Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A slice of Pumpkin Pi

Yesterday felt like a Thursday, minus the "Grey's Anatomy." With Thanksgiving on Thursday, we in public education reap the benefits of having a few days off from school, I mean work. While most business establishments get Thursday off, and possibly Friday, students and teachers get the day off before Thanksgiving, kind of like a "pre-vacation," or a day to relax and rest up before the big day of R&R (and eating) the following day. OR, a day to hit the "Blowout Day Before Thanksgiving Sale" at Kohl's. Not a bad deal, I have to admit.

That means that today, a Tuesday, will feel like a Friday, minus the fact that we won't be able to don our "causal Friday" denim. Believe it or not, there are some teachers who actually complain about this! I say, "wear khaki today, denim the next six." Regardless, the spirit and mindset of everyone at school today is going to be that of "no work, all play." As I will attempt to proceed to teach a new lesson, khaki pants and all, the students will invariably, incredulously ask, "You're going to assign us homework over Thanksgiving?!?!" Oh, I love to hear this. There are SOOOO many delicious ways I can answer that, assuming I acknowledge it at all. Here are some ways you can turn their disbelief into mirthful disappointment.
  • Of course I'm not. I'm assigning it today. What you don't finish by tonight, you can finish your first day back next Monday. In fact, I insist you don't do it over the break, especially at the dinner table on Thursday.
  • Without math homework, you wouldn't be able to properly give thanks. Do you realize how many people around the world are starving for knowledge and thirsting for the opportunity to learn higher-level math skills???
  • You're about to go 6 days without seeing me. I've got to give you something by which to remember me!
  • Yes
  • What did you expect me to give you? Social Studies homework?
  • You're right. Some people travel away from home for the holiday. Perhaps we should call it "away-from-school work."
  • Don't worry. I'm a professional. I know what I'm doing.
  • In the spirit of abundance and plenitude, not only do you have homework, but it will consist of 100 problems. Go ahead and gorge yourself on math.
The list goes on and on. The students know me well enough by now that I think they ask the question just to get the reaction out of me. But I always answer matter-of-factly then quickly proceed with the math at hand (it doesn't teach itself, does it?) All in all, though, it's great fun and and awesome responsibiliy to shape and alter students' expectations and habits. I don't think anyone in MY classes really walk in expecting a "free" day, even though they utter the question, "Can we have a free day today?" It's just their way of acknowledging what OTHER, less-fortunate students might be doing on that given day. It's their way of modestly recognizing that more IS expected of them, that they ARE fortunate to have a instructor who is so passionate and focused on delivering the curriculum appropriately. They say things like that in good humor because that's the climate I've created in the classroom.

Deep down, though, they know that comments like that really are nothing but jokes with great punchlines, and that, come Thursday, they have so much to give thanks for, including copious amounts of math homework.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Physical Therapy Redux

This week, after two weeks of being left to my own regiment of leg lifts, heel slides, and quad sets, I began physical therapy again. With so many bad experiences in the past on three different occasions raging from being unimpressed to being downright insulted, I was again reluctant to start a three-session-per-week, 4 to 8 week commitment. As always, I went in with open mind but guarded trust. It would all come down, as it always does, to the people involved.

Tuesday morning, after waking at 4:00am in anticipation of my first PT visit, I arrived 10 minutes early for my 7:45am scheduled initial consultation. I was so early, I got a parking spot right by the front door of the facility. As I reached for the handle to enter out of the morning cold, the door was locked. Not a good start. After a quick call to my wife verifying that I was at the correct place on the correct day at the correct time, I limped around in the blistering, cold wind to the back entrance. It was open! "How bizarre," I thought. "They really only want clever, resourceful patients who are resolute and tenaciously determined about their recovery to come to this place. Patients with reassuring, comforting wives." Luckily for me, I met the qualifications and I entered the building with confusion, apprehension, and hope.

