Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blazeman, Lou Gehrig, and Fulfilling a Dream

In fourth grade, one story that we enjoy reading is a retelling of baseball great Lou Gehrig's story from "The Luckiest Man" by David Adler. The fourth graders learn that Lou Gehrig was nicknamed "The Iron Horse" because he played 2130 consecutive baseball games over 15 years before succumbing to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which is often called Lou Gehrig's disease. We learn how upon retiring from baseball he gave a speech where he called himself, "The luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Living and accepting his fate with great dignity and grace is noteworthy to the class, but I felt it was still hard for them to get a grasp of a disease like ALS. So for the past two years I have introduced my students to another compelling story of an athletic hero who faced ALS with the same positive characteristics as Lou Gehrig. John Blais, Blazeman, was a teacher in Rhode Island who dreamed of competing in the Ironman Triathon. While training for the world famous Hawaii Ironman Triathlon he found out that he had ALS. Blazeman decided to do the race despite the disease, which was already starting to make his fingers useless and starting in on his larger muscles. He decided to go on with the 2005 Ironman and said that if he couldn't countinue running he would roll until he crossed the finish line.

Blazeman completed the race and you can see the inspiring video from the NBC show right here. Ladies get out your tissues!

The class watches this video and learns about John Blais. They also learn that an Ironman is a long race (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, and a full 26.2 mile marathon) and that they better not mess with Mr. Hansen because he has completed 5 Ironman distance triathlons himself! I also tell them how I briefly met John's dad in Rhode Island. He was handing out brochures for a race in honor of his son, so I told him my class was reading a story about Lou Gehrig and ALS. When he mentioned, through teary eyes, that his son just completed the Ironman, I remembered watching that son months earlier on TV. That is when I first decided to introduce my class to John Blais.

To show the devestation of ALS, I follow up with a video of John Blais one year later at the 2006 Hawaii Ironman. ALS had confided Blazeman to a wheelchair and he could barely stand. Another athlete had taken up Blazeman's challenge and ran the race in his place as part of a "War on ALS". In honor of Blazeman, Brian Breen "rolled" across the finish line. Blazeman died just a few months after the 2006 Triathlon was filmed.
Now whenver an Ironman Triathlons is held anywhere in the world many triathletes will roll across the finish line in Blazeman's memory and one dedicated competitor will wear his number #179.

You can see Blazeman in these videos. I have my own clip of the parts I want to show the class that I put together on my computer, but I can only find the whole Ironman race online (in 9 parts). Here are just the clips about Blazeman and Brian Breen.

The introduction to the Ironman is here. Great start... "You can learn a lot about life on the big Island of Hawaii." John Blais is revisited at about 2:45 minutes.

You can view more on John Blais and Brian Breen here at 2:30 and again at 7:30.

And then continue with the inspiring finish here:

My class learns to appreciate Lou Gehrig and his remarkable speech even more as they see the effects of ALS on John Blais. They also learn the triumph of the human spirit and as Blazeman says, "to learn to live life to the fullest." I also give a name to Blazeman's spirit when I tell the class that when life gets them down they should learn to "roll with it". Last year I also used two of my other favorite athletic stories to even further dramatize that point. They learn about Julie Moss and her crawl to the Ironman finish line in 1982. I watched this on TV in 1982 and was so inspired that I became an Ironman finisher myself within a year even though I had no prior competitive biking or swimming experience. At this point, I told the class, "if life is getting you down "crawl" if you have to, but don't quit!"

Finally, I told the class about the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens where the race leader, Vanderlei de Lima from Brazil, is tackled by a protesting fan. He later is passed twice by other competitors (they probably would have passed him anyway) before finishing as the bronze medalist. The remarkable thing with this runner was how he finished the marathon. He entered the stadium with his arms outspread soaring like an bird or an airplane fully celebrating like a happy child to the finish. He didn't give up when the unthinkable happened (being tackled and pushed off the course) but instead "soared" to the finish line. He never complained or made excuses for his finish either. So I tell my class that when life gets rough or things don't happen as they planned them to; they can "roll", "crawl", or "soar" but they should never give up. (Sometimes you even have to make a 23 mile walk home when you lock your keys in a car! I have to force myself to listen to my own messages every once in a while!)

