Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Brain Based Teaching

Brain based teaching, isn't this what happens in all classrooms?  We teach information, the information enters their brains!  Done and done!  Of course we all know that brain based teaching is much more complicated than that.  Research into this area is more prevalent than ever before and as educators we need to take advantage of the knowledge available to us.  This knowledge can change our instruction and make it even more meaningful to our students.  While brain research is complicated (let's leave that to the experts), ways to apply this research in the classroom can be quite simple. 

Eight Brain Based Teaching Strategies
1.  Temperature
Keep the temperature in your classroom consistent.  The comfort zone is around 70.  Too hot temperatures can increase anxiety and aggression.  Too cold temperatures can be distracting.  As a teacher you can take off or put on a sweater to adjust your comfort level but the brains of your class need to be in the zone.
2   Bright Lighting
Maintain a consistent level of lighting all day.  The best light is natural daylight for serotonin production.  In the absence of that bright artificial lighting will help alertness.   (Disclaimer-flickering or humming florescent lights are not helpful.)
3.  Flexible Seating
Row seating helps student focus on the task at hand.  In fact, time on task dramatically increases when students are in rows.  However cooperative learning fosters discussion and interactive tasks.  Both of these are key in helping our students be successful.  The answer is to provide both types of seating.  Keep your floor plan flexible.
4.  Chunks
Keep your lessons mini!  Teach your mini-lesson, then give children the time to process the information.  Children need breaks and downtime for the brain to rest for the brain to recover.  If you teach too much content at once the student brain will overload and not retain anything.
5.  Intrinsic Motivation
There are many ways to work on building intrinsic motivation in your students.  One way is to give students choice.  Giving authentic choice to students helps provide power and authentic learning.  Providing choice is one of the hardest things for teachers to do at times, but it is necessary for your students to build autonomy.
6. Movement
Give students the opportunity to move around the room.  Take body breaks to increase the blood flow to the brain.  Allow students to stand occasionally for learning periods.  Incorporate physical rituals (cheers, chants, stretches, etc.).  Recess and physical education are both crucial ways to get movement in but it needs to be incorporated into the classroom as well. 
7.  Connections
Make learning personal for your students..  Use learning reflections, journals, letter writing, and share time to actively engage your learners.  Very often teachers  cut the "share" portion at the end of reading or writing workshop due to time constraints but the opportunity to share is often the most motivating.  Another tip is to connect the lesson to a current event or a real-life application.
8.  Presentation
Begin and end your lesson with the most important material that you want the students to take away.  Mix in music, videos, props to increase interest and engagement.  Boredom is actually a stressor for a child's brain.  Novelty boosts learning!

This is just a smattering of the available tips and advice that are out there regarding brain based learning.  It can be overwhelming to read through all the information, but I suggest you pick one place to start and gradually build upon that.  You don't need to be an expert in neuroscience to start shifting your classroom to be more brain based.  A little research and your class can start reaping the rewards this year!

A sample of websites:

Brain Based Learning
Edutopia Brain Based Resources


 A sample of recommended books:

 Product Details

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Active Engagement Strategies

I read this powerful statistic excerpt on Edutopia recently:

"In his book Results Now, Dr. Michael Schmoker shares a powerful study.  Of 1,500 classrooms visited, 85 percent of them had engaged less than 50 percent of the students.  In other words, only 15 percent of the classrooms had more than half of the class paying attention to the lesson."

My first reaction was WOW!  That is a very small percentage of students!  How does this affect their learning?  It doesn't take a PhD to realize this is not good for growth, not good at all.

Active engagement is students actively participating in meaningful and authentic learning.  It's not easy to structure every single part of your day so every single student is actively engaged!  But try we must!  You'll find that introducing some simple strategies to involve all students will create a base that you can build on. 

*Set reasonable rules and routines for your classroom.  (Think like Goldilocks-not too many rules, not too few rules, just the right amount for your age level.)  In establishing rules and routines keep them realistic. Explicitly teach the rules and routines, over and over again if necessary.  Without a good management system you will not be able to keep the kids actively engaged.

*Design your lessons around a gradual release model.  Don't lecture and then expect your students to go out and work independently immediately.  Your struggling students will give up as soon as you start talking.

Doug Fisher explains Gradual Release

*Keep your mini-lessons brief.  Remember the capacity to pay attention is around 1 minute for each year (10 year old=10 minutes).  Start with a very brief review of yesterday's lesson.  Give students a relateable meaningful reason why you are teaching that skill.  Deliver your lesson at a brisk pace.  Always end the lesson with a link to their independent work.

*Use think-pair-share.  This is my number one go-to for getting kids to participate.  Depending on your class you may want to designate partner #1 and partner #2.  Then you can start a question or command with "Partner #1 turn and tell Partner #2...".  This will make sure you don't have one student dominating the conversation.


