI issues (using the bathroom A LOT) and the accompanying symptoms of weight loss, fatigue and malnutrition, to name a few. For this post, I want to contribute to the IBD community by telling my husbands story in hopes that this invisible and debilitating disease can be better understood.

In the summer of 2014, 4 months before the birth of our first child, I stumbled upon Blair writhing in pain in our spare bedroom. It was one of those moments that you can remember like it was yesterday. As a man, Blair is known for fighting through pain and sickness (a symptom of being conditioned as a stoic boy in our society), so the state he was in was really worrisome. I rushed him to the hospital, suspecting appendicitis.

When tests came back negative, we started into the very frustrating process of a CD diagnosis; more testing and more waiting. In that period of waiting, Blair lost 30 pounds. Eventually, after a couple of months, he came home upset and told me the news; again, another moment I feel I could live in right now. I was sitting on our small beige couch in our Toronto home and Blair was sitting across from me in his work clothes. I really had no idea what we were talking about – what was Crohn’s Disease? It sounded bad, and it was.

At this time, Blair worked a finance job in downtown Toronto and commuted to work during these first few hard years of learning to manage his IBD. This is when we really realized the invisibility of the disease; Blair would often ride the subway home at night, hunched over in pain in the crowded group, and no one would think to offer him a seat; how would they know?! It’s invisible. When I was pregnant, someone always offered me their seat on the subway, and I didn’t really need it.

Over the next two years, Blair would go on and off many different drugs to try to manage his symptoms. The worst of the bunch for him was prednisone, which caused his face to swell up, his moods to yo-yo and his head to ache; and it really didn’t help his CD much in the end. As all of this was happening, Blair became a father. After the birth of our second child 2 years later, he was experiencing a flare up and had to leave the hospital room and sleep in the car as he was feeling so terrible. I didn’t mind, because I knew how bad it must have been to have to sleep in a car after the birth of your child. This was definitely a low point.

Thankfully, Blair’s employer at the time was one of those hard to come by sensitive Bay Street men, plus, his brother had CD. I remember Blair coming home saying his boss gave him a bear hug on a day when he wasn’t doing that well and shed a little tear for him. He also told him to go home and stay there as long as he needed. This display of male camaraderie and open emotion was special on multiple levels. I don’t think Blair’s boss would have had the same level of empathy or understanding had his own brother not suffered from the condition. This is why raising awareness is so important; this interaction could have been much different.

Unfortunately, not every employer has recognized Blair’s struggles with IBD, and it has contributed to some pretty stressful times for us as he has tried to navigate managing his CD and working a professional job. At our stage of life as young professionals, this is one of the most important reasons for raising awareness about IBD; to help employers understand how debilitating this condition can be. Trust me when I say, Blair wishes he could be productive at work every day during a flare up but it is humanly impossible at times, if only because he needs to spend most of the day in the bathroom. During the first week of school this year, Blair landed in the hospital because he lost so much fluid during a flare up and needed intravenous nutrition. Work wasn’t even something he could think about in these few days it lasted.

When our youngest child turned 1, we decided to leave the city and move to the Kawartha Lakes, where I am from. We would have the help of my mother, and live in the country, free from commuting on public transit and the hustle of Toronto living. Blair’s CD was not the primary driver of us choosing this different way of living, but it was definitely a factor in our decision-making process.

These past couple of years have been better for us. Blair has started taking an intravenous drug every 6 weeks that does a pretty good job of controlling his CD symptoms. The only issue is that it lowers his immunity considerably, so he can’t venture out too far in a global pandemic. Work-from-home options are actually really beneficial for people with IBD , though, and I hope those who have the good fortune to WFH get this option when the pandemic abates.

The silver lining of IBD might be the resilience and gratitude that comes with good health. When Blair is feeling really well, we are all grateful. Even our small children recognize when daddy is feeling good. CD adds layers to Blair’s identity and helps him to feel empathy for others on a level that many can’t understand. I will never pretend to understand what someone with IBD goes through, but I too have developed a new level of empathy for those living with chronic diseases. Please check in on someone you know with IBD; most of the time, they just need someone to listen.

