Posted on

Saving Summer: Amygdala and The Brain

Teaching is stressful, there is no doubt or debate. And it’s also joyous, satisfying, and filled with discovery and success.

But let’s get back to the stress for a moment so we can move forward with more moments of joy, satisfaction, and discovery.

My buddy Sharon and her Brainiacs are developing a PD session for SEL/Teachers/Students. Tangentially, I’m developing the digital curriculum, along with her and other colleague’s input. When we talk about preparing students for their futures, not our pasts, we must have a deep understanding or exploration of what is happening to our brains in the digital world. We must share this knowledge, so students can adequately reflect, practice mindfulness, and know when to take on that “big view.” Elena Aquilar’s post, “5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults” was a deja-vu moment–my husband was just advising me of these ideas yesterday while we had street tacos at the local lunch truck. Take the big view:

“Lesson 4: Observe Your Emotions”

We are not our emotions. If we can practice observing them — seeing ourselves experience emotions from 10,000 feet above earth — we are more likely to make decisions that don’t emerge from them. We might notice that sometimes they’re powerful and gripping, and sometimes they’re lighter and less sticky. It helps to practice non-attachment to emotions. They’re just emotional states and they come and go — and remember that we have some control over these states. Sometimes I visualize my emotions as weather patterns: There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.

An article posted in the New York Time’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” walks through the key points of amygdala hijacking and the effects of chronic stress.

“What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

A school year is a long stretch of ‘simmering stress.’ Whose job is it to maintain the physical and emotional safety of a building? In truth, everyone is a stakeholder. Building trust and relationships that can find strength in discourse and dialogue, strong respect and cordial working relationships are the desired culture of any building. And as the Stoics believed, it is not what happens to us that affect us, but how we view and control our thinking about events. What if we all pledged to think about the school stress as a means to practice our own care and mindfulness?

In the meantime, I’m reading a book my husband recommended to me a few months back, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, first published in 1973. Yeah, not exactly a little light summer reading, but it’s what I need right now: hefty intellectual grips by which to grab onto the rocky surface, and climb up. Getting a new perspective or two is a great way to get that higher view.

And though I can’t control others behaviors, I will strive to speak the truth, ask questions, seek answers and common ground.




Posted on

On my shoulders:



The patterns of a year include the breaks: the winter break, we have a mid-winter one, and now the spring one is on its way. There is a change of energy, and moreover, stress, that comes with the change of seasons and the realization we may not be as far along as we’d hope. We adults, by and large, are mature enough to know what we need to do to regain inspiration, motivation, and determination, but many of our students do not. Take a moment and think about how your year is going right now — take a look at the landscape–what is working, and what is not?

We’ve been seeing the increase in poverty for years.

In How to Teach Resilience by Paul Tough, he explores the paradox of “teaching” noncognitive skills–they can’t be taught, at least not in a traditional, rote manner. “Grit” does not, nor should it, be assessed in any way, either. Many educators have misused the concept of grit, and as an unintended consequence add more stress. I know I’ve done this, and stop myself short when my “motivational” talks become “lectures.”

Remember: You are safe.

So what are some concrete means to teach the abstract, the unassessable? Here are some steps I take and will take again, along this journey:

  1. Renew the bond: start off the class with the greeting in a more formal, intentional way, as I did at the beginning of the year.
  2. Start the class with a minute of mindfulness: just breathe.
  3. Bring back our First Fifteen minutes of reading–not sure how that got in the ditch, but time to tow it out again.
  4. Construct/personalize progress: I’ve been starting a new approach about grades: there are some assignments that are non-negotiable, but others that students can choose to complete a set amount of points: for example, a choice of ten articles to read to complete 70 points for an annotated bibliography. I’ll report back on how this worked, or what could improve.

What sorts of routines do you start the year with, and then sometimes get off track? How do you renew safety and consistency in your classrooms? Any suggestions or ideas are more than welcome.

