"Life, Animated" author Ron Suskind had message for teachers

Superintendent Maureen Lynch was thrilled to be able to host a best-selling author and father with a strong message to make a special presentation to staff on their opening day.

“Ron Suskind has such a moving story that has really captivated the nation,” Superintendent Lynch said. “I wanted to start the year off with something special for teachers and staff, and I knew his presentation would support the mission of Whittier Tech and further motivate and inspire teachers as we begin this new year.”

As part of their professional development workshops on Aug. 28th, approximately 150 teachers filled the school’s auditorium to hear from Suskind, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist.

For nearly two hours, Suskind shared his approach to education, which he embraced after he and his wife, Cornelia, learned their 3-year-old son, Owen, had regressive autism. Their story was shared with viewers all over the country through the documentary, “Life Animated,” which was nominated for an Academy Award following its release in 2016.

With Owen’s diagnosis, the Suskinds learned that their son’s developmental functions, like his ability to speak, were slipping away. At 3 years old, Owen had learned hundreds of words, but his vocabulary was soon stripped down to just one: juice. Doctors delivered devastating news -- that about half of children with this diagnosis never speak again.

The growing boy spent most of his days watching Disney movies, and after years of silence, began talking to his parents and older brother, Walter, using quotes from the films he so adored.

Relying on the context of the movies, the Suskinds learned how to meaningfully communicate with their son. They had figured out his passion and began using it as a pathway for education. Ron and Cornelia used “101 Dalmatians” as a lesson in dog walking, and Owen learned to read through the movies’ credits.

“Kids are learning through their own thing,” Suskind told Whittier teachers. “Use what they love. Help them help themselves. Help them nourish themselves.”

The word “education,” Suskind told teachers, should be replaced with the term “survival,” or “hope,” because those words speak more truly to its meaning. Public schools open their doors to any and every student, and vocational technical schools, like Whittier, give students an outlet to learn and grow both inside and outside the building.

Owen also became fascinated with sidekicks -- from Flounder and Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid,” to Baloo of “The Jungle Book” -- because they’re the characters who help the heroes reach their goal. By doing so, he realized, they find the hero within themselves.
While on the way to Whittier, Suskind spoke to Owen on the phone, sharing his plans to visit with teachers that morning.

“Teachers, they find their inner heroes every morning when the bell rings,” Owen said.
“Right,” Suskind confirmed.
 

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