Book Snap #126

Title: What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Authors: Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey

Date Read: February 17, 2023

Two snaps!

Sometimes, just reframing the question can make all the difference.

Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey collaborate in this conversational narrative that explores trauma through another lens by taking the often asked question– what’s wrong with you?– and flipping it to: what happened to you? This is not a question of semantics, but rather a thoughtful examination of the repercussions of trauma on how people perceive others and how they subsequently behave to protect themselves.

All experience is sequentially processed in our brains: moving from a primitive and reactive brainstem, which is organized to have us feel before we get to the cortex where we think. How we are loved and cared for in our early years is predictive of how we will behave in the face of trauma triggering situations later in life– nurturing parents regulate their baby back into balance, while a baby who is neglected, abused, or fearful will be in a constant state of flight or fright– the early trauma maps a response. Hence the question: what happened to you?– that we may better understand responses that seem aberrant or dysfunctional.

Predictably, and unfortunately, the behaviors that are adaptive for children living in violent, trauma-permeated environments becomes maladaptive in other environments (especially school). “The hyper-vigilance of the Alert state is mistaken for ADHD, the resistance and defiance of Alarm and Fear get labeled as oppositional defiant disorder; flight behavior gets them suspended from school; fight behavior gets them charged with assault. The pervasive misunderstanding of trauma-related behavior has a profound effect on our educational, mental health and juvenile justice systems” (p.92).

Beyond trauma-senstitive pedagogy and psychologocal treatment, most readers will connect personally with the chapter in which Perry and Winfrey explain that our stress-responses are depleted from constantly monitoring the sensory noise of the modern world, that our relationships are recklessly impoverished, that we have significantly less empathy for others, and, despite the marketing that suggests otherwise– we remain painfully disconnected. Disconnection is a disease. We need to look up from our phones, engage in thoughtful discussions and debates over dinner with our friends– we need to connect. We can be discouraged and overwhelmed with the many problems in our society– but Perry and Winfrey offer hope for a trauma-sensitive world where kind, capable, creative people can make it safer and more human– one where there is resilience, healing and the connection we so desperately need.

Oprah Winfrey spent close to twenty-five years interviewing guests and experts about stress, trauma, adversity and resilience– often also sharing her own stories of abuse and neglect. In 2007, she founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa, leaning heavily of the expertise of Dr. Perry to foster a trauma-sensitive and developmentally aware education setting for her pupils. Dr. Perry is a child psychologist and neuroscientist, the principal of the Neurosequential Network, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. Together, they offer the anecdotes of their combined guests, students, and patients with such generous empathy and understanding that all readers reconsider asking what’s wrong with you, and begin to ask: what happened to you? Changing the question will make you a more benevolent person. Highly recommend!

Book Snap #124

Title: Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worse

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

Date Read: February 10, 2023

Two snaps!

Snapshot of the book

Not gonna lie, I am mostly excited to review this one because it took some intellectual grit to complete it– and I feel a certain sense of accomplishment. Behave is a dense, multi-layered, in-depth, panoramic exploration of a thesis: that we don’t hate violence — we hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, and violence in the wrong context. Yet, we engage in conversations riddled with military metaphors (rally the troops; shoot down my ideas); our sports teams’ names celebrate violence (Warriors, Vikings); we build theologies around violence; elect leaders who excel at it; and even selectively mate with champions of human combat. When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.

Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. In Behave, he takes us through a scientific exploration of the biology of violence, aggression and competition; helping the reader better understand our behaviours and the impulses behind them. His approach is three-fold: First, you can’t understand things like violence, aggression and competition without biology. But, second, and just as important: you can’t understand these compulsions relying solely on biology. And finally, our biology, our psychology, and our culture are utterly intertwined.

Behave sets out to help us understand our behaviour in an interdisciplinary way. And so, in painstaking detail and with perfunctory wit (especially in his often sardonic footnotes– not to be missed!) Sapolsky posits a singular behaviour in chapter one and moves through chapters exploring: what happened one second before (the neurobiology); seconds to minutes before (the sensory stimuli); hours to days before (hormones at work); days to months before (the role of neural plasticity); during adolescence (which he gives the tongue-in-cheek title: “Dude, where’s my frontal cortex?); back to the crib and the womb (an overview of childhood brain development, the importance of mothers, and our environment); back to when you were just a fertilised egg (all those genes); and centuries to millennia before (exploring anthropology and culture). He further considers the evolution of our behaviour; our propensity to classify groups as Us versus Them; our use of hierarchies to decide on relationships, obedience and resistance; our morality and “doing the right thing”; our capacity for empathy; the metaphors we kill by; free will and punishment; and even war and peace.

