Brain Friendly #sol17


Reducing Cognitive Load in the Workshop

March 28, 2017

One of my students is having difficulty learning to spell high frequency words.  She reads them with ease, but when it comes to spelling, she still struggles.  After thinking and talking and trying lots of things, it was so simple.  I took the word solving strategies that we had applied to reading to our spelling with a few twists: see the word in your head,  give it a go,  does it look right?  It’s not rocket science, but it is brain research.  

Our working memory can only keep 6-7 things at a time.  As David Souza points out in How the Brain Learns,  this might not be a bad thing.  Having a small amount of items in your brain may allow things to be more easily associated with other things. So if I am teaching steps in a process in writing, reading, spelling, or even math,  I had better keep the steps down to 5 or less. Our visual memory is stronger than any other memory and current research show that visual memory is getting stronger.  So those simple strategies  help our young speller use a technique but where else in literacy learning is brain research facilitating.  

Our working memory is also temporary.  Most reports say less than 20 minutes.  If I am trying to maximize brain use,  I am switching activities every 15-20 minutes.  Think of a 15 minute mini-lesson, 15 minute small group,  15 minutes increments of independent practice.   When we write focus phrases, as outlined by Terry Thompson in The Construction Zone,  I am creating short kid-friendly mantras with students that they can repeat to themselves during the scaffolding process.  Check over my spelling.  Circle words that don’t look right.  Then go back and correct the spelling.

If I know students have enhanced visual memory,  I may start a lesson with a short video of the subject or review with BrainPop, Kahoot,  a drawing or picture.  I also am thinking about reducing the visual load in my classroom.  I read once that after a very short time (one week) anchor charts become visual wallpaper to students.  Using them through the I do and We do phases and then moving them to a student size chart or a photo on an iPad for students who still need the scaffold during independent work, is an effective strategy.

Other things to keep in mind.  Routines reduce cognitive clutter.  If the structure of our routines stays relatively constant that frees up cognitive space for critical thinking and deeper learning. Practice matters.  Moving from listen, watch, to perform helps move concepts from working memory to long term storage.  How do we get thinking from working memory to long term storage?  Two questions seem critical.  Does this make sense?  Does this have meaning?  

My final thought is to think about the depth of the stairs.  If those stairs are steep, carrying the groceries is really difficult.  Making the moves from concepts easier by bridging ideas.  Take care in moving through the gradual release, lingering in shared practice.  This is not just for primary students.  Finally,  give wait, think, processing, and practice time.  

To think is to practice brain chemistry– Deepak Chopra


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. This is day 28 of 31. Read more slices here.

The Space Between

The Space Between   March 1, 2017

I was working on coaching points for the next units of study in reading and writing for our elementary building when I began thinking about… the space between.  Sometimes it’s a rush moving from one unit to another, there really isn’t any breathing space for the teachers or… the students.

I feel rushed during the day, during the week, during a month, during the year.  How do our students feel?   I thought about this in earnest several weeks ago during a professional development day with our primary teachers.   Our trainer for the year and this day, Clare Landrigan said we need to create balance between destinations.  I began thinking about this balance and the concept of lingering began to take shape in my thinking.  

Oh,  I’m a lingerer.  I am a lingerer from way back.  Ask my husband.  I can spend an hour looking at yarn color,  recipe books,  dishes,  a sunset,  the list goes on.  So if I find peace, comfort, and inspiration from lingering,  why don’t I encourage it in others?

So I began in small ways to encourage the linger through my collaboration meetings.  I would say to a teacher partner, “we could spend another day on this and… have the students present their thinking to each other,  write long about what we talked about today, linger over one more mentor text.  I thought they would offer excuses not to,  telling me that we were “moving forward”,  “ground to cover”, and so on.  They really didn’t.  They exhaled… and they lingered with their students.

I had a lingering moment today with a fourth grade class.  We had worked through a novel prior to February vacation and the last day, the teacher had asked the students to write a ‘stickie’ about the theme and put in our their exit ticket board.  As the two of us read through the stickie notes, she said,  “They think it’s about getting a puppy. That’s what happen in the last chapter.”  We decided to sleep on it,  for real.  We spend the next week on break.  Melissa and I thinking sporadically on theme and the students enjoy the nice weather.  

Melissa saw a great idea about students writing an additional chapter for the book based on their thinking about the theme, but decided that the class needed a little more work prior to diving in.  I saw the short animation Oscar winner,  Piper, and could clearly see the theme in the movie.  So I suggested that we try to talk through theme, again and again moments, and life lessons using this short film with no dialogue.  When the students didn’t immediately jump to the lesson,  we asked,  what was the problem?  We went back and rewatched.  You get the idea.  Rewatching is like rereading.  
So here we are a few days later with several picture books under our belts along with some great discussions, some collaborative learning, and some breathing room.  Tomorrow we might actually go back to the novel…  There’s always next week.