Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Books that Teach PreK-3rd Grade Thinking Skills

Last week I had the opportunity to present classes on brain-based teaching at Learning@Lovejoy. I mentioned several books that I read my class in addition to the BrainSMART curriculum. Several teachers asked for a list of the books that I use. Here it is!

Courage by Bernard Waber (Courage)
The Worst Day of My Life Ever! By Julia Cook (Listening)
Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook (Understanding Space)
When Pigs Fly, by Valerie Coulman (Optimism)
Thinking for Reading Pre-K – 3rd, by Brainsmart (email

This list is growing and changing, and I will post changes as I make them.

Even though we didn't get this far in the presentation, here is the book I use to determine thinking/processing styles and multiple intelligences: RTI Success. There are forms for both young and older students.

I hope to see you all in the classes next year. Please feel free to leave me some feedback about the class and what you would like to learn more about.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Day 4 of the #30DayBlogChallenge: The 2nd Big Idea for Effective Teaching

Alrighty then! I made it through the first week of school alive. It's going to be a great year. Now I can write day 4 of the 30 day blog challenge (which is actually something like day 12, but who is counting!).

In my last post I talked about the plasticity of the brain as the first big idea for effective teaching in Wilson and Conyer's book Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching. Today I will introduce the second big idea which is closely related to the plasticity of the brain. Potential.

There is a pervasive belief in our society that intelligence is fixed. You've simply got ability or you don't. In light of all the available research on the plasticity of the brain this thought is clearly incorrect. Rather, effort is closely tied to ability. Unfortunately many believe, quite incorrectly, that if they have to put forth an effort then they must lack potential. This is known as a fixed mindset. In the book Wilson and Conyers put it this way,
"Thus, the fixed mindset prevents individuals from achieving their potential in life - or even acknowledging what their true potential might be. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are more likely to keep trying until they achieve their goals, more confident that they will succeed."
This reminds me of a former principal of mine, Kellie Rapp. She encouraged us to apply the growth mindset to our coworkers as well. What an excellent point! Clearly we should think in terms of a growth mindset with our students. However, we tend to get frustrated with coworkers who don't "do their job." Maybe we can gently help them reach their potential rather than getting frustrated.

What does it all mean?
In any event, realizing potential depends on opportunity. We have to give our students (and coworkers) opportunity to develop their potential. "Opportunity includes the environment, education, structure, and time" (Wilson & Conyers). A positive learning environment with a teacher who understands the link between effort and potential is critical for many learners. We must let kids know that their future is in their hands!

My next post will discuss the third big idea for effective teaching. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Day 3 #30dayblogchallenge: The First Big Idea for Effective Teaching

For the third day of the 30 Day Blog Challenge, I'm going to review the first big idea from Wilson and Conyers book, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching.

The first big idea relates to the implications of neural plasticity for learning and teaching. Scientists used to believe that intelligence is fixed, however advances in brain research have proven quite the opposite. This is a concept that both excites and fascinates me because it can be a life changer. Wilson and Conyers cite many studies to support the concept of brain plasticity and its implications and applications to the classroom.

In the book Wilson and Conyers point out, "Low test scores are not a sign that students can't learn but an indication of the need for more informative assessments and intense expert teacher interventions in a positive classroom environment that supports students' beliefs that they can get smarter." As a teacher I can say without hesitation that this is true. The first day of every school year I introduce my students to the concept that their brains are changeable and their intelligence isn't fixed. I tell them that they are the boss of their brains! There are always at least one or two struggling students whose eyes light up when they hear that.  It gives them hope and optimism for the future. It is a gift to see them begin to learn and grow.

Applying this knowledge, I believe my job is to find out how my students learn best and act on that information in a safe and positive classroom environment. Their job is to be aware of their potential and act on that knowledge. This leads right to the second big idea which I will share tomorrow. Thank you for visiting!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Day 2 of the 30 Day Blog Challenge: How Do I Explain My Strategies?