The neurobiology is impressive (and comes complete with an appended primer entitled Neuroscience 101)– but the fact remains that the brain is not where the behaviour actually begins, rather it is the final pathway resulting from all that came before it — and that is what the book sets to unravel.

Brains don’t operate in vacuums. Answering the question of why we behave the way we do is best summed up with: It’s complicated. “Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else” (p. 674). It might seem complicated to actually fix anything– but we have to try. And if we can come to a better understanding of the interconnectedness of it all, we might just have a chance. Because, as Sapolsky so beautifully writes: “You don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate” (p. 675).

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

As a high-school teacher nothing has been more fundamentally core to understanding the kids I teach than knowing that the adolescent brain does not function like an adult brain. In Chapter six, “Adolescence: or, Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?” Sapolsky underscores this fact, explaining that the final brain region to fully mature is the frontal cortex, not going fully online until the mid twenties (p.154).

Adolescence is more than a cultural construct, it is an actual developmental gap, influenced by cognition, emotional regulation, risk taking, peers, social acceptance and exclusion, empathy, sympathy and moral reasoning– it takes a while for the brain to “get it right.” Because of the brain’s plasticity, we learn, change and adapt. “Adult life is filled with consequential forks in the road where the right thing is definitely harder. Navigating these successfully is the portfolio of the frontal cortex, and developing the ability to do this right thing in each context requires profound shaping experience” (p.173. )This is the part of the brain that develops because of what life throws at us– we are profoundly sculpted by experience. Most importantly: “If by adolescence limbic, autonomic, and endocrine systems are going full blast while the frontal cortex is still working out the assembly instructions, we’ve just explained why adolescents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self-destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world changing.” (p.155).

Snapshot of the book in my life

No book could ask you more eloquently, with more science, and with such thoughtful examples and stories– to understand that our behaviour must be carefully examined through multiple lenses. A snapshot of behaviour inevitably cuts out the panorama of its depth. Be leery of your compulsion to make snap judgments. Slow that amygdaloid functioning and assume that people are doing doing the best that they can with the resources they have: it will change your relationships. It’s important to examine the myriad of reasons why we behave the way we do, so that we might develop compassion for ourselves, and others.

Book Snap #119

Title: Dopamine: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

Author: Anna Lembke, M.D.

Date Read: November 25, 2022

One snap.

Snapshot of the book

One of my favourtite podcasts is Armchair Expert. Dax Shepard, and his co-host Monica Padman, interviewed Stanford professor and psychologist Anna Lembke, and Dax made reference to Lembke’s book in many, many, subsequent interviews; so many that I was compelled to check it out. The premise is pretty straightforward: we live in a society full of intense stimuli– drugs, food, gambling, shopping, texting, Instagramming…many of which are also conveniently administered via the hypodermic needle of our own smartphones– a portable device full of digital dopamine— and we are out of balance.

Dopamine ia a neurotransmitter in the human brain involved in reward processing. High dopamine subsatnces trigger the release of dopamine in our brain’s reward pathway. Our brain processes pleasure and pain both in the same place: like opposite sides of a teeter-totter than needs to stay in balance. When you experience a craving (more chocolate, a cigarette, to double-down)– that moment of wanting is your brain’s pleasure balance tipped to the side of pain. Too much pleasure leads to pain.

Lembke uses the stories of several of her own patients to illustrate how she worked with them through their addictions to find a healthy balance. She even cops to her own addiction to soft porn novels. It was a good read, but not a great read. I feel like Dax led me astray, and he doesn’t do that often.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

I could see using Chapter Two: “Running From Pain” alongside Neal and Jarod Schusterman’s fiction novel, Roxy. This chapter covers the ways in which the paradigm that some amount of pain is healthy (boosting immune and cardiovascular response and expiditing healing) has shifted to a massive prescribing of feel-good pills. In addition to widespread use of antidepressants, perscriptions for stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin) have doubled, including in children younger than five years old. Prescriptions for sedatives (Xanax, Klonopin, Valium) are also on the rise, perhaps to compensate for all the stimulants taken. In 2012, enough Opiods were prescribed for every American to have their own bottle of pills. Beyond our running from pain- we can’t stand even minor discomfort and so we are constantly seeking to distract ourselves from the present, constantly needing to be entertained (hello, Smartphone). This non-fiction reading would give students relevant background to make sense of the drugs presented as characters in Roxy.

