Thursday, December 29, 2011

Teach Thinking Skills to Increase Learning in Class and Life

The first days of school that year found me in a panic. I had all these great ideas and strategies, but most of my students couldn’t focus long enough to listen, couldn’t follow directions, couldn’t understand when to stop talking, or manage any of the basic learning skills I had come to expect in a new class. After going home deflated and exhausted several days in a row, I realized that there was no point in trying to teach content when the kids did not have the basic skills needed to learn.  Something had to happen.

That Something
That something was a strategy I learned in a BrainSMART class. It was in the curriculum Thinking for Reading by Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. I remember when I was going through the class I thought the skills would help far beyond reading. Fast-forward and I realized
NOW would be the perfect time to see how well the curriculum would work in an extreme setting. I frantically grabbed the curriculum set and held onto it as if it were my lifeline to sanity…which it did turn out to be. The curriculum came with a teacher’s manual, a class set of reproducibles, and a CD. I became quick friends with the copy machine (okay, it was really a love/hate relationship) and started making copies of the discussion pages. Just a note: this curriculum is for grades Pre-K through 3, however the concepts are valid for any age or grade.

Introducing the Curriculum
I introduced the curriculum to a previous class by teaching one skill a week for ten weeks. With this class, I ramped it up to two skills a week for five weeks. There was no time to lose! The first week the kids learned Practical Optimism with an adorable optimistic puppy. There is a recorded story about the puppy that taught the importance of optimism, and a set of corresponding coloring pages with discussion points. Listening to this story was literally the first time I had seen the entire class quiet and focused! After the story we discussed the importance of optimism and gave examples of optimistic behavior. It is very important as a teacher to model optimism for your students as well.

The Skills
This continued for five weeks. There is a story, discussion points, and coloring pages for each skill. We learned:

Practical Optimism
Understanding Space
Understanding Time
Focus – Selective Attention
Working Memory
Systematic Search
Systematic Planning
Appropriate Courage
Making Comparisons

These concepts became part of our daily language and discussion. I could see changes beginning slowly class wide. I was exceptionally rewarded one day when I saw a student who had a particularly difficult time keeping his hands and body to himself, stop himself from running into another student. He just froze himself in place and said, “Understanding Space!” then went on his own way leaving the other child alone. You would have to know the child to understand what a big deal that was for him to do. I almost cried! Another time a child started to yell out, then stopped and whispered, “Understanding Time.” She then sat quietly with her hand raised.

Here is a video of my current students sharing the thinking skills and saying how these skills apply to both life and reading.

These concepts are not internalized overnight, it is definitely a process. However, the process is worthwhile and can have a positive lifelong impact on a child. Teacher modeling and frequent discussion are essential. Once these skills began to be internalized by students, things became much better in class. I kept my sanity, learning took place, and we all survived!

(If you are interested in the curriculum I mentioned, it is called Thinking for Reading by Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. It is available on the BrainSMART website here: Scroll down to Thinking for Reading Primary Grades (PreK - 3rd)).
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Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Changing Kids' Lives One Quote At a Time

I don’t often do book reviews on my blog, but Steve Reifman’s new book Changing Kids’ Lives One Quote At a Time: 121 Inspirational Sayings to Build Character in Children is one I must share!

As the title implies, Mr. Reifman offers 121 inspirational sayings to share with your students.  He targets 13 “Habits of Character,” a list that includes Cooperation, Courage, Fairness, Honesty, Kindness, Patience, Perseverance, Positive Attitude, Pride, Respect, Responsibility, Self-discipline, and Service. The book spirals through the 13 character traits offering multiple opportunities to touch on and discuss each one. 

What makes the book so fabulous in my opinion is the practical strategies he offers for using the quotes to build character in students. He provides overall journal prompts, and possible discussion points for each quote. This is a book that can be used daily or several times a week.

My blog readers know how important I think it is to teach thinking skills. That is what this book does by teaching students to think deeply about character and its impact on their lives. Great job Mr. Reifman!

Both the paperback version and e-book version are now available on Steve's website, and they will soon be available at all major online bookstores. For more information, visit Steve Reifman’s website:

The Educational Pendulum and the Controlling District

English: The seconds pendulum, a pendulum with...Image via Wikipedia

Anyone who has been in education for very long is familiar with the dreaded pendulum. It goes something like this… Everyone MUST use centers!... (insert pendulum swing here)…No more centers, only direct instruction!... (insert pendulum swing here)…No direct instruction, everyone must now use stations! You get the idea. Stations are merely centers under a different name. I even heard of a teacher getting chastised for calling her stations “centers” because the children would view it as play if they were called centers. What? Other pendulum swings are phonics vs whole language, timed math facts vs none, the list goes on and on.

Classroom teachers watch the pendulum swing back and forth. We take the good from each pendulum swing and incorporate it into what we know works for our kids. Effective teachers use different strategies for different students, subjects, and situations. In my opinion, the danger lurks in the district or school where the teachers are forced to use the trend each pendulum swing presents at the exclusion of other strategies.  I have discovered through the twitterverse that those districts are actually out there.  They burn out good teachers and stifle creativity. Hopefully you are not in one. There has to be a balance. 

