Tucsonan Miriam Furst has been teaching in the field of gifted education for more than 30 years. She’s still at it, researching stimulating activities that illustrate concepts she’s trying to convey. But instead of K-8 or college students, students in Furst’s sharp mind classes are residents at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.
If a balloon pops, it breaks, she demonstrates on a recent Tuesday morning at Handmaker. Then a different experiment — if you put a sticky substance such as glue, honey or tape over the balloon and prick it, it doesn’t break. This physical example shows that doing something differently can have an unexpected result. Breaking physical patterns can stimulate dendrites, the branched projections that help neurons transmit electrochemicals in the brain, contributing to more creativity, explains Furst. “The balloon trick isn’t just a trick. It has something to do with real life.”
What sticky situations do you find yourself in? she asks, making the activity more personal. Group members chime in: traffic gridlock, loneliness, remembering names or something you were supposed to do but forgot. “Some people take those sticky situations and blow them out of proportion, becoming more withdrawn or complaining. That’s all they see,” says Furst in a gentle voice, offering techniques to change individual reactions. Ask a friend to listen to your problems. Apologize if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Find more friends and socialize more. Point out the pluses in your life, she suggests, adding, “Our brains are searching for more answers. A chair may be a combination of elements we call a chair but we learn to sit on a chair. A pencil is a piece of wood and lead. We can scratch our backs with it or use it to write.”
Furst, who is 73, uses word games and tells stories to make her points. More than 60 years ago, a man took his dog for a walk in a field of thistles. He picked one of the burrs off his dog and examined it. The average person would throw a thistle burr away. “This is a true story,” she told the group. “This man broke functional fixedness [a traditional way of doing something, or a form of cognitive bias]. This man was very curious. He invented Velcro. The brain is always searching for new answers.” Then Furst gives her six students homework “to keep our brains active. Every day, do something in a different way,” she suggests, passing out a list of options, such as buttoning your shirt from the bottom up if you usually start at the top.
“Words sometimes are the least effective means of communication,” says Furst, who has learned this the hard way —through a stroke three years ago. “I got to the hospital in time. But my speech and ability to think were affected,” she told the AJP. “I had trouble choosing the right words and thinking logically. I got therapy for nearly a year. The ironic thing was that all those boxes and materials I had at home for children helped me.”
Furst’s experience with illness opened her eyes. “During that time I realized the elderly are one of the most neglected segments of our society. I would be in a situation wanting to ask for a hot dog with mustard, relish, sauerkraut, and I couldn’t find the right word,” she says. “I felt like an idiot. I knew what was in my head. I could feel how impatient people were.”
She decided to help older people who may be in similar situations. As a facilitator, Furst envisions “empowering them so they can think, can find the right word and can communicate.”