Happy holidays and good health to all,

L.

Our path to personal wellbeing in 2020: Insights & offerings

Hello Everyone,

As the world shifts into what will inevitably be a challenging winter, I have been thinking a great deal about personal wellbeing and self-care for myself, my students, and my children. The advice we get from well-meaning health professionals is that maintaining our fitness and healthy eating practises is essential to our wellbeing in 2020. It is something we can control and it can provide some inner peace when the rest of the world is in chaos. While I agree with this, I believe the path is more complex than simply adopting these good practices.

I was inspired to write this post because of the pressure I have been feeling to maintain my pre-pandemic health practices when often I have just wanted to curl up on the couch with brownies and shut out the year 2020. I have begun to readjust my thinking surrounding fitness and have come to some personal conclusions I will share in this post. I will also offer some academic insights in hopes that this will help you (or your students) in some small way as you continue on your own journey to good health in these challenging times.

Fitness can serve you in different ways at different points in your life

Over the course of 2020, my fitness habits have fluctuated dramatically. In March, I was so wound up I developed an onerous fitness regime in an attempt to release some anxiety and come to grips with the uncertainty that was engulfing our lives. I am sure I’m not alone there. It wasn’t exactly within my health limits to do this much cardiovascular activity; my back and ankles were aching and I found the increased stress on my circulatory system wasn’t great because I was already in a fairly constant state of ‘fight or flight’. As time wore on and we all adjusted to a new normal, how I moved my body changed as well. I focused on Yoga and pilates and moving in a slower, more methodical way; perhaps I needed the centering. At another time, I did nothing at all; I just baked and put on 10 pounds.

What I found hard through all of this was releasing judgement of myself. I was yearning for a neutrality and an approach that revolved around curiosity as opposed to the discipline of my body. When I was sedentary for those few months, I felt I needed an answer as to why I was not vigorously exercising; ‘I must be too exhausted, parenting is all consuming, I need comfort food to cope, I’ll get back on track soon;” these were all statements that were on replay in my head. It was exhausting in an already exhausting year. I couldn’t help but think, why can’t I just be with what is?

The bigger picture behind self-monitoring the body

As a wellbeing research nerd, I inevitably turn to academia to find answers. There is a large body of research that revolves around this concept of monitoring the body and the subsequent negative self-talk that ensues. Grounded in neoliberal studies, researchers have found time and again that our need to self-regulate eating and fitness practices are intimately intertwined with neoliberal agendas to control the body; that is, powerful but invisible governmental practices that ask of citizens to take full responsibility for their own health (it makes healthcare less expensive that way). Neoliberal discourses place the individual under self-surveillance through draw[ing] on neoliberal notions of individualism that position the person as primarily responsible for changing their lifestyle via range of disciplinary measures and control techniques (Campos, 2004; Gard & Wright, 2001; Beausoleil, 2009) .

With this logic, I am unable to be curious about my own fitness (or lack-thereof) because I am constantly bombarded with messages that it is my duty to keep moving and keep eating well; popular culture reinforces this message and shows me what the ‘healthy’ woman should look like. The body I maintain and the practices I undertake are specific and gendered; slight, less body fat, a diet that promotes productivity and allows me to thrive at home and work. No where, in this narrative, have I thought about the joy of movement, the taste and pleasure of eating good food, or the way that fitness will serve me at different times in my life. Nowhere, have I evaluated the level of burn out experienced from a work-from-home lifestyle combined with rigorous fitness regimes, and there is something very wrong with this.