Allow teachers to do what they are trained to do in their own classroom without penalizing them if they aren’t on board 100% with the latest pendulum swing. Recognize that there is more than one way to achieve student success. Student success should be the key. Provide not only traditional professional development, but give teachers a platform to train each other! My district is fabulous about giving teachers the opportunity to train each other.  Support successful teachers and help train struggling ones. But don’t penalize successful teachers by forcing them to use every educational trend that comes along at the exclusion of all others.  Balance is the key. Rant finished.

Are you in an overbearing district? What do you think the solutions are?

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Introduce Thinking Stems to Your Class

Last year Angie Rumsey introduced me to the concept of Thinking Stems. In a thinking stem, students write their thinking strategies about their reading. It turned out to be a fabulous tool to encourage students to dig deeper and really THINK about the books they read.  I noticed a marked improvement in reading, writing, written expression, punctuation, and grammar.  Several teachers have asked me about the process I used to introduce the thinking stems to my class. I’m sure there are several wonderful ways to introduce them, but I’m going to share my process here.

First Step – Setting the Stage

I tell my students that there is something called the “language of learning”. This language is for thinking and is used across all subjects and into our everyday lives. It includes things like: schema, inferring, visualizing, questioning, synthesizing, and predicting (among others). I share that many people eventually figure this language out themselves, but our class will have a jump on those other people because we are learning and practicing these critical thinking skills in 2nd grade!

Teaching the Concepts

The next step is to introduce each thinking skill. I introduce one a week using a guided reading format. This way they have an entire week to practice using each skill. Choose a good book to read to your class. I used Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  The first skill I introduce is schema. It’s an easy skill for kids to use since they are connecting events in the book to things in their lives or to things they already know. Begin by modeling using your own schema as you read. Next, ask the students to contribute when they think of a connection. You may need to tell them to keep it short though! After reading, ask students to share with each other any other connections they made with their schema.

Writing the First Thinking Stem

After reading and introducing schema, tell students they will get regular practice with their thinking skills by writing something called a “thinking stem”.  I show students the format of a reading thinking stem on a poster I wrote. It reads:

I am reading (name of book) by (name of author). In the story (tell what is happening right now in the story). (Use two or more thinking skills.) (Write a closing sentence.)

I let students know that I will help them write the first few thinking stems before they write them on their own. 

To begin, I write on the board for them to copy: I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story…
Here we stop and discuss the difference between the “big idea” of the story, and what is happening “right now” in the story. I tell them to save the big idea for their summaries. We talk about what exactly is happening in the story. We work together to come up with a sentence or two which I then write on the board.
Now we have: I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story the kids are tired after a long day at the fair. Wilbur is upset because a pig named Uncle is bigger than him. It reminds me of…
Again we pause to offer ideas about what the story reminds us of (schema). After discussing several, we decide on …it reminds me of when I was tired after a long day at the fair. Now we discuss closing sentences and decide on: This is a great book.

Our final thinking stem looks like this:

I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story the kids are tired after a long day at the fair. Wilbur is upset because a pig named Uncle is bigger than him. It reminds me it reminds me of when I was tired after a long day at the fair. This is a great book.

Here is a sample of what one student wrote:


Moving On

We continue to write the thinking stems together like this for the first three days using the schema we discuss during the daily story time. You’ll notice at this point, many students will break off to write their own schema and closing sentences. The final two days of the first week, I write the thinking stem framework on the board, but they fill in the blanks with their own wording.

Things to Watch For

Some students will want to write a retelling of the story rather than one or two sentences. A few others will write the words “In my story…” with nothing after it and then launch right into their schema. Many will leave off the closing sentence.
Some students will complain that they have to write so much. After a few weeks though, they will ASK to write thinking stems!

The Second Week

During the second week you will introduce another thinking skill. Again, you’ll introduce it during story time. I usually introduce predictions next. Model using it and then give the students a chance to try it as you read to them.  Now when students write their thinking stem, they will use two thinking skills. One for schema and one for predictions.

The Third Week

The third week things will change a bit again. Introduce your third skill during story time. I like to introduce visualize here. Do your modeling and gradual release. At this point in the process, I like to release students into reading groups. In their groups, they discuss their thinking skills as they read together. Now when students write their thinking stems, it has stepped up a notch. They will use visualize as their first thinking skill, and then choose between schema and prediction for their second skill. Now they are writing about the book from their reading groups…NOT the story time book. This requires more effort and you will see wonderful growth!

Be sure to circulate around the groups making sure they are actively using and discussing their thinking skills correctly as they read.

Fourth Week

From this point on, you will continue to introduce each skill during story time, model, and gradual release into reading groups. Students will use the new thinking skill and at least one other skill in each thinking stem. By now you should already be seeing some significant changes in their ability to use thinking skills, and in their writing.  By this time, we are no longer writing a thinking stem every day.

Here is another sample from same student after the fourth week:

Things to Watch For

Make sure students are applying the thinking skills correctly. Inferring can be a tough one.
I highly recommend letting students share their thinking stems as it gives them more motivation. I have my students blogging theirs here: (I grade and correct spelling before students post to the blog), however sharing them in front of the class would be motivating as well.


