Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thyroid difficulties . . . and the U.S. government

I first wrote the majority of this post last October, but abandoned it when I felt it wasn't quite ready for publication.

Following my post about my encounter with the naturopath, however, I thought I should provide this as a kind of "background"--and, perhaps, as a wake-up call to those who are unaware of the issues I describe, and, finally, perhaps, as useful information for someone who is struggling with thyroid issues.
---The following text was written in October 2009---

I had my thyroid destroyed back in 1984 as a result of a hyper-hyper case of Grave's Disease. --The lab that did the tests said they had never seen thyroxine levels as high as mine; they were "off the charts."

So my doctor gave me the radioactive isotope Iodine-131 to destroy my thyroid gland . . . and a few months later I had none.

I have been taking thyroxin/thyroxine tablets ever since. For some time, now, I've been taking the "natural" stuff sold under the Armour® brand name by a company named Forest Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals (what, in just the last few days, I found out are desiccated and pulverized pig thyroid glands formed into pills). Most of the time, however, I've been taking synthesized thyroxine sold as generic levothryroxine or a branded product like Synthroid®.

What's the difference between the two? I mean, physiologically . . . for the person like me who is ingesting the stuff?

I will confess that, for me, I haven't really been able to tell the difference. But then, I haven't been all that attentive to my physical condition until the last couple of years.

For many people, however, the difference between the two concoctions is dramatic, though the majority of doctors seem to believe the difference is all in hypothyroid sufferers' heads.

Happily, only one of my doctors has actively opposed my use of the Armour® tablets. But despite his opposition, I've been able to use the Armour® product for the past seven years or so.

This last year, however, I started bumping into supply difficulties. Back in January I was told the pharmacy didn't have 120 mg tablets (the daily dose I needed at the time). . . . Happily, they "simply" gave me the equivalent in the form of two 60 mg tablets per day. No big deal.

Last time I refilled, in late May, I still had almost a month's worth of pills left when I got a three-month supply of 60 mg tablets from our insurer's mail order pharmacy. . . . Then, only a few days after I got my three-month supply, I was told I should reduce my dose to only 90 mg--1½ tablets--a day. So in mid-October, I was just coming to the end of my supply.

Meanwhile, in mid-October I had another blood test to see how my thyroxine levels are.

My doctor wanted to run with the "standard" TSH-only (thyroid stimulating hormone-only) test. I said I believed we really needed the T4 and T3 levels measured as well. (Since then I have found some interesting data on the need for all three tests.)

TSH measures what your body "thinks" it needs in the way of thyroxine. T4 and T3 measure actual thyroxine levels in the blood--and, based on tests I've been having done throughout this past year on the direction of my longevity and vitality doctor, I know that one or more of these numbers can be "out" of range while TSH is "in" range.

My doctor relented.

The tests came back: TSH and T4 levels both indicated a significant deficiency, but T3 was slightly out-of-range on the high end.

"How about bumping your dose back up?" my doctor asked.

"Sounds reasonable," I said. (I had gotten the sense, somehow, that my body was slowing down a bit.)
But what should we make of the T3? Why is that so high?

Is it that kind of anomalous/strange number that got Armour's thyroxine in trouble, here, in the last year [so that it is unavailable for purchase]?

I still have a few weeks' worth of Armour left if I take it at 120 mg/day.
Meanwhile, I asked, "Is there any 'natural' thyroxine that can/will replace Armour while they are out of production?"

I thanked him for any help he could provide.

He replied:
1. I've been in touch with my pharmacologist. She states that since Armour is an animal product, the amount of T3 and T4 will vary from batch to batch which might explain the high T3 and low T4. Synthetic products like synthroid are more consistently dosed.

2. I don't think Kaiser has any of the other brands of the natural thyroid of any kind so we might have to get you to get it elsewhere during the shortage.
Somehow, I had this feeling the pharmacologist was misinformed. I can't imagine Armour/Forest Pharmaceuticals has been able to get away with inconsistent product quality for all these years.

So I did a little research. And then some more. And then a lot more.

I'm astonished at what I have found.
  • First--not terribly astonishing, but worth noting: The pharmacist really was "blowing smoke." Armour Natural Thyroid is carefully controlled for potency and purity:
    The amount of thyroid hormone present in the thyroid gland may vary from animal to animal. To ensure that Armour Thyroid tablets are consistently potent from tablet to tablet and lot to lot, analytical tests are performed on the thyroid powder (raw material) and on the actual tablets (finished product) to measure actual T4 and T3 activity.