As I signed it at the vacant desk in the totally empty, wide-open room, I saw an attendant way down the hall unlocking the front door. I could see my car beyond her. "Dang! If only I was on time, I wouldn't have had to walk so far," I thought. Oh well, being early has always been a character flaw of mine. As I wondered if I was going to be billed for the extra "therapy" I had to go through just walking around the building to get to an open door, I heard a female's voice say, "You must be the early bird." Her tone was pleasant enough, but I almost felt insulted, like I wasn't really supposed to be there and that they were being put out. "I'm Kevin Korpi, and it's not really that early for me," I said in the most cheerful defensive tone I could muster.

It turns out that she really was a very friendly person, the admissions officer. She offered me some coffee and a magazine as I waited for my therapist to arrive at 8:00am. I had already had a whole pot that morning, so I accepted the magazine and just a single cup of coffee. Monica, my therapist, shortly arrived and carefully, methodically, and thoroughly assessed my flexibility, balance, range of motion, strength, and pain tolerance. As a person who appreciates people who are professionals who take pride in their work, especially with a kind heart and good sense of humor (who doesn't?), I slowly let my guard down and began to think that this time it would work out.

She made very simple adjustments to all the exercises I was already doing in order to further isolate muscles to make the exercises more effective, from body positioning to simple reordering of the sequence of exercises. I felt a tremendous improvement immediately. Who ever knew that leg lifts could be so, so . . . . uplifting!!! The hour went by quickly, and soon I was talking to the friendly, professional, good-humored receptionist sipping another cup of coffee scheduling my subsequent appointments for the next 4 weeks. She even printed out my appointments for me on a calendar print-out, showing the exact date, day of the week, and time, three very essential pieces of information. I could easily tell at a glance when I was supposed to be where (not that I was any more clear on which door to use.) After my last experience, I was just so impressed with the whole, friendly, logical transaction.

Since then, I've been back twice, and have only become more impressed with the facilities and equipment available, the staff, but especially my therapist. She really knows what she's doing. Not that my other therapists were insensitive, but Monica really seems to care whether I not I get better and back to normal. Others in the past seem like they were just going through motions while I went through mine, watching the clock instead of watching the stopwatch. I have to ask so few questions because she volunteers so much good information regularly. As a result, I have more confidence in her, which means I have more confidence in myself and my ability to make a full recovery. Who knew I could like someone who does nothing but inflict pain on me--when she kneads my quad muscles, it's like torture!! Good thing she reminds me to breathe.

I still have a long, long way to go, but I'm making great progress everyday now with the sessions and the office and the improved home exercises I'm doing. Why just today, I improved from a maximum of a 72 degree leg bend to a 92 degree bend! Sure it wore me out and was very painful doing the squat exercise, and I know for sure tomorrow morning I will have lost a lot of that gained flexibility, but that's OK.

This is good pain for once, and the harder I work, especially under the guidance of someone I finally trust and respect, the quicker I'll be back to my old self: cliff diving, running marathons, and jumping off monkey bars!!

Just kidding. No more marathons.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What time is it?????

Growing up in school, we had our homeroom classes where attendance was taken, report cards were given out, and the pledge of allegiance was recited. There was no grade given in homeroom, nor was anything really taught. It was simply a short block of time during the day in which the requisite administrative tasks of the day were carried out. This is why we as students loved homeroom--we didn't have to do anything. It wasn't "milk" time, it wasn't "nap" time, and it wasn't even recess. It was just a place where we had our "cubby hole" and kept our big chief tablet and crayons.

As we got older and progressed through the sequence of grade levels, homeroom disappeared about the same time it became unnecessary to keep a careful list of which students preferred white milk or chocolate during the break. Eventually, we pledged allegiance in 1st period, whether it was our math class or gym. We got our report cards during social studies (unless they were mailed home) and "cubby holes" became lockers that were difficult to open even with the correct combination.

But WHY did such a logical, effective concept as homeroom ever go away? I don't think is was to make the students happy. Likely, it was because as students get older, especially in groups of 20 or more, they become increasingly difficult to control in an environment where there is nothing to do with no grade attached to it. Also, the shift in curriculum gradually sways from character education and teaching social norms to actual academics, and getting rid of homeroom means more time for students to spend in the classroom learning readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic (but not spelin'.) Makes sense to me.