Obviously it's important for students to get regular feedback in order to see growth.


As you introduce the skills, be sure to model using them across all curriculum. Also let parents know what skills you are teaching and they should also model using the skills at home.

The order you introduce the skills is up to you. You know your students best and what they’re ready for. If you notice your kids are having difficulty with a particular skill, give it another week before introducing a new one.

Once students have a firm grasp on the skills, have them apply the skills in writing to other subjects such as math, science, and social studies, etc.

You will be thrilled to see their progress as their thinking stems evolve.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Marriage of Thinking Skills and Blogging for Students

A picture I painted of my boys when they were young

When my children were growing up, I was careful to teach them not to believe everything they were told. Not just from friends either. I meant television, books, Internet, and yes…even school. I taught my sons to THINK, to analyze, question, and to know WHY they believed what they believed.  My sons are now 18 and 20, and I’m just so proud of their frontal lobe development…*sniff*...! Seriously though, I am very proud of my sons and how they choose to be thinkers.  During my BrainSMART courses, this pattern of thought was confirmed and expanded upon. It’s the language of learning that we all know as schema, questioning, visualizing, etc. 

Teaching the Skills
The "Good Reader" poster on the left side panel of this page lists the thinking skills I teach my second graders. I would be teaching these same skills (although more in-depth) if I had high-schoolers. The poster is for reading, but it is important to point out that these skills are applicable across all content areas. This is the language of learning. As a side note, it is particularly important to explicitly tell learning-disabled students that they are learning the ‘language of learning’.
I introduce one skill a week. I describe the skill, model using it, and then we practice. We apply the skill across all content areas, and I encourage parents to do the same at home.

Practicing the Skills
One way we practice is by writing thinking stems about a book we are reading. For example, my students have learned schema and predictions so far. Here is one of the first independent thinking stems one of my 2nd grade students wrote:

I am reading Smarter Than Squirrels by Lucy Nolan. In my story Down Girl and Sit stole a bag of donuts. Ruff was not happy. In fact he was so unhappy he chased them all the way home. Sit thought that Ruff was following him because he didn’t know the way home. This reminds me of when we went to a donut shop and my dog stole my donut. I predict Down Girl and Sit will be sold. This book is worth $55.     ~S.

Notice how the student is practicing making connections to his own life and using predictions. This practice is important because the more they intentionally use these skills, the stronger the pathways in the brain will become. The stronger the pathways become, the more readily accessible they are.

Thinking stems are not limited to reading. My students will soon be writing them in math, social studies, science, and anything else I can wrap their flexible little brains around! Just imagine the potential for growth!

Raising the Bar ~ Blogging
What I have described so far is quite effective. But if you want to see even more growth and engagement, put their thinking stems on a blog. Their interest will go through the roof. Students who have previously not wanted to write will suddenly produce their best work. Why? Because they will have a real audience! I have seen it happen over and over again. Their work will suddenly have meaning beyond the classroom.

My sons, mom, and me. Hey, gotta show off the kids right?

Other Benefits
As you can imagine, student reading and writing skills will be greatly impacted. Allowing students to comment on each other’s blogs will improve their oral language communication skills as well. This is particularly beneficial for shy or ESL students who may be embarrassed to speak much.

How to Get Started Blogging
If you need help to get started blogging, see my post here:
In the post I talk about how to get started, security, and how to generate your audience.

Thinking skills alone are effective. Blogging alone is effective. Marry the two and you’ve got a one-two punch that is amazing! I’ve seen the results in my own classes.

If you decide to blog thinking skills, let me know so our students can be blogging buddies! Gr8arteest(at)
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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Brain on Technology

Guest Post by Lindsey Wright

Many people can recall the required silent reading time from elementary school days. Some children dove right in and got lost in their books, others sneakily passed notes, and some just stared longingly out the window willing the bell to ring. Given the variety of different learning styles, it's no wonder that reading comprehension is a skill not everyone possesses. However, the advent of new technologies makes it possible to engage children regardless of their learning styles, and help each child reach a higher level of reading comprehension. The neurological and developmental benefits of learning technology for reading deepen understanding and allow children to grasp concepts that might've been previously out of reach. By understanding the effects of technology on the brain, educators in kindergartens to online college courses can bolster teaching strategies and enrich the classroom experience.

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 10:  Kerrie Gr...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Neurologically, technology can hard-wire the brain to engage in higher-order thinking and advanced problem-solving. Based on research, polls and statistics, Cisco Systems' Technology in
Schools Report delves into the use of technology in the learning process. The report cites research findings that suggest using video, including short segments known as learning objects, allows
children who might otherwise be non-readers to feel engaged. Learning objects often include multimedia segments for reading programs, as well as writing prompts. Another study included in the report found that middle school
 students who viewed a story in an interactive format recalled more information than their peers who read a text version of the story. Such research shows that video and other digital media add context to learning without increasing the cognitive load.