    Different lots of thyroid powder are mixed together and analyzed to achieve the desired ratio of T4 to T3 in each lot of tablets. This method ensures that each strength of Armour Thyroid will be consistent with the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) official standards and specifications for desiccated thyroid lot-to-lot consistency. The ratio of T4 to T3 equals 4.22:1 (4.22 parts of T4 to one part of T3).
  • Despite these statements by the manufacturer, you can still read claims such as this:
    Armour Thyroid was the only treatment for hypothyroidism for about 50 years, but it was found that the amounts of T3 and T4 varied greatly from batch to batch. Eventually, synthetic T4 (Synthroid) was being produced and widely used because it did not have similar problems of standardization in common with the naturally derived Armour Thyroid.
    And even stranger and more inaccurate information from the American Thyroid Association.

    But, as Mary Shomom notes in the Guide to Thyroid Disease, there may be good reasons for this kind of disinformation "from the top." Just follow the money--from Abbott Laboratories, maker of Synthroid, to the American Thyroid Association, for example. [Look toward the bottom of this article for the evidence.] --Or how about the payments from all the synthetic hormone manufacturers to the FDA in order to get their products approved in the early 2000s after virtually all of them were found to show "significant stability and potency problems"?
  • Armour REFORMULATED its thyroid product in the spring of 2009--changing its binders and excipients . . . and causing a bunch of problems for many patients.
  • Whether Armour thyroid is efficacious or not, it turns out there really is no source of natural thyroid in the United States as of this moment. And, it appears, the FDA may have actually outlawed--or may be in the process of outlawing--the manufacture of this product in the United States, a product that has been on the market and helping people like me for more than 100 years.

    The more I have read, the more disturbed I have become at this turn of events.
  • Despite the shortage here in the United States,
    Canada has a generic natural desiccated thyroid drug, referred to as 'Thyroid,' which is made by ERFA Drugs . . . [and s]ome of the foreign pharmacies that ship to the US may have some remaining stock of Nature-Throid, Westhroid, Armour Thyroid, or foreign brands of natural desiccated thyroid like Thyroid-S.
    It took a while, but eventually I discovered the natural thyroid preparation made by Greater Pharma of Thailand: a product that goes by the brand name Thiroyd and available in wholesale quantities at a wonderful price. I also found a Canadian source with very good prices of the ERFA Thyroid and in a wide variety of specific dosages.

    I had my doctor write me a highly "generic" prescription for natural thyroid along the lines of the following advice from the article:
    During the shortages, ask your doctor to write your prescription for desiccated thyroid as broadly as possible. For example, a prescription for 'desiccated thyroid, 1 grain' can be filled with Armour, Nature-Throid, Biotech, or a generic. But if they write 'Armour Thyroid, 60 mg' for example, you won't be able to get 'Nature-Throid.'
  • I should have learned these things years ago, but I just now discovered: the synthetic thyroxines normally prescribed by the medical profession supply only one form of thyroxine, "T4"--tetra­iodothyronine--commonly formulated as levothy­ro­xine sodium (a synthetic thyroxine molecule that contains four molecules of iodine bonded by sodium). Our bodies, however, use T4, T3 (triio­dothy­ro­nine--i.e., thyroxine with three iodine molecules), T2 (diiodothyronine--thyroxine with two iodines), T1 (monoiodothyronine), and something called cal­ci­to­nin, a hormone that participates in and/or regulates calcium loss from bone, calcium levels in the blood, and, possibly (proven in rats and monkeys; not yet demonstrated in humans), satiety.

    Not only do our bodies use all five of these hormones, when they are healthy, our bodies manufacture them. If--as happened to me via Iodine-133 therapy--your thyroid has been knocked completely out of commission, the only way you're going to get the T2, T1 and calcitonin is if you take natural thyroid. Yes, your body can convert some T4 to T3, but, I am given to understand, it cannot further break down the T3 to T2, T1, or calcitonin.
  • An article published in the February 11, 1999 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (1999;340:424-429, 469-470) reports that treatment with thyroxine [T4--the commonly prescribed synthetic levothyroxine/Synthroid hormone] plus triiodothyronine [T3--rarely prescribed by American doctors, but available under the brand name Cytomel] improved the quality of life for most hypothyroid patients. Indeed, "Among 17 scores on tests of cognitive performance and assessments of mood, 6 were better or closer to normal after treatment with thyroxine plus triiodothyronine. Similarly, among 15 . . . scales used to indicate mood and physical status, the results for 10 were significantly better after treatment with thyroxine plus triiodothyronine [i.e., T4 plus T3]."