Does it matter that there were a few days between posts 1 and 2? ;)

The new school year begins in my new district on Monday. I'm thinking about all the metacognitive skills I teach my students and how to go about sharing brain-based strategies with those who inquire. The easiest way would be to direct them to the book, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. Wilson and Conyers used several of their BrainSMART graduates as examples of research in action. I'm one of the graduates they used and as a result I, along with other graduates, are referred to throughout the book. Sometimes I find it difficult to articulate exactly what I do in the classroom that is different because brain-based strategies and reasoning permeate everything I do. When I first read the Five Big Ideas I exclaimed, "This is it! This explains it perfectly!"

One thing I love about the book is that it is well researched, yet still an easy and engaging read (at just under 200 pages). That said, I want to touch on the Five Big Ideas over the next few days to give readers an idea of the rich content available in the book. Maybe this will assist me in articulating the range and reasoning of what I do in my classroom. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Day 1 of the 30 Day Blog Challenge: Number Talks

Post updated 08/24/2014

I'm joining the 30 day blog challenge. I've needed the motivation! Today I want to put one of my goals for this school year out there. This way all my friends can help hold me accountable! One of my goals is to fine tune my Number Talks.

What is a Number Talk? 

Number Talks are a fantastic way to increase your students flexibility with numbers. You may think you do number talks already...that's what I thought too. Then I was shown a video of Sherry Parrish (author of Number Talks) demonstrating it. I was blown away. It's mental math on steroids in only 10 minutes! My kids absolutely loved it.

How it Works 

The teacher writes a number problem on the board. Students are given think time. When they have an answer, they give a thumbs up against their chest. The teacher then calls on various students to share their strategy. The amazing thing is that the kids learn the correct terminology for each strategy and are able to assist each other when someone struggles. (I recommend using a different color marker for each strategy used so kids can easily reference previous strategies.) Their confidence soars! Keep in mind that the whole process should last no more than 10 minutes. Here is a video describing Number Talks. Notice how the kids are able to articulate their thoughts (as short as the clip is) and help each other.


The Brain Connection

Another reason I like number talks so much is that allows students to practice holding information in their working memory. The more they practice, the better they get! Can you think of some of your own students that could benefit from that?

Want to know more?

You can get more information from Sherry Parrish's book, Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies.  One thing I appreciate about her book is the videos demonstrating number talks at all the different grade levels K-5. It is definitely worth the money.

For additional support I found a fabulous Number Talks Bundle (pictured below) created by All Sorts of Math on Teachers Pay Teachers. I'll be making good use of it! The super pack includes:

This super pack includes: 
(1) Routine Picture Cards*
(2) Vocabulary Picture Cards
(3) Talking Frames*
(4) Number Strings 
(5) Instructions & Number Sense Rationale*

There are 8 PDF files for each of the 8 Add/Subtraction Strategies:
(1) Addition w/ Doubles/Near Doubles - 3 Categories, 30 Strings
(2) Addition w/ Friendly Numbers - 3 Categories, 30 Strings
(3) Addition w/ Compensation - 3 Categories, 27 Strings
(4) Addition w/ Place Value - 3 Categories, 27 Strings
(5) Addition w/ Adding Up in Chunks - 3 Categories, 27 Strings
(6) Addition w/ Making Tens - 3 Categories, 30 Strings
(7) Subtraction w/ Adding Up - 3 Categories, 27 Strings
(8) Subtraction w/ Removal - 3 Categories, 27 Strings

Click here to go to the Number Talks Bundle
She has number talks for other grade levels listed also.