Snapshot of the book in my life

Water, exercise, and fresh air– is my go to prescription for much of what ails me. Lembke backs me up: “…the evidence is is indisputable: Exercise has a more profound and sustained positive effect on mood, anxiety, cogniton, energy, and sleep than any pill I can prescribe.” (p.152). Take your dog for walk. Leave your stress on a yoga mat. And drink lots of water.

Book Snap #113: The Anthropocene Reviewed

My last post was a year ago. That seems likely, and also sort of sad. It was a long, drawn-out, painful year.

We went back to school hopeful: cheeks shining from summer’s kiss– masks firmly affixed over mouth and nose. It paled in comparison to the promise of the new year: a jumble of in-person learning, quarantines, lock-downs, sickness, and even a strike. My desire to read dwindled in lock step with my depleted energy and my To Be Read pile lay dormant and dust-covered. (1 star).

I, optomisitically, agreed to participate in a book relay hosted by our district literacy leads, but more often had to pass the novel onward at deadline before making it completely to the end. I repeatedly fell in bed exhausted after reading Isaac his bedtime stories, (I could review and recommend a multitude of Gordon Korman’s novels for fourth-graders!) neglecting the books calling to me from my own night stand. However, one of the books offered in the relay was John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I just purchased a copy, because, like many of the relay titles, I didn’t get to finish before the deadline. But what I did read, I loved! And thinking about it again inspired me to write this post, a year since my last.

When it first arrived in school mail, I had been setting my students up to write reviews of their own. We had been exploring all kinds of mentor texts: we read reviews of songs and albums; video games; movies and TV shows; sports plays; and books. This has always been one of my favourite pieces to write with my students. Two reviews that remain my past-all-time-favourites include one that analysed Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dazed and Confused. The essay begins with the perfect hook: All right, all right, all right. And second, the review of Steph Curry’s basketball acumen where I first discovered what a G.O.A.T was; and the criteria with which to evalute one. Green cracked open yet another realm of choice and I couldn’t have been more excited to share these ideas with my students.

I had noticed the title in passing (it remained on best-seller lists and was promininetly displayed in many book-selling venues), and wondered: “what the heck is an Anthropocene?” Green explains: “The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geological age, in which humans have profoundly shaped and reshaped the planet and its biodiversity” (p.6). Green imparts that having been employed for several years at Booklist, reviewing hundreds of books, he became well-versed in the style and format of a review (they specifically hold a tight word count of 175 words or less.) He then started to notice that “everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for review” (p.7). Indeed. I often seek out reviews of: restaurants (hello, Yelp!); vacation ideas and accommodations (hmmm, TripAdvisor?)… A small gripe: 1 star for the review in the Fodor’s guide of Japan (print edition from forever ago when I was there) that recommended (and convinced my genki companion and I) to “slide down” the volcanic ash of Mt. Fuji, which turned out to be terrible, awful, dreadful advice. But I digress. Of course, Facebook and Twitter have become platforms for all kinds of verciferous reviews — of products, services, businesses, opinions, politics, behaviour– everyone is a reviewer and everything is a subject for review!

Green walks through what he knew and what he discovered about review writing, which was powerful in helping my students create strong reviews themselves. When he reviewed books, “I” was never in the review: How many times have students also been told to use this disinterested observer stance? Too many. And the result is wooden writing. It was his wife who {thoughtfully} surmised: “…in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only particpants… when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir— here’s what my expereince was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop” (p.8). And so, amidst a global pandemic, Green wrote about songs, comets, scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, Diet Dr. Pepper, teddy bears, air-conditioning, the Internet, sunsets, CNN, whispering, Kentucky Bluegrass, Googling strangers, and so much more of what the anthropocene has to offer. Each essay embodies Green’s quirky vibe, lots of thoughtful details and compelling support, and a final 5-star rating. I highly reccommend you listen to my favourite essay (from what I have had the opportunity to read so far), “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” on John Green’s podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed; my students and I read this together to inspire our writing. They wrote thoughtful and passionate reviews on all kinds of artifacts from the anthropocene, including: soccer shoes, french fries, napping, roadtrip-playlists, movie scenes, and more!

