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by Marilee Sprenger
Table of Contents
For most of us, our favorite teacher was someone we felt really cared about and/or challenged us: someone who recognized us and reached out to us.
—Jonathan Cohen, Educating Minds and Hearts
I am facing another difficult class of 29 8th graders. They are from a variety of backgrounds. Four of them have been expelled from other schools. Two of them have older brothers who are involved in gang activity. Seventeen come from single-parent homes. Several of them are on welfare. One has a father in prison.
The first day I have to go over the rules in the handbook. Those who are following along are laughing and making snide remarks—too softly for me to hear exactly what they say. I pass out books and collect emergency cards, and finally the day is over.
The second day I decide to take the students for a “book walk” through the social studies text. I have read recently that pre-exposure to the material will help students feel more comfortable later when we cover it. Two students start a verbal battle over some of the content. Fifteen others join in. My room is next to the principal's office, and I fear the ruckus is being overheard. My heart is racing. I look at the clock, praying it is time for the bell. No such luck. I wonder why teachers on television and in movies are “saved by the bell” and I am not. I open my desk drawer and pull out a whistle. One quick blow and they quiet down. Surprised. Some angry. But quiet. I give them a quick assignment—they are to draw a picture of any historical event they want. I sit and wait for the class to end.
The bell rings and I beat the students out the door. I run into—almost literally—one of my colleagues. I look him in the eye and say, “I cannot teach these kids!”
He looks back at me and with total seriousness says, “Sure you can, but first, you have to get their attention. If you can't do that, you can get a different job.”
I was taken aback by his comments. But I knew he was right. I have had a lot of teaching experience at all levels. I started thinking about how I was able to reach those other classes. I knew the whistle only worked because it was novel. Should I come up with other novel ideas? What else might be valuable? To reach my students I would need their attention. I would also need emotional connections and good working relationships with my students. I would need to understand their learning styles, and I would need to make the material relevant to their lives.
We are bombarded with sensory stimuli throughout the day. According to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (1999), our brain retains only about one percent of that information. How do we help our students hold onto even the sensory information, let alone all the semantic information they need to remember? According to Shaun Kerry (2002), of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, whether certain events or information are retained in memory is “dependent upon an individual's love for the subject matter and its dramatic, emotional, auditory, and visual impact.”
Many factors affect our students' ability to secure information. But my colleague said I first have to get their attention.
It is time for Writer's Workshop. The 3rd graders are scattered throughout the room. There is a low buzz of conversation as some of the students discuss their writing with others. The teacher is conferencing with J.D.
Seated quietly at her desk is Katie. She is rereading her short essay on her favorite book. As she reads, she pauses to draw a picture depicting an episode in the book. Jamie approaches Katie's desk and asks to borrow a blue marker. Katie stops reading and hands the marker to her. Jamie glances at the picture Katie is making and asks her several questions about the book. Katie colors in the house she has drawn as she describes the characters and the scene. Interrupting the conversation, Angelo says he needs to get a book out of the desk Katie is seated in. He excuses himself and starts looking for the book. Katie must stand now to color while she carries on her account to Jamie.
With her right hand, Katie maintains her coloring, and with her left hand she grabs the book she has spotted for Angelo. He thanks her and goes back to his place at the table where the students are peer editing. Jamie's interest is piqued and she asks for the name of the author of Katie's book. Katie has loaned the book to Tiffany, who sits across the aisle. The girls ask Tiffany who the author is and maintain their dialogue as they await a response. Katie is listening to Jamie's comment about the book as she admires her picture. She is also listening for Tiffany's voice to tell her the author's name. Katie picks up a green marker and draws a large tree next to the house as Tiffany reads the author's name and Jamie returns to her seat.
According to Andreason (2001), attention is the cognitive process that allows Katie to control irrelevant stimuli (ignore the buzz of conversation in the room), to notice important stimuli (her essay, her picture, and Jamie's comments), and to shift from one stimulus to another (from talking to Jamie to drawing the picture, and from interacting with Angelo to interacting with Jamie and Tiffany). She was balancing visual information in the picture. She attended to auditory information as she listened to Jamie and for Tiffany. The tactile information she was dealing with included drawing her picture, grabbing the book for Angelo, and giving Jamie the marker.
