Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Tween Brains, Part III: How to Work It Out In The Classroom

By on October 30, 2013

brain workout In part 1 and part 2 of my series on the tween brain, I covered why teachers need to become brain hobbiests and some key terms when learning about the brain.  In this final post on the tween’s crazy cranium, I discuss some activities we can target and teach them that can hopefully help their brains along when potentially stuck in the mires of high-wire emotion or the swampy doldrums of indifference.

I want to point out here that it’s important that you don’t work in a vacuum.  Let the kids into what you’re doing and why.  Give students the knowledge of how to improve and you will have created an ally in your battle against low achievement.

I’ve listed here a number of ways to help each step of the process and the part of the system that it helps the most in transmitting the message where it needs to go:

1.    Stay healthy and get rest (RAS)
2.    Take breaks and touch base with your emotional state (RAS)
3.     Reflect to embed knowledge (Amygdala and Hippocampus)
4.     Take breaks and switch modalities (Amygdala)
5.    Deep breathing (Amygdala)
6.    Review and Practice (Hippocampus)
7.     Visualize yourself in a peaceful place (Amygdala)
8.    Laugh (Releases Dopamine)
9.    Do some physical activity (Releases Dopamine)
10.    Be kind to someone (Releases Dopamine)

Sure, all of these things are obvious, but it’s the Why They Work that’s so fascinating to students.  Feed into this fascination and get those students working to increase their learning by understanding what makes themselves learn. Help them take ownership in their own learning.

Tips for Teaching Brain-Centric Activities

1.     Yawning before a test – I once read that Apolo Ono, the cute speed skater who also won Dances with the Stars, always deliberately yawns before each race.  It’s not because he’s bored or didn’t have a good night’s sleep.  It’s because he proactively loads up his brain and muscles with an extra umfph of oxygen from which to draw.

2.    Take syn-naps – Judy Willis coined this great term for taking little brain-breaks and allowing the brain to replenish and take a breather of sorts.  Through her studies, she has discovered that every ten minutes, a teacher should switch activities or modalities, create suspense, do something spontaneous in order for brains to shake the doldrums away.  Along those lines, I sometimes follow a Twitter feed in my classroom.  I specifically subscribe to kid-friendly news feeds or sites that pop-up story starters onto our list of Tweets so that while I’m teaching, something might pop up behind me that is interesting and we can stop, investigate, switch gears for a second, and then continue. It becomes a spontaneous switching of gears that wakes them up and lubricates their neural pathways, allowing for greater engagement for a longer period of time.

3.     Rotating Seats – Rotating seats isn’t something that has to happen in the beginning or end of a class.  In fact, in the middle of an activity, (and I’m not saying this has to happen all the time or the disruption will be too much) why not say, “oh, by the way, can you put your pencils down, pick up your books, and move three desks to the left around the table?”  The smiles and grumbles and eye rolls are enough to wake them up, and by the time they’ve seated again, there’s some O2 in the brain that wasn’t there before.

4.    KWLH – Sure I like the KWL chart as much as the next teacher, but what about adding an H at the end for How did you learn it?  It asks, in a very simple way, for a student or class to reflect on the process they went through to learn a concept, and is a very non-threatening mode of deeper reflection.

5.    Let Them Drink Water – Erik Jenson, the Brain Based educator and author, encourages students to drink water during their learning process.  It doesn’t just wet the whistle; it also hydrates the brain and its functions.  Dehydration affects the salt level in the blood, which upsets stress and blood pressure.  The brain, therefore, can phase out, get caught in the doldrums, and lose attention span.  Therefore, let kids bring in their water bottles or fill them up at the fountain.

6.    Flash a picture between PowerPoint and Keynote slides – I love putting non-sequitur slides in my powerpoints just to see who is paying attention.  For instance, say we’re flipping through slides of the translation of a Shakespeare monologue, and there suddenly appears a photo of snowboarder Shawn White standing next to a cardboard cutout of werewolf hottie Taylor Lautner.  I move on.  The kids’ heads whip up, shouting to “Go back!  Go back, Mrs. W!”  To which I reply, “What are you guys talking about?  Now, let’s get back to the couplet at the end,” It’s entertaining for them, but, frankly, it’s also entertaining for you.

7.    Instantaneous think aloud – “Stop, Drop, and Write!” I yell.  Suddenly, the tweens in the room drop to the floor, pens in hand while I pass out index cards to get a mental snapshot of what they are thinking of what we’re learning so far.  It’s a written Think Aloud of sorts, and an immediate reflection done in such a way that it wakes them up to do it.  They never know when it’s going to happen, and when they return to their seats, the O2 is flowing for the next phase of the lesson.  I can read the cards aloud or read them later at my leisure to reflect for myself on the lesson that I created and on my own teaching.

8.    Attach a Lesson or Unit to Music – Each day as the students learn about Langston Hughes, have some jazz in the background.  Each day as the students read about the Renaissance, have some strings playing on iTunes Radio.  Create an attachment to a concept that is non-linguistic so that you can make it memorable before the RAS filter as a chance to toss the lesson aside.

So keep ‘em moving, keep things spontaneous, and keep their brains active even while their bodies are stationed in their seats.  The content isn’t enough to do that.  But specific, targeted, brain-based lessons can.

What you’ve just read is an excerpt from my book, ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers.  Like it?  Check it out at Amazon!

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  1. Sarah
    November 16, 2013

    I just wanted to share that I tried the “instantaneous” think-aloud with my 7th graders, and it was truly invigorating! I wrote about it on my blog and linked to this blog post series – thanks, Heather!

  2. Summer
    December 10, 2013

    Brain research is very interesting and could revolutionize teaching. A few years ago, I was first introduced to the idea of engaging the brain at a training presented by Marcia Tate. She has 20 strategies that engage the brain. These can be found in her book “Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.” A lot of the information I learned at the training aligns with what you have shared in your blog such as movement and switching modalities. A teacher can only hold a students attention so long. Therefore, teachers have to mix it up by chunking their lessons and including movement. Your ideas to do these things are both simple and fun. My middle schoolers would definitely benefit from your ideas.

    It is interesting that you bring water into the mix. I first heard the idea that water helps the brain from my assistant principal this summer. In many schools, including my own, water bottles are not allowed in the classroom. We all know that tweens and teenagers don’t always make the best decisions (a result of their frontal lobe not being fully developed), which is probably why students cannot bring water bottles to school. However, I hope that we can find a way to allow students to drink water throughout the day because it could make a difference in our students’ ability to pay attention.

    You have included a variety of great ideas. Not only are they fun, but they are also beneficial to the brain. I teach 90 minute reading blocks, and there are definitely times where my students’s brains need a switch up. I plan on using your strategies in my classroom right away.

  3. Jill the Guidance Counselor
    March 13, 2014

    Did you know that the word “tween” is an invention by marketing executives in order to created a new demographic to sell products to?
    You should consider using a different word.

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