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Collegial Study Reflections from The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull

Submitted by: Shannon Kay, Sue Paulson, and Betsy Vanderheiden

In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, James Zull claims that learning is directly related to the physical functioning of the brain. “The brain operates by physical and chemical laws, and thus, that learning is physical.” (Zull, 5) As a biochemist and teacher, Zull explores how brain functioning connects to how learning occurs. To support his research, Zull studied David Kolb’s four-part learning cycle of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing. Zull realized that Kolb’s learning cycle resembled the physical functioning processes of the brain. In fact, when the learning cycle and the pathways of brain function are overlain, there is a remarkable correlation of the two. (See figure 1.)

With this evidence, Zull concludes, “The learning cycle arises naturally out of the structure of the brain.” (19) Figure 1 above illustrates the compatibility of the learning cycle and the brain structure. The following explanation of figure 1 is by Zull, in his article for Educational Leadership.

Engage the Whole Brain
...A useful, although greatly simplified, way to view the cerebral cortex is to divide it into four major regions with different functions (see fig. 1): sensory cortex (getting information); integrative cortex near the sensory cortex (making meaning of information); integrative cortex in the front (creating new ideas from these meanings); and motor cortex (acting on those ideas). If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning than if they engage fewer regions. The more brain areas we use, the more neurons fire and the more neural networks change—and thus the more learning occurs.” (Zull, 2004)

Related to Zull’s theory of engaging the whole brain, there is an approach to teaching named as such. “Whole Brain Teaching…is an integrated method combining effective classroom management and pedagogically sound approaches to student engagement that are effective with a wide range of student learning populations vetted through 15 years of classroom application.” (Battle, 2010) An example of a Whole Brain strategy is “Class-Yes”. (This brief segment from PBS News Hour shows a Whole Brain classroom in action: https://youtu.be/2snEdif57J8.)

Using More of the Cerebral Cortex to Deepen Learning

To help students experience a deep level of learning, both the back and front of the cerebral cortex should be engaged. Let’s start with the frontal cortex, which is also called the Sensory Cortex. This is where auditory and visual learning take shape. Images in our brain come from experiences itself. Therefore, the phrase, “show more, share more” is an optimal way for children to learn and have a deeper level of comprehension.

Zull recommends that a teacher needs to show students what a good answer or good example is. Teachers should show the fine points as well as the big picture. Because seeing is retained in a concrete form of physically connected neurons in the brain, the more students see, the more connections are made. To help students have a vision, it is important to give students the opportunities to have concrete experiences: field trips, research projects, role-playing, hands-on experiences. It is with these experiences that our brain becomes a “seeing” brain.

Since sound is personal and emotional, our brains can produce and detect sounds that can be used as a natural vehicle for learning. Our sense of sound hooks into our image network. This is where a person can close their eyes, listen, and picture what is happening. The brain gets information in small bits and then reassembles the info so learning can take place. This takes place in the back cortex of the brain. To quote Zull, “Knowing what is important...to comprehend our experiences...knowing where is even more important. Knowing...gives us relationships.” (157) Hence, a student may need to learn how something works before learning the thought process behind it.

The sensory brain is fast and it is easy to think that learning can be fast, too. However, information can come too fast for the understanding of it. Be careful to not rush learning. All learners need time for reflection, and this can take time. Hopefully, by directing and supporting reflection, you will lead a student toward comprehension. Make your subject, target, or goal more reflective: Have students recall things in their life related to the topic or have them produce images that demonstrate the whats and wheres. Make it real for them. If it is real them, learning and comprehension will happen.

What We Already Know-Background Knowledge

As educators we know that the information our students bring to the classroom in the form of background knowledge is important, but how exactly is it connected to learning and the brain? Zull tells us that our brains consist of countless neuronal networks or intricate branches of complicated cells that are connected to one another. It’s in these networks that knowledge is not only stored but produced. Any change in knowledge comes from change in these elaborate networks (92).

He goes on to explain that the most effective way to reach our learners is by embedding abstract ideas in concrete experiences. “No one can understand anything if it isn’t connected in some way to something they already know” (94). Prior knowledge is complex and often build from concrete experiences and examples. He suggests, for example, that concepts in arithmetic might start with connecting to experiences purchasing items at the store and a study about genetics might start with a learner’s family traits. Connecting examples and learning to what is already familiar makes it real and concrete to our students. This in turn creates a pathway to understanding and a foundation for understanding more complex and abstract related content.