Technology also helps learners develop metacognition, which in turn strengthens executive functioning abilities. Both are essential to reading comprehension. Metacognition in the learning process refers to the conscious control of cognitive processes engaged in learning. It consists of metacognitive regulation and metacognitive knowledge. For example, when students read an assigned text, they must engage in self-questioning to determine if they understand the concepts in the text. If they can't answer their own questions, they must then evaluate what needs to be done in order to reach the cognitive goal of comprehension. Self-questioning is a common form of metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge refers to students' ability to understand their own learning processes. This is evident in students when they know that studying in a quiet environment will be more productive then in a noisy one. In a study  published in the Australian Journal of Educational Technology, researcher Julie Gordon stated, "computer software environments should be used as facilitators of thinking and knowledge construction so that students can devise their own ways of handling the information that is presented in multiple modes of representation." This leads to enhanced metacognition. With features such as scaffolding, support templates, and flexible tools, such educational applications can be a powerful way for students to become aware of their own learning needs.

Learning technology also facilitates improved information processing and visualization. Based on scientific studies, Cisco found that computer-assisted instruction software has been shown to significantly improve reading comprehension in middle school children. Exercises based in that software help students to understand, process, and use language more effectively. Many of the programs adapt the exercises to fit students' current ability. As students improve, the exercises become more difficult and the modified speech sounds become natural speech patterns. This retrains students' brains through visual and auditory processing and language training.

The findings concerning technology and young brains are encouraging and can help revolutionize teaching strategies, but schools and teachers cannot rely on technology alone. The greatest success in improving reading comprehension was found in schools that used both the traditional classroom approach and technology. Using technology to create a student-centered learning environment creates a place where all students are more readily accommodated.

For instance, Gordon suggests having students keep self-reporting journals. This practice supports students' metacognitive awareness of their learning processes. Students who keep self-reporting journals become more proficient learners in a technologically integrated classroom, even though the journaling itself is a simple, low-tech exercise.

Teacher proficiency and professional development are also crucial to integrating technology into any curriculum. Teachers must be proficient with the programs they use and also be able to identify and choose technology-based activities and methods that have the highest rates of success. This means reviewing research and even testing software. Flexibility is key when changing curriculum to incorporate new and evolving approaches. If it's a viable option, teachers should observe classrooms that have been successful in technological integration. Fortunately many educators' blogs also represent readily accessible resources for bringing technology into the classroom.

Technology utilized to support reading comprehension keeps students engaged in the classroom, allows for higher-order thinking, and improves information processing and visualization. Students are able to partake in an individualized learning path, which enables them to develop reading comprehension skills in a way that suits their individual needs. At a time when large classrooms often don't allow for individual attention, technology integration is a much-needed way for teachers to improve the education of each student.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.
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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Easy Brain-Based Strategies for Everyday Curriculum

First, let me apologize for the gap in my blog posts. I made the move from Oklahoma to Texas and have been busy settling in my new home, new job, and finishing my BrainSMART Masters degree (one more week, yay!).

To the Point
I was at a conference once and overheard someone say that they would love to use brain-based strategies, but their school is very controlling. I have great news! Brain-based strategies are very easy to slide into everyday curriculum.  Sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference.  Here are some things I’ve learned in the BrainSMART program that may be useful in this situation.


Positive Environment
First, it is imperative to set a positive and supportive classroom environment. The brain cannot learn well under stress. When students are exposed to pressure, ridicule or other forms of stress from teachers or other students, their brains go into fight or flight mode. Higher-level thinking functions are rerouted to basic survival needs. Learning will not take place. It’s not just the target of the stress either. Mirror neurons in our brains cause us to feel similar stress to those around us, causing the learning ability of the entire class to drop. Be sure to maintain a positive learning environment.

An optimistic attitude should be modeled every day. Studies show that the thinking of a pessimistic forth grade student will drop to that of a first grader when presented with a challenging task! Alternatively, an optimistic fourth grader will work at the task until he or she is able to solve it or find help. That has tremendous implications!  You may be the only optimistic person in a student’s life. Be sure to model and talk about optimism…their future may depend on it.

Another easy thing to implement is location. Memory is very location based. This can be as simple as attaching information to parts of the body as utilized in BrainSMART’s 10-peg memory system (See the 60 Strategies book by Wilson & Conyers). This is the strategy I utilized when making my Good Reader Poster. You can vary where you stand in your class as you introduce new content, and/or vary where the students sit or stand.

Acronyms and Songs
The SMART in BrainSMART stands for State, Meaning, Attention, Retention, and Transfer. I probably wouldn’t be able to remember it without the acronym. Create acronyms for your students, or let them create their own. The only way I can recite the Preamble to the Constitution is to sing the Schoolhouse Rocks version (these are on YouTube)!  Music can be a powerful tool.

Choice is another important and easy strategy.  Students love to have choice. Their brains are more engaged when they have some sort of stake in the task at hand. If you are limited by your district and cannot offer some sort of content, book, or subject choices, here are some choice options you could utilize:
1.     Sit or stand.
2.     Where to sit.
3.     Pencil, color pencil, or crayon.
4.     Order of lessons.
5.     Let students choose what items go where on a 10-peg memory system chart!

Before beginning a lesson, give students some specific information to listen for. Alternatively, let them know they will need to retell some information to a fellow student. Studies show more brain activity in students when they know this in advance! They will pay close attention and retain more.