That's one of my goals for the year...what is one of your goals?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Engaging Brains: How to Enhance Learning by Teaching Kids About Neuroplasticity

This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

Enhancing Student Commitment

Explicitly teaching students about neuroplasticity can have a transformative impact in the classroom. A central facet of our work as teacher educators is teaching about how the brain changes during learning. Many teachers have told us that these findings have had a positive effect on their expectations for their students and on students' perceptions of their own abilities.
Lessons on discoveries that learning changes the structure and function of the brain can engage students, especially when combined with explicit instruction on the use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies that guide them to learn how to learn (Wilson & Conyers, 2013). Using these strategies effectively produces learning gains, which motivate students to take charge of their learning, which leads to further academic success and may have the additional benefit of alleviating classroom management issues. When students see this process as changing their own brains, the result is a powerful and positive cycle.
The force behind this cycle is students' belief that they can get smarter through study and practice, which enhances their commitment to persist in the hard work that learning sometimes requires. Nisbett (2009) reports on classroom research involving seventh graders who were taught that learning changes the brain and that intelligence is expandable. Students in this experimental group did better on math tests than peers who did not receive that instruction.
The same dynamic of persisting to succeed applies to teaching. Keeping the idea of brain plasticity at the forefront of your professional practice offers a constant reminder than when students struggle with lessons, it isn't because they can't learn, but because they need more practice and instructional support.

Strategies for Engagement

Lessons and activities about the power of brain plasticity can take many forms for students of all ages, as the following examples demonstrate.

License to Drive

Remind students that they "drive" their own brains, and teach them useful learning strategies. Second grade teacher Donna Garland leads her students in daily exercises to practice cognitive and metacognitive strategies that they can use in learning all their core subjects. Students' desks are decorated with colorful "brain car" cartoons as reminders that they are in charge of their learning.

Going BIG

Make these lessons a BIG deal. Nichole Galinkin designed a literature-based cognitive skills program she calls "Brains In Gear (BIG): Big Secrets for Thinking and Learning" for the K-3 students in her exceptional education classes. Children explore picture books that reinforce thinking skills, engage in role playing, and talk to teachers, aides and volunteers about how they benefit from thinking about their thinking.
"What I enjoy most of all is listening to the kids as they remind themselves of a catch phrase or a strategy and hearing them share those strategies with others," Ms. Galinkin says. "It's great to actually see them using the information they're learning."
Nichole Galinkin, daughter & brain lesson
In preparation for teaching, Nichole Galinkin and her daughter explore "BIG secrets" about the brain and learning.

Credit: Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Practice, Practice, Practice

Have a ready answer to the question, "Why do we practice so much?" For example, here's a great story about neuroscientists investigating how learning affects the brain. Medical researchers were fascinated with how veteran cab drivers could navigate the busy streets of London so effortlessly and remember all the shortcuts without consulting a map. So they did brain scans and discovered that the cabbies' hippocampal areas, the part of the brain associated with spatial reasoning, were larger than those of other adults. All those years of driving and remembering routes had literally changed their brains. Studies of musicians have found similar results of the impact of practice, practice and more practice.

Room to Improve

Encourage older students to make the most of their brain plasticity, too. By the time high school students make it to Jeremy Green’s AP psychology and U.S. history classes, some seem convinced that their academic shortcomings are innate and permanent. They are resigned to "making do" in their struggles with reading high-level texts, the most common problem Mr. Green encounters among his students.
With the goal of dispelling the misconception that "you're stuck where you are," Mr. Green begins the school year by sharing a presentation titled "Your Brain Is Amazing." He reinforces that message throughout the school year by teaching cognitive strategies alongside core content, such as explicit instruction on the organizational skills that students will need to complete a research project, and tricks for puzzling out the meaning of unfamiliar terms. The same message applies to the football players he coaches: "You're either going to get worse or better, but nobody's going to stay the same."
"Our role as teachers and coaches is to sell them on the idea that they can get better. If we improve, we win -- period," Mr. Green adds. "We talk about this on the first day of class -- how you're not just what you are today, and that hard work really matters."
How do you engage your students in learning how to learn?


