Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CyberEnglish is brain surgery

The Jensen book supports CyberEnglish.

I've always said, CyberEnglish is as close to brain surgery as a teacher can get. Because we are in computer rooms we have access to the technology that let's us watch our scholars create, edit, and produce work. Beyond that, the curriculum of CE is project based. In project based lessons, the scholars must collaborate and use all their skills to complete a project. It is more than any multiple choice test can provide. What concerns me is that those in charge have been hoodwinked by big business into thinking that a test based curriculum is the way to go. Of course it is easy and the public sees and believes what it is told by politicians, advertisers, and big business. Since we a market economy we are driven by the flim flam of business and not by the intelligence of educators. Americans are very ignorant about education as witnessed by where we are today and by the politicians they have put in charge of this very important facet of American life. We do not follow our brain, instead we follow our politicians and that is a huge mistake because they are led by the lobbyists. Education is big bucks, in fact it is the second largest industry in America. The military is number one. So common sense and intelligent choices will not be made since "there is gold in them thar schools." Big business only cares about the bottom line and making money, not about doing the right or even intelligent thing. Multiple choice tests are economically more profitable than any project based curriculum, so we have MC tests to do our assessment. People are too lazy to do it the right way, so we do it the bad way.

We know when we choose a doctor, a contractor, or an employee; we want to see a portfolio of their work. We don't give them multiple choice tests. We want to see what they have done. We want to critique their work, before we choose them to work for us. So why don't we do this in education? The Jensen book outlines some very specific reasons why we need to take more care in our classrooms and why we should. And yet, we always ignore common sense in education and replace it with the misguided money grubbing ways of big business. The folks in charge of creating the tests are not educators. They do not consider the science of pedagogy, and they certainly don't reflect on brain research. In fact they work in a bubble. They do not consult with the teachers in the classroom about the contents of the tests they make, they don't share the results and they destroy the tests after they have scored them. When they make a mistake it is horrendous and there are no ramifications except the students suffer and the company still keeps the contract. And the American public accepts this without question. Politicians support it because those companies give money to the politicians, who send their children to private schools because of the donations. It is a vicious circle, a very, very, vicious circle with most Americans completely out of the loop to what is happening to them.

We are witnessing the dumbing down of America and we don't even see it. Consider how we see some politicians revel in their ignorance. Most notably, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Biden. It is embarrassing. America's problems are not the result of bad education, yet, it is the result of bad business decisions and the acquiescing of educational policy to big business instead of the teachers. That is America's problem, big business rules and the people suffer and are the victims.

In yet another article about the perils of the current tests, the suggestion is,
Both groups will create tests using technology in both administering and scoring and will measure “performance-based tasks, designed to designed to mirror complex, real-world situations,” according to the New York Times.
Sorry this won't work. We need humans involved. The best way to assess our scholars is for our scholars to publish their work, as we do in CyberEnglish, and then let teachers and anyone who wants to to look at the work and to write their findings. The problem of course is that this is labor intensive or too labor intensive for big business because it is not cost effective. Education shouldn't be led by accountants, it should be led by educators. We just don't get it. We keep hearing about blended schools without too much of an explanation, but CyberEnglish was doing blended school in the 90's and is still doing it today.

More on Brain and emotion: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2012/mar/05/emotions-and-brain/

The Divided Brain: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2012/mar/16/divided-brain/

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Caitlin's Wedding


Today is Caitlin's wedding day.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Ten

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Ten, "Memory and Recall"
My homework will involve the Flow Map.

The most important takeaway is that "memory is malleable." Our interaction with our students and their memory in learning at the point of original encoding, maintaining memory, and retrieving learning. We learn a lot more than we demonstrate and seem forgetful on ways we use to assess. The tests we give, don't give our students their due course. Project based assessment is far superior. These dumb tests teach us that these are dumb tests. Memories are dynamic and not fixed.

