* Kindness counts

Katie Mgongolwa, a young  mom and teacher, shared a powerful story about a much-loved fifth grade teacher.  Writing in the Chapel Hill News, Mgongolwa described her mother’s unexpected encounter with Mrs. Elder and wondered how her mother had recognized the teacher after so many years.  After inviting Mrs. Elder to dinner, Mgongolwa wrote, “I understand, now, as a mother, you never forget the people who made your kid feel happy and safe.”  Mrs. Elder (I thought I had the copyright to that pseudonym), taught her students well.  As Mariale Hardiman has written so aptly: “Setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.”

Mgongolwa has set an admirable goal for herself, to be a kind, adventurous, and patient teacher like Mrs. Elder.  I believe she’s off to a great start and has the potential to be THAT teacher, the one who makes students smile!  More on the delightful Mgongolwa tomorrow!


An old classroom suitable for an elderly teacher?


* Ya know what I mean?

The opportunity to summarize, to process information, is a key strategy to support learning across any subject area.  This is a powerful tool for all students, but especially those with weak working memory, weak decoding skills, and weak attention.  As neuroscience has informed effective teaching practices, educators should be aware that students need frequent opportunities to pause and process what they’ve just heard or read.

Teachers can neglect this step for many reasons.  In my case, providing time for processing/ summarizing information was a real weakness in my early teaching repertoire.  Like many teachers, I taught in a manner that was similar to the way I learn.  SInce I am a fast processor, I never gave much thought to the time students needed to make sense of new information.  Also, my teacher preparation did not include the benefit of the brain-based research available today.

Other factors that impact how much time teachers allow for processing include pressure to “get through” a topic (and sadly, the pressure to assess) along with management issues, such as crowd control when students talk to each other to process information.  A pair-share strategy may be implemented, but what if many kids are talking about recess and lunchtime?  If videotaping doesn’t capture conversations effectively, it helps to have a familiar adult sitting in the midst of the group during pair-shares.  I have been in that role many times (supporting an individual student, for example) and could see that the quality of pair-share conversations was sketchy, at best.

That brings us to another key point.  Most students need explicit instruction on the why’s and how’s of summarizing.  Using role-playing and videotapes of examples and non-examples is an effective strategy for teaching verbal summarizing while setting high expectations.  For summarizing paragraphs and longer passages, model how to create effective summaries on sticky notes. Be sure to include non-examples.  Here are two examples from a passage on the value of allowing some forest fires to burn out naturally.  Can you tell which one is on target?sticky note 1 sticky note 2

Our special needs kids could have much-improved comprehension if they are taught to summarize throughout the reading process.  And sticky notes don’t have to be laboriously written.  Teach kids to use symbols and abbreviations for their ideas.sticky note 3

To summarize, we learn best when our brains process information in manageable chunks.  The chunk size varies by individual, as does the amount of time to process.  Some students process best on their own, not with a partner.  Other students may benefit from a visual reminder of what they have heard or learned.  If teachers discuss and teach this aspect of learning explicitly, it will help create an atmosphere where learning differences are validated.

* Phonological Awareness: early intervention is key

baby-195669_640A recent article published in Brain in the News describes research suggesting that babies’ attention to relevant sounds predicted “both how well they would speak at at age 2 1/2 as well as their phonological awareness at age 5” (written by John Higgins, The Seattle Times, September 21, 2104).  How do babies learn these crucial differences between relevant and irrelevant sounds?  What might parents and teachers of young kids do to encourage this development?  The researchers suggest directing a baby’s attention to “what’s important with lots of warm, loving, face-to-face talk using that kind of singsong voice that dips and rises and stretches out vowel sounds.”  Reading aloud to kids, conducting meaningful conversations, and engaging in dialog that helps develop vocabulary are all important interactions which make it more likely that a child will be a successful reader.  The researchers indicated that just one adult engaging in quality connections can make a huge difference, regardless of family income or education.

Another feature of their research was the use of online instruction to provide specialized instruction for kids who had already shown evidence of dyslexia.  Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers can see how the brains of learning disabled kids activate differently from typical learners during reading tasks.  After specialized instruction, those brain difference often disappeared  and the kids’ reading and writing skills improved.  Again, the researchers emphasized that intervention before five years of age was especially important.  As Higgins wrote, “brain chemistry becomes harder to change as children get older.  So it’s better to get it right the first time, when efforts to strengthen weak connections stand their best chance for success.”  However, the window of opportunity persists, as many of us who teach special needs kids can attest.  One parent, also a professor at the University of Washington, enrolled her daughter in the study because dyslexia ran in her family and her ten-year old was struggling to read.  Systematic instruction opened the door to effective reading skills; her daughter happily reports that she is now reading Harry Potter books.

