I began working with children as a camp counsellor in high school, and worked in an exploratory pre-school at Eastern Michigan University while in college. My teaching career started with four years as a classroom teacher (3rd grade and 5th grade), followed by starting an exploratory language program for my district, a year as a Science teacher for K-3, a few years as a middle school Spanish teacher, and finally four years as an elementary Spanish position as I wrap up my 12th year in the classroom. Throughout my teaching career I also taught Academic Support after school Spanish and Summer Spanish. My undergrad was in Elementary Education, with minors in Spanish and Science, my Masters was in the Art of Teaching, and my +30 focused on Spanish, Science (mainly neurology), and education classes. My time spent in the classroom, and watching students develop at various stages in their lives, sparked a deep interest in neurology and how our brains work. Through my studies, and through insight I have gained as I learned about language acquisition as a CI (Comprehensible Input) teacher, I have many ideas on ways we can integrate what makes CI so compelling into the general education classroom. Many of my biggest successes in the general ed. classroom have an explanation in neuroscience or C.I. What follows in an explanation of how to move some of the core concepts of C.I., such as personalization, compelling input, and story telling, into the general education classroom.
If you do not already know basics about how the brain works please check out my post entitled, Classroom Theory. I went into a lot of detail on the basic function in the brain in this post. This blog will help you understand where the recommendations in this article come from. If you already have a good basic understanding of how the brain works, read on for practical ways to apply neurology and CI in the classroom.
The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system. When it senses threat, it becomes over-activated. In students, an overactive amygdala is associated with feelings of helplessness and anxiety. In this state of stress-induced over-activation, new information cannot pass through to access the memory and association circuits in our brain.
This is called the affective filter by language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen. This term describes an emotional state of stress, during which students are not responsive to learning and storing new information. Objective physical evidence of this state of stress can be seen on brain scans. Growing up in poverty, or in an abusive home also has a strong negative impact on our student's abilities to learn. What this means, is that often our students that have the hardest time learning, that can be the most disruptive in the classroom, are the ones that need our patience and support the most.
On the other side of things, positive motivation in the classroom impacts the speed at which we learn, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention.
“The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and “aha” moments of insight and creative motivation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”
-Judy Willis MD
During my years as a middle school Spanish teacher I was one class short of my position being full time. Thus, I was given an Academic Support class to keep my schedule full. An Academic Support class meant a small classroom of students that were struggling in their general education classrooms for various reasons. These students were failing or far behind in classes for various reasons, my job was to help them pass.
At first I tried strict rules and checking homework logs. This was a failure. These students had already been in a constant state of stress throughout the day, both in classes where they did not have their homework and felt behind; and the normal teenage hormonal roller coaster associated with being a middle school student. They didn't need to feel like they were being judged anymore, and when I tried making them work quietly, with a homework log it was just one more thing on their plate. The students feeling like they were being judged led to their affective filter remaining high, and made progress frustrating. Being in a small class with other students that liked to challenge teachers, the students would often try to mess around and compete to make the others laugh when they should be quietly working.
As I continued to work with the kids, they taught me a lot about what did work for them. First a friendly smile and a few minutes of talking when they entered my room. We'd all just sit and talk for about 5 minutes, about whatever they wanted. Often they would share something frustrating that had happened with their day. Then students would each pick their own spot in the room (this was the beginnings of going deskless for me). Some laid on the floor, others sat at a table and chairs, a few were under desks. Wherever they chose was okay for me, as long as they were productive. One at a time I would call the students up to my desk and we would check Powerschool and each of their teacher's websites to look for missing homework and upcoming tests or assignments. I didn't react with judgement when a student was missing work. I'd just ask if they needed help, and make a 'to-do' list for each kid. After checking in with everyone I would circulate and help the students as needed. This non-judgemental support, and the freedom of picking their space (being shown trust) as long as they were productive were my first two steps in the right direction. Grades slowly began to improve, and the students gave me less of a hard time.
Even with these interventions I still had a student that challenged me daily. Even when the other students were at their best, he would find a way to disrupt the classroom and get everyone off task. The key for this student was talking to him on his own. After one particularly frustrating incident I asked him into the hall to talk. Rather than begin by addressing the problem behavior; I looked him in the eye and asked him how I could help him. He immediately began telling me about a fight he had that morning with his father. After telling me about yelling at his dad, he seemed as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. He returned to class and worked diligently for the rest of the class. It took time, but eventually he learned that rather than create a disruption when he needed attention, he could just come and ask me to talk. Even though taking the time aside from the other students seemed hard at first, the small moments invested with this student had large positive gains both for the student and the classroom in general.