Meaning, Meaning, Meaning
This is a biggie. The brain is more likely to retain information that is relevant and meaningful.
Students need to know why what they are learning should matter to them. This is especially relevant to challenged learners. There may be times you can’t decide yourself why something should be important.  In this case…ask THEM. I promise there will be one or two who will come up with a valid reason.

Brain Breaks
The brain can only take in so much information at a time. Think of the brain as a cup, once it is full, nothing else can fit and just runs down the side. You have to empty the cup to allow it to be filled again. The brain is similar. Students need to have time to process new learning in order to make room for more. Be sure to give your students a brain break every five to 10 minutes.  This could be in the form of a think-share-pair, a movement activity, a well-placed joke…the possibilities are endless. Be creative.

All of these strategies can be seamlessly integrated into existing curriculum and district standards.  Brain-based teaching and learning can become second nature to you. Share your effective brain-based strategies with other teachers and administrators…and with me.

Have a great school year!
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Thursday, June 30, 2011

BrainSMART: BrainSMART Blogging: In Full Support of Teachers

I'm very excited to announce BrainSMART is now a part of the blogging world!  Below is a link to their first post.  Please welcome them to the Edublogging community!

BrainSMART: BrainSMART Blogging: In Full Support of Teachers: "We are proud to introduce our new blog! Here is an example of the kinds of strategies that we will be sharing on this blog. I just saw Bra..."

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Global Learner and Learning Styles

It hit me this morning.  One of those AHA moments where you want to knock yourself on the head and ask, “Why didn’t I think of this before?” 

Here it is… brace yourself… ready…?  When teaching a math problem, if a struggling student is a global learner they will learn the process better if you show them the solution first and work the problem backwards.  Not just in math though.  Let’s take an essay for example.  Show the student a completed essay then break it down into its components to show how the parts made the whole.  It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? In Brain Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom Judy Willis says global "learners process information best when instruction starts with the whole and breaks the content down into parts.” I only have one or two global learners in my class each year.  These learners are almost always strongest in the naturalist, musical-rhythmic, and kinesthetic intelligences. This knowledge can have a great impact during lesson planning or for interventions.  Combine a whole-to-part global lesson with music or an activity requiring movement for best results with these students. 

Most students and teachers are analytic/sequential learners.  Therefore we teach in a part-to-whole format.  It just makes sense to us.  But not everyone learns the same way.  Every brain is different. This knowledge can have a great impact in the classroom.

Why This is Important
Knowing the thinking/learning styles and intelligences of your students is very important.  I test for that at the beginning of the year and record it in my grade book for easy reference.  (If you are looking for some good inventories and ideas, an excellent book is RTI Success: Proven Tools and Strategies for Schools and Classrooms, by Whitten, Esteves, and Woodrow.) 

Every brain is as unique as a fingerprint.  Each brain processes information differently.  Therefore to be truly effective as a teacher it is not enough to know the learning/thinking styles and intelligences of our students; we must act on the information.  This information gives us a map into the long-term memory of both global and analytical students. So, work backwards if you have to...AHA!

Monday, May 30, 2011

An Answer For Some Struggling Readers - The Reticular Activating System

“Oh my goodness!” I gasped, “Her reading level went up by 5 months in 30 minutes!” I was stunned.  How was that possible?  I call it the “Jared Factor.”  Let me back up a bit.

How it Happened
It was March and one of my second grade students, Karen (not her real name), had been stuck at a 1.3 reading level (1st grade, 3rd month) since December.   I was trying everything I could think of.  I decided to ask Jared, my 18-year-old son, to come read with her.  I shared with Karen that my son has dyslexia and had really struggled to learn to read at her age.  She had met Jared before and was very excited to have this tall, handsome young man coming to see just her! 
On the day Jared read with Karen, I told him to read a page to her, then choral read it together, then let her read it alone.  Karen returned from their session walking on a cloud!  She was animated and excited…traits that she rarely displays.  She was reading with a fluency I had NEVER heard from her!  I was floored and couldn’t resist doing a quick test to find out her reading level.  She was reading at a 1.8.  That was a 5-month increase in 30 minutes!  The Jared Factor was at work.

My AHA Moment
Yet the very next day, her reading returned to the previous level.  So, it appeared the Jared Factor wasn't permanent.  A paragraph from Dr. Judy Willis’s book Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom (2007) leaped into my mind.  It says:

“When activated by emotion, the RAS (Reticular Activating System) sends messages to the frontal lobes’ executive function and memory centers.  When the RAS is below normal activity levels, the decreased stimulation of these frontal lobe centers can result in learning and memory difficulties and impaired self-control” (page 64).

I speculated that Karen must need higher than average levels of positive emotion to push messages through her RAS.  Clearly I needed to have Jared visit more often!  Unfortunately that wasn’t possible.  I couldn’t think of any other handsome teenagers I could enlist either.  My first idea was to have her read a book to Jared on a video.  However,  that can only work so many times.  I finally decided to try being extra animated and excited myself on the days I work with her (I’m a very animated person to begin with!) and to try to get her to act the same.  I finally started seeing a steady increase.  By the end of school last week she was consistently reading at a 1.9.   

