8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School and High School Students

It used to be thought that brain development was complete by age 5 or 6 and reached adult-size and volume by age 10. During the last few years, brain research has found that the adolescent brain is still developing and the experiences a child has during the ages of 11 to 18 wires the brain and become “fixed” into their adult life. Meaning, what a child does during these years, the routines they establish, skills, attitudes, and coping mechanisms have direct consequences for their adult lives. 

“You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hard-wire it for sports, music, and math – or for lying on the couch in front of the television?”

Jay Giedd

Since a large percent of an adolescent’s waking life is spent in school, educators can have a profound impact on the brain development of their students. While it is true that we as educators have no control over home-life, peer pressure, and other outside influences; most education institutions have practices that are “brain-hostile” rather than “brain-friendly”. These would include such things as:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policy
  • Emotionally flat classroom climate
  • Ban on social media apps in the classroom
  • More homework, tougher requirements, and a longer school day
  • Early start time for the school day
  • Public posting of grades, test scores, and behavior
  • Locking students into a set learning path
  • Elimination or shortening of study hall, physical education, and movement in class
  • Teacher-centered, lecture-based, textbook-driven curriculum

(Thomas Armstrong) 

Instead, educators need awareness of brain-friendly practices in which to align their instruction, strategies, and lesson design after. These practices provide educators with current brain research to support positive brain development in adolescents. 

8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School and High School Students

  1. Choice – The opportunity to choose what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate understanding. This brain maturation and practices in student-choice helps promote making less risky decisions and more sensible ones. Examples: Choice in books, Choice in product creation, Involvement in discussions and debates, Passion projects or Genius Hour. 
  2. Self-Awareness Activities – During adolescents, students are beginning to establish and articulate who they are. Self-Awareness activities allow exploration and expression of self. Examples: SEL Activities, Interest and Emotional Quizzes, Connect learning to personal lives, Meditation, Journals.
  3. Peer Learning – During adolescence, peers play an important role in development and self-esteem. It is important for students to have positive, meaningful interactions with peers through peer teaching, collaboration, and group work. Examples: Group projects, Peer teaching, Mentoring, Peer Feedback. 
  4. Affective Learning – With adolescents comes the full-range of emotions that are erupting and changing on a whim inside our student’s body. Instead of ignoring or punishing these emotional young people, affective learning includes strategies to address these occurrences head on and bring joy back into the classroom. Examples: Build relationships with students! Know their names, celebrate successes as well as negative feelings. Encouragement and Goal-Setting. Teachable moments. SEL. Social Justice and Discussions over controversial topics. 
  5. Learning by Doing – Having students sit for a whole class period while the teacher lectures only increases disdain for school and boredom. Get kids up and moving to not only increase blood flow, but also to increase executive functioning. Examples: Exercise or brain breaks, Drama and Kinesthetic while learning concepts and topics. Hands-on activities, Stations. 
  6. Metacognitive Strategies – Around the age of 11 or 12 students move into “formal operations” (Piaget) and start thinking about their thinking. Introducing mindsets, strategies, and critical thinking skills help students move beyond concrete learning to more abstract and are better able to form own opinions and challenge others. Examples: Inquiry Learning. Design Thinking, Evaluation and Analyzation of sources or views. Think Alouds. Heuristics. Goal-Setting.
  7. Expressive Arts – Robust creativity and artistic development occurs between the ages of 5-18, but during adolescence, students get fewer experiences in the arts, drama, music, etc. During this time, expressive arts allows middle school and high school students the opportunity to express thoughts and emotions in thoughtful and socially appropriate ways. Examples: Creative Writing, Visual Design and Art Classes, Choice to Demonstrate learning through drama and dance. Integrate video, gaming, and photography into learning. Include music to enhance learning.  
  8. Real-World Experiences – Provide students learning that not only connects to their life but also demands them to plan, think, organize, and make quick decisions mimicking the types of demands they will encounter throughout life. Real-world experiences also include civic life and their contribution to family, community and society. Examples: Volunteering. Apprenticeships. Service Learning. Community-Based Learning. Entrepreneur Learning. 

While not everything is known about the brain, research continues to provide all of us valuable information in which to inform our practices. As late as the 1990’s, many thought the brain stopped growing and full-capacity potential reached by age 10. While we now know this to be untrue, there are many things we currently do that goes against current research. It is time to align our instruction to what we know now and consider the 8 brain-friendly practices mentioned above. 

Source:Thomas Armstrong. The Power of the Adolescent Brain. 2016.

7 Benefits of Audiobooks

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Is listening to an Audiobooks the same as reading a book? Is it cheating or lazy to listen to instead of actually reading it? Do audiobooks help to develop readers or hurt their development?

All of these questions were unearthed during a conversation I had with a fellow educator whose daughter was listening to books at home instead of reading them. The simple answer is YES, audiobooks are similar to reading and have benefits to the listener.

And now we have current brain research supporting this claim. The finding suggests words activate the same part of the brain no matter the input. “Fatma Deniz wants to take the experiment even further by testing on a broader range of subjects. She wants to include participants who don’t speak English, speak multiple languages or have auditory processing disorders or dyslexia.” Wins for educators and students!