Posted on

It’s not you. It’s not me, either. Let’s figure this out.

When we step away from the big, unknowable, terrifying forest of our day, fearing to tread into another emotional imbroglio, collegial drama, or poisonous-tipped toxic gossip, sometimes the right words come at the right time. At this time of the year especially: the testing season is about to begin, teachers are fatigued, repetitive and micro-managed meetings begin to dispirit versus inspire, it’s time to take a close look at the relationships we have and carry with our students and colleagues, and most importantly ourselves. How do we begin anew and maintain the positive energy and hope we and our students desperately seek?

The Unreachable Student:

Written by Ramy Mahmoud, Five Epiphanies for Reaching the Unreachable Student, his honest and humble approach to students’ needs gets about as authentic as one can be:

He’s not mad at me.

I honestly could not begin to list the multiple, highly disrespectful acts this learner has directed towards me in the few months we’ve known each other. He’s insulted the way I look, the way I dress, and even my family who’s pictures are on my desk. He’s screamed obscenities, called me names, and constantly walked away as I was trying to talk to him. In my early years, these actions would have absolutely crushed me. I would have either reacted by kicking him out of my class or breaking down in tears. I would have asked myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”

But I know that none of these outbursts are truly directed towards me. I simply represent every adult that has ever failed him in the past. His frustrations are simply a manifestation of everything he cannot control. The hand that he’s been so unfairly dealt brings with it a level of stress and frustration that, again, I cannot relate to. The need for confrontation has little to nothing to do with his opinion of me, but instead is a biological necessity to relieve the pressure that’s been building within the depths of his soul. As an adult who holds him to a certain level of standards, I place myself directly in the line of fire to this barrage every single day.

So, I’ve learned to forgive and forget. Depending on the severity of the outburst, whether it’s directed towards me or another student, or whether it places anyone’s safety in jeopardy, I’ve responded accordingly with required disciplinary measures. But, when I see him again, I treat him as if the incident didn’t happen. I make sure he understands that his past will never define him in my eyes- even the very recent past.

Brains, silly.

Most of our students have emotional trauma of one sort or another: it’s not to be dismissed, but nor is it to become fetishized.

Tapping into empathy is difficult, and takes profound emotional effort, and it can’t be a one-way relational direction. That may sound obvious, but consider the oxygen mask idea – in order to save others, you must first save yourself.

Brain research and demonstration provided by my amazing friend and colleague, Sharon Clarke.

Understanding how our brains work may be the first order of business for an adolescent brain.

Odd? Or ODD?

4 Tips for Teaching Students With ODD

The student who seems intent on the power struggle may have ODD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I am not a licensed mental health care provider, but we encounter many students suffering from trauma and other mental health care needs.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder, otherwise known as ODD, is a condition in which children regularly demonstrate anger, opposition, and defiance, especially toward those in authority.

These four tips will help any teacher, rookie or veteran, stay calm when encountering a child with ODD. Some students who’ve displayed this have had severe abuse/trauma events, and are doing everything they can to maintain control of their surroundings.

Be mindful with tip #2 about choices: choices can sometimes overwhelm, and when providing choice give agency and direction, but not overstimulate.

I feel you.

Though our staff has shared some of these, this one inspired me to think of a project:

16 children – 16 photos: Click the black background and switch on their reality

Idea: Have students use selfies, etc. and black out the background: have another background of their feelings, etc. or an I Am poem.

Thanks to @shfarnsworth for these ideas!

5 Videos to Cultivate Empathy in Students

Between our intent, our hearts, and our minds I am feeling rejuvenated with these amazing resources. When all else fails, I take off my ‘teacher’ mindset and just meditate and remember what it’s like to be in 8th grade. It can suck. Cringe-worthy awkward moments, others telling you to think about the world outside your own perspective, and fighting cognitive dissonance between what we know we need and want to do, and finding more emotional obstacles than climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks: it’s tougher on them than it is on me. I don’t want to make it worse.