What I’m Going To Do Now
I’m tutoring Karen this summer.  My goal is to teach her BrainSMART strategies to use on her own to help her get extra positive emotions flowing for learning.  This is part of my BrainSMART action research project.  I can’t wait to share my results in about 3 weeks!

What To Take Away From This
I think the most important message here is that some children with reading difficulties simply need higher positive emotions to get messages through to their frontal lobes.  Since Jared isn't available on a daily basis, you may need to be extra animated and positive when working with them!  If you have a struggling student who is very low-key, this could be the answer.  
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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Brain Based Teaching PPT presented at #EdcampPlano

Here is the PowerPoint I shared at #EdcampPlano.  I discussed some fantastic information I've been learning in BrainSMART and utilizing in my class. 

A lot of the information I used came from the BrainSMART 60 Strategies book pictured here.  
Please see my Amazon side panel for more recommended reading.

What an amazing group of teachers! I had a wonderful time learning from and sharing with everyone.  Edcamps are the way to go.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Printable Bookmarks with Thinking Skills/Thinking Stems/Summaries

I’ve blogged about the successful use of thinking skills in promoting reading comprehension and the huge increase I saw in reading levels here: Reading Levels Jump 5 Months in just 2.5 Months!   


I started thinking how great it would be if each student had a bookmark detailing the thinking skills AND thinking stems/summaries.  So I made a bookmark that includes the thinking skills on one side, and the format for thinking stems and summaries on the back.  The thinking skills mirror those on my Good Reader poster.  The students love them and use them regularly.  Feel free to print the bookmarks out for your own students. 

Side one is here: Bookmark Front
Side two is here: Bookmark Back
The bookmarks are in a .jpg format.  If you would like the .pub format… email me at diane.dahl(at)  Please put ‘bookmarks’ in your subject line in case the spam filter grabs it. 

Also, if you are interested, here are the rubrics I use for my thinking stems and summaries....

Have fun, and happy reading!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Increase Study Skills and Test Performance through Predictions

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...                        Image via Wikipedia
More things I'm learning through BrainSMART...     
     Making predictions utilizes the higher-order thinking skills of our frontal lobes.  Teach students the metacognitive power of predictions to ensure interest, motivation, as well as current and future academic success. 

     Before a test, encourage students to predict what information will be on it.  The first couple of times walk students through the process.  Question them about the information they feel is most likely to be on their test and why.  Share ideas for determining importance.  Encourage them to write their predictions down.  This process will increase student interest while exercising their logic and judgment skills.  After the test, ask students to review their predictions.  What predictions were correct and why? What will they do differently next time? 

     Before the next test, let students work individually or with partners to make their predictions.  I recommend checking the relevance of the predictions students are making.  This is an excellent opportunity to hone study skills for specific students by providing a window into their thinking.  After each subsequent test, allow students time to review their predictions with their partner or groups. 

     Making predictions is a valuable metacognitive teaching and learning tool.  It involves a review of material, increased interest and motivation, and the higher level thinking skills of the frontal lobe.  Give it a try!
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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reading Levels Jump 5 Months in just 2.5 Months!

The reading levels of my students have increased an average of 5 months in the last two and a half months.  I am thrilled!  How did it happen you ask?  Metacognition.

The BrainSMART courses I am taking are chock full of fantastic metacognitive strategies.  I feel like I’m opening a present every time I start a new course.  Seriously!  I’ve been blogging about my experiences, so some of this will be a bit of a review.  But after seeing the jump in reading scores…I just can’t keep my mouth closed!!

How it Started
This fantastic increase in reading came together when students started learning thinking for reading skills.  These skills include: inferring, schema, visualizing, questioning, monitoring understanding, noticing, etc. (See this post for more details: Good Readers)
Students even made a video about their favorite thinking skills here:  Once we had a firm grasp of our thinking skills, we chose great books.

Choosing Books
I have learned that choice is an important metacognitive strategy.  Students will be much more likely to read if they are actually INTERESTED in the book!  I talked to my students, found out their interests, and brought books in targeted to those interests.  It worked.  I saw two of my boys who are reluctant readers reading during RECESS this week!  I saw another reluctant reader sharing the book he was reading with a boy in another class.  Wow.

Students choose what book they want to read, and who they would like to read it with. We have book clubs for students reading the same book.  All students take part. They read for 20 minutes every morning.  As a group reads, they stop occasionally for discussion and utilize their thinking skills.  I walk around and eavesdrop on the conversations, and sometimes ask questions of my own.

The books must be at an appropriate reading level.  We use the five-finger test to check for readability.  Turn to a random page towards the back of the book, as the student reads he holds up a finger for every word missed. If a child can read the entire page with no more than five errors, then the book is a good read for them.

Checking for Understanding
Now that the kids are reading and discussing, how do you know they really understand?  Thinking stems are the answer! I was introduced to ‘Thinking Stems’ by Angie Rumsey.  In a thinking stem, students use their thinking skills (see the Good Reader poster at the top, left of this page) to share information about books they are reading.  Here is an example from my class:

I am reading Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift. In my story Gulliver is taken care of by GIANTS! I’m thinking about how Gulliver will get back in a world HIS size. I’m curious about what will happen next. I’m glad I started reading this book!   ~Ethan
I have students write about one thinking stem a week as they work their way through a book.  I have a rubric for my thinking stems here: Thinking Stem Rubric.  Students choose what thinking skills to include in their stem (more choice). 

