I now ask children to help me by being “world class noticers; by taking note of and collecting the wisdom that lies around them.”
—Angela Meiers, educator and author
My fingers shook and my eyes ached as I tried to print the letters of the alphabet and stay on the line, as the other kids were doing so successfully.
As she walked around the classroom, my second grade teacher, Miss Murphy, would make quiet comments about each student’s work. “Stephen is making beautiful, round o’s. I like how Sylvia is holding her pencil. What perfect, even, neat circles Nathan is making for his o’s.” Miss Murphy never commented on my work, though, and I knew that this was because my o’s were never round enough, no matter how hard I tried.
I felt bewildered during writing lessons. Everything went so fast; I couldn’t seem to slow time down enough to master and control the pencil. When I tried to coordinate my eyes with my hand movements, I would often get stomachaches and double vision.
I wondered how the other children moved so quickly. They made it look so easy! What was wrong with my o’s? My work just didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. In my mind’s eye, I could see the o’s as smooth and round; yet, on the page, each one I drew came out jerky and uneven.
Observing My Own Experience
I tried to shut out much of what I experienced in school, for it didn’t seem of any use. My wooden desk, too big for me, was uncomfortably hard and awkward to sit in. I felt lost in it, my feet barely able to touch the floor. Things and people in the room felt far away, and I longed to move and use my muscles. My stomach often hurt, and the most I could hope for was that no one would notice me.
As a left-hander in a right-hander’s world, I always felt that I was swimming against the tide. In my inner listening, I could sense Miss Murphy and the other children moving together in a rhythm all their own—one that was foreign to me. I felt myself falling behind, and tried to move more rapidly to keep up.
I still hold vividly in my memory that long-ago struggle with the pencil. As that particular second-grade lesson transpired, I suddenly began to notice myself and my anxious situation with the detachment of a kindly observer. This was a pivotal, living-dream memory that I sensed would stay with me, like a jewel in a treasure chest, for the rest of my life. Although I still felt alone and helpless in my awareness, this moment was a gift.
As each new lesson took place, I now began to experience my situation and notice the whole scene taking place before me. This ability to self-observe was my prefrontal cortex—the brain’s center of self-awareness—in action.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex holds the essence of our humanness and is an integral part of every learning experience. When we can witness our behavior and evaluate it, we can act on it and change it. Otherwise, we keep repeating the same behavior ad infinitum and never learn. These frontal lobes of the cerebrum develop simultaneously with the rest of the brain as we grow through childhood, through our teenage years, and on into adulthood. As we learn to sense, move, feel, and think for ourselves, thanks to the prefrontal cortex we’re able to notice and code our experience of these various functions.
I couldn’t know, back in Miss Murphy’s class, what I know now—that, when I picked up the pencil, I was focusing too hard on that one fragmented piece, unable to sense or feel the whole spatial context of my body and hand motions, unable to stop and think. I was still in a stressed state—withdrawing and contracting as if I were trying to become invisible in the room.
I was experiencing common stress responses: Dizziness, muscular tension, breath holding, increased heart rate, a sense of accelerated time, and, as the pupils of my eyes dilated, an inability to access peripheral vision.
As my tension increased, I remember tightening my grip on the pencil. I was seeing more and more of what stressed me—the pencil moving on the page—and experiencing less and less of myself. Everything seemed reduced to a fast moment—one with which I could never catch up. I repeatedly felt the sense of something rushing toward me—the teacher; noisy, pushy classmates; or a test—yet I could never work quickly enough to feel ready for what was coming. Years would pass before it occurred to me that I could never, ever go fast enough to get ready for learning, and that what I really needed was to slow down. My attention was too much on time and not enough on space.
Until that first moment of self-aware noticing, I had felt completely overwhelmed and unable to follow what was going on in classroom. Soon after my new experience of self-reflection, I began to examine my abilities, plan my own learning steps, and take responsibility for teaching myself. And this was only the beginning: within the next three years I would discover how to connect this noticing with my sensory processes. For instance, such things as the movement of my hands and my tactile experience as I formed letters would eventually help me with my handwriting, and there were innumerable other instances of such useful new connections.
Author’s note: Some forty years later, in the early 1990s, I developed the four-step PACE process that students in more than 80 countries use today to help them notice, experience their spatial awareness, and feel ready to learn.
Excerpted from Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, © 2006 by Paul E. Dennison.
© 2014 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
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