Andreason (2001) divides attention into five types: sustained, directed, selective, divided, and focused. Sustained attention involves focusing for a long period of time. Creating lesson plans or creating an assessment requires this type of attention. Directed attention occurs when we consciously select a particular stimulus from all that bombards us. This is the attention we give one particular student if she is disrupting the class. Selective attention involves focusing on one particular stimulus for a personal or sensible reason. For instance, a student may select to listen to a whisper from another student rather than to the lecture being given. Divided attention occurs as we rapidly shift focus from one thing to another. Our students are dealing with divided attention as they do their homework in front of the television. Focused attention is directing attention to a particular aspect of some stimulus, such as asking our students to focus on the answer to an essential question as they research on the Internet.
Attention is necessary for thinking. The brain scans the environment, sifting through sensory messages to find something to pay attention to. The brain is always attending; our students just may not be attending to what we desire. Attention requires three elements: arousal, orientation, and focus (Carter, 1998).
The reticular activating system (see Appendix A) controls arousal levels through the amount of neurotransmitter it emits. Stimulation of the frontal lobes by norepinephrine and dopamine changes the brain's electrical activity and causes us to be alert. At this time, the parietal lobe disengages from the current stimulus, and we are oriented to the new stimulus. The thalamus then controls the situation and allows us to focus as it carries the new information to the frontal lobes. The thalamus has the power to inhibit other sensory stimulation to aid us. The anterior cingulate allows us to maintain attention (Carter, 1998). The hippocampus is a major player in the attention process. Because of its access to so many memories, if the reticular activating system reacts to some sensory stimulation, the hippocampus can compare it to old experiences and determine its novelty (Ratey, 2001).
This biological information is helpful for educators. It tells us that the attention process can be aided by instruction. In other words, the anterior cingulate will focus on what we bring its attention to.
Noah is playing on his computer. It is seven o'clock, but he is too engrossed in his game to realize that time is passing quickly. His computer suddenly freezes, and he has to reboot. While waiting for the machine to come back online, Noah glances at the clock. He can't believe time slipped by so fast.
Noah's reticular activating system aroused him. He has a load of homework to complete and obviously didn't realize how time flies!
Noah looks at his stack of books. He begins to prioritize. “Let's see. I might be able to get my English done on the bus tomorrow. I have to finish my math now because I may need Mom's help. Then I'd better practice those words for my spelling test.”
It's Noah's frontal lobes that are now orienting him to his homework. They are helping him plan and prioritize.
Noah pulls his math book from the pile, opens his notebook, and is completely focused on his work. He doesn't hear his mom open the door to look in on him.
Noah's thalamus has filtered out sensory stimuli that will not aid him in his current focus of attention, his math homework.
Mental Note: Without awareness of incoming information, explicit learning cannot occur.
Jeremy and Joe are good friends. They've attended school together since kindergarten. Their mothers belong to the same book club, and their fathers often golf together.
On this sunny Saturday afternoon, Jeremy and Joe are going to the batting cages. Baseball season is right around the corner, and they're hoping to move from the junior varsity team to varsity. They are just gathering their bats when Joe's dad approaches.
“Hey, guys, how about coming to the course with us this afternoon? We could use some good caddies,” he asks.
Jeremy's face immediately lights up. “That sounds like fun. I could use some pointers on my golf game, and it's really a great day to be out in the sunshine! Don't you think so, Joe? We can go to the cages afterward. You've been saying you want to try out for the golf team. This could be a great opportunity.”
Joe, however, is not convinced. When his dad looks at him for a reply and sees the negative look on his face, he sighs and says, “OK, Joe, we'll pay you for your trouble.”
Joe nods his head. “OK, but it has to be more than 10 bucks. That's what you gave me last time—I won't do it for that.”
Two similar boys with similar interests, yet their responses are quite different. Of course, many factors may be involved in this scenario, but the bottom line is that Joe required an extrinsic motivation, while Jeremy was happy to caddy for intrinsic reasons.