    Of course, that is a dispassionate medical/scientific statement.

    A more partisan description comes from the StopTheThyroidMadness website:
    [I]n nearly ALL patients on T4 meds, the T4 does NOT convert into an adequate amount of T3, leaving you with symptoms that neither you OR your uninformed doctor realize are related to inadequate treatment—poor stamina compared to others, chronic low grade depression, thinning hair or outer eyebrows, feeling cold when others are warm, cholesterol problems, aches and pains, hard or small stools, easy weight gain, memory problems, foggy thinking, a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia, difficulty conceiving . . . the list is long and pathetic. In other words, healthy thyroids are NOT meant to rely solely on T4-to-T3 conversion!
  • Despite the fact that the medical profession recently tightened the definition of "normal TSH" to no more than 3.04 mU/l (they used to say "normal" went as high as 5 mU/l), a 1997 article in the British Medical Journal concluded, "Thyroid stimulating hormone concentrations above 2 mU/l are associated with an increased risk of hypothyroidism." --And again the author at ups the ante:
    Around 1973, the TSH lab test was developed. Based on a sampling of several volunteers, a so-called “normal” range was established—.5 to 5.0 (recently lowered to 3.0). But volunteers with a history of family hypothyroid were NOT excluded, leaving us with a range that leans towards being hypothyroid! In fact, the TSH RARELY corresponds to how a patient feels [i.e. to actual hypothyroid symptoms]. There is a large majority of patients who have a “normal” TSH, even in the “one” area of the range, and have a myriad of hypo symptoms. There is a complete chapter on the TSH with more information in the Stop the Thyroid Madness book.
  • Nature-Throid and Westhroid have served many people well. But the Armour shortage--together with a shortage of USP desiccated thyroid powder--has now created a shortage of these alternatives.
---End of October 2009 Text---

Yesterday, as I spoke with my naturopath, I was surprised to hear him tell me that the desiccated thyroid products are now readily available in the US.

I have to confess, the mess last year kind of "converted" me away from US suppliers. After a while, when you get hassled every step of the way here in the US, and you find that their price is somewhere around $1 per per day, the easy access and 11- or 12-cent/pill prices of overseas suppliers become pretty attractive. So I hadn't even looked at U.S. suppliers in almost a year (since last I worked on the article above).

One last note: I thought I should at least check on what I wrote last October before simply posting it.

I found the following update in's Thyroid area:
A brief status update on "Current Drug Shortages" posted at the FDA website on March 2, 2010, states that, as of February 12, 2010:

"Forest reports manufacturing issues involving the raw material and RLC reports increased demand. FDA has not ordered Forest or RLC to remove these thyroid (desiccated) tablets from the market. This has been a long term shortage and any new information will be posted as soon as it becomes available. FDA approved levothyroxine products continue to be available from multiple manufacturers."
It's good to see that the FDA felt it necessary to include the brief statement that they have not ordered Forest or RLC to remove these thyroid (desiccated) tablets from the market. This very likely reflects a concern on the part of the FDA that it not be perceived as taking action that can endanger the many thyroid patients who rely on natural thyroid drugs, and may be a response to thousands of inquiries by telephone, email and fax the FDA received from thyroid patients and practitioners regarding concerns about various FDA actions regarding natural desiccated thyroid drugs.

The FDA's statement does not address a critical issue for thyroid patients however. According to the natural desiccated drug manufacturers, the FDA has indicated that they still consider natural desiccated thyroid drugs "unapproved," and intend to call for a new drug application process for natural desiccated thyroid drugs.

This leaves us with several important questions:

  • When will the FDA requirement for new drug application for natural desiccated thyroid drugs be issued?
  • Will the FDA call for the faster (and less costly) abbreviated new drug application (ANDA) or the lengthier, costlier complete new drug application (NDA) process?
  • Will natural desiccated thyroid drugs be allowed to remain on the market during the ANDA/NDA process?

We still do not have answers to these questions, though manufacturers are still working behind the scenes with the FDA and with their own scientific experts, doing their best to ensure that natural desiccated thyroid drugs will continue to be available in sufficient supply to all patients who need them in the short term, and throughout a federally-mandated approvals process.