Well, the past few years, our high school has brought the homeroom concept to teenagers and young adults, clever disguised as "Unicorn Time," or "UT," as the Aggies are loathe to call it. Originally structured as a 20 minute block of time in the morning to take care of all administrative tasks, which included and were limited to announcements and handing out progress reports, activities that absorbed only a paltry 30% of the allotted time (32% if you also take into account taking attendance), many teachers were left with 15 minutes daily with a room full of kids where we were encouraged and verbally rallied to do something "constructive" with our students. We teachers had a blank check to do anything we wanted for 1 hour and 15 minutes a week with our students (could we even call them that?) Frantically searching websites and books for "babysitting activities," some teachers came up with some great time-filling activities. Many did not.

Over time, many suggestions were made, and some even mandated as to what to do with that block of time: peer tutoring, study hall, TAKS remediation, watch Sportscenter, and "heads-up 7-up." Everything worked for a while, but it also quickly grew old for teachers and students alike. Everyone found themselves eagerly looking forward to report card day, just so there would be something to do. You've never seen so many students and teachers so excited when the class ring salesmen is on campus giving short presentations during "UT" time (yes, people call it "UT" time, which is short for "Unicorn Time time.") Additionally, it seemed like really good ideas and uses for that time were never in place from day one, but rather experimental ideas came and went throughout the year, each with the fervent energy of the anticipation of the best and final solution. These things, too, came and went as fast as a Texas winter.

In my UT class, I have always gone out my way to be engaging and entertaining (which is why I make such an excellent baby sitter and fun dad.) Regardless of the current stipulated mandate (currently, it is the "Drop Everything And Read" or D.E.A.R. initiative, whereby every students reads for 15 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday) I have always tried to teach my UT kids something new each and everyday, whether it was a cool math trick or fact, something from current events, sharing a good poem, looking at famous artwork on the internet (at least the ones not blocked by the district's internet filter--sorry "Venus De Milo," tell "David" hi if you see him.) Doing this not only helps the time go by faster, but it helps us develop a mutual respect for each other. In essence, it makes them my students and not just my subjects. When the time actually does come to "reel them in" and make them read silently for 15 minutes, or watch TAKS lessons on the closed-circuit television, it's much easier to get them to do this without having to resort to verbal abuse and idle threats.

Right now, I'm giving out "fake" grades at the end of the D.E.A.R. sessions, awarding 100s to students who stayed on task the whole time, and 200s to anyone who was actually reading and not just staring quietly at pages while there mind is at recess.

I just look forward to the day when the D.R.E.A.M. initiative goes into effect, then everyone will be Dropping Reading & Everything (idleness, boredom, horseplay, . . . .) And "Mathing", or at least feigning it. With an Acronym like that, it's sure to work.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lunch Break

As long as I've been teaching, I've skipped lunch during the school day. That means for the last 10 years, I've watched countless students scurry off to the cafeteria carrying their brown bags on a mission to consume and digest vital nutrients needed for their bodies to function properly. At times, I've even unflinchingly endured other students and teachers chowing down right in front of me. At the risk of sounding inhuman or perhaps superhuman (Captain Nihilist, Commander Abstemious, or Mr. Fast . . . ) I've even turned down free, delicious, edible food from others, even the complementary hot dogs and catfish served up by the school's administration on "Teacher Appreciation Day."

What seems almost more incredulous to friends and colleagues who partake in the more-regular consumption of victual vittles, is that I also skip breakfast! With only a pot (or two) of coffee each morning and an occasional package (or three) of Skittles candy, I have been able to make it on my feet all day long without replenishing my expended energy in the form of comestible comida.

"How do you do that?" people ask as crumbs from their sandwich fly out of their mouth.

"Don't you get hungry?" they inquire as they unwrap a candy bar.

"That's not good for you?" they retort as they polish off their diet soda, bag of chips, and aforementioned candy bar.

"Your strange!" they conclude as they misuse the word 'your.'

My response to all these comments are always the same: clever and witty, spoken confidently and loud enough to drown out the sound of my grumbling belly.

"I do it by not eating."