Merriam-Webster (1993) defines motive as “something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act” (p. 759). Asking my students about their needs resulted in a very long list. Interestingly enough, none of the content that I teach ever showed up on their lists. In other words, students do not see reading, math, history, science, or writing as a necessity! To motivate our students, we have to prove to them that our topics are necessary, or we must make them desirable.
Jeremy and Joe were each motivated in different ways. Intrinsic motivation comes from within—a desire or need that the brain determines is pleasurable or important. When we are intrinsically motivated, neurotransmitters such as dopamine are released in our brains (LeDoux, 2002). This provides the “get up and go” that is necessary to accomplish our goal. These same neurotransmitters are released when our goal is attained. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, makes us want to achieve again to repeat the good feeling.
Extrinsic motivation is associated with rewards and punishment. Some researchers, such as Alfie Kohn (1993), believe that extrinsic motivators change the brain and shift the goal from attaining the objective to attaining some tangible reward or avoiding a punishment. The concern is that receiving the reward will cause dopamine to be released and this will train the brain to have good feelings about the reward as opposed to the accomplishment.
In our sample scenario, Jeremy is seeking his dopamine from the experience and the learning, whereas Joe seeks his from the payment. Many researchers believe that the external reward must get larger to receive the same level of pleasure or excitement. So the $10 doesn't make Joe as happy as it used to, and he demands more.
Mental Note: Students are motivated in different ways.
According to Abraham Maslow's theory, certain needs must be met before the brain can focus on academic achievement. His hierarchy begins with physiological needs and then proceeds to safety, belonging, esteem, and, finally, self-actualization (Maslow & Lowery, 1998).
Physiological nFeeds. These consist of basic survival requirements. Food, water, shelter, and clothing fall into this category. If a student is hungry, that hunger will remain the number one priority until it is satisfied. Attention will always be focused on unmet needs.
Safety needs. Security, freedom from threat, and predictability are all-important to the brain's need for safety. If the physiological needs are met, the brain focuses on the safety needs. Once these are met, it turns itself toward the next level. If our students feel safe and unthreatened in our classrooms, their levels of focus and attention are not impeded.
Belonging and love. These two needs comprise a primary motivator for the brain. People seek to overcome loneliness when their physical needs have been met and they feel safe. Relationships with friends, spouses, and children provide a sense of belonging. Students who have good relationships with their teacher and other students have neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine released in their brains to make them feel good and feel motivated.
Esteem needs. Self-respect, achievement and success, and a good reputation fall into this category. Feeling valuable in the classroom helps our students focus. Especially when they feel valuable to the teacher, they put forth more effort.
Self-actualization. This level is defined as becoming what the individual is most suited for. Attaining this highest level on the hierarchy is an incredible accomplishment that we want for all of our students. They must first know that they are safe, that they belong and are valued, and that they can respect themselves as others respect them.
To reach our students, we must be aware of these needs. Every effort must be made to meet the needs of our students so they will be able to attend to the information we want them to learn and remember.
William Glasser (1999) defines five equally important needs: survival, belonging and love, power, freedom, and fun. On the cover of his popular book Choice Theory is a statement that epitomizes this theory: “Choosing the life you want and staying close to the people you need.”
From his theory, we can conclude that offering choices to our students (responding to their needs for power and freedom) may also make them feel good about what they are doing and therefore make them more motivated and attentive. Belonging and love encompass the latter part of the statement. Students need to feel close to others and know that they can rely on their teacher and their peers.
According to Brophy (1987), student motivation is an acquired competence developed “through general experience, but it is stimulated through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or socialization by significant others” (p. 41). Therefore, the classroom environment—how the teacher affects the socialization process, what the expectations are and how they are communicated, and the modeling component—can significantly influence student motivation and attention.
