Is Your Teaching Brain-Friendly? 4 Tips for Instructional Success
One day, I walked into my classroom and found this pink, painted….thing….sitting on my desk. I remember staring at it for a few seconds. What is it?! After eight years of teaching, this was definitely a first for me. So, I said what any first grade teacher would say when given an unrecognizable object from a child: “This is absolutely fabulous! Tell me about it!” The little girl placed the object in my hand, and said to me, “This is my brain. I painted it for you, so that you will never forget all of my dendrites.” I can remember trying to hold back tears of happiness as I hugged her tightly and thanked her for what quickly became one of my most prized possessions. All year, I had worked hard to teach my seven year olds how their brains worked. We learned about how to “grow and strengthen our dendrites” in hopes that they would feel empowered with knowing how and why learning happens. I wanted them to realize how amazing and powerful learning was, and how they were in control of the greatest ‘school supply’ they will ever own – their brain!
Throughout the year, a shift happened in my classroom and in my teaching philosophy. I started to devour research books about the human brain. As I learned about how the brain takes in and processes information, I began to evaluate the curriculum I was using and creating for my students. I now ask myself an important question as I sit down to plan my lessons:
Is it brain friendly?
Many teachers have asked me how I choose the activities and resources for my lesson plans. More importantly, they have asked me WHY I choose certain activities and resources over others. Originally, I started creating products on Teachers Pay Teachers because my curriculum lacked the creativity that I so desired for my kids. While there was nothing wrong with being handed a scripted math or basal reading curriculum, I found myself craving learning activities that were more motivating and engaging for my students. I longed to be able to fill in the gaps with material that catered to the way my students accessed information, rather than always trying to fit my students’ imaginations into a boxed program. I started to focus on getting my kids to think “outside of the box.” As a result, my little Teachers Pay Teachers store, Miss DeCarbo, was created, and “brain-friendly” materials started to fall into the hands of my little ones. So, today, I am bringing you my top four tips for a brain-friendly classroom. Here we go!
Make Learning Concrete.
Why do we use counters, cubes, and other manipulatives in our math lessons? It makes concepts such as addition and multiplication concrete for our students. Do not be scared to bring everyday objects into your classroom to help students better understand how reading and writing strategies work, too. Try experimenting with eggs as you discover the true meaning of cause and effect. Use a piece of sticky tack or bubblegum as you stretch out the details of a story. Concrete lessons provide the brain with a visual and tactile experience to “hold onto” while processing and retrieving information. (You can find my Concrete Comprehension Units for Literacy by clicking HERE. Schema has been added. Questioning is next!)
Make Learning Visual.
Did you know about 65% of people are visual learners? As educators, this statistic is important to the way we present information to our students. I love using the concept of color coding with my students. It provides students with a very clear way of identifying, sorting, and classifying information. My Sight Word Fluency Intervention Passages and Text Evidence Reading Passages are set up for brain friendly learning by using crayons to cite and sort details and information. For example, the kid use red and blue crayons to go back into the story and color code the differences and similarities as they learn how to compare and contrast characters and events.
Have you ever told your students to, “stretch it out” when they come to a word they are struggling with? As adults, we often assume students understand the phrases and “teacher language” we come up with. Phrases such as “stretch it out” when we are referring to reading words can be extremely abstract to struggling readers. Instead, make this concept visual by using a slinky! Stretch the slinky out slowly as you read each sound in the word. The slinky provides a visual understanding of what the word “stretch it out” is really referring to.
My Tap It Out Series provides students with a visual aid as they decode words using tap-on battery lights. When designing brain-friendly lesson plans for your classroom, think about your use of color, font clarity, and format. For many struggling learners, a simple, uncluttered format is best.
Make Learners Think.
While studying brain-based learning, I discovered the power of pre-exposure for our students. Students will make more connections and retain more information if they are pre-exposed to content BEFORE we directly teach it. Our students are not born knowing how to think critically – we have to teach them how to do this. I had always known this fact, but I started to take it to heart. As a result, our morning work within my classroom began to change. My See Think Wonder Write pack fosters genuine thinking skills by having students write about a photograph that is connected to a current science or social studies topic. Students write what they see, think, and wonder about a photograph in order to activate schema, make connections, and develop crucial critical thinking skills. While you are designing your brain-based classroom, think about pre-exposing students to new content and information before the unit begins. Your students will be more likely to make connections and feel successful in their questioning and discussion skills when they have had time to think about the topic before you formally begin teaching a unit. You can read more about our morning work routine in a blog post found here.
Make Learning Relevant.
Many times, we look for and design interesting activities and lessons. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines interesting as “holding the attention.” It’s important to note that while an interesting activity can seem exciting and fun for those twenty minutes of learning, interesting can be fleeting without meaning. Learning that is relevant is learning that truly empowers our students. Students must be able to see and understand how each learning topic connects to their own lives. My Force and Motion unit teaches the concepts of push and pull by using the playground and children’s toys to show students how these forces work. While an experiment with all the bells and whistles would have been interesting and exciting for my kids, learning about why they are able to pull themselves up a jungle gym or go down a slide is extremely relevant to them – it is something they do every day at recess. This type of relevant activity combines classroom learning with real-world learning. When designing brain-friendly lessons, remember to take the time to make learning relevant. When learning becomes relevant to students, they become genuinely interested because the content truly matters to them!
Make It FUN!
…let’s add just one more important tip. Did you know our brains are wired to respond to novelty? It’s vital that as you are lesson planning, you ask yourself, “Will this activity or lesson make my students LOVE learning?” When our students are highly engaged with the activity, lesson, game, intervention, or text, learning becomes more meaningful to them.
Don’t be afraid to have FUN with your kids.
Be silly. Make funny faces. Dress up. Sing. Dance. Act.
Your kids and your “teacher heart” will thank you!
This post is also featured on the Teachers Pay Teachers blog. You can find the post here.
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Hi Christina! Thank you so much for sharing this post with us! I enjoyed reading every bit of it. I have been teaching for quite a few years now, but I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching. Congratulations on your new, wonderful blessing!
You really hit the nail on the head with this article. It is so important to make learning interesting and fun! I believe that the biggest aim of teaching is to make students want to learn more, not stuff “facts” into them. A student who is inspired by what is happening in the classroom is more likely to continue pondering and expanding what he/she was exposed to in class. Thank you for you great ideas!