Once they finish a book, students write a summary.  They have the option of blogging the written summary, making a video summary, or doing an ‘Oprah Winfrey style’ interview (more choice).  Here is my written summary rubric: Written Summary Rubric.

Needless to say, my students writing skills have gone through the roof as well!

Yes, blogging.  My second graders are proud international bloggers. ( I discussed the impact of blogging in my last post.  Comments are very motivating for students of any age.  The comments give them an audience, so they try harder!  They are very proud of their blogging accomplishments.

Putting it all Together
Thinking skills are crucial.  The skills help students learn HOW to think rather than WHAT to think.  Students learn to analyze, critique, and synthesize (see the good reader poster at the top of the page).  Daily reading, choice of reading material, choice of reading buddies, weekly thinking stems, summaries, and a blog audience.  These factors combined have brought my students reading levels up an average of 5 months in just two and a half months! (Prior to this, students were showing a month growth per month.) Give it a shot in your class.
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Sunday, March 20, 2011

How and Why to Get Your Class Blogging

“I don’t want to do this.” The second grader looked at me with determination.  Her mind was quite made up.  I was surprised to find this little island of resistance in my sea of excited students. 
“Do your parents not want you to do this?” I questioned.
She flashed me a bored expression.  “Nah, I just don’t want to.” 

How it Started
This all began with our blogging experiment.  We all have students who don’t like to read or write.  I wanted to change that, but I needed to find a solid motivational tool.  Something that would spark student interest and keep them coming back for more.  The answer I found was blogging.
I blogged about the beginning of our journey here:

Since then, we’ve blogged about thinking stems, summaries, math, our snow days, and about an egg-drop we did during brain-awareness week.  Students are always excited to go check for new comments.  Which leads me back to the student mentioned earlier.  She put her thinking stem on the blog that day.  That evening she received several comments from around the globe.  She was so excited; she created her next blog post from home, on her own time. 

I have seen a marked improvement in use of thinking skills, fluency, and writing throughout our blogging journey.  Students respond to comments, which improves their written communication skills.  Blogging is a powerful tool.  Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Which Blog Service to Use
There are many tools available.  For this blog, I use  I didn’t think it had the functionality I wanted for my 2nd graders though, so I chose  It has proven to be the perfect tool for my class.  It is easy to use and update even for an early elementary child.  Setting up a class is quick and easy even for the technologically challenged among us.  It also has versatile security settings.  If you want comments from outside sources though, make sure your settings allow anyone to comment…but choose the option to approve comments before they appear.  Other blog options include Classblogmeister, Wordpress, Edublogs, ClassBlogs, and Typepad, among others. 

Introduce it to the Class
I introduced blogging to my class by showing another class blog that was already underway.  We read some posts and even left comments.  Then I showed them their very own class blog and demonstrated the steps to make a blog post.  When we went to the computer lab, there was still some confusion but most were able to proceed without much additional help.  We took our pre-written thinking stems to the lab with us that day to post to the blog. I wanted them to be able to focus on the process of making the post rather than the writing process at that point.

What to Blog About
I see student blogs being used in many different ways.  Some are publishing stories, yet others are discussing physics.  It’s up to you.  I recommend blogging about things you want them to practice and/or have a deep understanding of.  Remember they will be motivated to do good work because people outside the class will be reading and commenting on what they write.
Getting Comments
Receiving comments is a key to maintaining student interest.  If you don’t have a Twitter account yet, now is the time to create one!  Once your students have their posts up, sign on to twitter and say something like:

             2nd grade bloggers looking for comments! #comments4kids

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase
 #Comments4kids is a hashtag.  That means that anyone who follows that particular hashtag will see your post. (Hashtags always have a ‘#’ in front of them.) Don’t forget to include the link to your blog.  Several fellow twitterers will retweet your post to their followers.  Be sure to comment on others who are asking for comments as well.  You’ll soon find yourself with several blogging pals. 

Leave your blog address at to hook up with other classroom blogs.

Also be sure to send the link out to parents, who will probably forward the link onto grandparents and other family members.  They love to leave comments.

Leaving Comments
Students will be excited to respond to comments left for them and to leave comments for classmates.  You will want to set clear guidelines on commenting.  Here is an awesome video to share with your students about commenting:

Student blogging is a remarkable motivational tool.  If you have students you are struggling to motivate, give this a try.  My student mentioned earlier is still blogging happily away and is quite animated in her discussion about her blog.

Note: If you have not discussed Digital Citizenship with your class yet, please do that first.  Check out this post: Digital Citizenship in the Classroom

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Our Fun Brain Awareness Week

The Dana Foundation and BrainSMART helped my class celebrate Brain Awareness Week (BAW).  They provided cool pamphlets, brain erasers, and BAW pencils to add to our BAW fun!  We want to say THANK YOU!