Applying this thinking to teenage wellbeing

This yo-yo fitness cycle I found myself in this year was eye opening in many ways. It took me back to my teenage years when body perception and awareness were at an all-time high and I suffered confidence issues. We know many of our young people have these feelings of self-doubt, and that self-monitoring really picks up in the teenage years. Friends, social media and advertising further reinforce the concept of individual responsibility to look a certain way; a narrow and constantly changing version of ‘health’ and beauty ranging from the ‘waif,’ made famous by Kate Moss in the ’90s, to the curvy shape of the infamous Kardashian sisters today. It’s hard to keep up and especially hard as our young people immerse themselves even deeper into their online worlds this year.

We can help our young people break this cycle by promoting the simple joys of movement and eating. We can encourage them to get outside and forest bath, to connect with what feels good and to give them vast choice in how they move their bodies. When joy and pleasure becomes the primary focus, a curiosity about how one moves emerges; a young person may find that they actually despise running but love skiing, that Paleo makes them feel weak, but plant-based gives them life; they will eat that brownie and savour it, without guilt and it will contribute to their overall wellbeing that day; burn-out culture will get called out because it doesn’t feel good to be productive ALL the time. You can see the dialogue shift in important and impactful ways that our youth desperately need for their wellbeing, especially this year.

Health and wellbeing are social justice issues

It is not lost on me that anything I have stated above is completely rooted in privilege; privilege to move my body in the ways I want to and for my society to allow that; the very good luck of having the time and resources to buy and prepare healthy food, to run, to stretch; the able-body to allow me to feel sore after I run and to bake and type this post; the space and proper ventilation in the places I live and work to not get repeatedly ill and continue to move.

I would be remiss here if I did not mention the staggering and heart-breaking statistics of COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and the connection to health; the CDC explicitly states that “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” Primarily, the social determinants of health (socioeconomic status, access to education, health care access, etc.) have played a major role in determining the victims of COVID-19; Black and Hispanic communities have been especially hard hit.

These groups, statistically, often live in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food exists far outside of the neighbourhood. The area where I taught in Toronto, for example, was a food desert, and families were forced to take several buses and a subway ride to find healthy and affordable food; a real risk in the current pandemic, in regular times, inconvenient and rarely doable. Counter this with the stress from working several jobs to try to pay the bills and lack of time for physical activity and healthy eating and the results have been devastating; we have all watched this unfold.

The path to our personal wellbeing is multifaceted, complex and steeped in circulating discourses about how we should live and behave in our bodies. Not everyone has the same access to be ‘well’ and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this heart-breaking fact on a devastating stage. As we work against competing ideals of health, I wish for you (and me) to make space, without judgement, to find joy and to find the practices that give you the most life. Fill your body with those things, then give to the communities that are trying to do the same. Approach your body with curiosity and gratitude for what it can do for you; marvel at what it can achieve and honour it.

Lessons Learned from Catharine Parr Traill on how to persevere as a woman

Please note that a version of the article appeared in the Star on Monday, Sept 28, 2020.

Navigating the Pandemic as a woman: Lessons Learned from Catherine Parr Traill

My family recently purchased the home of famous Canadian pioneer and author, Catharine Parr Traill. My fascination with “Katie” began the moment I saw the place. The giant maples told stories, as did the cozy house and the old iron fireplace that sits in the yard. We now boil maple syrup in that fireplace in the spring as she did. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen from us nearly one million mothers, fathers and grandparents. I have channelled anxiety born of these times by reaching back to learn how others, such as Catharine, coped with such immense loss; the lessons offered and how resilience was practiced. 