"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of the vessel." - Socrates
As my year with these students grew to a close, I worried about what would happen to them when they left my classroom and moved on to high school. My students were improving but many of them lacked an important ingredient to success, motivation. I had previously spoken with my students about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and tried to use this as a motivating factor for studying certain subjects. I took things a step further, as I felt they needed to hear the importance of an education to their future, from someone other than a teacher or parent. For every student in my class I set up a connection to a professional that did their dream job. Two of my students Skyped with a National Geographic photographer, one went and did a job shadow with a Chef at a popular local restaurant, another spoke with a pilot on a phone, and yet another exchanged emails with the LaCrosse coach from Michigan; we even had soldiers visit the classroom.
All of my Academic Support students passed their classes, but more importantly they began to see theirselves and their potential. They personalized their learning and understood why it should be meaningful for them, and they let down their affective filters and started to reach their potential.
Behavior & Motivation Theory
One of the things I find fascinating about the human brain is the presence of 'mirror neurons'. These are neurons that activate when we see someone doing an activity that make us feel as if we are experiencing the activity ourselves. Have you ever been so into a sports game that you feel like you are in the game? Or felt yourself wince in sympathy when you see an injury? Or wrinkle your nose in disgust when a character on a TV show smells something gross? This is because neurons in our head light up that make us feel as if we are experiencing what we are viewing. Scientists are still debating whether the purpose of these neurons is to help us understand the actions of others, or even the intent of others (or maybe both); but the implication I see for the classroom is that if we are passionate and energized, our students mirror neurons will respond in turn. However if we are burned out and exhausted, our students feel that too.
Interested in reading more about mirror neurons? Click here for a good overview. What this means for motivation in general in the classroom, is be enthusiastic about what you teach, believe in it. If you are into what you are teaching, your students will pick up on that, if you are not, they will also pick up on that too. You'll know that is true if you think about any PD you have ever attended, what made the difference between a good PD and a great PD? If you can show the students your passion for your subject, it will ignite their passion in turn. Remember, mirror neurons are watching!
Teacher burn out is another important issue to address, when teachers are burned out students pick up on that too. For ways to address that issue, please read my post here.
Importance of Prior Knowledge
Anyone that has attended an education curriculum class, knows that teachers are supposed to activate students prior knowledge when starting new material. Whenever we recall information from our memory, we modify the information that we recall, to connect it to new things we learn. When we store the information again, it has changed to accommodate our new knowledge. Connecting new information to previously stored knowledge, helps us store the new information.
Math was not my favorite class as a student, however I came to love it as a teacher. How can brain science be applied to math class? Several ways!
One, our brain, much like a muscle, gets better and faster at what we practice correctly. However, practicing a skill incorrectly can ingrain incorrect behavior in our brain. Furthermore, if we do not understand the skills needed in Lesson A in a math sequence, then often the following lessons are not effective as they build on the skills in the first lesson. Therefore, making sure students understand concepts is key. One of my checks for understanding when I taught math was a nightly math assignment. Each student had roughly 10 problems from the lesson that day. Parents knew that students were not expected to spend more than 15 to 20 minutes on this homework at night (if it took them longer than that it meant they didn't understand it, and the affective filter would go up, making further practice useless and potentially harmful to success). Each day at lunch I would quickly grade my 60 math papers. Anyone that had trouble with the homework would have their papers sorted into a separate pile. Near the end of the day a few parent helpers came to my room (I had pre-trained my 'math parents' at the start of the year). They would take the pile of incorrect homework into the hall, and meet with each student that had struggled with the work to correct the problems with the student. Parent helpers would give the students a few new problems to make sure that they now understood the concept. Students earned all points back for the corrected homework that they missed when they turned it in originally. A few ways to do this if parent volunteers are not plentiful would be to have older student volunteers tutor students, or perhaps pre-student teachers from local colleges in need of pre-student teaching hours. To cut back on grading time, a multiple choice Google Form test could be created (not ideal, but Google self-grades now and you should be able to spot struggling students still, especially if students know they won't get in trouble, but will get help if they don't do well).
Another brain based practice I used in the math classroom was to apply math in ways that were meaningful to the students. For example, when we were practicing story problems I had each student research the price of a toy they wanted. We then brainstormed a list of chores they could complete to earn money, and decided a fair hourly rate for each chore. Students then had to figure out approximately how long it would take them to complete which chores to earn their toy.