*Active Reading-Don't round robin (or popcorn)!  Instead try one of these:
echo reading
choral reading
cloze reading
partner reading
whisper reading
jigsaw reading (content)
stop and think reading
teacher reading
switch-off reading

A great resource book:

Product Details

 *Use collaborative groups whenever possible. Some group tips:
  • establish a variety of grouping choices for different activities
  • keep size small
  • use consistently
  • have individual and group expectations (and explicitly teach them)
This is just a small sampling of the many techniques and activities out there that can keep your students actively engaged.  Remember-don't overwhelm yourself!  Start with a few strategies, and once those have been solidified with your class, add more. You'll find yourself an active engagement pro in no time!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Students in Poverty

Last week some of our staff went through a very intense training on students living in poverty.  It was definitely a "head nodding" two days as I could relate to many of the things being presented.  My buildings have around 55% of our students receiving free and reduced lunch.  The gaps between the "haves and have-nots" is painfully obvious.  I know this, especially, because I work primarily with the at-risk population.  But I had to ask myself "do I remember every day that these children are living in poverty"?

You see I've read many books on the topic.  My heart melts for these children.  The empathy I have is never ending.  However was this impacting my teaching and interactions on a daily basis?  Raw honesty says I was probably not conscious of it every day.  That's not good enough because, quite frankly, these kids need me to be every day!

Some things we need to do for all students but especially our most needy:
1.  Form strong relationships built on respect.
  • More rapport=more motivation for learning 
  • Respect is not only verbal but non-verbal.  Think about your body language and facial expressions.
  • Provide structure, consistency, and support

2.  Teach the hidden rules of school.
  •  Personal space, privacy, level of voice, apologies, courtesies, promises 
  • Not knowing the hidden rules of school can make school very difficult for a child
  • Don't assume students know them.  They may not be taught or modeled at home.  It's up to us!

3.  Teach students how to plan.
  • Use/model planning behaviors (color coding, checklists, written steps)
  • If you don't plan you can't predict what will happen.  It's impossible to see the cause-effect if you can't predict.

4.  Think about the voice used when speaking to students. 
  • Non-judgmental, factual, positive
  • Look at the student as a participant in the conversation

5.  Teach using models
  • pictures, sketching, two-dimensional model
  • stories, analogies, metaphors

6.  Get to know the family resources and dynamics. 
  • What truly is going on at home?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  Violence?  Neglect?  Can we help?  If we can't help out of school what can we do in school for the child?
  • Be open and welcoming to the families.  Bend over backwards to get them involved.  Make a positive contact right away (in person, by phone, note) to build rapport.  Make school a positive experience for them.  It probably was not when they were growing up.
It's our job to help all children build their emotional resources.  You may have gone into teaching thinking you would have to teach school subjects.  Surprise!  That may be the least of what you're teaching.  You're truly teaching life skills.  For some of our students this instruction might be the difference between being stuck in the cycle of poverty or escaping.

A sampling or resources for meeting the needs of our children in poverty:

Eric Jensen has several books out there with a heavy emphasis on brain research.
Eric Jensen Website

Ruby Payne also has a great deal of information for educators.
Ruby Payne Website

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Leadership Lessons

This week I have the pleasure of working as a facilitator at the MiELA Network's Professional Learning for Literacy Leaders Conference.  There are so many amazing things going on at this conference including exciting keynotes, grade level break outs, and encore "after conference" sessions.  Trust me, check out their website below for more information.

MiELA Website

Apparently, since I am a facilitator at this conference, I am considered a literacy leader.  Seems like a daunting title.  I definitely approached this week with nervousness and intrepedation.  Do they really need me?   What in the world could I teach people?  There won't be an evaluation at the end will there?  As I stood in the room of the breakout session of second grade teachers it hit me, I wasn't there to lead them, I was there to work with them.  We are all learning from each other.  Each person has a different story, classroom experience, tip, or frustration to share.  Our knowledge of writing workshop is all over the map.  Our districts are all over the mitten (Michigan reference).  Our teaching experience ranged from newbie to salty old dog.  It makes no difference because we are all here to learn more about writing, writing workshop, and the MAISA writing units.  Bottom line, we are all here to figure out together "what's best for our kids"!

To be in such a unique professional learning community is inspiring and encouraging.  You may not feel that is within your reach but it is.  There are many ways to stay in touch with other educators to keep that "great workshop buzz" feeling all year long.

Explore the world of Twitter.  You can connect with educators all over the world.  Tweet an education question to the "Twitter World" and get answers from all over.  Many of your favorite educational gurus are on Twitter as well.  You can read their snippets of wisdom and be inspired daily.