We remember anything related to survival, food, shelter, and people. Research shows that the details of the process of memory is a baffling intellectual labyrinth. There is no place for all our memories. We have multiple memory locations and systems which can cause us the problem especially when we destroy brain cells or have a brain injury.

There are many pathways to store and retrieve memory. The pathway is usually similar to learning pattern. Memories are either explicit or implicit. Explicit learning may be semantic, words and pictures, or episodic. Implicit memory are reflective and procedural as shown in above figure.

Semantic memory, explicit memory, AKA declarative, factual, and linguistic. This would be names, facts, figures, and textbook information. There is a limitation to this memory because of time and capacity. Working memory is crucial here. Sometimes we forget the name of someone we just met or the contents of a page just read. Working memory can hold two to three things at a time, NOT more as has been thought. Multitasking is over rated and not done well as we know. Notetaking and working with one electronic tool at a time are ways to improve working memory, learning, and attaining success. In class give simple directions one step at a time. Use worksheets to help students learn how to manage multiple steps at one time so as not to depend on our limited working memory. I'm always reminded about this when I set out to do something, am spoken to or have further input and when I get to where I need to be, I forget why I'm there. Usually I need to return to the starting place to rediscover what I was about to do.

Another kind of explicit memory is episodic memory. This memory relies on autobiographical, spatial, and event-laden material. Episodic memory has unlimited capacity, is effortless, is is used naturally by everyone. The caveat is that we can have overload of information that contaminates memory which will cause us to put information of one memory into another. Teachers can use movement, different seats, and different procedures in class to eliminate staleness.

Reflexive memory is an implicit memory, which is how we react to a siren, a tap on the knee by the doctor. Reflexive memory can be either emotional or non-emotional. Flashcard repetition or "over-learning" are good classroom strategies. Raps or fill in the blanks are also useful tools.

Procedural memory is another implicit memory. This is a habit, body, and motor memory method. Riding a bike comes to mind. This memory is activated by activities such as sports, theater, dance, games and the other kinetic things we do.

Memories are malleable. We do not remember everything we experience. Jensen suggests seven reasons why our memories fail us: transience (erosion over time), absent-mindedness (not paying attention), blocking (on tip of tongue), misattribution (confused by similar memories), suggestibility (contamination of other memories), bias (prejudices), persistence (negative memory becomes pervasive). There are events in your life that we never forget where we were, for example, 9/11, Challenger, JFK. Memories are not stored intact and will unravel or change over time.

Two different variables are used in memory formation and retrieval. More active memory are considered less consolidated than inactive ones, more fragile, subject to change, and harder to retrieve. synaptic consolidation happens within minutes to hours after initial learning occurs. Learning memories are high in choline found in eggs, salmon, lean beef to name a few. Diet becomes crucial in memory on all levels and in all aspects of learning.

Jensen suggests it is more about the student's attitude about memory and diet. Develop a more positive attitude and eat better.

The last two chapters are summations of what has been said before in conclusive manner. They offer good advice to new teachers in particular and for experienced teachers to refine their practice.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Nine

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Nine "Critical Thinking Skills" are not innate, they are learned and the product is intelligence. My homework will involve the Double Bubble Map.

Cognition is created from our lower order brain systems. What we need to do is help them develop, cooperate with other systems, and learn. Developing critical skills involves exploring the unique brain, the problem solving brain, the maturing brain, the adaptive brain, and the emotional brain.

We all have a unique brain. This single fact has always confused me about the factory model in education. It is one reason I embraced the computers in 1984. Computers allow for our uniqueness. This is why we use differentiation in our classrooms. It is why saying it slower and louder still doesn't get through. Different strokes for different folks.

We are problem solvers, sometimes to a fault. Many times I have heard, "Don't solve the problem, just listen." We solve problems, the brain loves these exercises. Exercises we can encourage to develop these skills in our students is to help them maintain focus and attention to the task. Learn how to prioritize tasks and to make distinctions in relevancy, order, and similarities/differences. Asking for help is always useful and avoids time wasted and frustration. In short developing good habits builds problem solving skills.

