Monthly Archives: March 2012

Brain Research for the Classroom #ASCD

I went to a great session at ASCD on “Brain Based Strategies to Redesign your Classroom,” led by Agnes Matheson, a high school language teacher at the Westminster School in Atlanta. With a middle school teacher, she had worked with Robert Ryshke from the Center for Learning to use her classroom as a source of research.

Her main point was that not all of the minutes of a class are the same. There are times when students learn more than at other times. She began an investigation into how the brain works followed by observations of her students. To start with, she had a fellow teacher observe her class and record when the students began to lose their focus on the work at hand. After a series of classes were observed, they saw that after 20 minutes, no matter what the task, the students became distracted and their attention wandered.

Matheson then tried an experiment. She introduced new material at three different times in her class: at the beginning, after 20 minutes, and during the last 15 minutes. She waited three days and gave an ungraded quiz to see how much had been retained. The results were startling and will change the way that my class is organized.

When the material was introduced in the first 20 minutes, there was a 60% retention of the information with no other learning time. In the next 15 minutes , the middle of the class, there was a 30% retention, and in the final 15 minutes, there was a 45% retention. The first 20 minutes and the final 15 were the “sweet spots” of learning for students. They took in and retained information the best during those time.

I realized that I do not organize my lessons to match this research at all. I tend to think of the classes as building to a learning place in the middle of class. The beginning is the time to review and introduce whatever is going to happen that day. The middle is the work of the class, with the end as a reflection and organizing homework time. Matheson suggested that class start with the new material and the challenging learning. Then after 20 minutes, shift to review or a more physical activity that will re-energize the students, pair work or multimedia work. The end of class can then be for a closure activity that reinforces and extends what has been learned or it can be a time for introducing new material, something I never do.

This is a radically different way to thinking about a class. I want to experiment and see how it impacts my classes. I tend to shift activities regularly, but this research will change what gets done when. That middle time will no longer to the time when the most important work happens! Very interesting!



It’s Always In the Eyes!

Passion is contagious! It radiates out to all around and if they are willing, invites them to share the wonder of discovery and growth. Educators who are passionate about their work and the students that they affect are some of my favorite people in the world. They bubble over with excitement when they discover a new way to improve the learning that happens in the classroom. They are generous with their successes and honest about their mistakes. The goal is about the students, not about them. They work harder than almost anyone I know, hours after school and on weekends, over breaks and through the summer. They are constantly seeking to learn and grow more in order to improve their practice. It is their passion that drives them, passion to reach every child.

I spent yesterday downtown at the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) conference, and I had the privilege of  having lunch with the two people who were given ASCD’s Outstanding Young Educator Award this year.They are both inspiring and engaging people, deeply committed to meeting the needs and aspirations of the students under their care. One is an elementary school teacher, and the other is a superintendent in Arkansas.

Liliana Aguas is a 2nd grade teacher from Berkeley, California. Her love of the work that she does is infectious. Her eyes sparkled as she told us about how her class is organized and the projects that she does with her students. She teaches in a dual-language immersion program, where 50% of her students are native English speakers and 50% are native Spanish. She teaches in Spanish approximately 80% of the time.

Liliana never intended to be a teacher; she was training to be a scientist and assumed that her life would be spent in a lab, investigating insects. She loved Science since she was a girl. One year in school, her teacher taught the class how to start a bug collection, which she loved and added to up until the time when she went to college. She assumed that that early passion would be the one that directed the focus of her career. So she mainly studied Science while at Berkeley.

All of that changed her senior year in college when she unsuspectedly took a class from Professor John Hurst. It was an Education class, and she was challenged to create and then teach a Science unit for  4th graders. Clearly the class itself opened her eyes to the challenges and rewards of teaching. In the process of learning about teaching and in developing her unit, Liliana discovered an even deeper passion than her love of science, one that changed her path completely. She looked for teaching positions and was hired by the school where she had taught her science unit. Then after two years in the classroom, Professor Hurst encouraged her to return and get her Masters, which she did.