Adobe Connect or Google +
Set up a group of like minded educators on Adobe Connect of Google +.  This will enable you to keep in touch after a conference throughout the year.  So beneficial if you are implementing a new practice or the only educator trying something in your building.  Share your questions, celebrations, and frustrations from the comfort of your living room!

Become a blog reader.  This link will take you to a list of excellent educational blogs but there are so many more out there.  A blog is a great way to stay up to the mind on educational practices.  Again there is often that interactive piece; post a question or comment and you will most likely get a response.

Pro Teacher Forum or A-Z Forum
Try out a forum if you prefer a more anonymous experience.  Read boards and learn from other people's experiences.  Post questions are receive help almost instantly.  Forums are great ways to get topic or grade level specific.

This week makes me aware that we can't thrive as a teacher alone.  We need communities to talk, collaborate, and express ourselves with.  If you don't have that in your school hallway or building get out and find yourself a professional learning community.  They are out there waiting for you! So I suppose I am a literacy leader, but so is each and every person in Room 204 (and 203, and 201, etc., etc.) but we need each other to reach our full potential.  And to help our students reach theirs!

If you are nervous or intimidated about being a leader, hopefully this video will inspire you...
Leadership Lessons

Monday, April 15, 2013

Real Reading Real Work

When was the last time you picked up an anthology to read at home?  (What's that you say?  Never.)

What day last week did you choose to do a worksheet to practice something you had learned?  (That's what I thought!)

If we, as adults, would not choose these two "literacy" activities, how do we expect our students to become engaged with them.  Are we practicing a "do as I say, not as I do" type of teaching?  It's time to make reading more meaningful for our class.  Step away from the basal, back off the worksheets and inject some real reading into your reading class!

*Let your students read "real" books.  Get them book baskets, tubs, bags, etc. and let them select good fit books to go in them.  Your students will be excited to have choice.  Give them time every day to read, read, read.  In fact maximize their reading by training them to pick up a book when they free time at school.  (I say train them because most will not inherently pick up a book from the get-go, you will have to model and set the procedures.)  Ditch the warm-ups and fillers for reading real books.  Stop putting up walls of "what to do when you are finished" ideas and have them read.  Think of how many more minutes of reading your class could squeeze in each day if you did this!

Ways to get books to your kids...

*Incorporate different types of reading into your room.  (Internet articles, newspapers, magazines, comics, cartoons, anime, kid created work, etc.)  Think of it as a buffet, and what child doesn't get excited by a buffet-all those choices!

Article a Day resource

*Stop beating them over the head with the basal.  I realize some districts require the use of basal but be selective when using it.  Pick out the best stories to teach the most relevant strategies for your class.  Do not do every page, do not ask every recommended question, do not do all those worksheets!  If you teach a strategy using the basal, have them practice the strategy with a book of their choice.  The goal should for all should be practical application.

Basal Programs

*Incorporate reading clubs.  Reading clubs are for students at or near the same level, who share the similar interests.  Reading clubs are different than book clubs in that students may or may not read the same exact text.  Children collaborate together on the work and spend time discussing the reading material.  The teacher spends time conferring with groups or partnerships to get a real glimpse at comprehension.

*Make your assessment formative and applicable.  The purpose of formative instruction is to quickly assess, get immediate feedback, and adjust instruction accordingly.  Formative assessment is meant to encourage students to apply, analyze, and think critically about the material.  A fill-in the blank worksheet does not accomplish the same thing!  For examples of formative assessment check out the links below:

Examples of Formative Assessment
Samples of Formative Assessment
NWEA-Formative Assessment Ideas

Reading is fun when reading is real to children.  After all our ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners and deep thinkers. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Talking, Talking, Comprehending?

This past weekend was the annual Michigan Reading Association Conference.  Several days of action and information packed sessions from Peter Johnston to Doug Fisher to our own regional experts.  Having attended twelve sessions over two days it was clear that a common theme was wound through every session.  Children need to talk to comprehend.

Do you like the sound of your own voice?  This is a facetious question but most educators are used to being the center of attention.  We became teachers because we like to talk, we like to help, and we like to take charge.  These are all excellent qualities in an educator.  Are we doing too much of the talking and taking charge in our classrooms (thinking we are helping)?  If so, it's time to turn things over to the kids.  They need to talk to comprehend.  Here are some simple ways to incorporate:

1.  Establish think, pair, share partnerships.  Whether your students are on the carpet or at their seats, they should always have someone to turn and talk to.  I like to make one partner #1 and the other #2.  It's easy to say "1s tell 2s what your prediction is" or "2s explain to 1s what you think the meaning of that word is".  Everyone gets to participate throughout the discussion (even the fly under the radar kids).

2.  Don't skip the share!  Too often in reading and writing workshop, when time has to be trimmed, we skip the sharing.  This is so important and it is how kids build those crucial reflection skills.  Make time for your kids to share their reading and writing whether it's whole group, small group, triads, or partners.  You might even mix it up (that's what I call three ring circus).