My fascination with Catharine began when I learned about her unwavering commitment to writing. Letters she wrote home to Britain bristled with complaints about men who failed to fairly consider her writing. She faced misogyny at every turn while she wrote by candlelight as her family slept upstairs; this after another back-breaking day of the manual labour incumbent upon all women at the time. I remind myself of the challenges Catharine faced when, over 150 years later, there are still women wearing many hats. The life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is instructive, with the many impactful feats she accomplished – all while a wife and mother – in tearing down misogynistic barriers for women that remain, tragically, so ingrained in our civil society. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Too many women have put their livelihoods and dreams on hold to care for their family in lockdown. A staggering percentage of women have lost work altogether in what has been called a ‘shecession’ (New York Times, May, 2020). Many women were forced to quit their jobs due to burnout caused by an inability to manage the impossible task of parenting, homeschooling, and working. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Catharine Parr Traill tell us that women occupy as complicated a space now as 150 years ago. Both women invite us to consider that female aspirations are important; not just to women, but to all of society, and for our next generation. They remind us women should always be afforded the right to have a choice in their pursuits; and that we have come this far on the shoulders of giants. 

So, how do women persevere when the world seems as dark and impossible? Again, we can turn to Catharine.

Catharine found beauty in the natural world and in the written word. She trained herself to become a gifted botanist and writer. She wrote through the raising, often alone, of nine children. She wrote when her house burned, the family relocated, her farm failed, and through the death of two children and her husband. She continued to write when she eventually settled in the Lakefield home, where I write this article.

Catharine openly expressed gratitude in her life. Gratitude in a time of hardship has been identified as one of the great coping mechanisms that helps to build resilience. We must afford ourselves permission to feel fear, anxiety, and sadness, as Catharine did, but we can add gratitude. Having a daily gratitude practice settles our physiological stress response, builds community and connection, and helps us to feel empathy (Harper, 2020). Catharine’s gratitude for new friends, the rugged Canadian wilderness, and her family, was a driving force in not just her success as a botanist and writer but in her survival. 

Autumn has always gifted me renewed energy. The air feels clean and carries with it a sense of new beginnings. I cuddle my children closer and I feel grateful. As I marvel at the riot of colour offered by the giant maples in Catharine’s yard, I feel her strength. I feel her determination, her optimism, and her sense of gratitude that reminds me of the wonderful, perpetual circle of regeneration and rebirth.

Special thanks to John Boyko and Tom Milburn for edits.

Wellbeing & self-actualization – the future of education

 

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Hello Everyone,

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what September will look like in schools and I am certain you are doing the same. With the help of Micheal Fullan and his book, Nuance,  I have gone a bit deeper in my thinking about the role of education in our society and what that role should be in the future. The world as we know it has changed, and so too will education; this is an inescapable reality, and perhaps it will be a good thing.

This post will discuss some of the key concepts from Nuance and will offer an application of these concepts to student wellbeing next year. Ensuring student wellbeing in our schools will be vital work; I would go so far as to say that student wellbeing will be just as important as the pedagogy we deliver in the 2020/2021 school year.

At first, I was taken aback by Fullan’s thinking about the state of the world. I found it a bit discouraging. He painted a future of humanity as one “fraught with unknowns, complexities, and catastrophic danger signs, and … we can no longer depend on our natural evolutionary forces to save the day” (Fullan, 2019, p. 102). The skeptical optimist in me thought this stance a bit alarmist, but as I finished the book and as COVID hit, it seemed Fullan had a magic ball that allowed him a glimpse into the future, or maybe just years of careful observation and research.

Fullan considers the most important components of education to be:

  1. Helping students understand the context of their lives
  2. empowering students to create social change and solve big problems that will  increase well-being
  3. Teaching students to embrace difference and get along with others
  4. providing skill development, as well as opportunities for joy, beauty, play and playfulness (my favourite)

When I read these goals I was struck by 1.) how bang on they were, and 2.) how an  education should be so much more than just traditional subject learning. The world we will send our student’s into is going to be very complex and they need an education of the whole person if they are to thrive and be successful. This is especially true for reintroducing students into school after almost 6 months away. We would be doing our students a major disservice if we just dove straight back into curriculum without also providing ample opportunities for play, joy, connection and unpacking some of the important social justice issues we are currently faced with.