"Yes, I get hungry, like I get older: slowly and unnoticeably, until . . . BOOM . . . it's dinner time and now I'm starving and 24 hours older."

"If it's not good for me, why am I soooooooooo good after all these years?"

"Yes, I'm strange, but I'm no stranger to proper grammar."

Responding in this way has always hushed those "eating" people in much the same way sticking a piece of undercooked chicken in their mouth does: they get that funny look on their face and run out of the room trying to find the nearest place to upchuck. It's also an effective way to insulate myself from the true hunger that I often feel while appearing to be strong, virulent, and satiated.

Not eating originally began out of a lack of prioritizing it. From my earliest days of teaching, I'd arise very early, sip my coffee, then head out the door to the classroom. Eating breakfast or making a lunch for later seemed to disrupt the quiet simpleness of my mornings, besides, I was still have asleep and too tired to me that productive in the kitchen at that hour of the morning. I got used to going without during the day. In fact, if I DID try to eat a morsel here or there on occasion, I found it was counterproductive to my teaching. As the blood flowed to my stomach, I left my brain, and I found myself more interested in taking a nap than taking a square root. A sleeping teacher does not set a good example for cognizant, mathematical industry.

Anyone who looked at me would never guess that I skipped two meals during the weekdays. I wasn't frail and emaciated, but just the opposite. At times, I ballooned up to 240 pounds (in 2004 when I became idle with my FIRST knee infection.) Needless to say, I'd make up for lost nutrition once a day: from after school until bed time. On weekends, I'd get on the eating schedule of my family: breakfast, lunch, dinner, with snacks in between. My body's metabolism was strained and warped, but it got used to it. When I began running, I'd continue the strange habit of skipping breakfast and lunch only to run each afternoon with nothing in my stomach. "Was I supposed to feel this light-headed when I ran?" "Is it normal to nearly faint with each step?" I figured I was getting extra lean by burning my reserves.

I actually never felt as bad as my hyperbolic comments above allude to. It worked for me . . . .

Recently, however, with my new bout of knee problems, infections, kidney problems, anemia, and 24-hour IV infusions, my energy level is very low, fragile, and unpredictable. Each evening, I seem to "crash" earlier and earlier. With daylight savings time ending (or starting?) recently, it gets darker very early now, but I still manage to "hit the sack" before dark. This means around 5:00 pm, I am so worn out, I don't even feel like hobbling to the bathroom to do the bathroom thing. With a PICC line on my left bicep and an exposed surgical wound still on my right knee, I cannot take showers, so bathing with left arm and weakened, atrophied, skinny, unbendable right leg high the air is such an arduous effort that I'm likely to drown in 5 inches of water simply because I'm too weak to tread water (or sit up!)

Consequently, for the past two weeks now, my wonderfully supportive wonderful wife has been making me . . . . get this . . . . a LUNCH to take to school. At first, I was reluctant to eat it, not wanting to break my routine and risk a soporific afternoon, but my low blood sugar, low red-blood cell and hemoglobin count physiologically dictated that I EAT, lest I become a mathematical martyr on the alter of a document camera at the front of the room. The taste and sensation of food upon my tounge in my classroom slowly went from feeling taboo and dirty to allowable and enjoyable. "I could get used to teaching with cheesy fingers and Dorito breath," I thought!!! Especially since the nourishment helped carry me through the afternoon, whereby I could confidently say that the square root of 9 is plus or minus 3. Without the nutrients and energy of cheese flavored triangular tortilla snacks (and salads, turkey sandwiches, pickles, carrots, cheddar cheese wedges, and lots of Gatorade), I might have only had the energy to declare the positive square root, or worse yet, make a more egregious error that would find its way into the notes of my pupils, whereby they would memorize false information as being factual, which could potentially lead to embarrassing moments for them somewhere down the line on a game show . . .

To make a long story short, I'm eating lunch now. I'm still skipping breakfast, but at least I'm a member of the brown baggers on campus. Once I'm all better, it is going to be a hard habit to break again, but by then, my wife might be tired of making my lunch for me and the problem will take care of itself.