Some date the origins of audiobooks to that of oral storytelling and how stories were passed down through generations before a written language and the act of reading was mainstream for the common person. In education, I was surprised to see the amount of research done around this area and found most agree that similar skills are used and when you consider the goal of reading, listening to an audiobook does count as reading.

The goal of reading is not to decode words and be able to pronounce them but to comprehend and think critically about what you read.

With this goal in mind, I offer 7 Benefits of Audiobooks:

  1. Independence – A student’s oral vocabulary far outreaches their reading abilities. When one accesses an audiobook, it promotes independence. It also is a great way to differentiate content in the classroom! 
  2. Access to Information – Audiobooks, and listening to text, provides access to those students who wouldn’t be able to read the text independently. When teachers deny students access to information based on their reading level they are promoting a division of inequity. There are many reasons why students struggle to read, but just because they can not decode specific words on a page does not mean that they also struggle to think and understand. Reading level does not equal intelligence, but limiting access to information because of it harms students.  
  3. Broadens one’s world, locales, accents, dialects, cultures – Stories have the ability to transport readers to different places, experience different cultures, and identify with others who are similar. Developing empathy and awareness can be achieved through audiobooks, with the bonus of hearing different accents and dialects.
  4. Linguistically Rich – Promotes Storytelling – Audiobooks promote storytelling. Students listen to a linguistically rich text and are inspired to talk about their book by connecting it to their own experiences or other things they have read or viewed. The more stories one collects, the more language they acquire to share their own voice.
  5. Increases: Motivation, Background Info. Content Knowledge, Vocabulary – Listening to audiobooks has been shown to increase motivation in reading which is an essential element for struggling adolescent readers. Research also shows audiobooks help to increase background information and content knowledge and is especially beneficial to our EL (English Learners) students.
  6. Models Good Reading – Audiobooks, similar to read aloud, models good reading to students. Hearing an expert reader adds experience to all growing readers.
  7. Improves: Critical Listening Skills, Reading Accuracy, Fluency – Audiobooks not only promote critical listening skills, an essential life skill but also help student reading accuracy and fluency. Fluency is so much more than reading fast. Audiobooks allow students to not only see words pronounced correctly but hear and notice pronunciation, rate, speed, pausing, stress, and intonation.

Better Listeners LEARN More!

There are many places to access audiobooks:

Check your local and school library.

Open Culture

Storynory

Learn Out Loud

Epic!  

Lit2Go

Project Gutenberg

Rivet App

Immersive Reader (add your own text)

Technology to Support Struggling Readers with Dyslexia

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I am often asked how best to support struggling readers, especially those with reading disabilities. While it is important to identify and provide interventions early, all students, no matter their age, can continue to learn and develop literacy skills throughout their lifetime. When a child is diagnosed with dyslexia there are many questions from educators on what exactly that means and how best to support these struggling readers. Simply put, dyslexia is a neurobiological disorder that affects the development of basic reading skills and spelling skills. Just because a child has difficulty in both decoding (written word pronunciation) and encoding (spelling) does not mean they have difficulty in comprehending what they hear.

Students diagnosed with dyslexia should continue to receive interventions and support in the areas of reading and writing but the addition of assistive technology provides these students access to the same content and curriculum as their peers. This is essential and also the law. Students diagnosed with dyslexia are protected under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and have the right to participate in the general education curriculum.

As a student gets older, accessing content across discipline areas become a priority for students with dyslexia. Fortunately, widespread use of technology in education has made this possible for many. Equipping struggling readers diagnosed with dyslexia with compensatory tools helps them identify ways they can access information for school and in life. Text to Speech is one resource all educators should be familiar with to support students.

Chromebooks and Google

Screenshot 2017-05-05 at 3.42.48 PMGoogle Chrome Extension Read and Write for Google by TextHelp – Read and Write for Google offers teachers and students many more options than just text to speech. It also has a text to picture dictionary, word prediction, voice notes option along with much, much more. This one extension provides struggling readers with dyslexia support in both reading and writing. It is definitely one of my favorites, check it out. 

Reader Add-onGoogle Doc Add-On ReaderThis add-on reads all text on a Google Doc. It was easy to use and is available in multiple languages and dialects. It is free. A bonus with using Google, if you upload a pdf into your Drive you can open it as a Google Doc making this perfect for those text to speech tools that do not read pdfs.

Screenshot 2017-05-05 at 3.40.13 PMGoogle Chrome App TTS-ReaderAllows students to copy and paste any text to hear it spoken. Students can pause, stop, and start this app and it remembers the position where the student left off. It highlights the spoken text and uses no data once the page is loaded. Supports multilingual and English in different accents.

Screenshot 2017-05-05 at 3.41.18 PM

Google Chrome Extension Selection ReaderThis Chrome Extension allows you to simply highlight and play. It is easy to use and could handle a large amount of text selected. Paused naturally at commas and punctuation. Perfect for reading webpages a student may use.