We also spoke about exciting future applications for math skills, from architects to space travel, budgeting a trip, to the number Pi. Students need compelling material to see how math applies to their future as a part of their reason to learn something. It is not enough to tell students learn this because I said so, or for a grade, we must show them why the information is important to them if we expect them to truly desire to learn it.
In our district we took a standardized test called the NWEA. Expected growth was 1 year for all students, my students achieved between 2 to 2.5 years of growth, and I did not try to 'teach to the test'. Standardized tests are not everything, but it is one measure of growth that is easy to share.
New exciting work in the field of literacy, shows that the greatest increases in vocabulary (both in your first language and any additional languages you may learn) comes from reading. What's more, it doesn't matter what the students are reading (Captain Underpants or more scholarly texts) as long as they are reading COMPELLING material they will be engaged. For more information on Free Voluntary Reading check out S.D. Krashen's work here. This could work in a language arts setting, by giving students time to free read every day. Rather than a reading log, or assignment to go with each chapter, the teacher could have students do a book review after reading the book, to recommend it to other students. The 'book review' could come in many different forms including (but not limited to) a comic strip about the book, a character analysis of their favorite character, an online review with room for comments from other students, a video review, etc. Giving students many different ways to express themselves will allow each child to shine. Joy in learning, leads to increase in brain activity. A short book recommendation or representation of a favorite chapter, would be an easy way for the teacher to check for comprehension, without the student feeling the need to read for a test. Teachers can also have students read to them occasionally if necessary to check progress. Do not be afraid to show your students your love of reading. Take the time to read with them, let them see that you read too, mirror neurons are watching!
When having your student choose a non-fiction reading piece, consider giving your students several different pieces to choose from (or using the internet and a safe search engine to choose their own topic). Students will do better at informational text when the information is compelling. The skills they gain reading compelling material, will still help them in their overall reading ability, and will make all material easier to read (even something that isn't as compelling on a potential standardized test).
Additionally, recent MRI scans show that we use two different part of our brain to read. When we are reading something we believe we will need to remember for a test, we use the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and reasoning), however when we read for pleasure, we generally use the mentalizing part our brain. The 'mentalizing' system is the part of our brain that handles relationships and our place in the world. MRI studies also show that in most people this is the most active part of our brain, becoming active whenever our brain is not directly using the pre-frontal cortex to solve a problem (even when it's only for a few seconds). The mentalizing system is generally quicker at storing new information, and a great resource to help students learn new information more quickly. Perhaps because they use it to tie the new information to their own 'story'. When students read self-chosen, compelling material for pleasure.
Science is a passion for me, and I enjoyed teaching it both as a classroom teacher, and as a Quest teacher (a "Special" science class for Kindergarten through 3rd grade). As with the other subjects, it is important to show the students your passion for the subject. Teach your students the standards they need to know, but as before, it is important to make it meaningful to them and help them connect it to the larger picture. If possible, making the material compelling always increases the rate at which we learn.
An example of how this would work in a science unit is when I taught magnetics to 2nd graders. We did the general activities that were suggested in the science curriculum (learning about push and pull, and what objects are magnetic and which are not, magnetic poles, and magnetic fields etc). However then we connected it to the larger world and made it meaningful. We talked about the magnetic field surrounding our planet, and how about how sometimes the magnetic poles flip! After learning about how scientists are starting to use nano-particles and magnets to deliver medicine to tumors we used magnets to guide 'nano-particles' (aka safety pins on a maze of the brain I drew) to tumors. Students loved class, and learned so much, because the material was compelling and important to them. They could see it's value to the world.
When letting students have choice in their learning, compelling material creates itself. An example of this would be taking a larger topic, for example, 'The Wetlands' and breaking it down into smaller parts that appeal to different children. I did this as part of a 5th grade unit. The Wetlands were part of our curriculum. I wanted to personalize this material for the students so I broke the Wetlands up into different topics. Amphibians, water plant, surrounding plants, reptiles, birds, mammals, etc. Students secretly wrote rated the topics based on which was most interesting to them. They were placed on groups based on their interests. Each group researched their topic. E-mailed a biology professor at a local college with a question, and created a unique and exciting way to share what they had learned to the class. We did role playing games to help them understand the eco-system. We took a field trip to a local wetland and my old biology professor guided us through the eco-system. The students became so passionate about the wetlands that they wanted to host a fundraiser to donate money to protect them. We hosted an after school karaoke fundraiser. Not only did the students have a great time, but after we donated our money to the Sierra Club, the class became the first group of children to win the Sierra Club Group Chair award for their donation and project.