Gotta go! I've got some crunching to do, and I don't mean numbers.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

One small, slow step at a time

It has been about three weeks since I've blogged. So much has happen in that time that I haven't really realized that I've been neglecting this for so long. First of all, the last blog was dated Monday, October 27th. At that time, I had had 4 surgeries and was looking forward to getting out of the hospital. Well, it wasn't until the following Monday, November 3, and TWO MORE SURGERIES, that I finally was released to go home, a frustrating 4-hour discharge period whereby nobody except my wife and I knew what I was supposed to do when we got home. That made a grand total of 11 days of laying in the hospital on that last visit, and 18 days total spanning three different visits. As for surgeries, my punch card now has 6 holes in it, all within a 5 week period. If you count the three on the same knee from my ACL/MRSA bout 4 years ago, that means only one more to go, then the next one's free.

Since I've been out, I've been back at school, starting the very next Tuesday after I got out. Although this went against nearly everyone's advice (I even had to coax my doctor into writing my "back to school" note), it was the right thing to do. Seeing the students again, talking to them, and seeing the forlorn, mathematically destitute look on their faces, I NEEDED to be their to deliver the math. With my leg elevated on the desk and my continuous 24-hour IV infusion bottle furtively laced beneath my clothing, I gave math lessons from the relative comfort of my desk, a position that forced me to twist my torso uncomfortably at times, but one that was incomparably comfortable to the 4-inch plastic mattress of the hospital bed.

With regular visits to surgeons, infectious disease doctors, and back to the hospital for blood work every 4-5 days, I'm staying busy just making sure I'm healing. The infection is still there, but it appears that my body and the strong antibiotics are sufficient to eventually eradicate it altogether without the aid of another surgery. If I look carefully enough, I can see progress daily as my knee looks more like a knee and less like a balloon. Walking is still very painful and deliberate. Although I'm without crutches or cane (making me feel 30 years younger), I've got a noticeable limp and can't win any races. In fact, the other evening, I was walking outside of Hastings with my kids, as fast as I could go, and an elderly couple in their late 70's strolled right passed me as if I was standing still.

My range of motion is the biggest object of my solicitude. Try as I may, I cannot bend my leg to even 90 degrees (pi/2 radians.) Actually, I don't even come close. At best, call the angle between the back side of my upper and lower leg 120 degrees (2pi/3 rads.) I can't make a full rotation of the pedals on my therapy bike, nor can I walk down stairs without putting both feet on each tread. Getting my pants on and getting into the car take much effort and time, but at least I'm driving myself this week, which frees up my wife's schedule. As for driving, it IS difficult for me to switch from accelerator to brake and back again, and working the brake with my left foot is like brushing my teeth with my left hand--jerky and awkward. Oh well, who needs to brake anyway??? I manage, but I have to lift my entire body out of the driver's seat a bit to switch pedals. I figure it's good real-time physical therapy . . . which brings me to something else.

Upon discharge, the surgeon said I could try doing PT on my own, which I have been doing, but it has been a slow painful process, especially since my knee is still swollen. At the follow-up visit last Wednesday (they finally removed the stitches that had been in there itching for 12 days--he had to dig into my skin to get to them!!!), it was determined that I needed professional intervention for PT. I start next week. This time, despite the extra money and logistical burden, I'm willingly going with open arms and a stiff, immobile leg. If they can get me back to where I want to be--running, jumping, dancing---or just able to walk down stairs one tread at a time, it will be worth it. It wouldn't hurt to be able to beat the romantically strolling elderly in a foot race either.

So I'll continue doing everything I've been doing with increased effort and with more deliberation than before, appreciating all the little things I previously took for granted, making small strides in my recovery. With my 24-7 IV infusions scheduled to terminate on December 14th, I'll likely continue to be anemic until that day, getting worn out just from dressing myself, and being totally exhausted at the end of the day (which for me has been around 5:00 pm.) Trying to find the right balance between rest and activity is a tough thing to do, especially for a restless, ambitious, Adult ADD guy like me who has difficulty sleeping, and not just because every time I turn over, I lay on top of my IV infusion bottle.