Vanessa is in the school storeroom gathering material for an art project. Art is not her favorite subject, and her selection shows little effort toward creativity. She has collected markers, paper, and rulers. Nothing is sparking ideas for the assignment called “My Ideal Spot.” Vanessa doesn't want to spend a lot of time on this project because she has two other assignments to complete. As she wanders up one aisle and down another, she spots Jessie. Jessie is a student who does it all. She takes ballet and piano, writes award-winning essays, and is very artistic. She loves projects like this. Jessie is bright and lets others know it.
Vanessa notices Jessie's acquisitions. She has filled her arms with glue, glitter, cotton, clay, and oil paint. Vanessa turns to avoid Jessie, who will undoubtedly brag about her project, but it's too late. Jessie walks up to Vanessa and looks at her meager collection of items. She smiles and pushes her heavy load toward Vanessa. She glances down at the markers and asks, “You just getting started?”
Vanessa feels totally inadequate and replies, “Yes, I just got here and grabbed some of the usuals. Now I'm backtracking to get the good stuff.”
“So, what's your project going to be?” Jessie queries. Vanessa suspects that she is just asking so she can outdo her with a fabulous project idea.
Vanessa tries to think quickly and responds with, “Oh, my ideal spot is a secret place that I share with my friends. I have to check with them and make sure it's OK to use it for this project.” Vanessa thought that should quiet her down. After all, Jessie probably doesn't have a spot she shares with friends!
“Well, my ideal spot is in Hawaii. My family goes there every year for two weeks. There are wonderful beaches and an awesome volcano. When I told the art teacher about my idea, he was so excited to see it.” Jessie rambles on mentioning plants and places that Vanessa has never heard of. Her mind wanders until she picks up on Jessie's last comment: “Vanessa, if you ever want to learn how to create a fabulous project, let me know.”
Vanessa is overcome with anger and embarrassment. She opens her mouth to give Jessie a witty reply, but nothing comes out! Her brain just can't seem to grasp any smart-aleck remarks. She smiles at her with clenched teeth and walks away.
Vanessa is seething. How dare Jessie make a remark like that? “I can do my own art project,” she thinks. “I certainly don't need her help. I should have just let her have it, but I'm too much of a lady for that. Why couldn't I think of a comeback? I'm the comeback queen. I always have a comment for everyone.”
Vanessa's emotions had her tongue-tied. Goleman (1995) calls this an emotional “hijacking.” Higher-level thinking doesn't take place when this phenomenon occurs. Vanessa was stuck in the emotional center of her brain and couldn't access the creative center. A few hours later she had several responses for Jessie. She almost called her to share them!
Emotions have a strong influence on learning (Small, 2002). If students are anxious, depressed, or even angry, they do not receive information in an efficient way. The brain is captivated by the emotion and turns attention to it. When these emotions capture the brain's attention, working memory is flooded and cannot be effective in working with the task at hand.
That's one way that emotions affect learning. There is, however, a very positive side to emotion.
Mental Note: Strong emotions can impede the reception of information.
What are emotions? Most researchers refer to the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. These are primary emotions that are found and recognized in all humans all over the world. Secondary emotions are socially oriented; jealousy, guilt, and embarrassment are a few. Finally, some emotions are what Damasio (1999) calls “background emotions” which include tension and well-being.
Emotions are produced at subcortical regions of the brain; they are part of a set of structures that represent body states. Involuntarily engaged, without conscious knowledge, they affect both the brain and the body. Emotions and emotional states are patterns of response that lead to behavior. This emotion and behavior can occur when someone perceives information through the senses or when an individual conjures up certain memories (Damasio, 1999). The emotions Vanessa was having when encountering Jessica represent sensory information. Those same emotions can be rekindled when she thinks of the situation later on. When Vanessa next runs into Jessica, those emotions may resurface and affect her behavior.
The amygdala is the major player in emotions and their memories. Because the amygdala modulates both explicit and implicit memory due to its location and access to incoming information, we remember poignant events better than boring or neutral ones (Bloom, Beal, & Kupfer, 2003).