I offer you my own Anthropocene-inspired reviews using the tight Booklist word count! (A fun quick write exercise for students (or playful writers) too):

This Morning. I was fully prepared to do Teddy’s morning walk: I had a podcast cued up and earbuds charged; a tank top and joggers, left conveniently, on the floor next to my bed– ready to wear collection. But, Teddy-the-adorable-fluffy-personal-trainer is in high demand! He trotted off with Ben before I could get my feet on the floor. Awake, and rested, and presented with new possibilities for the morning, I hopped on my yoga mat. Delicious stretch! Deep, centering breaths. Letting (more) go. Enjoyed a hot coffee with my Starbucks Almond and Oat Non-Diary Caramel Macchiato Liquid Coffee Enhancer (that name is so gob smackingly pretentious, but it’s so delicious!). Got the Wordle in three tries: impressive! Overall, I’d give this morning a solid 4 and half stars (for the missed the walk in the woods!)

Beach vacation. Sand flats, flip-flops, tide is high, salt water, time off, barefoot. Northumberland Strait, lobster rolls, read and fetch, Tomohawks, bonfires, freckles. Marshmallows, peaceful place, reading books, swimming. Breathe the air! Sea glass, local brews (Tatabrew & Leo), poker-face, Isaac’s omlettes, hose your feet, Jerk chicken, tired doggy, lighthouse! Birthday lunch, old friends, haskap berries, sweet earth, doodle duo. Beach vacay? 5 stars! (Writer’s craft move: all evidence, unexplained: A list of what makes a perfect 5!)

Walks with Teddy. It has been scorching lately– 39 degrees Celcius (literally, in the shade.) That calls for a leisurely walk through the woods so as not to overheat Teddy (or me, for that matter), but he is only minimally slowed by heat. Slow walks are for flip-flops instead of sneakers– I like barefoot, or as close to it, as much as possible, all summer. I listen to a podcast (Arm Chair Expert is my clear favourite), moving slowly and feeling part of the conversation. I breathe more deeply; inhaling fresh air, earth, flowers. When coaxed to (finally) slow down, Teddy gets busy sniffing it all in too! Walking with Ted is always 5 stars, although accumulated evidence may vary by season, weather, or location.

Lunch with a special friend. I needed to connect with someone special in person yesterday, because texting doesn’t give hugs, and sometimes you really need them, and I have really missed hugging, and it was truly lovely. The day sizzled but we were cool ladies in sundresses (love an excuse to get a little more dressed up on a summer day!) the waitress complimented us as we arrived. We had a nice umbrella-ed table at The Lighthouse, with a view of the Wolastoq, enjoyed a Tickle Fight and savoured every last morsel of lunch; watermelon salad and flatbreads. We shared recommendations for documentaries to watch and podcasts to listen to. We connected, we talked, we hugged. A blistering hot 5 stars.

Book Snap #102

Title: Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work

Author: Brene Brown

Date Read: Daring Educator Faculty Book Club, May 2021

Two (very loud) snaps.

Brene Brown has been accompanying me on my walks, in my earbuds, via Spotify, within her two amazing podcasts, Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us. I have been thoroughly enjoying the interviews and conversations. This led me to apply for a grant and launch a faculty book study for #daringeducators. Myself and 28 colleagues read, discussed, and bonded over the reading and weekly work of Dare to Lead. It was exactly what I needed in May of this year. I am grateful for our shared experience, and the amazing co-workers who committed to it.

Divided into four parts: rumbling with vulnerablity; living into our values; braving trust; and learning to rise– Brown shares two decades of research and experiences inside hundreds of organizations, to give a practical, actionable book on what makes a daring leader.

She defines a leader as: “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential” (Brown, p.4).

The heart of daring leadership?

1. You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. Embrace the suck.

2. Self-awareness and self-love matter. Who we are is how we lead.

3. Courage is contagious. To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the expectation, and armor is not necessary or rewarded.

Through the work, I defined my two values (she insists you must narrow down to only two) to: balance and learning. These are the values that define me. If I am at my best, I am learning and I am also in balance. These values also provide a filter to make hard decisions: am I leaning into my values? I lean into balancing work, play, and parenthood. When I must, I evoke Walt Whitman’s quote, to remind myself to lean into my value to learn: “Be curious, not judgemental.” Seen also in one of my favourite Ted Lasso clips, an Apple TV series that should not be missed. You want feel good entertainment? Ted Lasso is your man.

I’m ready to rumble (with vulnerability and courage), and so are my colleagues!

“Tell me more— what are you thinking?” and respect his truth as a full truth, not just an off version of my truth.” (Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.)