--Natural Desiccated Thyroid Drugs: An Update
March 2010 - - Where Are We Now?

Thorough doctor

I continue looking for help with my rheumatoid arthritis.

The other day, Sarita saw an article in The Week about studies that have shown "a link between certain pollutants, including PCBs and DDT, and conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis." Moreover, "people who'd lost 22 pounds or more in a decade had the highest levels of pollutants in their bloodstreams."

Hmmmm. I did make an effort, beginning about three years ago, to cut back and lose some weight. Indeed, by the time the rheumatoid started hitting, I had lost a good 30 pounds or so. (The day I hit 199.5, I said to myself, "So far and no further!" I'm now bouncing somewhere between 159 and 163.)

And there is the matter that Jonelle has been going to an ND (Naturopathic Doctor) in hopes of "healing up" or "strengthening up" to be able safely to bring another baby to term.

In evaluating Jonelle's present condition, the doctor discovered she is high in a number of heavy metals . . . and has been giving her certain injections to help remove them from her system. (It's called chelation.)

After reading the article in The Week, Sarita said, "I want you to go to Jonelle's doctor."

So I called the office and set up an appointment, which I kept yesterday afternoon.

Prior to the appointment, however, the doctor sent me a patient profile/health history questionnaire the likes of which I have never seen. Eight pages of fine details.

I thought: "Man! If I didn't have at least a vague idea of why he asks all these questions [except the one where he wants my Social Security #!], I might think he was massively invading my privacy."

After we met, however, I was even more impressed by the thoroughness of his interview and exam. We spent two hours together . . . and I am scheduled to go back in a week for beginning diagnosis and health improvement plan.


While I'm at it, let me share two things he said that struck me during our time together yesterday.

  1. "Let me tell you about my philosophy of health. I believe we were created to be healthy. We are supposed to be healthy. We should be able to self-heal . . . if we could only get out of our own way. So when I meet a person who is unhealthy, I ask, 'What is this person doing--or not doing--that is getting in the way?"

    He said that he believes good health is based on four legs or foundations:

    1. What we ingest--i.e., what we eat or don't eat and what we drink or don't drink.
    2. Movement or exercise.
    3. Sleep--both quantity and quality. And,
    4. What he called Interconnectedness--which includes not only social relations, but spirituality. How are we doing in relation to others (which may include God or the spirit world).
    "Take that four-legged bench over there," he said. "With four legs under it, you and I could both sit on it and it will hold us comfortably. Because it has four strong legs.

    "If I remove a leg, it will still stand. And, in fact, if I am careful, I could even sit on it and it would hold me. But if I sit in the wrong place, I'm going to collapse it.

    "And if it has only two legs? It cannot stand any longer. It will collapse.

    "So I want to know how you are doing with your four foundation pillars."
  2. We got onto the subject of thyroxin--a hormone I have had to take ever since I had my thyroid removed back in the mid-80s as a result of Grave's Disease.

    I mentioned to him some of the hassles I have faced as a result of seeking to use natural thyroxin (desiccated and processed bovine or porcine thyroid gland) rather than the synthetic variety. (Natural thyroxin contains the full complement of thyroxin variants--T4, T3, T2, T1 and calcitonin, at least, while the standard synthetic contains T4 only. There is an additional synthetic that includes T3. None for T2, T1, calcitonin, or any of the other minor fractions that may be present--and unstudied--in desiccated thyroid gland.)

    My regular doctor, for example, is convinced that synthetic is better. He really doesn't want me to be taking the natural stuff. (I had one doctor who refused to treat me if I refused to take the synthetic. My current doctor was unwilling to help me locate natural thyroxin when the FDA made it almost impossible legally to acquire it last year. Happily, though he is obviously critical of my approach, he lets me "do my thing," as it were.)

    My naturopath, yesterday, said he has found, in his practice, that 9 out of 10 patients do better on the natural thyroxin, but, for some reason, one out of 10 seems, actually, to do better on the synthetic. (Point--which I had not considered before: I ought not simply to assume natural is better.)

    But what really bothered me was what he had to say about why he believes most doctors prefer to prescribe synthetic hormones.

    He referenced John Abramson's Overdosed America as his source.