Interested in learning more?  Check out the Dana Foundation for the latest in brain research.

* Math Struggles 301: Effective strategies

Sousa mathIn David Sousa’s book “How The Brain Learns Mathematics,” he cites researchers who have found that number sense is not intrinsic but can be shaped though both formal and informal activities.  Sousa lists a number of effective strategies for developing number sense.  Here are a few of them:

Meaningful estimates.  Helping students practice meaningful estimates goes far beyond, “Guess how many goldfish crackers are in the jar.”  In my experience, those kinds of estimates require more than number sense; they tap visual spatial understandings, as well.  Estimation jars are often used in lower grades where many kids are unlikely to have sufficient practice with this skill.  Early number estimates should involve items and quantities which can easily be counted (certainly less than a hundred) so that kids can improve their ability to estimate.  Kids should also be exposed to multiple opportunities for making reasonable estimates. Teachers can create realistic and necessary opportunities for estimation.  For instance, kids might estimate how many books are in a reading bin and how many pencils are in a caddy.  It’s important for kids to learn early on that estimation is not just another tedious step on worksheets, that estimation is not a hurdle to make math more burdensome.  One student recently blew off the estimation portion of his classroom assignment, saying, “It doesn’t matter what I get.  Anything is right.”  Clearly, estimation was taught in isolation and as a meaningless activity.

Solve problems and consider the reasonableness of the solutions.  This strategy sounds reasonable, but for kids with math difficulties, an unreasonable answer can be hard to recognize.  The kind of problem where I typically see younger kids struggling is comparing values or quantities.  A classic question is: If Kevin is 8 and his sister is 5, how much older is Kevin?  The majority of K-2 special needs kids I teach will add those two numbers and feel their answer is reasonable.  They have learned to subtract when items are missing, eaten, or given away, but using subtraction to compare is another beast altogether.  Some kids learn faster when they start solving this type of problem with pieces of cereal or other food.  Using cubes that interlock or stacking blocks is another way to visualize the number comparison problem, helping them “see” how much more one quantity is than another.  It can take a LOT of experience for kids with math difficulties to master this process.  Simply asking students if their answer is reasonable is ineffective if not preceded by plenty of experience with manipulatives and real-life math problems.

Model the enjoyment of numbers and number patterns.  Research studies conclude that the teacher’s attitude “is the most critical factor in establishing a climate for curiosity and enjoyment of mathematics.”  For me personally, this statement means that I must watch myself for subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that math has not been my favorite subject.  As I set a goal of making math enjoyable for my students, I am also enjoying it more.  I ask myself: If I am short on time, what subject is going to be curtailed?  Do I look for opportunities to create and solve math problems?  Do I encourage kids to talk to each other during math instruction?  Is my math instruction engaging and meaningful?  Integrating math into other content areas is a terrific way to make problem solving meaningful.  Free Math is another classroom strategy to provide time and resources for those “random” math questions that arise during the course of the day.  Dedicate a space where teacher and kids can jot/dictate questions on sticky notes, to be addressed during Free Math time.

Do you have favorite strategies for developing number sense?

* Teaching: tyranny of the urgent

Alarm-Clock-Simple--4926-largeTutoring students in a one-to-one setting without typical classroom constraints has its advantages.  I enjoy being able to select appropriate materials, tailor activities to student interests, and address skills without the pressure of teaching the core curriculum.  On the other hand, I am frequently in the same battle as resource teachers and other specialists.  Homework and projects routinely impact my valuable time with students.  You know that I am not keen on homework, if you’ve been following this blog.  After an hour or more of tutoring, I don’t want my students to face a stack of homework, so I typically assist them to complete it as quickly as possible during our session.  But the disconnect between students’ skills and their homework drives me NUTS!

Here’s what happened today:  I was teaching a fourth grader who is struggling with math.  I wanted to continue our work on place value and rounding numbers.  Instead, I checked his homework and took a deep breath.  It was algebra (or “algebraic,” as he told me).  Knowing that he works much better on frustrating tasks with me than his parents (it was that way with my own kiddos), I decided to bite the bullet.  Here is a sample problem:  Sue had 5 times more pencils than Nate.  Together they had 18 pencils.  How many pencils does Sue have?  How many more pencils does she have than Nate?  My student was required to model the problem using symbols and write three or four equations to demonstrate how he solved it.