We had a fun week learning more about how our brain works.  Early in the week we went over the senses of our body brain system.   Students experimented to see what it would be like to have to rely only on their sense of hearing.   They were amazed at what they could hear when focused.  Next we tried to plug our ears and close our eyes to ‘feel’ a loud sound.  Some enthusiastic students even tried plugging their nose while eating to see what happened to their sense of taste.  We read about Helen Keller to illustrate how the brain ‘reroutes’ information to make up for a loss of sight and/or hearing.

Students could not get enough of the optical illusions provided by Pro Teacher at:  The kids were fascinated to see how the brain could interpret the same visual information differently.

Students saw pictures of brain scans to learn how different parts of the brain light up for different tasks and why.  We talked about bizarre examples of what can happen when the brain is damaged.  This led into a discussion about the importance of protecting the brain and wearing a helmet.

Protecting the Brain
To illustrate the point, on Friday we held an egg drop.  Student had two days to create protective ‘helmets’ for their eggs.  Friday morning dawned cool and windy.  Students were anxious to try out their creations.  With a supportive audience of parents, we dropped the eggs from about 10 feet.  Of 18 eggs, only about 5 broke.  Then we dropped an egg with no helmet.  That egg made a resounding SPLAT to a chorus of student cheers!  The kids got the point about helmets.  Students ended the day blogging about their egg drop at Stop by and leave a comment!

Why it is Important
Our brains are amazing.  It is our very own command center!  Learning how our command center works enables us to use it more efficiently.  Protecting our command center is equally important. Be sure to share these important lessons with your students.  For more information, visit The Dana Foundation.  Visit BrainSMART to earn your masters degree in Brain Based Teaching.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Demonstration of Metacognitive Thinking 2nd Graders!

I've learned through the BrainSMART program that one of the most powerful tools you can give your students is thinking skills. When you or I read (or do math, science, and even everyday life situations), we automatically make predictions, inferences, questions, schema, etc to help us understand and make decisions. Most of us weren’t explicitly taught these skills…we simply figured them out over time. Just imagine the advantage we would have had if we learned these skills early in life! Thinking skills are remarkably easy to teach and learn. My second graders can prove it!  We created a video discussing and demonstrating their favorite thinking skills. (While watching the video, keep in mind that students wrote all their own introductions.)  If second graders can do it…all grades can (and should) do it! 

Even Better
To make things even more wonderful, I received this email from a parent:
"My daughter assigned the family reading groups this evening. She is putting your lessons into practice at home. :)"
Mom also sent along this picture of her daughter with a poster  the daughter made for her family.  Notice the thinking skills she wrote on her poster. What a great student!  She has internalized the thinking skills and can teach them to others.

In our next video we will demonstrate how we learned each skill. Stay tuned, and remember...if second graders can learn and use these skills, so can upper grades!

If you would like a copy of the "Good Readers" poster seen in the background of the video, click the 'products' tab at the top of this page.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wildly Successful Metacognition Lesson

Today my class was featured in an article in The Edmond Sun.  The reporter discussed our growing class brain in her article.  This has prompted questions from other interested teachers, so I’ve decided to give an update. The Edmond Sun article is here: Students Give Thumbs Up for Brain-Based Teaching.  

The Beginning of the Class Brain
The Brain
Earlier this school year I was inspired by one of my BrainSMART classes to create a lesson on metacognition. I did a post about the lesson here: metacognition lesson.  In that lesson, students twisted pipe cleaners together to represent related concepts and subjects.  Next the pipe cleaners were connected to show how information connects in the brain.  It became our class brain!  Our brain has continued to grow all year.  Students love it!

The Update
Once the class brain was constructed and strategically located (see the previous article for the process), we were able to begin adding new connections.  We periodically gather around the brain to reflect on new learning and how it connects to what the students already know.  When a student proposes a new connection, I give the student three pipe cleaners to twist into an axon. I also quickly make a label for it on a small rectangle piece of paper. (Otherwise I forget…oh, the irony!) I fold piece of paper over the completed axon (pipe cleaners) and staple it. Then the new axon is attached to the appropriate connection in the brain.  As each student proposes a new connection, the process repeats itself. 

Some things I have learned:
  • ·      I connect the new axons to the brain myself.  The more complex the brain gets, the more difficult it is for 2nd graders to get into it.  Upper-grade students might not have this issue.
  • ·      I write the labels myself to help me keep track of things.
  • ·      I write the label on both sides of the small paper so it can be seen from more than one viewpoint.  That becomes very important later as the brain gets more complex!
  • ·      Hang the brain low enough where students can interact with it, in a location with no regular traffic.
The Result
The brain today.  It is difficult to see the complexity.
By using this method, we are continually reviewing things learned all year.  For example, when studying China, students made a connection from the invention of paper to an earlier lesson on Sequoyah since Sequoyah invented a writing system for the Cherokee people.  While making connections about the Erie Canal students made a connection from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi.  The length of the Mississippi had them connecting it to the Nile, Amazon, and Yellow Rivers.  They learned about the Amazon and Yellow Rivers earlier in the year, and the Nile in first grade. See the growing connections?

To add to the fun, former students of mine come by frequently to see the brain grow.  They are intrigued by the connections and beg to make their own.  

This metacognition lesson continues to be wildly successful.  This has provided a fun way to review and solidify learning all year. 

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