* Brain model and autism?

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No, the new brain model does not look like this!

According to a recent issue of Brain in the News, scientists at The Ohio State University have created a miniature brain model.  It has the maturity of a 5-week fetal brain and is about the size of a pencil eraser.  Why the excitement?  It has the potential to replicate brains with complex diseases and other conditions.  Rene Anand engineered this brain from adult skin cells and is creating “brain organoid” models of autism, as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Gulf War diseases.  Anand says: “Genomic science infers that there are up to 600 genes that give rise to autism, but we are stuck there.  Mathematical correlations and and statistical methods are insufficient to in themselves identify causation.  You need an experimental system- you need a human brain.”  The researchers are confident that it will speed the process of determining the causal relationships between genes, environment, and/or both.

I continue to rejoice at the acceleration of research that has the potential to improve our quality of life.  This one replaces animal research, too. What’s not to love?

* Brain-based assessment: journal writing and 2e students

In her book, The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools, Mariale Hardiman draws upon research to emphasize the benefits of journal writing as both assessment and a means of improving student learning, especially in eliciting meta-cognition.  Through reflection-based journal writing, students are free to consider what they have learned and its applications and personal connections to their lives.  For typical learners, this is an exemplary means of encouraging students to deepen their awareness of the material while providing teachers insight into students’ understanding.  It can create an important dialog about past instruction and guide future lessons.brain-targeted teaching model

But what about the twice exceptional (2e) student with reading/writing difficulties?  The teacher may be shocked that this kid, who made remarkable applications of the material during group discussions, seems to have a weak grasp of both the journal assignment AND the underlying concepts.  The 2e student has written three brief statements that only summarize content.  There’s no written evidence that this kid has any higher understanding of the material.  It would be fairly easy for the teacher to “forget” the stimulating verbal discussions in the light of this skimpy journal response.  Or the teacher may conclude that the student is not applying himself, for some reason, and could spend time trying to motivate the student “to do your best.”  Over time, the student may even stop participating in those once-engaging discussions.

What is happening here?  The 2e student is being asked to share his complex ideas, the type of analytical thinking he most enjoys, in a form which creates frustration and reinforces feelings of stupidity. The reason for his growing disinterest in those stimulating discussions?  He is readying himself, with increasing levels of anxiety, for the time he must translate complex ideas and “long” words into written text.  Eventually, he may reason, it would be better not to share those ideas for which he is now accountable to produce in writing.  Even seasoned teachers can be perplexed at the disparity which characterizes twice exceptional kids, those gifted students who also have a learning disability.

The good news?  In this digital era, there are alternate ways of capturing a student’s voice and supporting meta-cognition without paper and pencil.  Using a webcam or an application that allows students to record their thoughts and add images (such as VoiceThread, see note below), the 2e student can successfully share his or her superior reasoning and creative thoughts.  Digital portfolios have been used for many years now, with the advantage of being easily stored, portable, and readily shared with families.  As with any form of communication, students need assistance in using digital recording effectively.  I have found that they are initially distracted by their onscreen image, but once allowed time to produce every silly expression and wacky voice imaginable, they will use digital recordings seriously and effectively.  Depending upon available computer resources, digital journals could be an option for all students in a class.

Note:  I will share my experiences with VoiceThread in a later post.

* The Dana Foundation/ Cerebrum

I first heard about the Dana Foundation while taking a course on brain-friendly teaching strategies.  I signed up for their monthly newsletter (which still faithfully arrives) and years later, added emails from Cerebrum, their online site.  I am so glad I did!  Here’s a glimpse of the home page, from which you can access a multitude of resources.Dana 4

From that page, you can find out more about this private philanthropic site and its mission.  To summarize, the Dana Foundation, begun in 1950, is committed to improving an understanding of the brain through research, supporting research to speed the treatment of brain disorders, and reducing the stigma of brain disease.  From the home page, there are links to Dana Alliances, Blog, Grants, For Kids, and importantly, News.  Click on News to access Neuroeducation:

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From here, you will see links to articles and research related to brain-based teaching.  You can also search through archives for past publications.

The links for kids lead to a complex maze of sites.  If you find one you like, bookmark it; I found it difficult to follow the crumbs back to their sources.  Unfortunately, the sites that look most suitable for elementary students have broken links, which is too bad.  You can wander through a maze of sophisticated science topics for “kids,” but I suggest you check out the information first before your student wanders into a graphic dissection of a cow’s eye or a sheep’s brain.  Many of the links “for kids” are more appropriate for high school students.  For instance, there’s an entire section on chemistry in everyday life called Reactions with accompanying YouTube videos.  Do You Ever Wonder is an interesting site with answers to a variety of random questions, the kinds of things kids are most curious about when they’re bored with my teaching.

A section that seemed designed just for me is called Staying Sharp: Current Advances in Brain Research, with an emphasis upon the aging brain.  Oh yeah, that’s me.

If you’re curious about brain research in general, want to explore the world of neuroeducation, or want to explore science and research material available for students, the Dana Foundation site is a great resource.

* Give me a break

Brain compatible strategiesIn his book, Brain Compatible Strategies, Eric Jensen describes the importance of providing “brain breaks,” where the brain has a chance to consolidate, reflect, and integrate information.  This “brain break” is different from active memory consolidation. That deliberate reflection process should occur towards the end of an instructional session in order to enhance student memory of what they’ve just learned.  Students can talk to a partner, record a mnemonic strategy, draw or write a summary of the main ideas, sing a rhyme, or take a quiz.  The idea is to strengthen student memory for what has been learned, and as noted above, it is a continuation of a lesson.