Posted on

In the Zone: Brain research, reading, and responding

swirlEvery teacher worth his salt knows about Piaget and Vygotsky. And I am not going to pretend or fake that I understand everything about their theories on cognitive development. When I was studying their work, it just made so much clear sense, that I embedded a golden nugget into my own brain, and that was this: we learn from our world/each other. The more interaction, or appropriate interaction at the right times in our lives, the better. It doesn’t work for every brain/person, but I’m making a generalization. Take a baby. Cuddle, talk to him, give him safe, warm shelter, (thank you, Maslow!) show him the world, name things, tell stories, and guess what? Baby learns, and thrives. It’s like we’re all born in a bubble – and the bubble gets bigger to accommodate our experiences, memories, and surroundings. We are social creatures.

Now, as much as I would like to get into a diatribe about how poverty, malnourishment, abuse, and fear affects our abilities to function well cognitively, not here, not now. John Medina has gathered all the information you may need if you want to explore this further; the holes in the hippocampus, the amygdala responding to stress, and why you need a nap. The effects of poverty on children’s ability to function are well documented. 

One of the frustrating aspects of my daily life is I cannot go in my time-machine (it needs some parts) and take my students in their toddlers selves and read picture books to them. Many of their parents did read to them, but many were fighting for survival. My students have not been to an art museum, library, park, or attend preschool, or had time with a lot of print (picture books) or see their parents read.

The other factor is even if they did read when they were younger, adolescence brings on its own set of challenges, and becoming a reluctant reader may happen. It is my thought that this happens because playing and succeeding in a video game can be much more satisfying than reading someone else’s narrative troubles in a chapter book. Think about it; if you’re having trouble with girls, your mom’s nagging you about cleaning up your room, and you’re not the cute adorable baby anymore, then who would want to read about Harriet the Spy and her missteps? (Well, I did.) Who gives a darn about Harry and his battles with a stalking, scar-giving lunatic? And for the love of armageddon, what’s so entertaining about a group of kids being stranded on a deserted island, just fighting over a conch shell and what to serve at a luau?

 So, here are some steps I take so that students recognize and reflect on their own reading:

  • Individual reading inventories: Yes–with sometimes 130-160 students this has been a Herculean task. We (teachers) sometimes complain about all of the assessing that is done TO our students, and it is not informing our instruction FOR our students. This is true. But since testing isn’t going away any time soon, let’s use it to our advantage. Show the students exactly what they’re being assessed on, and do your own.
  • Each student should have their own reading portfolio: Include in this a reading interest survey (if you’re ‘techy’ you can do this on line using a myriad of survey sites; however, make sure the results are visually available, tangible – oh, heck, I’ll just say it – have it on a piece of paper, man! It’s not for you, it’s for your students. The whole point is for them to chart and see their own progress.What goes in a portfolio? They should be able to draw on it, customize it, place their own test scores, surveys, reflections, book “wanna-reads” and “have-to reads” lists, creative book projects (I have another ‘boatload’ of these!) and their progress/goals.

Reading coaching, when it’s done well, is an incredible assesst to have in a school. If you are fortunate enough to have a literacy/reading coach in your building, district or state, hunt them down and have a conversation with them!

  • Understanding assessments: There are a boatload* of reading assessments and data numbers out there. Here are just a few, and some thoughts:

DRP: Degree of Reading Power – quick and easy – will really tell you how broad their vocabulary is, which for English language learners, is challenging to get a fair assessment on their reading abilities. But, if this is what you have to work with, again, be very clear and transparent with students about what their scores mean and how to improve them.