    He said that Abramson shows how the Journal of the American Medical Association has a practice (policy?) of printing only those scientific studies that are critical of the non-synthetic hormones or that show them in a bad light. "There are ten studies showing the efficacy of the natural hormones, but JAMA won't talk about them. But when it gets one study that is critical, it will publish that immediately."

    Supposing he had accurately recalled Abramson's data, and supposing Abramson is right, he concluded, "With that kind of input, you really can't criticize mainstream medical doctors for believing that natural hormones are ineffective."
And I wonder: Can't we?

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Passport to India

For some reason, I never thought about saying anything about this on my personal blog until just now.

But whether you are the parent of school-age children, or you have some other role in life that puts you in contact with children, or even if you might simply find this interesting . . . I'd like to invite you to check out My Passport to India, a "learning and giving adventure" cosponsored by Sonlight Curriculum, but put together and operated by Mission India.

Here's the original invitation letter that Sarita sent.

But you can skip that and simply jump to watch the wonderful (fun!) 1:30 introductory video. . . .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Henry Ford's $5 Day

Perhaps you, like me, have heard of Henry Ford's $5 day: how Ford more than doubled the pay of his employees--making them, by far, the highest-paid workers in America back in the 1910's.

Perhaps, too, you have heard--as I have--that he did this because he was so far-seeing and so wise that he understood that, by paying his workers such high wages, they would be in a position to purchase his cars: he was, according to this story, almost some kind of utopian.

Today I read an article that explains Ford's thinking in a way that makes a lot more sense to me.

In essence, his wage increase may have helped his workers to afford the purchase of Ford motor cars. But that benefit was secondary. The primary purpose of the wage increases was for more mundane and businesslike.
In 1913, Ford had an employee turnover rate of 380%, which required hiring 52,000 workers annually to maintain a work force of 13,600. In addition to the cost of replacing workers, productivity suffered from a 10% absentee rate, and the workers who showed up were inexperienced and commonly shirked as much as they worked.

Higher wages remedied these problems. Anxious prospects lined up in hopes of being hired by Ford, who employed only those whose personal habits indicated they would be dependable workers as determined through investigations, including home visits, by his personnel department. Ford paid for dependability, and he got it.

In 1915, Ford's turnover rate fell to 16% as productivity soared. He reduced the Model T's price by 10% each year from 1914 to 1916, and his annual profit increased to $60 million from $30 million. Ford was quoted as saying that more than doubling wages "was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made."
Read that last sentence again: Doubling wages was one of the finest cost-cutting moves Ford ever made!

Now, that doesn't mean the same kind of move would yield similar results today. But at least at that time and in those circumstances, the high wages yielded dramatic cost-cutting benefits because they generated dramatic improvements in efficiency and consistency within Ford's labor force.

Having made this key legend-breaking observation, the author of the article I have quoted goes on to make some trenchant observations about America's economy today . . . and about government economic policies. They author says that the lessons we have been taught about Ford's pay raise--that Ford was trying to increase workers' income so that they would be in a position to purchase more--is exactly backwards. But that backwards lesson is what our federal government has used to justify its economic stimulus policy decisions from the 1930s till today.
The prevailing view in the 1930s was that increasing wages . . . would increase purchasing power . . . , and therefore demand.

This view was the justification for polices that raised hourly wages, . . . strengthen[ed] labor unions, shorten[ed] workweeks, . . . restrict[ed] pay cuts, and raised prices by destroying agricultural products and reducing competition.

Unfortunately, the . . . political approach to increasing purchasing power was to reduce production, while Ford's approach was to increase production. The political approach failed because any policy that reduces the production of goods and services that people want to purchase necessarily reduces purchasing power.

This is just as true today as it was in the 1930s. Yet, almost without exception, the Obama administration's hope for economic recovery relies on the demand-side fantasy that purchasing power can be increased with policies that reduce supply by increasing production cost or destroying what has already been produced.

The "Cash for Clunkers" program required the destruction of perfectly good cars. Companies bankrupted by high production costs were bailed out with taxes on the profits of companies that kept production costs under control.

The recently passed health care legislation is poised to increase the cost of doing business in ways that are complex and uncertain. Firms are threatened with proposed legislation that would increase the cost and reduce the productivity of workers by eliminating secret ballots in union elections.

All these policies, and more, are being justified by the Obama administration, at least in part, as a way of increasing purchasing power and generating jobs.

But they are retarding the market adjustments needed to lower production costs and expand the supply of goods . . . [on] which increases in real purchasing power and real wages depend.