As educators we are often so comfortable with the content that we sometimes forget and start with where we are and not where our students are. We need to remember that prior knowledge is very personal. Sometimes students come with little or no background and sometimes they have a lot. Other times kids can come to us with incorrect information and that can be hard to undo. Regardless, each learner’s background affects how they respond to our teaching. Zull reminds us that all learners have prior knowledge and that prior knowledge cannot be undone. The most useful approach for a teacher is to, “find ways to build on existing neuronal networks. Starting with whatever our students already know and building from there is a biologically based idea for pedagogy” (102). Teachers should strive to find out what students know and believe and use it as a tool for teaching.

This reflection is co-authored by Sue Paulson, Shannon Kay, and Betsy Vander Heiden.


Battle, Jeff. "Whole Brain Teaching: Learning the Way the Brain Is Designed."Teachers of the Future. AdvancEd, Fall 2010. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.


Zull, James E. "The Art of Changing the Brain." Educational Leadership 62.1 (2004): 68-72. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200409_zull.pdf>.

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub., 2002. Print.

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A Day in the Life of an Alternative High School Teacher

From Cult of Pedagogy....What can we learn from this article?

What everyone really wants to know is if I teach those kids—the mean ones, the dangerous ones, the ones that are “too far gone to save.” I’ve learned that the word “alternative” can mean different things to different people, so I have perfected an elevator speech. It goes like this:

“Our school has been around for about 30 years, and we offer a place for students to learn in a non-judgmental and caring environment. Students do not have letter grades but have points they earn for each class every day. If they do not demonstrate their learning, they do not get their point. Teachers have a group of students called a ‘family’ that they are with until they graduate. Teachers act as counselors for their students, advocating for them in all stages of their high school career.”

Even that is too mechanical, too rehearsed, and almost painful: I know it is only skimming the surface of the vast history and culture of our school.

What I want is to show the work that our school does, to add depth to the term “alternative.” A passion of mine, and of many other teachers, is to share the stories that fit into the one big story of public education—especially when so many others tell our story, terribly, for us and without our permission.

So, let me get started with the structure of our program.

The Curriculum

Courses are offered in six-week blocks; a full school year is comprised of six of these sessions. Teachers get to choose which classes we will teach for each session, and students are free to choose their own classes.

This autonomy for teachers (and students) with the schedule is crucial. Whatever I believe needs to be taught, along with my department, is what I teach. For example: I noticed that our students would connect really well to the thoughts and ideas of the Transcendentalists, so I taught a class on that. I put it on the schedule, and the students elected to take it for part of their American Literature credit needed to graduate. If they didn’t think Transcendentalism was going to be something they could engage with, they took a different class. It’s similar to the way college students select their classes.

This flexibility allows teachers to create curriculum that is relevant, essential, and engaging to our students, as long as it is connected to Common Core standards. Classes that have been taught in the past include: Designing a LEED-certified greenhouse (STEM), Serial Podcast (Am. Lit/Elective), Yoga (Health/PE), and The History of Terrorism (World History). Imagine a school where nearly each student has choice and is excited about what they are learning. They are not “sent” here; they are not “put” in classes. Of course, sequential and required classes such as math are not as flexible, but a student can choose when they take math (for example, if they are groggy in the morning and would perform better in the afternoon, they have the ability to make that decision).

The flexibility and authenticity of our schedule is something that drew me to teaching here. And you won’t find the typical grading system you would see in a high school; instead, we have a point system. This is where I lose most people in my elevator speech.

The Point System

A key part of our school is points—not grades. Students must have 90 percent of their possible points to stay in good standing in the school. To get their point for every day, they must be present and must demonstrate their learning in whatever way the teacher is planning that day; whether it’s a quiz, a project, writing, a reading assignment, or some other activity. This system puts the onus on the student to engage and learn.

Points also provide effective feedback about student behavior. If they are doing things that interfere with their learning—such as being on their cell phones, chatting too much, or being off-task—they do not earn their point for the day. They do, however, have the opportunity to earn the point back the next day.