Liliana’s passion grows out of her understanding that scientists are born in elementary school. She said that when adult scientists are asked what made them choose their field, the vast majority point to a teacher that they had, not in high school or middle school, but to one in elementary school. However, most elementary school teachers are not trained in Science and often want to avoid it, not feeling comfortable with their own understanding.

Liliana decided that the classroom was her path, that she wanted to be the one who made science come alive for young learners. She wanted to create lessons that allowed them to investigate and explore, make hypotheses and test them. She calls it a “hands 0n, minds on learning environment,” a phrase I love. It is often called “hands on,” but to add the “minds on” makes it that much more powerful. The students are being challenged to be fully involved. It is not just accomplishing the task, but about thinking while it is being done. So in the midst of bugs to watch and plants to smell, students are tackling new investigations daily.

ASCD chose a wonderful educator to honor in Liliana! Listening to her speak, her eyes bright with excitement and pride in her work, was inspirational indeed!



Maps and Games

I started a unit on the Mongol Empire this week, and I wanted to help the students to understand the challenges of the environment in which the Mongols lived. Their empire spanned all of Asia. To begin this, I was using a variety of resources from National Geographic. I started with photographs to show the land and the people.

Then I printed out the tabletop maps from their MapMaker kits, nine sheets of paper that create a map of the continent. At the beginning of the year, I used the wall maps as an introduction to the class, making huge maps of the continents. It was a great lesson in geography and collaboration. For the Mongol activity, the students worked in pairs. They first were supposed to use their atlases to find a list of  the major geographic features of the continent: mountains, plateaus, steppe, rivers, bays, etc. After that, they colored and taped the sheets together. It was a challenging task that required some perseverance and commitment. They wanted to skip the step of looking in the atlas, but soon discovered that it was much easier to find the places on a colored atlas than on black and white sheets.

When they finished, I had them go to the jigsaw puzzles on the National Geographic site.

“Cool! We get to play games!”

There are 27 puzzles of the continents and oceans. One of them is of the physical map of Asia, so I sent them there first. The challenge was to move the puzzle pieces around to create the continent. It was fascinating watching them. Some of my weaker students, when it comes to reading and writing skills, were amazingly adept at recreating the continent from the pieces, clearly with strong visual  skills. Others were completely lost and needed significant help. For some of the ones who struggled, it was clear that they had no experience with doing a jigsaw puzzle; it simply wasn’t in their background and they had to have it explained to them. Then there was one student for whom the task itself was beyond her. She didn’t see the straight edges and make the association with a border. I learned a lot about her thinking from watching her move pieces randomly around the board.

The game has a timer, so after they completed the puzzle, they then went back and tried to beat their time. No matter how much time it took them the first time through, they were determined to beat that time on the next round.

Towards the end of class, I stopped them and asked what history skills they had been practicing while playing the game. At first, they laughed, as if they didn’t really think they had been doing the “work” of the class. It was the day before Spring Break, and they were pretty sure that I was just “filling” time.

Then a student raised her hand and said, “Geography. We were thinking about geography. We had to pay attention to what we had colored on the maps.”

Another said, “Determination. We had to stick to it to figure it out.”

“Connections. You are always telling us to look for connections, and we had to find connections. We had to figure out what was important and pay attention to it.”

When they thought about it, the game moved beyond simply something to play and they were able to see that they were also learning. An important piece!

And I would add to their list, resiliency! Even the students who struggled kept at it. They wanted to win, to complete the task. They didn’t give up, something they often do when given an academic challenge, because the system has already convinced them they can’t win. A game is neutral; it is not personal. It is a challenge to be tackled by one and all. They know that to become a good game player, they just have to keep at it. And they do! That is why games can be so effective in the classroom. The challenge is real, and the possibility of success is there for everyone, if you just keep at it!

I am always looking for games that will engage the students in their learning. The best games that I have found by far are the ones on the iCivics website that was developed by Sandra Day O’Connor to teach students about government. There are dozens of games there that teach about citizenship and how the American government works. If you teach US history or civics, be sure to check these ones. If you have any games to recommend, please let me know!