I imagine some kids in his class are totally ready for that problem.  But my student was not.  He had no idea where to start, was dealing with abstract procedures that made no sense to him, and didn’t have sufficient opportunities to work with manipulatives (and perhaps understand) what “5 times more” actually means.  This is a student who does not know when to add or subtract.  Not only did we lose valuable instructional time on the skills which match his current math understandings, but he needed two brain breaks in order to survive that portion of our session.  And what does he know after our “guided practice?”  Not a lot.

I was facing the dilemma described in an interesting article called “The Hard Part” (thank you, Tony’s mom!).  In his column in the Huffington Post, Peter Greene writes about teaching: “The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:  There is never enough.  There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”  Indeed!

I do understand that the classroom teacher has her own constraints.  She is required to teach “algebraic” for a short period of time and then assess, assess, and reassess.  How can she “individualize” the above assignment for my student when it is totally inappropriate for his current level of functioning?  He needs more opportunities to model multiplication, much less solving problems with variables.  His dilemma reminds me of my post from yesterday on “How The Brain Learns Mathematics” by David Sousa.  Sousa describes prerequisite skills for learning mathematics successfully, including the ability to visualize and manipulate mental pictures and the ability to reason deductively and inductively.  My 4th grader is particularly weak in those skills.  When will he have time to catch up?  Isn’t that what summers are for?

* Twice exceptional: twice the effort

batteryThe following is an edited email that parents of a 2e kid sent to his classroom teacher (and gave me permission to post).  The family has just moved after two difficult years in a school where Tony’s special needs were minimized. The student is a hard-working and clever guy, who wants to do everything that is asked of him.  Unfortunately, the demands upon his inner resources are too great; his battery has not only been run down, it seems to have been removed!

Hi Isabelle,
Tony had a complete meltdown today after school and did not get any of his homework completed.  Tomorrow he has tutoring and is usually very drained afterwards (tutoring generally last about 1.5 hours) but we can try and work on it over the weekend.  Also, Tony wanted me to see if you might be able to talk to your assistant since she is the one who tends to check his homework in the morning, and he is worried (and possibly embarrassed) that she isn’t aware of his homework modifications.
I appreciate your question about whether Tony feels like school is a positive environment.  My husband and I would like to pass along our perspective.  Tony definitely enjoys learning and works hard at school.  I think his battery starts out strong early in the day.  However, it wears out faster than other kids because of all the increased effort that it takes him in comparison to other children without disabilities.  These are the general ways that I understand that  he expends extra effort:  
(1) decoding, encoding, and figuring out how to put his ideas down on paper      
Instead of the automaticity in reading and writing that other children experience, he’s got to actively be recalling and applying strategies that he has learned as he is doing each exercise, which might be twice the effort.  It might appear that he doesn’t have much difficulty with decoding or encoding when he is tested on words or phrases in isolation, but when applying the strategies in “real life” situations in the classroom, it can fall apart for him.  And his difficulty is even more pronounced in situations where he can’t use his strength in guessing like when he is reading the instructions for assignments, characters’ names, and passages that don’t have much context or in which he doesn’t have a lot of background knowledge.  He also really struggles with categorizing and organizing his thoughts in writing.
(2) figuring out ways to get through the assignments in a way that he can work around his areas of difficulty
From what Tony tells us, it sounds like he expends considerable effort during the day strategizing about what he will do if he gets into a situation where he thinks he might not understand or where he might fail.  He’s acutely aware of appearing stupid in front of other kids, and when he can’t keep up enough to meet expectations.  He also spends time and energy when writing figuring out how he can say what he wants to say using only words that he can spell, trying to make his writing as concise as possible so he doesn’t wear himself out, remembering things like which way the “b” and “d” go, and struggling to recall all the encoding rules.  All the while, he is trying not appear to his peers as “behind” as he feels that he is.     
(3) working with processing speed and working memory that are clinically disparate with his intellectual ability 
Routines/exercises that other kids probably feel are easy, like copying down the assignment from the board, or copying math problems from the book, are extremely fatiguing for Tony.  And he’s got to really work to keep up with the fast pace of the classroom and the exciting ideas he is having, because his intellect is so much greater than his processing ability.  I have read that this is a very frustrating thing for kids to deal with, and ultimately one more factor in the fatigue.

(4) anxiety

As a result of having all of these difficulties exacerbated by his last two years without the benefit of understanding or validation, he has become very anxious about school work and homework.  And I think we can all attest to how draining it is when we are anxious about something!