Hinton, C., Fischer, K. W., & Glennon, C. Students at the Center: Mind, Brain, and Education [Executive Summary], March 2012.
Nisbett, R. Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. New York, NY: Norton, 2009.
Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2013.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What does neuroplasticity research suggest about the potential of all students to master the 4Cs?

This article by Donna Wilson, Ph.D., is a fantastic look into student potential as it relates to the plasticity of the brain. It is also posted here:

Donna Wilson, Ph.D., is a school/educational psychologist, teacher educator, and author. Her most recent books include Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press) and Flourishing in the First Five Years: Connecting Implications from Mind, Brain, and Education Research to the Development of Young Children (Rowman & Littlefield Education). She is cofounder and academic team leader at the Center for Innovative Education and Prevention (CIEP).

Driving Question: What does neuroplasticity research suggest about the potential of all students to master the 4Cs?
By Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

The discovery that learning changes the structure and function of the brain (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) has the potential to transform education in both profound and practical ways—if we can, once and for all, dislodge persistent misconceptions that obscure this promise.

Neuroplasticity is one of Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching (Wilson and Conners, 2013). It  contributes to a necessary foundation, a conceptual framework, for teacher education and professional learning. Calfee (2006) identifies neuroplasticity as one of four “reallyimportant problems” that merit continued study to advance educational practice. Likewise, Dubinsky, Roehrig, and Varma propose that “the neurobiology of learning, and in particular the core concept of plasticity, have the potential to directly transform teacher preparation and professional development, and ultimately to affect how students think about their own learning” (2013, p. 317).

Psychologists refer to the class of neuroplasticity that describes how the brain changes in response to what we hear, see and do as experience-dependent synaptogenesis (Lightfoot, Cole, & Cole, 2009). This term captures how the brain creates new synapses (neural connections) based on one’s unique experiences in day to day life. “Experience-dependent synaptogenesis is the mechanism that can turn what we do into what we know” (Wilson & Conyers, p. 33). Vocabulary development is an example of this form of plasticity: the more we read and learn new words, the broader our vocabulary. We can continue to expand our knowledge of words throughout our lives.

The transformational power of neuroplasticity lies in how we think about students’ potential to learn and whether students believe they can get smarter if they commit to the hard
work required to advance academically. Within this context, teachers, administrators, students and other community members alike can come to accept that virtually all students have the capacity to learn when provided the supportive environment and experiences to do so.

Embracing this perspective requires setting aside widely held but often unacknowledged and erroneous assumptions embedded in our society about innate intellectual capacity and “natural talent.” Are some people just born communicators (or teachers)? Is creativity an inherent trait? Should we steer students toward specific academic or vocational studies based on current assessments of their analytic, creative, and interpersonal abilities? Should virtually all students be taught thinking strategies, or only those labeled as gifted?

By taking a constructive view “of genes as phenomena that enable rather than constrain behavior” (Sylvester, 2010, p. 18), we can move forward to create policies and schools that help equip all students with the four Cs they need to succeed in school and in the workplace.

Equally important is the finding that neuroplasticity is not confined to the very young. Experience-dependent synaptogenesis is at work throughout our lives, powering lifelong learning—and, more to the point of this discussion, educators’ capacity to continue to learn as they practice throughout their careers. As one teacher told us, “educators and leaders will benefit [from learning about neuroplasticity] as they recognize that learning never stops, regardless of an individual’s age.” Another teacher put it more memorably: “In essence, you can teach an old dog new tricks” (Wilson & Conyers, 2013, p. 37).

