Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Walking the Walk… A Larger Perspective

Walking the Walk

An Educator’s Perspective from all Views!  


What happens when an education professor decides it is time to walk the walk of her graduate students (first and second year teachers) and her undergraduate students, re-entering the K-12 classroom while balancing this new assignment with ongoing courses at the University?  There are some overwhelming and colliding moments, a bit of exhaustion, but mostly excitement; because before my eyes, the scenery changes from theory to practice! The educational neuroscience and social and emotional disciplines are met head on with real life real time challenges and opportunities.

Several weeks  ago, with the permission of Dr. Hill the executive director of our Teaching and Learning Leadership Academy at Marian University , I became a fifth grade teacher,  co-teaching with an incredible group of welcoming educators  from  a large public school district, Washington Township,  in Indianapolis Indiana.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I meet with my fifth grade team as we plan, assess and observe academic standards weaving topics and benchmarks into strategies that not only build engagement, but align with our students’ interests, stressors and varied learning profiles. Our goal is to lessen the “survival” instinct, creating classroom cultures that accept differences, encourage questions, embrace breathing practices, prediction, and story-telling- creating personalized learning for every student and teacher! This sounds fabulous as I type these words, but it has been challenging, reflective and courageous on the part of these teachers and school administration.

The four teachers and I met for the first time several weeks ago and we have continually navigated a plan of cohesiveness and action where we have shared continual feedback and questioned one another as this teaching pilot takes off!  This semester we are incorporating three brain compatible instructional practices into the curriculum. The first strategy is a focused attention practice, where we are teaching students about their own neurobiology and what happens in their brains and bodies when they feel anger, fear and anxiety.  The teachers and I are learning together about ways to model for the students how to “lessen” these reflexive responses by allowing their minds to relax and clear away unneeded thoughts and emotions that interfere with attention and focus. We are using breath work and visualization, coupled with varied exercises two to three times a day for two minutes at a time. The students will either focus on their breath, visualize an object of attention, honing in on the details of the image,  or we are asking a question that requires the students to turn their thinking upside down and away from the subject matter for just a couple of minutes. Below, you will find a list of brain break questions we are implementing for these focused attention practices.

The Engaged Brain- Comparing Decimals and Whole Numbers (9:00 AM)

Last week Deanna, one of the teachers and I had an “AHA” moment and I don’t remember feeling such joy  inside an instructional practice, as I pulled out of the school parking lot  headed to campus to teach my undergraduate “Inclusive Classroom” course.  The fifth grade math lesson we planned was engaging and therefore brain compatible, but certainly not flawless. There were plenty of mistakes during our time with the students, but I observed in this 30 minute teaching experience,   “deepened learning”.

We asked the students to stand and observe for a minute, as I laid a small blue post-it in the middle of the classroom and then took a pink post-it and began tearing it into tiny pieces while holding my arm in midair allowing those pieces to flow and scatter on the ground. I then turned to the students and asked them what did the blue post-it and the tiny flowing pieces of a pink post-it have to do with whole numbers and decimals? I asked the students to turn to their groups and discuss the possibilities for a minute. The classroom teacher and I walked the room and listened. Words feel inadequate as I try to convey the discussion we heard from those eleven and twelve year old boys and girls. They were excitedly guessing, while waving their hands in the air hoping to share their discoveries. Not only did each table share the relationship between a whole number and a decimal but they explained the analogy of how the paper represented each number or parts of a number. This was their second day of comparing decimals to whole numbers so this skill was still very new to them.   I then brought out a homemade number line with the numbers from 0 to 9 marked and taped on small cards to the old wire. Volunteers were asked to take an already created number or decimal and place it on the line. Before this lesson occurred, the students were primed and prepared as we talked about the importance of effort and mistakes. Wrong answers lead us to right answers so mistakes were welcomed!  The children began coming up and placing their cards on the number line with much enthusiasm.  As a class we discussed all the possibilities of how .7 could be mistakenly placed between the whole numbers 7 and 8. This brain compatible lesson required the students to move, to predict, anticipate, discuss, self-assess and to think about their thinking…beyond a worksheet where greater, less and equal  signs sometimes have a monopoly over our math worlds.  The students were then asked to create their own decimals and whole numbers and to place those on the number line following an engaging four minute video that simply went through a four step process from least to whole! This video was an affirmation for what the students had discovered on their own and it was great to see how they self-assessed their work throughout this lesson.

The teacher shared a few days later that the students on Friday “got it!” Only two students still had some confusion and Deanna was able to work specifically with those students while the others scaffolded on up to the next skill set.    The success that the students experienced was incredible because they felt empowered to continue their learning even when they were unsure of the answer.

From Theory to Practice (12:30 PM)

I left the elementary school and headed to campus where 30 undergraduates (pre-service teachers) awaited class! Today I would not only share the theory, research and video clips of brain compatible teaching, I would share my personal experience with my students. We discussed what happens in the brain when the mind states of anticipation and curiosity are created by using questioning and prediction; but today I was able to share much more! We discussed, reflected, and thought of our own questions and predictions of “what would happen on Thursday” when I returned to the fifth grade classes.

Sitting Beside Graduate Students (6:00PM)

Five hours after meeting with my undergraduates, I met with my graduate students who are in the inner city districts and charter school classrooms as second year teachers in a national transition to teaching program. On this night with a new semester in front of us, my research, theories and presentations  met them on a level playing field, as we took our  teaching experiences and compared, contrasted, questioned, sitting  beside one another problem –solving or at least collaborating with the practices we all had employed earlier that day! We discussed the power of a brain compatible strategy entitled “story chunking” as I introduced the “plot line,” one of the fifth grade standards earlier in the day. I shared with my graduate students that I called small groups of 5 students to sit and listen, putting away all material as I began sharing a personal narrative about “Fireworks on the Fourth of July.” They were intrigued. I began sharing the setting and the characters as our family hopped onto a pontoon boat with blankets, popcorn, music and a trail of lights circling us as we moved to the barge. This was a much more brain engaging way of introducing the exposition of a story than defining what an exposition is.  We continued through the story with the climax being the firework display and an added problem- the faulty fireworks that endangered boats close to the barge.

When we introduce dry isolated content from standards in a way that personalizes, builds on a student’s prior knowledge, and engages the heart and the mind with feeling, we have created a win win for academic and behavioral success. Behavioral challenges begin to diminish because students are “present” relating, and attaching emotion to the subject matter as their personal experiences, desires and lives are exposed and weaved into the subject matter.  

In the past, my career as an instructor in higher education has been enhanced and propelled into the lives of the K-12 students I have been indirectly addressing for the past six years! But now I am able to experience my mistakes as the greatest learning opportunities, alongside my successes as I share those with all of my collegiate and first and second year teachers who are navigating their way inside this very rewarding yet complex terrain of education. Our brains and hearts are the GPS for engagement, mastery and assessment, but somehow being back inside the classroom providing direct instruction, feedback, and creative options is molding me into not only a better instructor, but a teacher who is willing to see and teach from a much larger and grander perspective.    (very brain and heart compatible! )  


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