Thursday, June 28, 2012

Plasticity of the Brain: Spread the Word!

English: PET scan of a normal human brain
English: PET scan of a normal human brain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
They rang my doorbell about 5pm yesterday. Two high-schoolers from an underprivileged part of the city selling candles to earn money. I ended up doing a sales pitch to them about the incredible potential of their futures. Poor kids...I probably seemed like a crazy old lady to them! I wanted to make sure they understood the  plasticity of their brains though, because they are the future and it was clear that they did not understand their tremendous potential.

"In their book How People Learn, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) make the case that:
  1. learning changes the physical structure of the brain;
  2. structural changes alter the functional organization of the brain (in other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain), (as cited in BrainSMART Thinking for Results, 2011, p. 31).
 Intelligence is not fixed! This is the plasticity of the brain, a life changing concept (and scientific fact) that we as educators must spread far and wide. We have all seen students who have accepted the misconception of fixed intelligence; they don't try because they don't think they can succeed. They simply need to learn how to use thinking for learning strategies in order to be "the boss of their brain". These strategies cross over as life skills as well. I have blogged about the strategies before, but I am beginning a series next week where we will look at each strategy in depth.

Please explain the plasticity of the brain to your students, your neighbors, the kid at the cash register, and to random kids who appear at your door selling candles. My last word to the kids on my doorstep was, "Okay, now go change the world!" Because if they believe they can, they will try. Oh and yes, I did buy a candle.

For more information on the BrainSMART programs, please visit
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ways to Beat Brain Drain this Summer

Another excellent guest post by: Melissa Crossman!
Students lose as much as three months of learning during the extended summer break. Free from the discipline of the classroom, students experience what many educators call “summer brain drain.” While year round school could eliminate this loss, most schools follow a traditional September to June calendar year. What can parents, teachers and students do to combat summer brain drain? Working as educational communities, they can produce an effective plan of action that keeps a student’s skills current and fresh. In preparation for school in the fall, six tips can start students on the path to academic success.
Brain Drain
Brain Drain (Photo credit: What What)
Old Standards
Flash cards refresh essential skills students learn in any subject. As students review the states and their capitals, multiplication and division facts or Chemistry elements and the signs, they develop fluency in these areas. Parents prepare flash cards by copying important information onto laminated note cards. Students reinforce and material and develop fluency as they quiz siblings or try to stump their parents during car rides to the pool.
Printable worksheets, online math games and board games cultivate math fluency. For interested parents and students, teachers willingly provide worksheets that engage students at home. In addition to educational online games, board games like Monopoly or Life help students develop math skills as they serve as the banker and face real life financial situations. LIkewise, students can calculate the tip after eating at a restaurant or budget the family's amusement park adventure. Math skills are typically lost more quickly than reading skills so any extra math assistance gives learners an advantage in fighting summer brain drain.
Contemporary Digital Options
More than entertainment, video games help students retain important skills. Memorization, strategy and problem solving are a few essential elements in a game that fight brain drain while a child plays. Edutainment involves games that educate students while keeping them entertained, and many video games fit this description.
Online classes provide excellent resources for students who wish to stay mentally agile during the summer break. Full-credit classes, cyber classrooms and online tutors motivate and engage students while helping them retain educational skills.
Traditional letter writing helps students practice their organizational skills and critical thinking. Instead of writing letters by hand, children could write a few sentences in an online journal every day to document their summer activities. Typing emails to friends or relatives also provides mental exercise for students of any age, as long as they type proper English rather than texting shortcuts.
Reading is Still Fundamental
Reading remains one of the most popular summer learning activities. Students choose books that interest them as they read aloud to a parent, grandparent or stuffed animal and listen to books read to them. Local libraries often offer supplemental programs to encourage reading. Reading road signs while traveling for vacation or menus at mealtime offer additional summer reading practice.
Working as a community to engage students throughout the summer allows parents, educators and students to fight brain drain. With video games, worksheets, flash cards, writing, reading, and online classes, the community combats the loss of knowledge during extended school breaks. This strategy ensures that students can find success in the classroom when school resumes in the fall.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Positivity: An Important Component of Brain-Based Teaching

            Positivity is a powerful tool in ANY classroom! When the social and emotional systems of the brain are engaged in a positive way, learning is much more likely to take place. Complex thought takes place in the frontal lobes.  Information “must pass through the reticular activating system and the limbic system to be acknowledged, recognized, connected with relational memories, patterned and ultimately stored in long-term memory” (Willis, 2007, p.18). Positive emotions open this pathway, while negative emotions and stress causes the pathway to go into survival mode (fight or flight), which in turn restricts flow to the frontal lobes making complex thought difficult if not impossible. Our goal as teachers is to maintain a positive, optimistic classroom to keep the learning pathway open.
            With a positive learning environment in mind, there are many brain-based strategies we can use to increase learning. I consider brain-based strategies during lesson planning, while keeping in mind the learning styles and intelligences of my students. If during a lesson I notice that I’m beginning to lose their attention, I will adjust my strategy or pause for BrainSMART BrainObics or another crossover activity (see a demonstration of BrainObics here on BrainSMART’s website).  I begin the year by stressing the importance of optimism and positive thinking on the brain, and then continue teaching and modeling the other BrainSMART thinking for learning skills which include: optimism, listening, focus, understanding space, understanding time, systematic search, systematic planning, memory, comparisons, and courage. Working on these skills together, with optimism (positivity) being the overarching theme, has made a remarkable difference in my students success.  I teach them metacognition and we participate in Brain Awareness Week activities. They are so aware of optimism that they can tell you about a study that showed a pessimistic fourth grader presented with a difficult task would see his or her thinking reduced to that of a first grader. They will go on to tell you that an optimistic fourth grader will have the courage to continue or seek help to solve the difficult task (Wilson & Conyers, 2011). They cheer each others successes and offer support and encouragement when a classmate struggles. My students even tell their parents to be optimistic and courageous. 12 of my 21 students were reading below grade level at the beginning of the year. Now, NONE of them are below grade level (two are a mere one month behind where they should be), and ALL of them are effective metacognitive learners. That is powerful. That is optimism and courage!
            I think strategies for increasing positive emotional involvement must include the thinking skills mentioned above. When students have the necessary tools to learn, they feel better about themselves. Success breeds confidence. Teachers must model and refer back to the strategies often. The I Feel Good strategy (also shown on the video linked above) is another important and effective tool to return students to a positive and optimistic state. Students can do the strategy alone or as a class.  Success mapping (keeping track of student successes) is another go-to strategy for positive emotional involvement. When losing student focus, BrainObics is an amazing way to get the two sides of the brain working together and the blood flowing. I also use the opportunity to refocus students on metacognition by reminding them each time why we do BrainObics. BrainObics  keep the energy of the classroom flowing. Probably the most important strategy to keep the energy positive and upbeat is by being that way yourself! I am a high-energy teacher. That is the only way to keep the attention of many classes. Moving around the classroom, being animated, doing BrainObics, and allowing state-changes (Scaddan, 2009), are all important contributions to the positive energy of my class.
            It would be difficult to model authentic positivity if I were not feeling that way myself. One reason to feel so positive is that a teacher's job has meaning!  We have the future of the world sitting in our classrooms every day. How exciting is that! If you model and teach optimism and positivity every day, you will see amazing results flow! Positivity is a powerful contribution to any classroom.

Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2011). BrainSMART 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. (4 ed.). Orlando: BrainSMART.

Scaddan, M. A. (2009). 40 Engaging Brain-Based Tools for the Classroom. Thousand Oaks. CA: Corwin Pr.

Willis, J. (2007). Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
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