A distant butterfly and a subtle quake . . .

From last week's The Week.

Executive editor Francis Wilkinson wrote two brief paragraphs in which he described a cross-street relationship he developed with a female jogger on the way to work each morning over the course of a year or more.
Though we never spoke, I used to see her regularly at the start of my morning commute. Middle-aged, perhaps a few years older than me, she jogged north, against traffic. . . . Her stride was easy, with a kind of singsong quality about it, and as I walked south, on the opposite sidewalk, I would wave and smile. She routinely responded--cheeks blossoming, eyes twinkling, teeth smiling--with a sunniness that could take the chill out of the air. She was a walking--jogging--affirmation of the human race.
Then Wilkinson's schedule changed. He no longer saw her . . . until a couple of weeks ago when, once more, he was walking south while she ran north.
I saw her again. . . . She had a determined, almost grim, air about her, and her facial muscles appeared rigid. The graceful singsong was gone, replaced by a mechanistic, utilitarian motion. Tension seemed to course through her limbs. I lifted my hand to wave, but her head was fixed straight ahead; she didn’t notice. I wondered if a distant butterfly had flapped its wings, sending tremors through the life of this stranger, changing her forever. All I could do was stand and watch as the ground beneath me registered a subtle quake.
--Any distant butterflies affecting your life?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Answering a question

I was reading in Luke 13 this morning and was struck by how Jesus answered--or did he fail to answer?--a direct question. Before we get to the question, I need to give you the immediately preceding segment. I think it provides context for the question. After we've digested the context and the question, then I'd like to remark on the answer:
He said . . . , "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."
And again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened."

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"

--Luke 13:18-23a, ESV

In context, I think the question makes sense. The Jews had always been taught that they were a special people, set apart by God from everyone else. They were few. The nations were many. So what was this that Jesus was talking about that the kingdom of God would become a tree in which all the birds of the air might make their nests, or a kind of leavening that could leaven a batch of bread so large that it could make a small modern commercial bakery proud.

"So how many are really going to be saved?" someone asks. "Is it many . . . or few?

And then Jesus answers:
And he said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!' In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

--Luke 13:23b-30, ESV

What struck me: Jesus doesn't answer the question directly. In some ways, he doesn't answer it at all.

However, he urges his hearers to pay attention to the primary point: "Don't worry about how many, in general. Look to yourself! What are you doing? Where are you going? How are you getting there?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The impact of a caring teacher . . .

I glanced at the October issue of Reader's Digest that just came to our house and happened across an article that moved me very deeply. In Reader's Digest the article is titled My Mother's Gift. In the Washington Post, from which it comes, it is titled Talented and Gifted: In one year, she taught her students to see the wonders of their talents -- then and forever. It's written by a regular columnist in the Washington Post, Steve Hendrix. Steve's article reminded me of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strange. Mr. Strange ran our classroom much the way Mrs. Hendrix ran her classroom for talented and gifted fourth- and fifth-graders about 10 years later.

A big difference: Mrs. Hendrix was teaching in a small town in South Georgia; Mr. Strange was teaching sons and daughters of PhD students and university professors at Stanford University in the late 60s. Escondido Elementary school in Stanford was designed for cutting-edge teaching to help these children of well-educated parents reach their full potential. Mrs. Hendrix's school, by contrast, was unprepared to help students even imagine that college was a worthy goal. But Mrs. Hendrix was. . . .

Before I recount a bit of her story, I should probably note that as I worked on helping to found Sonlight Curriculum 15 to 20 years ago, I often had my classmates at Escondido Elementary in mind. And Mr. Strange was in my mind as well. I wanted to be as creative as Mr. Strange was and to offer students the kind of wondrous opportunity to investigate the world that he gave us. And I wanted to make sure that every Peter Hogness, Philip Scowcroft, Bruce Jaffe, Mark Coombs . . . or John Holzmann--not to mention all our other classmates, male and female, most of whom I can only recall by first name at the moment . . . --I wanted to make sure that all our modern equivalent peers would receive an education that permitted them to develop to the fulness of their potential.

As I read the testimonies of Sonlight moms (see the "Sonlight Moments" in the right sidebar of this blog), I sense that maybe Sarita and I achieved my goal.

But back to the story of Mrs. Hendrix. . . .
The kids selected for [her] class were seven fifth-graders and 14 fourth-graders, all of whom were testing at three or four years above grade level.