According to LeDoux (2002), “Attention, perception, memory, decision-making, and the conscious concomitants of each are all swayed in emotional states . . . emotional arousal organizes and coordinates brain activity” (p. 225). Schacter (2001), in The Seven Sins of Memory, states, “Everyday experience and laboratory studies reveal that emotionally charged incidents are better remembered than non-emotional events. The emotional boost begins at the moment that a memory is born, when attention and elaboration strongly influence whether an experience will be subsequently remembered or forgotten” (p. 163).
Stephen Hamann of Emory University uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gauge emotional responses to words and pictures (Hamann, Ely, Grafton, & Kilts, 1999). The imaging shows the activation of the amygdala when individuals respond to an emotional sight. “When the amygdala detects emotion, it essentially boosts activity in areas of the brain that form memories,” says Hamann. “And that's how it makes a stronger memory and a more vivid memory” (p. 292). Subjects in Hamann's experiments remember twice as many emotional words as neutral ones.
Because emotions are so powerful, incorporating emotion into our teaching is an excellent way to reach our students. If emotion organizes brain activity, and attention and perception are swayed by emotional states, then our everyday experiences in school will become more memorable if we use emotions to reach our students.
Remember, we are just at the first step: reaching our students. If we want to teach for memory, we must start with the basics: What will engage our students' brains? What will they attend to? The brain is always attending to something, and we want to be the first priority.
You are the expert in your classroom with your students. Here are some possible ways to pull your students emotionally into your lessons. Make your presentation exciting. Excitatory neurotransmitters are released when we feel excited. Norepinephrine starts a cascade of chemical responses that increase the intensity of the experience and the perception of it.
Mental Note: Emotions take precedence over all other brain processes.
“We often see what we expect to see” (Marzano, Pickering, Norford, et al., 2001, p. 279). Advance organizers are powerful instruments for focusing our students' attention. These organizers come in many packages. For instance, an advance organizer could be an oral presentation of the subject matter and how it relates to prior knowledge. In my experience, the most effective tool was a graphic organizer that focused my students and directed them to the learning I intended them to remember. Graphic organizers provide a framework for the learning, and they keep the students within that structure.
My favorite organizer is the agree/disagree chart (Burke, 1999; see Figure 1.1). Such a chart is composed of statements that can be presented orally or in writing. I prefer a chart with statements on them and a place to check “agree” or “disagree.” The agree/disagree statements will evoke emotions in most students. They also help them understand the concepts that are being shared.
1. Younger people remember more than older people.
2. Age has nothing to do with memory.
3. Memory is stored in one area of the brain.
4. You only have enough immediate memory space for a phone number.
5. Females have better memories than males.
6. You never forget how to ride a bike.
7. It is easier to forget than to remember.
8. Smells trigger certain memories.
Advance organizers call on prior knowledge. If the students have no previous experience with the subject, you can ask them to make an attempt to agree or disagree. When the unit is nearly finished, I give my students another opportunity to read the statements and agree or disagree. They then compare the original chart with the recent one. Some students are amazed at what they have learned, while others pat themselves on the back for what they already knew.
Most graphic organizers can be used as advance organizers (see Appendix B for several examples). Again, they may help you reach the students as they provide a scaffold for the learning. Some other graphic organizers that may be helpful include the following:
Mental Note: Show the brain what to focus on.
Our students have different ways of learning. Some of them are visual learners, some auditory, and some kinesthetic or tactile. These learning preferences or learning strengths may influence what our students are paying special attention to (Sprenger, 2003).
Visual learners. These learners are probably thrilled with graphic organizers, overhead transparencies, and perhaps even the textbook. They may have an easier time “getting the picture” if you are a visual teacher. They will pay particular attention to visual information, including text. School is usually accommodating to these learners. To reach them for attention purposes, brightly colored pictures, video clips, and handouts may grab them.
Auditory learners. These students need to talk as much as they like to listen. Information becomes real to them through discussion. Your pictures, overheads, and handouts may be lost on these learners, but they love to jump into a discussion. To reach these students initially, music or debate may be a key. Their memories are strongly auditory in nature; in other words, they remember what they hear over what they see or feel.