Unfortunately I can't find an online video of this finish, but I do have it on my computer if you want to see it sometime!

Here is another great tie in with the Lou Gehrig story:

When reading about Lou Gehrig and his consecutive streak and his successor "Ironman" Cal Ripkin, who is also introduced in the Scott Foresman book, we read the full text of each man's "retirement" speeches and watch videos or listen to audio of the speeches. I also do the same with Babe Ruth's speech. Then they choose one speech (or parts of a speech) to practice and read. Finally they are recorded reading the speech. I use a Karaoke microphone I have that has special effects so that they can sound like they are reading the speech in a stadium and, if they want, the tone of their voice can be lowered so that they sound like old men giving speeches. This is a lot of fun and very motivating to the class. I was surprised that some students had even memorized the speeches before performing them!

Finally to fulfill a dream:

5 years ago I read about a software program, Visual Communicator, that would allow students to create "newsroom" quality presentations. It is program where you can import images, movies, and written material and then you can create the background behind a presenter (using the green screen) so that it looks like the person being filmed (by a video camera hooked up to the computer) is in front of the picture that is really "in" the computer (like how the TV weatherman does the weather. The script to be read is scrolled by the computer (working like a teleprompter) so that the student can read their report while being filmed. Meanwhile prior to the filming; pictures, movies, labels, music, background, and other parts are all dragged and dropped next to the words on the teleprompter where and when you want them to appear in the presentation. Really it sounds complicated but once you get it going it is simple. When it is ready a student clicks "record" on the computer and reads the speech and all the "magic" happens inside the computer. When done they click "stop". If they make a mistake they can rerecord it. When they like it they can view their "newsroom" presentation and then save it for posterity.

I bought the program 5 years ago and then bought a computer and the proper video card that is needed to run the software. I brought it in to school each day for a week to see how easy it was and my class made a "Weather Alphabet" video report. Then so it wouldn't break I left my computer at home. The school's computers are not powerful enough nor do they have the correct video card or slot to run the camera and program. The school system does not fund purchases like this anymore either. So I sat on my dream for 5 years and no presentations, reports, or broadcasts were made!

At Christmas time, I saw a company was selling refurbished computers that I thought would work. I bought one. It didn't. So I transferred all my home computer stuff to that computer and brought my home computer to school. Getting the program running proved an enigma to me. For almost two months I fiddled with it and bought new parts and fiddled some more until finally after buying a new sound card I got it working!

The first project my class is doing is the story of John Blais. We used sentences written in a vocabulary activity about John Blais to write a script, used pictures off the internet, and included one of John Blais's poems in the story. It came out to be about a 2 minute presentation. What is so fantastic is that I can walk away as students record (after practice- and boy do they practice reading to get it right!), view, and then save their presentation. Most kids are done in 5-10 minutes and everyone gets to record their own video presentation using the same script. After 5 years I was thrilled with how easy our first project was! Now I don't advise everyone to go out and start using a computer setup like this (because I don't want to troubleshoot for you!). And you may then ask, "What is so simple about all this Lou Gehrig stuff that you are doing Mr. Hansen? After all this is the 'Simply Teaching' blog and this sounds very complicated!"

Well the simple truth is the best teaching you can do is when you are enthusiatic about what you are teaching. Try to find connections with the stories your class is reading and with the other lessons that you do in school, so that you can expand on your student's learning and get them interested in "interesting things"! And then have lots of fun with it all!

Live…more than your neighbors.
Unleash yourself upon the world and go places.
Go now.
Stay out past dark and bark at the moon like the wild dog that you are.

Understand that this is not a dress rehearsal.
This is it…your life.
Take it all in.
Yes, every chance you get…come close.
And, by all means, whatever you do…get it on film.

-Jonathan Blais, aka ALS Warrior Poet

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