Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Attention and Autism

daydream iconWhen I create resources for teaching and learning, I keep in mind the different kinds of learners that are in any given classroom where a teacher uses the content or activity.  In that classroom will be students with a range of learning style preferences, talents, cognitive or physical challenges, and socio-economic backgrounds. Some of those students will have autism.

The Autism Society designates April as National Autism Awareness Month, prompting me to spend some time learning about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and what parents and teachers can do to create optimal learning environments for children with autism.

I started by asking the mother of an autistic 7th grader what she wishes educators knew about the needs of students with autism. She told me that her daughter Nina can be resistant when asked to perform specific tasks, and that it’s important that teachers don’t interpret “I won’t” as “I can’t.” Her daughter succeeds when teachers offer alternative approaches to engaging Nina in the work at hand. It’s helpful to understand that “I won’t” may be a coping mechanism some students use in response to classroom distractions or feeling pressured. When students get something wrong the first time, it is helpful to give them time to rethink their responses and try again.

Nina’s mom told me that her daughter, like many people with autism, is stressed and loses focus in environments that are noisy or cluttered. Reducing physical and mental abstractions is critical for gaining and maintaining the attention of all students. Neuroscience & the Classroom, unit 4, “Different Minds, Different Learners,” section 5, What teachers can do, provides techniques teachers can readily employ to help all students decrease their stress and increase their focus on learning. Simple and practical solutions like using a warm tone of voice or eliminating stressful and unnecessary activities such as pop quizzes help. Headphones block distracting noise and technology tools help students manage routine tasks.

Finally, Nina’s mom pointed out that her daughter doesn’t know that she is “different” and she shouldn’t be treated as if she were. That is to say, Nina, like every other student in the classroom, has worth, talents to cultivate, challenges to overcome, and a future ahead of her. This point is beautifully made in the “Success Story” video in unit 4. In the video Dr. Stephen Shore describes how the “autism bomb” that was dropped on him when he was a toddler became, as he says, “an asset” that makes him a better professor and a better musician.

As educators we share the goal of understanding and responding to all our students’ strengths and challenges. Finding ways to limit distractions and stress is a big part of that. What techniques do you use to help your students give all of their attention to learning?

Healing the Injured Brain

Neuroscence_5_brainWe’ve got brains, but how much do we really know about them? March is the perfect time to learn more about this amazing organ because we have Brain Awareness Week (March 11-17) and Brain Injury Awareness Month. The public is encouraged to learn how to develop a better understanding of the brain and its functions, and combat the stigma of brain disorders through education.

Educators have long been interested in understanding the brain, and many professional development workshops have encouraged K-12 teachers and administrators to create learning experiences that provide for the vast differences in the way each student learns.

Still, for as much as we think we know about the brain—about what functions are housed in the left side or the right side of the brain, for example—along comes that exception to the rule that forces us to reconsider our conclusions. In unit 1, section 4 of Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections, we are asked to consider this question:

If the two hemispheres [of the brain] are heavily involved in virtually everything we do, what happens when one hemisphere is removed?

Nico’s Story and Brooke’s Story answer this question. (Watch the short case study videos on the Neuroscience page.) These are two very different young men, yet they have much in common. Their stories support the assertion that environment affects learning. Think about how the attitudes of family members and teachers help the boys succeed and how these stories inform teaching.

 Brain Injury from Accidents

The brain’s ability to function as it should is affected by many things. For Nico and Brooke, a physical disorder forced a permanent, structural alteration of their brains. Those kinds of drastic surgeries are rare, however. Most of the time, the brain’s function is altered by accident. A bump, blow, or jolt to the head can cause a traumatic brain injury (TMI). The Brain Injury Association of America estimates that 1.7 million people will sustain a brain injury each year. Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), sports concussions in the United States have reached an epidemic level.

Brain injuries can result in physical, cognitive, and behavior challenges. Getting immediate treatment can make a big difference in long-term quality of life. The Brain: Teaching Modules, program 32, “Neurorehabilitation,” shows case studies of people who have overcome their brain injuries thanks to early treatments. For example, five minutes into the video, you’ll meet Thais, a 16-year old junior in high school. She describes the reaction of her peers to the non-visible symptoms of her brain injury caused by an automobile accident. This straight-A student suffered speech and language problems as well as memory loss. How might teachers help students better understand the nature of brain injuries and support students who suffer and survive injury to the brain?

For additional resources on the brain, how it functions, and how knowledge of the brain informs classroom instruction, search “brain” at Learner.org.

Monday Motivation: Why do teenagers often do stupid things?

Neuroscience & the Classroom“What were you thinking?” Raise your hand if you have ever said that to a teenager. Whether you are a parent or a teacher of an adolescent, I’m sure that question has crossed your mind at least once. Thanks to Professor Abigail Baird, we may not know for sure what teenagers are thinking, but we have a better idea of how they think. Of course, understanding how someone thinks helps us teachers respond more effectively to behaviors in the classroom.

Continuing with our February “Monday Motivation” theme on emotions and learning, let’s consider what motivates teenagers to partake in risky behaviors that can lead to broken limbs or poor grades. Professor Baird explains that adolescents engage in risky behaviors by over thinking dangerous scenarios. In her research, she found that both adults and teenagers responded to questions about risky behavior similarly: risky behaviors are bad ideas. However, she discovered through brain imaging that adults used the emotional centers of their brains when considering these behaviors, whereas teenagers used the underdeveloped rational sides of their brains. The teenagers were not connecting their emotional centers with abstract, unfamiliar experiences, which hampered their ability to make a good decision. Her findings underscore the importance of emotional relevance in learning, and help teachers understand their students and respond appropriately to their perplexing behaviors. See the explanation of the study in the video for unit 2, “The Unity of Emotion, Thinking, and Learning,” section 4, Making the Case, of Neuroscience & the Classroom.

Tell us your best “What were you thinking” moment with your adolescent students. How does Professor Baird’s research motivate you to think differently about how you respond to teenagers in your classroom?

Monday Motivation: Linking Emotions and Mathematics

Neuro_2_emotion_mathIn many classrooms, math is a bunch of numbers and operations seemingly unrelated to what students do in their every day lives. Math is not typically thought of as an emotional subject, but emotions help solve problems. People apply what they’ve learned from past experiences in order to act advantageously in future situations. In order to motivate students to solve math problems, it’s important that your students care about the problems presented. Why is the problem relevant to them in their daily life?

In this short video “Emotions and Math” for unit 2 of Neuroscience & the Classroom, hear Prof. Abigail Bard explain how actively engaging the brain’s emotional centers should not be separated from academic information in the math classroom. Also, witness a teacher engage her students in the math lesson by drawing from their daily experiences.

Share here with other teachers how you connect your math (or other subject area) lessons to real world situations in order to engage your students.