Researchers know that as students learn new critical learning skills their brain mass changes and connections are realigned as lots of activity takes place in the synapse. Building critical learning skills is like body building. Do it in intervals, start small, and vary duration. Increase as skills develop. Time and patience are essential. These skills will develop naturally as our brain sees relevancy of task, does repetitive tasks to assist the memory neurons, and is specific about the task.

Teachers are more knowledgeable about the stages of brain development than they were a decade ago. We know more now. The result is that our lessons are more attuned to the maturing brain and provide lessons suitable for that brain at that time. We have to be more flexible with different students as we watch them perform.

Oftentimes we will hear that we are "playing it by the seat of our pants" or "winging it." This is the quality of our adaptive brain. The adaptive brain develops when we explore, are faced with new experiences, and create.

One common thread for all of our work with the brain is nutrition. A healthy diet leads to a healthy brain.

My homework will use the Double Bubble Map. I would use the compare and contrast page, a short story exercise, and some poetry.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Eight

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Eight, "Motivation and Engagement" deals with how we motivate our students. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
Motivation is defined as the combination of "arousal" and "drive." Arousal indicates a goal is to be achieved and drive as the force to make it happen. So how does the brain influence these two forces? In theory, each new year should bring renewed hope and aspirations. All too often, these hopes are dashed early in the school year. One thing we need to do is unlearn them about failure. We have to break the demotivation forces such as a lack of positive relation with a teacher of friend, learned helplessness, disrespected because of race or sex, perceived threats, drug use, that school is irrelevant. Students who fail have a record of failure so we need to unlearn them before we can teach them. Certainly exercises that they can accomplish quickly, with ease, and successfully will begin the process. Using direct and blatant rewards is just the start.

When considering how rewards affect the brain, we only need to recognize how when we are recognized in a favorable way about our work, we do better. Our pleasure neurons have been stroked and that feeling is one we want to repeat over and over again. The same goes for our students. Consider the motivation of Wall Street workers as they anticipate their bonus or waiters who work for tips. Students, too, work for rewards be they treats, prizes, or grades.
The brain does the same thing with rewards. The brain makes its own opiates in response to rewards. These chemicals then become useful in helping the brain in other functions demanded of the classroom. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. Another consideration is the reward that is is anticipated as opposed to the reward that comes as a surprise. The chemicals in the brain do different things in each situation. So as teachers we can do some planning, anticipation of rewards with our students as we plot out a study plan, provide reward for projects, and the like. The caveat is to be careful of expectations for rewards for menial tasks and even escalation of reward expectation as in greed. Not all rewards are equal to all students.
So be judicious, use low cost rewards, use abstract rewards, and begin to develop intrinsic rewards.

If rewards isn't your thing or feasible, conversations with students during planning process, altering a project because of student feedback, and choice within projects on small and big things will build paths for intrinsic motivation. Verbal encouragement and modeling the joy of learning very often is reward enough for students. Constant, consistent feedback is always loved by the students. I know when my students come into the class and don't find a paper with their name on it, I remind them they were reading yesterday and didn't add anything new to their webpage. That reminder is enough as they tell me they will be writing today and know they will have paper feedback tomorrow. That is their motivation for that day.
In short, much of the research shows that motivation is a direct result of how teachers treat students. For me it is create the challenge, provide the tools for success, build a supportive environment, and get out of the way. And oh yeah, I don't answer my own questions and I take a couple of minutes to respond to a call for help, which is usually solved by the time I do respond.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Spider's Web


The metaphor of this web does not allude me as I contemplate the brain and CyberEnglish. Web building is a blueprint of the brain for the spider and my scholars in CyberEnglish.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Seven

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Seven, "Managing the Social Brain" takes on more relevancy in the new world of social networking.

Social experiences change the human brain which has created a new discipline, "social neuroscience." Teachers need to be mindful of the social interaction of their students.
Schools are social places; as a result. they change students' brains. Social contact lowers blood pressure just as social isolation is just as devastating a health risk.