Kinesthetic and tactile learners. They may wiggle and jiggle or need hands-on learning. For these students, movement is inevitable, so controlled movement is always preferred. They may need to “become” what they are learning about. To engage their attention, an activity that allows them to role-play, create a concept, or work with technology such as a computer may be helpful.
Consider the following:
The freshmen students enter the classroom. It is a warm, almost oppressive day. The windows are open, but little air is circulating.
It is time to begin a unit on the Civil War. This is not a favorite of mine. Perhaps it is because my own history teacher did a mediocre job of presenting it. With this heat, I am not in the mood to teach at all, let alone approach a challenging topic.
“OK, kids,” I begin, “I know you're hot. I am, too. This may be tough, but it's time we started studying the Civil War. Does anyone know anything about that war?”
Now, I could have begun this way:
Music is playing in the background. I have chosen “I Wish I Was in Dixie.” The students look at me a little strangely. I hand them cups of water as they enter the room, and as the final bell rings, I turn the music off and say, “Walk around the room and look at the Civil War posters and paraphernalia”. As warm as we are today, I want you to realize that the soldiers who fought in this war were wearing heavy uniforms and were out in the sun continuously.
“How many of you have seen Gone with the Wind? It's a great movie; of course, Rhett Butler makes it even more interesting. Do you remember that there was a lot of bloodshed? I hope that blood doesn't bother you all. It really was a bloody war!”
The second scenario is more of an attention getter for several reasons. First, some emotions were evoked with the mention of blood and Rhett Butler, and the use of music. Second, I used a multisensory approach. As soon as the students entered, they began moving, listening, and looking. Finally, I related their present experience of being hot and uncomfortable to the individuals we were about to study. I gave them water to fulfill a physiological need as well as to let them know that I understand how they are feeling, that we are in this together.
Mental Note: Students with a strong learning style preference will be reached most easily through that style.
The feeling of togetherness that I was able to convey to my students is only accessible if I have taken the time to set up relationships with each of them. This is the key to learning in any situation and with people of any age. Our relationships offer the framework in which we understand our progress and appreciate the usefulness of what we're learning (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).
Four emotional intelligence domains can be applied to relationship building in any environment: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. The first two deal with personal skills; the last two are related to social skills.
Personal skills. Recognizing one's own emotions is critical to attaining the other competencies. If our students know how they feel, they are then able, with guidance, to learn how to manage those emotions. We hope that our students come to school with these abilities, but sometimes it behooves us to add these to our repertoire, as it will make teaching and learning much easier.
Social skills. A primary skill in this domain is empathy. The ability to sense others' emotions, understand their perspectives, and show concern can foster powerful teacher—student and student—student relationships in the classroom. Relationship management includes managing conflict, influencing others, and cultivating relationships.
The passions that any of us have to do our work may come from pure emotion like excitement, from the satisfaction that we get from the learning, or from the joy of working with others. Any of these motivators activate the left prefrontal cortex, which receives many of those “feel good” neurotransmitters. Simultaneously, the prefrontal circuits quiet feelings of frustration that might interfere with the learning (Goleman et al., 2002).
Building relationships with students requires finding common ground. The more they feel they are like you or like each other, the more comfortable it is to develop relationships that will enhance learning. One method I like to use I borrowed from a 5th grade teacher. It's a get-to-know-each-other activity with a twist (see Figure 1.2). Students receive a sheet divided into boxes to be signed by classmates who meet the criteria stated in each square. Students walk around asking others if they like chocolate chip cookies, for example, or have a red car. The rules are that they cannot shove the sheet in the other student's face and say, “Here—sign one.” They must approach a fellow student and ask a question pertaining to the sheet. After the sheet is completed, everyone sits down. I then go through each category and ask the students to raise their hands if the category pertains to them. They can look around and see what they have in common with others in the room. The sheets I first use are characteristics that are true of me. The students quickly see what we have in common. A second sheet is given a few weeks later after I have had the opportunity to get personal information from them via index cards. This time the students see how many other students have things in common with them or share their special interests.
Find someone who . . .