A “brain break” described by Jensen is a change of scenery or activity, allowing the brain to consolidate information without competition from an influx of new information. Sending kids on a bathroom break, walking down the hall, or moving around the room are all effective types of breaks.  I experimented with this process a few years ago when I was literally teaching in a closet.  It was a dusty, cramped, and stifling space, the very opposite of a brain-friendly physical environment. Since we were not allowed to leave our cramped learning space (don’t ask), we would all stand behind our chairs and complete some physical activity which required cross lateral stretching and movement (such as touching our right hands to our left feet, etc.).  We also had short but vigorous gross motor activities to get our bodies alert (such as marching in place).  During this time, there was no other instructional input; in fact, all the kids were focused on the clock.  I found it interesting that they were not eager for brain breaks (and that’s putting it mildly).  They were counting down the seconds until they could sit again. Yes, we were oxygen-deprived. Without those breaks, my group would lapse into a kind of stupor.  (In retrospect, I should have purchased some oxygen tanks.  Fans would have stirred up dust storms and we had to keep the door almost closed, anyway.)

Because I was teaching in such an undesirable space, I made a number of brain-friendly modifications so that kids were engaged with one another and the material.  One of their favorite activities was being the “teacher” of the group while kids completed some form of game to practice a skill.  The “teacher” would circle our table, giving students feedback on their performance, making positive comments, and providing helpful correction.  At the end of each “teacher’s” session, they gave feedback on their own performance (including both positive aspects and difficulties), after which each member of the group provided affirming feedback (“I liked the way you….”).  Kids learned a lot from each other in these sessions and I learned a lot about them, as well.  Some of the brain-based strategies that were incorporated into this simple activity include: establishing a positive and engaging emotional environment, providing choice and novel activities, supporting intrinsic motivation, improving meta-cognition, and providing challenges that were not too difficult.

In my current instructional sessions, which are in fairly optimal environments, I give kids brain breaks by signalling a break from work with “off-task” chatting (often timed), bathroom breaks, tossing a ball, and other simple distractions.  I find that kids are easily redirected to instruction after a brain break and make steady progress in memory and application of skills. It’s definitely worth the time to provide these breaks.  Teachers benefit from them, too!

* Graphic Organizers

Brain-based research supports the use of graphic organizers in providing an overview of instructional units.  I have found that these road maps, as I have referred to them with students, assist kids in understanding the hows, whys, and whens of specific units.  For example, I have used graphic organizers in writing instruction to give kids an overview of a final product (such as a letter, research paper, or how-to story), including a list of skills they will need to acquire in the process.  These maps also indicate the steps we will follow.  The following is an example of a student version of a map for letter-writing.

Letter writing graphic organizer

With teacher support, students can see what skills they will learn and the steps they’ll follow in writing a letter.  To make this a more powerful tool, kids make a personal connection from the start by indicating the recipient of their letter and what form of “art” they will include (both brain-based strategies).  Since I have typically worked with kids who are easily distracted and function at widely varying levels, I am not likely to post this type of map on the wall.  Instead, students have access to their own copy, which can be easily adjusted for reading and developmental levels.

In my teaching experience, the most commonly used class-wide graphic organizers are K-W-L charts (what I KNOW, what I WANT to know, what I have LEARNED).  I never found these charts very useful for a number of reasons, although group or individual discussions of any of these points could be helpful.  Why not? First, my groups have been diverse and not everyone could meaningfully contribute to the first two categories.  For the same reason, I have preferred individual maps (or graphic organizers) so each student will have a variation of the map which best suits their needs.  I do want students to identify what they have learned, but with special needs students, I have often had to guide that understanding as well.

This raises the question of how best to use concept maps for teaching.  To what extent should students have a road map for what they need to learn?  Mariale Hardiman’s Brain-Targeted Teaching Model provides numerous examples of effective graphics that prepare students for their learning adventure by providing an overview of where they are going and what they’ll do along the way.  I almost always use some sort of graphic for guiding our way, but prefer to use maps with “shorter” steps.  For a student who is well behind in reading, math or social skills, for example, it would be overwhelming to see the long road that lies ahead.  Instead, my graphics zoom in on the next few steps of the way.  The examples in Hardiman’s book were designed primarily for units in content areas such as social studies, where the big picture can help activate prior knowledge and create excitement and anticipation.  For students struggling to read, identifying “vowel teams” can be just as significant.

I think the use of graphic organizers can help students understand why they are working on specific skills, which is a crucial understanding.  Kids learn best if they grasp the usefulness of a skill, or some evidence that they will be happier on the “other side” of what appears to be a chasm.  Here’s a sample map for an anxious student who has no idea why he must learn anything about decimals (and who fears it will be impossible). However, he is very interested in using money and wants to buy some pets.  This chart can be easily turned into a checklist for him to track his progress in learning the needed skills.graphic for learning decimalsHe already has some understanding of many of the skills listed above, but he thinks that these skills are useless.  His map includes a skill he has solidly acquired, identifying place value of whole numbers, to generate some hopefulness about his ability to reach the goal.  The relative size of the “Why” section is to help keep his eye on the prize.

Honestly, I will never use maps or organizers for everything I teach, primarily due to time constraints (such as blogging instead of lesson planning!).  When I run into difficulties, as with the student described above, you can be sure I will start creating graphics.  Besides supporting student learning, these step-wise maps force me to examine my own teaching.  Am I following an appropriate sequence of skills for this student?  Am I helping him make meaningful connections between these skills?  Am I giving him a reason to learn?  Graphic organizers encourage both teachers and students to reflect on the learning process.