With the card, two signatures per day per class equals one point. At the bottom, there is the total for 90 and 100 percent. Students are responsible for knowing if they are or are not at 90 percent. Any other symbol below it means they are going to make the point soon (quiz, project, etc.). There are also disciplinary symbols (“SO,” which you see on this card, means the student “sat out” or did not participate). Students have the opportunity to make these back in the time given.

With this model, every day students are making points to graduation. For many of them, taking it one day at a time helps them see the big picture of eventual graduation. Seeing the amount of control they have over their education—for better or worse—is one gigantic paradigm shift.

My Daily Schedule

For my schedule, I teach straight through the morning into the period following lunch. I’m an English teacher, primarily writing, but I cover everything from 9th to 12th grade. I teach six classes a day, and I feel privileged to work with the students I do. Because our school attracts students from all areas and levels, I have a lot of differentiation on my hands. In any given class, I could have one student who reads at a 7th grade level, and another who reads a college level. This is fairly normal for our program, which is why class sizes under 22 students are necessary.

After lunch comes family, a kind of advisory period when we update students on what’s going on—special schedules, registration, college visits, etc. It’s also a time to bond and do some team building. Many schools struggle with things like cohesiveness in school culture. In ours, the culture and connectedness of our school is driven by family. Each family has about fifteen students per teacher, and meeting times are about 25 minutes long.

The responsibilities of being a family teacher include registering students for classes, calling parents, and staying in constant communication with students, helping them work through personal and social issues, and performing interventions. Students stay with the same family teacher throughout their four years at our school, so when the time for graduation comes, the family teacher is the one to hand students their diplomas. Currently I have about five seniors—my year will be busy writing letters of recommendation, making sure they have applied to college, and filling those gaps before they leave.

The last class I help teach is drama. We are fortunate to have a program that we just started this year. So far, we have put on one student-written and student-produced play called A World Gone Mad, a mashup of fairy tales. My role is to assist the director in anything that needs being done—attendance taking, managing students, logistics, and to be an extra set of eyes.

After this class is over, I’m done teaching for the day. The last couple of hours are for handling any issues within my school family, attending staff meetings, and fitting in some planning time if I’m lucky.

When Problems Arise

On this particular day, I’m giving up some needed planning time to attend a meeting called an “Appeals” for a student who got into a verbal altercation with another student, which breaks one of our three golden rules—no anti-social behavior, make 90 percent of points, and no drugs or alcohol.

The student sits in the conference room, tense. She is staring at the table. A group of teachers trickle in (whoever was involved or wants to be there, plus the family teacher) to serve as part of the appeals board. They make casual conversation to lighten the mood—usually about something funny that happened to them, or the weather. Someone is tapping their pencil.

The meeting gets started with one question: Tell us why you’re here today.

The student begins quietly with her explanation; she’s remorseful. We learn that she’s been working late into the night so she can save money to move out of her house. It’s not a place she wants to be. She’s angry at herself, but she apologizes. The teachers make notes, ask more questions, offer her encouragement. Ultimately, the student must make the case to us that she can stay in good standing with our program if we let her come back. She insists that she will. She’ll be at 90 percent—100 even—and will not have any more broken golden rules. If she does, she’s not a student at our program.

This accountability piece—that students must show their willingness to succeed and control their actions the best they can—is crucial. They see attending as a privilege that is not guaranteed. They have to work, and in turn we work just as hard—and then some—to make sure they have best opportunities they can once they leave.

We allow her to return, provided she does not have any more broken golden rules. The mood is lighter; a small smile returns to her face. We ask her some other questions—How’s your mom? Is your car running OK? We tell her we’re excited to see her back next week. She knows she’s lucky; not all students return if they are on an appeals.

The End of the Day

After the meeting is over, I’m exhausted. These meetings reveal so many underlying things about our students—abuse, addiction, family problems, medications, insecurities, strengths, interests, dreams—and it does take an emotional toll. I reluctantly stand up, stretch my legs, and head to my office. Once there, I muster some motivation to use the remaining day to do the things we all have to do—call parents, answer emails, give feedback on assignments, and decide my personal favorite: “What am I teaching tomorrow?”

It’s a good exhaustion. The kind that makes my body feel heavy and my head swim with all the thoughts propelling me to tomorrow—dreading it, but also hungry for learning more about myself, about teaching, about my students. I wouldn’t be anywhere else. ♥

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