Has a dog
Has brown eyes
Likes Pepsi more than Coke
Reads a lot
Loves chocolate chip cookies
Has red as a favorite color
Listens to books on tape
Thinks M&M's are good chocolate
Prefers gold rather than silver
Has a red car
Has two sisters
Is afraid of heights
Travels a lot
Likes to run
Has a brother
According to Giannetti and Sagarese's (2001) research in their book Cliques, our students fall into one of four social categories. The most obvious is perhaps the Popular group, made up of students who may be attractive, athletic, and affluent. Setting the stage for what is “in,” these students comprise about 35 percent of the student population. The emotional issue with this particular group is that popularity isn't necessarily permanent. These kids may be worrying about how to keep their social status.
Another category, making up about 10 percent of the population, is the Fringegroup. These students sometimes get to hang out with the Popular group but often are left behind. This social position seems to please them enough to put up with the times they are not included. As a result, these kids are never sure whether they are popular. Modeling themselves after the Popular group, but not knowing exactly where they belong, is an emotional issue for them.
The third category is called Friendship Circles. These are small groups of students who are good friends. They realize they are not popular, but they have each other and appear to be content. These groups make up about 45 percent of the population, and circle members seem to feel pretty good about themselves.
Finally, we have the Loners. The 10 percent of the kids who have few or no friends at all make up this cluster. The Loners may be bright, ambitious, and light-years ahead of their peers, or they may have poor social skills and be difficult to be around. Although these students would possibly like to be a part of a group, they are simply not accepted. Sometimes these kids may be bitter about their social situation and may even lash out.
According to this research, only 45 percent of our students feel confident in their social/emotional position in school. After such school tragedies as the Columbine experience, it behooves us to become attentive to the social structure in our school. One place to discover cliques is to visit the cafeteria at lunchtime. A social stratum plays itself out as students discover who they may or may not eat with. To set up strong relationships, all of these students must be able to interact with each other and respect each difference and gift. Empathy plays a large part in this ability.
My 9-year-old Sheltie is very ill, and I have to have her put to sleep by the vet. I arrange to take her and stay for the procedure early one morning while my first hour class is in the library. After the emotional ordeal, I return to school. I stop by the office and tell the administrators that I have indeed returned. My eyes are red from crying, but I know I can manage my emotions in my classroom.
One of my colleagues expresses her sympathy and then as a reminder says, “Don't let those kids see you cry!”
I nod and walk despondently down the hall. When I reach the library door, I feel an enormous sadness and some anger at what my coworker had said. Can't I express my emotions? Wouldn't my students think that I am heartless if I weren't upset? And isn't this an excellent opportunity to teach empathy?
I enter the room and all eyes are on me.
“You're here!” says one of the girls.
“Are you sick?” another asks.
“No,” I reply. “I just had a very sad experience.” I explain the reason for my tardiness.
“My cat had to be put to sleep, Mrs. Sprenger,” Nancy offers. “I felt really bad.”
“I'm sure you did,” I acknowledge.
“It's just a dumb animal,” Brett announces.
I look at Brett, and the students look at me. “Have you ever had a pet?” I ask.
“Yeah, we got a dog. He sleeps in my room,” Brett shares.
The students begin to dialogue about loss. Brett sits quietly until the conversation ends with the bell. He walks over to me on his way out the door. “I'm sorry, Mrs. S., I guess I didn't really think about how it would feel. I'd be upset, just like you.”
Two lessons were begun that day. First, the students were able to put themselves in my shoes and understand how I was feeling. Second, they recognized my feelings and saw that I could manage them. According to Comer (2003), “children need to form emotional bonds with their teachers and see healthy social relationships among the adults in their lives to function well in school” (p. 11).
Mental Note: Attention and motivation can be directed through personal relationships with students.
How many times have we heard this question? When we think about relevance, we can again look at the brain and how it learns and remembers. The brain is pattern seeking. It takes new information and searches long-term memory to find a pattern to “hook” it to. If you look at Figure 1.3, your brain sees a square. Is it really there? No, but you have a pattern in your brain for squares, and this is what your brain finds to connect the image to. It fills in the blanks (Jensen, 2001).