When presented with compelling material, difficult concepts can become manageable, and students become more willing to take on risks and challenges.
I wanted my students to understand the concept of learning from our past to further our future, and tied it to a science unit that provided both compelling and challenging material and some deeper thinking. I was watching 'The Universe' when I first heard the Issac Newton quote "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." This quote seemed like the perfect jumping off point for my theme, and tied nicely into our unit about space. I chose a 8 to 10 scientists who's work had built upon each others. Ranging from as far back as Aristotle to as recent as Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I taught students a little bit about each scientist, and then let them choose one scientist to research. I printed leveled readers about each scientist ranging from very easy with big pictures, to very dense articles several pages long. I let the students self-select. I was surprised to see that most of the students, even my struggling readers, chose the longest text. When I asked them why they chose their text, it was because they were excited about the materials. I've never seen students apply themselves to such challenging material with such excitement before, but it wasn't because of me, it was because the material was self-chosen and exciting to them. The best reward of the school year came a few days later when two of my boys who were sometimes more into sports than school, told me they had been arguing the whole bus ride in about whether Einstein or Newton was the best scientist. That was my favorite 'argument' of the school year.
The success my students had in science was not because of anything special about me as a teacher, but because the material became meaningful and important to the students.
This is an area that I only taught for a few years, so have less experience in, however the theory should still apply as we still learn with the same amazing brain. Show the students your passion, and they will be passionate too.
Connect the material to something important to the students. Look at larger patterns in history if possible, and compare them to patterns present in the world today to increase the importance of your lesson. Show students how the past influences the present.
When studying a certain time period, consider creating several sub-topics about the time period for an independent research project for students. For example, if you were studying the renaissance period, sub topics might include: food, drink, fashion, nobles, townspeople, various jobs, trends, art, sculpting, etc. Students could research the topic, and present their area of interest to the class in a compelling and creative manner. Another similar idea is to let students pick a notable person from a time period to research. They could come dressed as the person to class, and pretend to be the person for a day. Presenting a small presentation, then answering questions. This is actually a favorite project that I completed in a Humanities class in high school. It serves the purpose of making a compelling connection to history.
One final idea is introducing new topics as a story before reading a more factual account. As I mentioned previously when discussing reading:
Recent MRI scans show that we use two different part of our brain to read. When we are reading something we believe we will need to remember for a test, we use the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and reasoning), however when we read for pleasure, we generally use the mentalizing part our brain. The 'mentalizing' system is the part of our brain that handles relationships and our place in the world. MRI studies also show that in most people this is the most active part of our brain, becoming active whenever our brain is not directly using the pre-frontal cortex to solve a problem (even when it's only for a few seconds). The mentalizing system is generally quicker at storing new information, and a great resource to help students learn new information more quickly. Perhaps because they use it to tie the new information to their own 'story'. When students read self-chosen, compelling material for pleasure.
If we introduce a topic as a story, we activate the mentalizing system and increase interest. Take a topic like the French Revolution. If instead of laying bare the facts first. Consider starting students with part of a fictional account of Marie Antionette's life pre-marriage, or her days leading up to her encounter with the guillotine. Perhaps a part from a novel about living as a starving French peasant, or a scene from Les Miserables. If we can connect our history to our own lives, the information becomes more valuable and easier to acquire.
Art and Music
As I have not taught either of these subjects, this is again just theory, but many of the same ideas can apply here. For art, consider lettings students choose an artist to imitate (either their work or their person). Consider letting students vote on their favorite work of art, or present and defend their favorite in a bracket style play off.
In music consider letting students choose their music. Assign them different music to listen to each night, or listen in class and then vote. Allowing students to defend their favorite piece of music, or submit a piece to the class to play can also increase personal stake and interest. Teaching students about the lives of the composers can also help increase their personal connection to the music.
I am far from a perfect teacher, and did not mean to write this blog post as a chance to brag about some of my favorite teaching moments. The purpose was to share the teaching moments that were the most successful for me, that are supported by recent brain research. I hope some find this helpful (if you made it all the way here)! For further reading about the brain check out my blog post here, or recommended reading post here. I hope everyone has a restful, joyful, and productive summer!
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.