The Body Electric
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Rondeau took a course on self-rescue, and has since become very active with the Appalachian Mountain Club. "I guess I wanted to kayak again to get close to my memories of John, and I've found it to be a very powerful experience. There are times when the grief is just overwhelming. But going back to those memories has ultimately allowed me to go forward," she says.

She was always a good teacher—she was honored with UNH Manchester's Excellence in Teaching Award two months before the accident—but Rondeau feels that her experience has made her a better one. Although she has always believed that the process of learning is the most important lesson one can teach, this philosophy has deepened immeasurably as a result of her research on how the brain works, how identity is shaped by memory and how emotion is tied to our notion of self.

"Emotion is just as important as cognition in learning," she asserts. "For example, I needed to learn to kayak again because I needed connection with someone I lost. Learning that about myself helped me learn about how other people learn. I really feel fortunate to have been stopped in my tracks as an adult and forced to remember what learning is all about."

To think about thinking is memory in the act of self-creation, causing a new dendritic shape to form inside the brain's circuitry. To ponder the workings of the nervous system... is to think about the geography of our psyche. How do we get from a simple, universal electrical signal to a rich conceptual world of imagination, association, and intellect that seems to flow seamlessly as one stream of continual experience? How does such translation and integration occur? All that's known is this: there is no central processor, no single computer. Nothing that simple. Millions of neurons process information simultaneously and in parallel, not linearly, but the actual chemistry and electrical properties of that integrative process are still being mapped.

Rondeau's classrooms are highly interactive, communal and reflective: students frequently work together in groups. For example, they might be given questions to answer on a research topic, pooling their resources and coming up with answers together. Or they might be given excerpts from four different pieces of writing and asked to answer questions about them, doing research together and presenting their answers to the class.

"The reflective part comes in when I ask them to answer questions about the role they played in the group," Rondeau explains. "They need to describe what their strengths and weaknesses are, what kind of learning environment they do best in. I really see English 401 (freshman writing) as preparation for everything else they will come across in college, and I get to see people at their roughest. I concentrate on self-reflection so much because I want them to become empowered to make decisions about how they are going to learn."

In her mapping exercise, for example, she likes to point out that everything we write is somehow connected to ourselves, even if it is a research paper. "I know that my writing is fueled by my interaction with my past, even if the writing isn't about the accident in particular. I want my students to see that what they're doing in learning is a reflection of themselves, not something from outside. In any given classroom, they are the text."

Personally, Rondeau's experiences have made her very sensitive to other people's stories. "My story has gotten a lot of press," she says, "but it's really not that unusual. It's the same story as everyone else's story. It's about loss, challenge and acceptance. I'm not the hero here—this is life." She has recently begun a doctoral program in education at UNH. Ultimately, she would like to train doctoral students to be effective teachers, training that has not traditionally been part of Ph.D. programs. "It will be a challenge," she acknowledges thoughtfully. And then she smiles. "But then again, it's an adventure." ~

Anne Downey is a free-lance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine.

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