When we offer information to our students, their brains try to make some connections to patterns already stored. If there are no connections, the information is easily dropped. Relevancy involves making some associations that affect their lives.
This is not a simple task when we look at the standards and benchmarks that we must reach. Research shows that students perform better when they are provided with criteria, models, and examples that clearly illustrate our expectations (Schmoker, 1999).
A student-centered classroom can be created with project-based learning and inquiry learning as well. These learning activities focus on information-processing skills and lead to understanding. Reaching our students through relevant issues increases the chances that information will enter the memory process.
Which of the following scenarios do you believe would be more appealing to your students?
Miss Owen's students enter the classroom. They immediately take their seats and get out their notebooks. Today they are studying the Lewis and Clark expedition. They know this because Miss Owen has it written on the overhead.
As soon as the bell rings, Miss Owen begins disseminating information verbally (i.e., lecturing). Some students frantically take notes. Others lose their focus quickly and gaze around the room. Miss Owen has some posters up depicting the events of the expedition. Perhaps some of her students will learn something from the posters.
Miss Owen's students enter the classroom. On the overhead is a picture of a huge mosquito. Beneath the picture is written, “You are part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of the biggest nuisances you have are the mosquitoes. They are everywhere. There are times when it is difficult to breathe without inhaling a bug! Research ways that your expedition can deal with this situation. Compare your information with what we would do today.”
Posters, books, and Internet access are available to the students. They are divided into groups and begin their work.
Miss Owen's students in the second scenario learned much more than how to handle mosquitoes. Approaching this part of history with a problem that all could relate to was an invitation to learn. Her students followed the entire expedition as they followed those insects.
She also brought relevancy by having her students create a Venn diagram comparing what Lewis and Clark took with them on this trip and what their families would pack (Figure 1.4).
Making content relevant to our students' lives allows them to start making connections to prior knowledge immediately. Problem-based learning is experiential learning that is built around a real-world problem. Students engage in the process of identifying the problem and then finding a solution. This is an open-ended approach to learning the standards. These problems should approximate what a professional in the field would tackle in the real world (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).
Many of our diverse learners have difficulty relating to our goals and standards. Students from extreme povery may be focusing on survival. Reading with fluency, understanding different forms of government, and knowing and applying concepts that explain how living things function, adapt, and change may not be the most crucial things to them. Nevertheless, it is our job to help students reach those benchmarks. The most powerful thing we can do is to help them find the relationship between their lives and our goals. It's not an easy task.
Here is an example using an Illinois State Learning Goal in Social Science:
STATE GOALS 15: Understand economic systems, with an emphasis on the U.S.
Benchmark 15 B. Understand that scarcity necessitates choices by consumers.
Essential question relevant to students: If you have limited resources for entertainment, how do you make your choices?
I would put an example like this up on the board so the students would see what the goal is behind the instruction. When the question “Why do we have to know this stuff?” would come up, I would simply point to the board.
We must always deal with contextualization—that is, how our students know about and understand our concepts. Let them tell their stories. Those stories hold prior knowledge, provide other students with hooks to the new information, and hold their attention. By allowing students to share their stories, you are building relationships in the classroom among students and between you and the storyteller. If there is little relevancy to what you are teaching, it may be the relationship you have with the students that keeps them motivated.
Mental Note: Our students remember what affects their lives.
Teachers have their own ways of reaching students, and often instinctively they know when it's time to try something new. Novelty is appealing to the brain. Perhaps you remember how the reticular activating system filters information. When anything is perceived as unusual, it releases norepinephrine to wake up the brain. Once something has been repeated, the brain habituates to it, and the novelty is gone (Ratey, 2001). Here are a few ideas to add novelty to your instruction:
We know through cognitive research that attention, motivation, relationships, relevance, learning styles, and emotions are essential components of the “reaching” process. If we can get information from sensory memory into immediate memory, then we are on our way to long-term retention. As people mentally prepare for a task, they activate the prefrontal cortex, the area that performs higher-level functions and puts them in action. This advance preparation ensures that they will perform better than without prior activation (Carter et al., 2000).
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