In any case, Tony usually can hold it all together for the 7-8 hours that he is at school, we have been told.  But at the end of the day at home, he can fall apart.   This is also something that we have read many places and been advised about as something that is common.  Fortunately, because Tony fundamentally loves to learn and enjoys his peers and pleasing his teachers and school activities like PE etc., he does enjoy school a lot in many ways.  It’s just the cumulative effect of everything above that can become too much.
I hope this is helpful!  We can discuss it further when we meet if you would like, and I would be happy to share anything else regarding Tony that might be helpful.  Thanks again for your interest and understanding!
Now imagine if you are a single parent, or not much aware of the impact of being twice exceptional, or did not have the resources and education of this family.  Or what if this child were not so easy-going and compliant?  2e kids are the not only ones whose batteries are significantly depleted  throughout the school day.  Kids with autism, behavior disorders, and learning disabilities all expend far more than typical effort in school.
The take-away lesson for teachers is that we need to educate ourselves on the “hidden” impact of disabilities.  

* 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:

Dana 3

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!

* Part One: Brain-friendly breakfast?

In my previous post, I focused on the myth of music: enhancing learning and having “Charms to sooth a savage Breast.”  We had need of something in my school during breakfast in the cafeteria.  This situation illustrates the effects of expectations and stress on both students and teachers, as well underlying racial stereotyping.  Our breakfast crisis vividly illustrated Mariale Hardiman’s comment: “Setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.”

empty cafeteria

That breakfast chaos affected everyone in school, but especially those students who rode bus 317.  Bus 317 was packed with our lowest performing students, primarily black kids (and some Hispanic students), who were placed in a school of mostly upper-class whites (teachers and kids).  Virtually all of bus 317’s kids qualified for free and reduced lunch.  When these kids got off the bus, they literally ran to the cafeteria and continued to run amok.  Breakfast was bedlam and as the kids left the cafeteria, now splattered with food and debris, they bolted down the hallways.  There were conflicts at every corner, physical fights erupting, and teachers trying in vain to settle the kids once they got to their classrooms.

The first attempted solution was to provide more consistent teacher and assistant rotation for breakfast duty by scheduling a week’s breakfast duty at a time (instead of daily rotations).  Classroom teachers were exempt, since they needed to greet their own students.  That meant all specialists and assistants were assigned cafeteria duty.  On paper, I suppose this might have worked. but most adults were either scared of entering the cafeteria or were determined to prove they could control “those” kids.  Here are some salient points:

  • The kids from bus 317 had already reached a breaking point, as far as stress was concerned: They felt threatened (unwelcome, different-poor and black, and overly powerful) and responded in a predictable way to this “unsafe” environment, all in accordance with brain-based research.
  • The behavior of these students had become habitual and appeared overwhelming to them, other students, and adults.
  • Teachers and assistants who had breakfast duty did not know most of the kids.
  • Few people wanted to have breakfast duty; a couple of teachers paid others to take their rotations.

When I served in the cafeteria, my “partner” almost never showed up for more than one day of the week, even with varying “partners.”  However, this time I spent alone in the cafeteria gave me a glimpse of a solution.  And my experience in managing behavior certainly helped.  Even so, I never made more than a dent in the situation.

The next major attempt to stem the rising tide of chaos was to set up morning duty at pivotal locations along all the hallways.  This proved unsuccessful, so ALL non-classroom teachers were required to stand outside their classroom space and monitor the roaming and conflicts which punctuated the start of the day. By the time this group got to their classes, they were late, the other kids were apprehensive at their arrival, and they faced consequences related to fighting, disrespectful behavior, and tardiness.

Of course, we discussed this growing crisis at faculty meetings but I felt that the HEART of the problem was never really addressed.  The chaos had to do with the hearts of students and teachers, or in brain-friendly language, “emotional states.”  Did we truly value these kids or were we as threatened by them as they were by us?  Could we imagine their fears as they boarded the school bus, not looking like most of the school and finding themselves trapped in a cycle of misbehavior?  I do not believe that ANY child comes to school wanting to fail.

The “final” solution to the growing problem was announced at a faculty meeting, greeted by cheers and an almost universal sense of relief: two teacher assistants, one black and one white, would take over breakfast duty.  They would play soothing music.  A principal intern would provide support.  The other administrators would regularly monitor the cafeteria.  With a collective sigh, the problem was handed over to these brave souls.

Want to know what happened?  Check out Part Two!