Teaching to Better Brains

    This week I have changed my practice,  my mind about teaching and more important changed my mind  about my 5th period.

    I am getting ready for the math conference in Palm Springs on November 6.  I am speaking about activities to use in the classroom that get students moving and how important movement in the classroom is to keep the brains active. I have been doing a lot of reading in the last few months about brain research.  When I was growing up there were a lot of theories about brain development, IQ, learning which have turned out to now not be true, so I am always fascinated to read the latest research and how this translates to the classroom.

    I have always had a lot of success using collaborative activities, activities that involve moving around and keeping kids active in the classroom.  Yes, my classroom is noisy.  Yes, the kids are moving around out of their seats constantly.  Yes, some days I wonder if I can get a job at the circus instead to lead a quieter life. BUT….and this is a big but, despite all the headaches that I sometimes have, this has worked extremely well especially since I have been at the middle school.

     I have come a long way.  I remember my first year of teaching where no one spoke except for me, and everyone was pitch quiet (working I thought–learning was quiet I thought).  I like quiet, I am a quiet person.  That classroom worked very well for me, the only problem is that students were not learning and were not being successful–except for those quiet loner students just like me.  Over the years I have loosened up (I am still shy and quiet) and the classroom have evolved into a noisy chaotic place where everyone is busy talking, doing and learning.  Some days I hate it, I long for those quiet classes–but students are happier and much more successful.

    This is what the brain research says:  Most students cannot process more that 15 minutes of instruction at a time( that number is for advanced students and the maximum) because students need processing time to form the neurons.  For my students (my support classes, and my 5th period hungry, tired class especially) 5-8 minutes is the maximum.  The other rule is that unless they apply what they have learned that day, it is lost floating in the brain with no connection and no long term value. This is in addition to having the students move in the classroom, no one sits for more than 10-15 minutes or their brain goes numb.  I was thinking, “How do I actually teach any content in that little bit of time?” and decided to use mini cornell notes since we are an Avid Demonstration school.  After the 10 minutes of notes, we immediately apply the concept.

    So I tried the experiment with my classes all week.  I started with this one at left: finding slope from a graph. I am including the like to the notes here if you would like to try them in your class.
    Mini Cornell Notes

    The kids were upset at first about doing notes–because up to this point we would be taking notes for 25 minutes before we practiced with some activity–I get it now and feel guilty–. But when I told them we would be doing 10 minute notes from now on–they actually timed me and were excited–alert, engaged and enthusiastic when it was time to practice. I thought to myself–ok, this worked fine with the other classes, what about that 5th period that is right before lunch and difficult to get a few of the kids to do any work. IT WORKED LIKE A CHARM.  They actually took notes, they really did the practice.  In fact, they did all the work that day and one of my students said to me (with shock on his face) “Wow, everyone did work today, I think this is the first time”.  Yes, it was.  Those kids who never do anything, not only did the work, they did it correctly.

    I say all of this, actually put it in writing not because I want to pick on my classes or complain about them, but to point out that a simple change can get huge results.  I was the problem–the way I was teaching the content–the way I had been instructed by district consultants to teach–was not working with my classes.  I was desperate to find more ways to reach them and now we are moving forward, and they are happier and so am I.  Will I finish the pacing guide?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that  they are learning quicker and with greater understanding and isn’t that the point?

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