DRA: Developmental Reading Assessment:

Lexile:Lexile measurements are, in my opinion, one of the most accurate assessments out there. Check it out: We had a program in our district which quickly measured Lexile reading levels. It was too expensive, and went ‘away,’ as many great resources do. (Why is that? The ones that we really use and help us help students are canned too fast, while the ones that are confusing linger on, solidly entrenched? Or maybe that’s just me.) You can find out what the Lexile reading level is on many titles with quick searches, but here’s one resource:

And then again, there are just good, old-fashioned books that can help you find reading levels:

(And if you don’t know Fountas and Pinnell, you don’t know Jack. And you should know Jack.)

AR: AR stands for Accelerated Reader and is a commercially-based program. It may be all right for a thumb-nail sketch of reading abilitiy, but I cannot endorse its use. I can’t tell you how many students I had who would take the AR “test” on a book and through sheer intelligence and cleverness pass the test without cracking the book.

Reading Rockets is also a phenomenal website/resource for all things reading. One article, “A Critical Analysis of Eight Informal Reading Inventories” may be helpful.

The thing is, the real, deep, this is where it matters thing is: You MUST hear your student read, you MUST conference with them, one-to-one. I say this in this strident, finger-wagging way because I am really pointing the finger at myself. But there is no way around it. If you really want to know your students’ individual strengths/weakness in their zones of proximal development, or rather, how big is their bubble, you need to know where they are, and take an individualized measurement.

So, how does one find the time? I am still working this one out, but it takes a lot of mental elbow-grease and planning. No way around it. You must intentionally,  and explicitly, tell students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it will benefit them. Having said that, I have still had the flare-ups from extremely needy students who interrupt me while I”m conferencing with other students. This may just be the time you let them play computer math games, or use some other electronic babysitter. Hopefully not: other creative solutions are to use this time for them to write, go through a variety of genres/reading materials, and critique what they find. Or, have them work on vocabulary/grammar instruction during this time. A little skill-drill never killed anyone. Really.

Okay – where can it all go horribly wrong?

  • Students will answer with one-word responses: “I hate to read, I don’t read, no, never, etc.” Many of them are doing this for shock value. Let them know and reinforce this is a safe place. You don’t expect everyone will be sitting around cafe tables discussing great literature if that’s not their thing. You just want to give them the CHOICE. They CAN talk about great literature, but they can choose NOT TO when they’re older. But for now, it’s choice time.
  • Students are ashamed of a low test score. True story: had my ‘honors’ students look up and analyze their DRP scores. Many were competitive and compared notes with others, and some were truly embarrassed by a lower than a peer’s score. Explain ahead of time what they might find, and that they may have an emotional reaction, but don’t let that become an obstacle. (Yeah, I have a lot of luck with that – stupid self esteem!)

Finding low-level, but high interest books is a huge factor, too:

Things you should just know before the first pencil is sharpened:

Make sure you believe with your heart and soul that teaching reading, using textbooks, anthologies, maps, diagrams, other content areas, informational texts, narrative texts, poetry, fairy tales, cereal boxes and phone books are all forms of reading, and check your personal biases at the door. Students are looking to you to model a love of reading. If they love you, and they will, they will judge as you do, and be ashamed if they like a book that you have stated you don’t. Let them find their own path, and reflect on their own journey. Nothing is more personal or important than that. Perhaps they will only ever read video game logs or Facebook postings. So be it.

Also, know that reading standards are not evil. If you really look at your state’s and the national standards, they are not out to ‘get you.’ I am one of the most paranoid persons I know, and I believe there is no conspiracy here. It is good and right to teach students about text features in a textbook, or how to access information using a glossary, index, table of contents, etc. It is good and right to teach students the difference between a fable, folktale, and fairy tale. It is good and right to teach students to question and critique writers (including me).

If you need any further inspiration on customizing your students’ reading needs, look no further than Kylene Beers and Kelly Gallagher:

Kylene Beers, especially when Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do:

Kelly Gallagher:, especially Readacide:



International Reading Association:

*”Boatload” in an internationally recognized unit of measurement which means “a lot.”