The social brain affects cognition. Students aren't born with social skills, they are learned. Ways to help the student learn these skills is to work in groups. Five to twenty percent of class should be done in small groups. Groups of three to four are better than larger groups. Strategies for the classroom could be pair share, competitions, simulations, drama, and small group discussions followed by a presentation. Social ranking in groups can cause stress or highs, depending upon rank in the group. Many other considerations like preening, bias, peer pressure, and dress styles can affect social behavior and in the end a good setting for learning.

Teachers should include group work in their classes to encourage improved social skills.


Homework is the Multi-Flow Map. I would use a newspaper article that addresses a current social situation and have the students write about it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Six


Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Six, "Physical Environments for Learning" discusses how architects are listening to neuroscientists as they design learning centers.

While visiting colleges with my son recently, I was observing his reactions to the different campuses. After visiting a few schools we arrived at the last college of the current tour and immediately he expressed a liking for the school. He became enthusiastic as we parked the car. The interviews that day were the best and he had a good feeling about college. The first indicator for him was the physical appearance of the campus. In my English class, I provide my students with the five traits of determining character in a story. The first is appearance. Appearance is something we all use in making a judgment or choice in another person. At conferences about construction of workplace and schools, some of the issues considered in design were stress, safety, privacy, mobility, lighting, humidity, temperature, convenience, aromas, collegiality, and productivity.

In some cases teachers do have control of their classroom environment. Seating has always been a crucial component in class. Do we let them sit with friends or not? Do we seat them alphabetically? Rows or circles or groups? When I entered a public school in NYC, I was overwhelmed with 32 students in a class. I started with the obvious alpha list design and found it very unsatisfying in classroom discussion. One day when I walked in two students were reviewing their horoscopes. They discovered they were compatible signs and commented on how that proved why they were friends and worked well together. Another student entered and it was revealed hir horoscope was in conflict with the other two and that explained the conflicts the third student had with the first two. Immediately I struck on an idea of seating the class. I had each student indicate their horoscope element: earth, air, water, fire. I then proceeded to rearrange the classroom into these elements. I was amazed at how productive and distinctive each group was. That simple rearrangement enhanced learning in my classrooms. I have fans in my room so I can adjust the temperature in my classroom because it is on a central system. When it is too cold because of the AC, I can open a window and position a fan near it to warm it up a bit. I am lucky, my room is never too cold in winter. The custodians in my schools have always been responsive to my requests. Lighting has always been an issue in my classroom. I have floor lamps around the room and a bank of windows facing north. I usually only turn on the lights by the windows and leave the room lights off. The computers and the ambient light of the floor lamps provide good lighting for my students. When another teacher comes in and flicks on the rest of the overhead lights the students react in a negative way. Students comment on the positive lighting in my room, while some teachers comment negatively. Lighting was the point of the Hawthorne effect done many years ago and that concern hasn't changed over the years except that lighting has become a more important concern in classrooms.

Noise is another concern as ambient sounds, echoes, outside noise, noise from the hallway or other classrooms all have an effect on your classroom and learning that happens in it.

Designing smarter schools is the point of this chapter. In 2001, I wrote a paper about what I thought schools should look like. As far as I'm concerned it is about creating, with what you have, the best possible learning environment and to constantly tweak it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth


An American won today's stage 3 at Tour de France. Go Ty!!





Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Five

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Five, "Emotional States" discusses how neuroscientists are providing evidence to the fact that we should be more cognizant to the emotional state of our students. Learning is dependent upon how we feel, act, and think. Emotions are crucial in how we create our reality.

Jensen summarizes the research on emotions. Emotions drive attention, create meaning, and have their own memory pathways. they regulate behavior and help us organize our world.
Emotions drive a passion for learning, help our attention span, support persistence or retreat, and provides incentives. Daniel Goleman's work on Emotional Intelligence started in 1995. Just as there are physical states, there are emotional states and this new science is uncovering new things about learning and the brain.