Fullan’s approach to achieving these important educational goals is deeply rooted in a form of social justice education. With respect to our current educational reality, the magic here is that this approach to pedagogy is one that can be used  to get at citizenship and wellbeing simultaneously. Fullan calls this approach ‘deep learning;’ or that “learning that sticks with you for the rest of your life” (p. 107). It focuses on the 6C’s as learning goals: character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Typically, in small group settings, students are co-creators of knowledge and work together to solve big problems that have “personal meaning for themselves and the world” (p. 107); I would say it has similarities to the Harkness approach with a more specific focus. When this deep learning is actualized, finding one’s niche, being creative, fulfilling oneself, helping humanity, rectifying wrongs and doing something about the future become part of the ‘natural curriculum’ (Fullan, 2019, p. 108).

The Connection to Wellbeing: This deep learning pedagogy gets at student wellbeing on a visceral level – it is something far more nuanced than the commodified wellbeing culture we can often find ourselves (and our students) grappling with today. Monitoring, tracking and buying wellbeing is an easy trap to fall into, but it is far from what our students need, especially next year. So, some important questions to ask ourselves and our schools are:

  • What does wellbeing mean to us?
  • How do we define it? What are the distinguishing features of wellbeing that we want our students to walk away with in the face of an uncertain world?
  • What matters most when it comes to how we guide our students towards riding the waves of a chaotic world next year?

Fullan would probably tell you (and I would agree) that student wellbeing lives in deep learning; in deep connections to citizenship (and being a change agent for injustices), having opportunities to explore and develop one’s character, and a chance to be creative and ignite a light that may otherwise stay dark in some of our students – this light ignites a ‘positive contagion’ in that student who then links up with others, and it spreads (in a good way).

All of this checks out with psychology. If you recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as educators, we have a duty to meet our students physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs. Deep learning gets at that last bit on the pyramid; one’s self-actualization. That magic in a person’s life when they discover who they are, their talents, their potential, their purpose. How great for one’s wellbeing to learn about oneself at this level in school. This is very close to the WHO’s definition; “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  I think we have to sit back and ask ourselves if we are really doing this work, and how we can if we’re not.

maslows

Image source: cruxfit.com

The Wellbeing Practice: In addition to all of the health care services, COVID19 education (and de-stigmatizing), and student tracking we will need to do as our duty to students and their wellbeing next year (or those seriously struggling with their mental health), deep learning and connection is really the long term goal. Here are a couple of examples of how it may look.

In the classroom: Fullan posits that “there are few things worse than finishing school at any level and not knowing who you are” (p. 108). At my school, we dive deeply into an exploration of character strengths both inside and outside of the classroom. Most of our students could tell you their top 5 VIA character strengths, though I would say we have work to do at teaching them how to go deeper and apply these strengths to their everyday life, but this takes some time. Every teacher at our school has some training in positive psychology (see a previous post for a background on this approach) and how to embed it in their classrooms; this helps students learn who they are, at their core. It is a great start in their journey of self-exploration, and has potential to be so much more as it continues to evolve. The careers half credit in Ontario is a great place to start this learning on a deeper level in class; I wish it existed when I was in high school!

In the Community: We know from research that having purpose contributes to wellbeing, and is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy in the form of self-actualization. Finding out who you are, and then using this knowledge to become a change agent is a powerful approach to ensuring we feel our life has meaning. I have already thought about the tutoring programs our students might do next year for kids who may not be learning every day if ‘a love of learning’ is one of their top strengths. You can see how this begins to knit together in lovely and powerful ways that can not only contribute to wellbeing, but also help others.

With respect to tackling widespread inequalities, Fullan reminds that the strictures of inequality are deep rooted; it will take years, for example, to unlearn the systemic racism we have been blind to for much of our lives. But, schools are the places to do this work and deep learning is the way forward (p. 108). I find it a serendipitous twist of fate that a global and racial pandemic have collided in the same year and a way forward might be helping our young people be the change agents the world needs and also a tool to protect their wellbeing.

I would love to hear your thoughts about the way forward with student wellbeing in school next year!

Keep well,

L.