Among the practical applications that arise from this research are these strategies for teaching and learning (Bransford et al., 2000; Centre for Education Research and Innovation, 2007):
  • Teach students about the power of their brains’ plasticity to help them achieve whatever goals they set for themselves in school and in life. Students who receive explicit instruction that they have the capacity to become functionally smarter are more likely to keep trying when learning gets tough.
  • Rely on formative assessment to identify where each student stands currently in terms of critical skill development and to chart a path to continue the progression toward mastery.
  • In teaching core subjects such as math and reading, emphasize “big ideas” like conceptualizing math operations and employing reading comprehension strategies rather than a focus only on rote memorization of math facts and words.
  • Think out loud, model problem-solving strategies for students, and invite them to share their own solutions to underscore that there is no one right way to learn. Share a variety of analytic and creative approaches, and encourage students to try out and adapt those that work best for them.
  • Beyond the classroom, educate others within the community to understand that virtually all students can succeed at school when the necessary conditions for students to flourish are present in communities as well as schools.
In the mid-1990s I completed research in doctoral studies in educational psychology followed by post-doctoral work studying structural cognitive modifiability overseas. My goal was to become the best teacher educator I could be by providing learning experiences to prospective teachers and administrators to create equitable schooling for our nations’ children.
The practical and hopeful work of cognitive theorists Robert Sternberg and Reuven Feuerstein, as well as other mounting evidence from research in cognitive psychology and education dramatically changed my thinking. Both theorists were writing about capacity to increase our functional intelligence. Steeped in research still often unused in education, I began to see new potential in myself, in other adults, and in students across the spectrum of current achievement. Sharing the applications of that research, as well as findings in educational neuroscience, remains central to my work in teacher education.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Calfee, R. C. (2006). Educational psychology in the 21st century. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 29‒42). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (Eds.). (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Danvers, MA: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Dubinsky, J. M., Roehrig, G., & Varma, S. (2013, August/September). Infusing neuroscience into teacher professional development. Educational Researcher, 42(6), 317‒329.
Lightfoot, C., Cole, M., & Cole, S. R. (2009). The development of children (6th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.
Sylvester, R. (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
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Saturday, November 9, 2013

How to Plan and Schedule Guided Reading Groups

Planning for Guided Reading can be a particularly daunting task. Especially if you want to meet with your lowest groups every day, and every single group at least once a week. Throw in a few assemblies, library time, and any other number of interruptions and it's a hair pulling experience! I'd like to share my solution for planning all this out.

Determine Student Reading Levels
At the beginning of the year, I look at the data from the end of the previous year to temporarily group the kids. I know some teachers wait for students to take a computerized assessment (iStation) to begin grouping, however if you simply look at data (DRA and guided reading levels) from last year you'll have your groups the first week of school when teaching procedures. Waiting for classes to get set up in the computer and getting your class scheduled for testing takes weeks.

Once you know your levels, you can group the kids by reading level. I have no more than four to a group, and my number of groups can range anywhere from 6 to 9 depending on my range of readers. Then I arrange my groups beginning with the lowest group (figure 1).
Figure 1

Scheduling Your Groups
The next step is to plan out your groups on a calendar. Since you have your groups numbered lowest to highest, this becomes quite easy.  The trick is to look ahead for any assemblies, library time, holidays, etc. that will interfere with your lowest groups and make adjustments as necessary (figure 2).

Figure 2
Once you have the rotations on your calendar, it is easy to transfer the teacher table schedule over to your planning sheets. Below is the first page of my weekly station rotation sheet with my teacher table rotations filled in (figure 3).

Figure 3

Working Stations around Teacher Table
Now I can fill in my other station rotations without interfering with my teacher table plans (figure 4). My students know what stations to go to by looking at my handy dandy Debbie Diller Work Station Pocket Chart.

Figure 4

However, we need to get back to the teacher table! Now that I know my schedule, I can plan my specific lessons. Below is my daily guided reading lesson planner (figure 5).

Figure 5

That is how I plan and schedule my guided reading groups. I know I'm meeting with all my groups, and that my lowest groups are getting necessary interventions. Plus, I have the documentation needed to prove it! 

You can download blank copies of my forms here: 
I just use a random school calendar.

I will create another post to show how I decide what to teach each child/group once they are at the teacher table.