 

Apple Devices 

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 3.24.18 PMMacbook – iOs accessibility features make text to speech on an Apple device a breeze. If you are on a Macbook, simply accesses the Accessibility Features under the System Preferences. Once you click on “Accessibility” simply choose desired rate and voice in the “Speech” option and enable “Speak selected text when the key is pressed”.

iPad – An iPad is similar to a Macbook in that you launch “Settings” and click on “General” to locate “Accessibility” options. Under “Accessibility” tap on “Speak Selection” and adjust the rate with the slider. For both the Macbook and iPad, text to speech works for websites, iBooks, PDFs, as well as many other apps you may have installed.

Accessible content for students who are struggling readers and are diagnosed with dyslexia is easy to do when a student simply needs to hear the text in order to comprehend it. Using an app like Tiny Scanner can help you turn any text into digital text that can then be read aloud using one of the Text to Speech apps above!

Resources Used – Nancy Mather and Barbara J. Wendling. Essentials of Dyslexia Assessment and Intervention.  New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

4 Brain-Friendly Practices in a Student-Centered​ Classroom

I SaidYes!!!

Adolescence is a vital time for our students. During the ages of 11 through 18, young people are making habits that last a lifetime. And since many of their waking hours are spent in school, it is important for educators to incorporate brain-friendly practices into their classrooms. These practices, when consistently incorporated, impact the whole child and help to develop habits of mind that will support students throughout their lifetime.

4 Brain-Friendly Practices in a Student-Centered Classroom:

  1. Choice – Provide choice! This simple concept is one that research shows not only increases reading achievement when a child chooses what they read, but also engagement when the choice is theirs to make. Move from teacher-centered to student-centered through choice, for instance, provide choice in content. With a learning objective as a skill in the writing process, student choice can be given in paper content. Or choice can be given in end product; why limit the demonstration of understanding to just text? Multimedia products are a perfect way for students to demonstrate understanding.
  2. Task Design – In a student-centered classroom, brain research can be applied to task design. Chunking information, using graphic organizers or guiding questions, connecting learning experiences to a larger concept are all brain-friendly practices that educators can incorporate while designing lessons or units. Our brain naturally identifies patterns, groups, and organizes items.
  3. Peers – Teaching others is a highly effective, brain-friendly practice and during adolescence, nothing is more important to young people than their peers. When students teach each other it boosts understanding to both partners and is often taught in a different way than a teacher could explain.
  4. Authentic – Brain-friendly practice includes authenticity in learning. Read, write, and create for real purposes instead of doing school for school’s sake. In a student-centered classroom, an example of authentic writing is Blogging. Through blogging, students share their voice with a global audience, a shift from the traditional, lone teacher.

Sources:

Thomas Armstrong

BrainLady

Current Brain Research Tells Us…

File_000 (3)The traditional model of “School” was created to support the Industrial Age, pushing out workers into an economy that valued monotony and the algorithmic routines of assembly lines. Students learned the same thing, at the same time, and developed the same skills necessary for the type of work environment most would enter after graduation. Current brain research reveals 4 important truths that have been missed in the past. This understanding of the brain supports the current economy which places value on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, global connections, and heuristic means to create novel ideas.

Do This

Not This

#1   Intelligence is Variable

We think, learn, and create in different ways. Intelligence is multifaceted and students need a range of opportunities to discover varied intelligences.

Intelligence is Singular

Intelligence is developed and demonstrated in one way. There is only one right answer and one way to demonstrate understanding.

#2   The brain is Malleable

Intelligence can continue to grow and be strengthened. Intelligence is NOT fixed, the capacity to continue to learn is immeasurable. Provide students with varied and rich learning experiences to strengthen multiple intelligences.

The brain is Fixed

Intelligence is fixed and determined at birth. Only the earliest years in a child’s life are important for brain strength and growth. Educators can not fill the gaps from home.

#3   The brain hungers for Meaning

Learners seek to make sense of information and recognize patterns, connections to prior knowledge and experiences and organize their learning around larger concepts.

The brain recalls Information

Learners retain information best when imposed upon them. Teaching students important test-taking vocabulary and information in isolation ensures understanding.

#4   We learn best with moderate Challenge

Learners retreat to self-protection mode if faced with too tough of a challenge or have been allowed to continually fail. If the task is too easy, motivation and interest wane. A task that is challenging for one learner may not be for another, therefore differentiating tasks is key.

We learn best through Success

Learners who succeed will continue to learn and push themselves. Tasks should be designed so all students experience immediate success. Any difficulty in learning is met with resistance and the learner gives up.

(Information in part via Tomlinson)

As educators, this information helps to inform practice and remove outdated bias we hold on students, learning, and intelligence. With the understanding that the brain is malleable and intelligence is variable, differentiation in the classroom and rich learning experiences support all students. Tasks and units can be designed to support inquiry, provide choice, and are tied to conceptual thinking. Students grow and strengthen intelligence in multiple areas and leave our care with the ability to think, learn, and create differently.

 

Sources:

  • Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Howard Gardner
  • Carol Dweck