"They were taking the tops out of any test we could give them," recalled Patsy Knotts, the [school district]'s curriculum director at the time. "They were bored stiff."

It was just as the gifted education movement was coming into vogue among progressive educators, and Knotts persuaded her superintendent to give it try. At first, not all parents were enthusiastic about pulling their kids out of the regular classroom. One father told Knotts he didn't want his son labeled an egghead. But the kids themselves knew they were already marked -- by their fellow students. They were geeks decades before geeks ruled the economy, culture and eyewear design.

"We were all pretty odd by South Georgia standards," said Frank Lowrey, at that time a fourth-grader. "We didn't hunt or fish. We liked 'Star Trek.' It wasn't always comfortable in other classrooms. We didn't always fit in."

Suddenly, they found themselves in a room where reading wasn't mocked, where being creative, outlandish, even effete didn't risk a punch from a recess tough.

"It was a sanctuary," Christopher said. "Before that, I was hiding out. She looked us each in the eye and knew us as individuals."

During the first month of school, Mrs. Hendrix visited each of her new students at home. She wanted to meet their parents and brace them for the pell-mell year to follow. But mostly she wanted to give the students a chance to see her off that front-of-the-class pedestal.

Mrs. Kipp served cherry pie. While the grown-ups talked, Neill and his new teacher played a game of chess on the couch. At the end of the game and the visit, she looked steadily at Neill and said, "I can tell you're a very patient person."

"It was just a casual compliment," he said. "But I can still picture her saying it. Ever since that moment, I have thought of myself as a patient person." . . .
It was this kind of attention to detail and personal involvement with her students that set Mrs. Hendrix apart from all the other teachers . . . and that made her input in these children's lives memorable even today, 34 years later.
One of the first big class projects, Mrs. Hendrix announced, would be a play. They were going to stage Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." Neill and a fifth-grader named Becky Thurman would direct. Everyone would work on the set. Mothers, of course, would sew the costumes.

The production encompassed almost all their subjects. Building scenery would reveal geometry. Decorating them was art. Decoding the dense English was reading. Dickens's portrayals of class and poverty were portals to social studies. . . .

Brad Ewing, then a fourth-grader, was the town crier in Scrooge's London. That was fine, but what he really got into was his second job, running the spotlight.

"I really loved electronics and taking things apart," Brad said, "and that was not something I had been allowed to do in school much."

Despite his interest in things electronic, Brad was no obvious prodigy. "Based on my grades and test scores, most guidance counselors would say anything but math or engineering."

But Mrs. Hendrix invited him to bring in some of his home-wired gizmos. She let Brad and Frank rig the class bulletin board with working lights. For a lesson in arithmetic, Brad assembled a kind of abacus out of colored blocks, astounding his teacher.

"She said, 'One day, I'm going to be able to say that I knew the person who invented these really cool things,'" Brad recalled. "I became kind of determined to make that come true."

His mother remembers it, too.

"I picked him up one day, and he said, 'I'm going to be an electrical engineer,'" June Ewing said. "He came home happy almost every day from that class. He had so much fun learning, and that has stayed with him."

For Cynthia Counts, it was the mock court.
Forgive me. I'd love to quote more. I'd love to point out how Mrs. Hendrix's use of Dickens' play is a perfect example of the kind of thing I know many masterful homeschoolers do. But I'm going to stop quoting the article at this point and let you read the original.

For the most moving parts, I particularly recommend Page 5 in the online version of the article.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Back after the better part of a month away . . .

Two weeks in the western Mediterranean, visiting Lisbon, Portugal; Tangier, Morocco; Malaga, Spain (and the Alhambra); Ibeza, Spain; Alicante, Spain (and Seville); Barcelona, Spain; St. Tropez, France; Cannes, France (and a couple of perfumers in Grasse, France); Monte Carlo, Monaco; Portofino, Italy; and, finally, Livorno--and Pisa and Lucca--Italy!

Some wonderful memories.

Then a few days at home followed by a board meeting and a nine-day Family Fun Week (including burial of Gracie Lou's body).

And I'm rarin' to go.

Hopefully, I can take some time here or there to begin blogging again. Maybe I can share some of the highlights (including a few photos) from our Mediterranean trip and, even, from our Family Fun Week.

Meanwhile, I "just" wanted to say "hi" . . . and share a little piece of wonderment.

Take a look at this 30-photo essay of "Awesome College Labs."

Anything look interesting to you?