3. Let students be the models.  If we always stand up and explain everything it may seem out of reach to some of our students.  Children in your classroom can take an active role in explaining things, whether it be rules and procedures, assignment directions, or the meaning of a word.  Give an opportunity to your students for them to be the expert.

4.  Create reading clubs.  Allow kids to get together and share what they are reading, what skills they are using, and reflect on their choices.  Reading clubs are different than book clubs in that everyone may bring a different book to share.  If your classroom is following Daily 5 this is an excellent chance for them to model to the group their selected strategy from the CAFE Menu.

Below are some resources that give even more detailed ideas in how to incorporate talk in your classroom to enhance comprehension:

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mid Year's Resolutions

January is met with a different perspective from a teacher viewpoint.  While it is a NEW YEAR for everyone else, it marks the halfway point in our school year.  It's a time to reflect back on how much your class has grown, ponder what they still need to learn, and map out the rest of the year.  In the spirit of New Year's Resolutions I've compiled some Mid Year's Resolutions for teachers.

1.  Reteach classroom behavior expectations after break.  Think of how undisciplined you become over break (stay up late, sleep in, cut loose, etc.), kids are the same way.  Just like it takes us time to get back in our routine as adults, it takes time for the children too.  Spend time when you get back going over all the routines and expectations and it will pay off.

2.  Model, model, model.  Give the students a chance to model read to self, writing workshop, math games, etc. for their classmates.  Involve them more in behavior and academic expectations.  Positive reinforcement works wonders, let the kids shine.

3.  Offer choice to your class.  If you have been having a hard time letting go (are there any teachers out there who don't have some control freak issues?) try to offer choice in at least one area.  Gradual release of responsibility is important as we are trying to grow independent thinkers.  Start offering some learning choices.  Your class will not get out of control and the kids will still learn!

4.  Rethink "warm-up activities" or "after you finish work".  Are your students really learning something from such activities?  Are they learning it with any permanence?   Or is this just a means of keeping them busy while you accomplish other things?  Think about having them read during transitions/downtime.  (They could even choose what to read-see #3.)  You could add 20-30 minutes of additional reading to each day by simply eliminating the busy work.

5.  Un-fluff your lesson plans.  Time is a huge constraint in teaching.  How do we fit it all in?  Really examine your lesson plans and see if there are activities in there that are not relevant.    Occasionally we go overboard trying to make learning "fun" for the students with all sorts of fanfare, special projects, lengthy thematic units, and special days.  This just stresses us out as teachers too.  Think about what your students really need to be successful learners and competent students and trim the fluff.

6.  Go deep, not wide.  We hear this a lot with the CCSS!  Look at your math program, reading series, etc. next to the CC standards and pick out what is most important.  Better yet work as a grade level team to decide where the focus needs to be.  Pull in all that data that you have gathered, that oftentimes gathers dust, and really did into what your class needs.  If they have mastered a skill-move on!  You can't teach it all so figure out what are the non-negotiables.

7.  Reflect on how the year has gone so far.  Think about the growth of your class.  Examine your benchmark data.  Look into yourself to dissect what has gone well and what has gone wrong.  You are only half-way through the year.  Things can change!  You steer the boat!

8.  Visit another classroom.  Check out the grade above or below you.  It's easy to get in a bubble but seeing another teacher at work is one of the most valuable forms of professional development.

9.  Read a professional book, article, or blog.  After a teacher has been teaching awhile it is easy to get in a rut.  Reading something professionally reminds us what it's like to be a learner.  We are so busy directing the learning that it is sometimes hard for us to sit back and take in something new, let alone apply it.  Yet we expect our students to do that everyday!  Ask around for a professional book recommendation.  There are so many wonderful readable resources out there (not the 600+ page education pedagogy tomes you lugged around in college).  It may spark in you the need for a change or it could be the affirmation you needed that you are on the right course.  If you are commitment phobic pick up an educational journal or follow an educational blogger.  Prefer an even more rapid form of professional development?  Get on Twitter where there are thousands and thousands of educators tweeting professional wisdom every second!

10.  Pick one thing you want to change for next year!  As you are reflecting on the year so far, think about what you would do different next year.  To make effective changes a solid plan needs to be in place.  This takes time.  We often get inspiration over the summer when we are feeling refreshed. But when the beginning of the school year gets overwhelming our best intentions fall apart.  Think about what you will do differently in September now, map it out, test out snippets, lay groundwork.  It's easier to troubleshoot new programs, routines, and curriculum changes when you have a real class in front of you.  Come summer you can dive in full force and create your plan.  Get your grunt work done before September and your implementation will go smoother (stress levels will be lower too).

Mid-winter break will be here before you know it!