Perhaps the reason emotions has not been on the brain research radar is that emotions are not located in one area of the brain, but are distributed throughout the brain. For example frustration and pain are housed in the anterior cingulate; pleasure from drugs in the nucleus accumbens; and terror in the amygdala which guides decision making. In addition it isn't just the different connections, but also the messengers involved in transporting the different emotions. Further the prescribed drugs some people take that suppress some of the natural brain chemicals causing an imbalance.

Jensen goes on to explore just four of the emotional states our students may find themselves in a classroom. Emotions cause us to remember the highlights of school through field trips, hands on experiments, or a friend rather than a lecture. This is why those out of school always wax nostalgically about school, until they really probe. School was always better when I was a kid. Not so. Jensen has selected four emotional states to concentrate on: fear/threat, joy/pleasure, sadness/disappointment, anticipation/curiosity.

When the brain is faced with fear/threat there are three reactions, fight, escape, freeze. Escaping is no a real option. Students tend to freeze and exchange facial and body language threats. Fighting may occur at class change, in the hallway, or out of school. The chemical reactions happening inside the body and mind of the student have overshadowed any chance of learning. The next thing to happen is the stress level rises. In many situations, moderate stress improves learning, but prolonged and intense stress can and will be very damaging. The difference between useful and dangerous stress is dependent upon our control or assumed control over the event causing stress. The emphasis has been on student stress, but more research is suggesting schools need to examine stress levels in the adults, too.

If the stress level is too much, students tend to drop out. Too much negativity results in bad behavior and choices. On the other hand, when students experience joy/pleasure in the classroom, then learning will occur and had occurred. Dopamine doesn't alert our pleasure neurons, it enhances our ability to pay attention.

Sadness/disappointment connote a negative response. However, sadness/disappointment unlike the stress of fear/threat, may be useful in not repeating the actions that resulted in sadness and disappointment. Being cognizant of the event will provide the learner with fodder to not repeat the event that resulted in sadness/disappointment.

Anticipation/curiosity create a heightened and positive state of hope and vigilance. They are called "appetitive" states because they stimulate the mental appetite. A student has to come to class hungry to learn. This has always been an argument by me for students taking time off between high school and college and between college and grad school. Students need to have a mental appetite to learn as they commence new institutions of learning. What's the rush? In addition, if a teacher is priming the learning process by guaranteeing success, then the learning will improve, success will be achieved as the student anticipates a positive experience. That experiment I tried a number of years ago when I guaranteed 90's to all my students for the semester resulted in 99% success. In fact many students produced more than they ever had and learned more than they thought they could.

So the question is how do we influence these emotional states? Increasing the positive flow of the good chemicals in the students, to help them feel good about themselves is what the student brain craves. What we know about the effect of emotion on the brain is that emotions are ubiquitous, they run our lives. All behavior is connected to our emotions. If a student isn't in the mood to read, s/he won't read. Our states aren't who we are, so be positive in labeling a student by a state. When a student displays a negative state over a prolonged period, help is required. We have mood swings and our emotional state will change very quickly depending upon outside influences like a good grade on a paper as opposed to bad grade. Events influence the chemical flow in our bodies and then our emotions.

Ways to change the emotional state is to ask questions that engage the student by including them in the answer. Not what should this character do, but what would you do if you were this character. Teachers should share their joy in learning. Celebrating student accomplishments is good in any class. Try to incorporate some physical activity in class, moving around, standing up and moving to groups. Debating a point, acting out a scene, or just having a lively discussion will improve attention and stimulate the brain for learning. Chaos always finds its order, especially in a classroom. Allowing students to journal or share their lives with you will engage them and make them feel safe and provide the appetite to learn.


As teachers adjust to emotions, their own and those of their students, learning environments will improve. Again it is more about quality and not quantity. Take time to address emotions, especially tragic ones, joyous ones, and positive emotions that surround us in and out of school. When we ask, "How are you?" expect a detailed answer. Model by giving a detailed response when asked, "How are you?"