MCSD Ed Tech Review

Tools & Tips Worth Your Time

Issue 4, March 2016

Brain Compatible Learning Edition

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At the recent 34th annual Effective Schools Conference, a group of our teachers and administrators had a chance to see a keynote address and take part in a workshop led by Dr. Marcia Tate. She spent three decades wtih the DeKalb County Schools in Decatur, Georgia, working as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and director of professional development. She now works as a consultant, providing professional development around the globe.

Her research, writing, and professional development has focused on effective, practical classroom strategies that are brain compatible. What she means by this is tools and techniques that the research and experience show will increase student learning and retention because they tap into the ways the human brain is "wired" to work. She has written a series of books for educators on the topic, starting with Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites: 20 Instructional Strategies That Engage the Brain (Amazon page).

On a personal note, as someone with nearly two decades of classroom experience, I can say that her sessions were some of the most interesting and valuable I have ever attended. The strategies she went through made perfect sense, and looking back at things that had worked really well in my own room over the years, I saw how all of them included pieces of what she discussed. I also thought back to the things that had not worked at all, and can see that, at least in part, some of that was probably due to me ignoring how my students' brains work.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll also say this: some of her strategies do not lend themselves to meshing with technology, and in fact some specifically preclude it. I am 100% fine with that. As much as I might geek out about ed tech, I firmly believe that it isn't what teaching and learning are all about. I have never seen a truly successful classroom that is high-tech 24/7. Dr. Tate's strategies help explain why that's the case, and help make the case that technology is only one of the tools utilized by great teachers in engaging classrooms.

There is a study group starting up in our district right now to take a deeper look at her first book, and I believe Mr. Griffin is working to bring Dr. Tate to us in person for some PD next year. In the meantime, though, if any of this sounds interesting, and you're looking to give some of the strategies a shot, I thought I would do my best to provide some examples of resources you could integrate in your lessons to help create a more brain compatible classroom by incorporating a few of her strategies.

Strategies & Tools

As its subtitle says, Dr. Tate identifies 20 practical strategies teachers can integrate into their instruction to create and enhance brain-compatible learning. Chances are good that you already use some or many of these strategies; as I've said, for those of us a some years under our belts, they are already tried and tested, even if we aren't aware of the science behind why they work.

Below are just five of the strategies with a short description and a few ideas of tech tools that you could use to help integrate them. The ones I have suggested are possibly already familiar to you. I've tried to focus on resources that we already have access to, I've talked about in the past, and that you may not have considered for this kind of use before. I wanted to include tools that are easy to use and incorporate, and wouldn't necessarily require you to build entire lessons or units around them. Sometimes it isn't about finding a brand new tool, it's about looking at a tool we already know and use in a different way.

If you have other tools you and your students like, I would love to hear about them.

Brainstorming and Discussion


Allowing students to talk or work collaboratively through a complex problem or issue leads to deeper understanding. In short, these ideas can be taken on board and assimilated into existing knowledge rather than simply memorized.

Tools to Support It:

  • Symbaloo - This site is like a visual bookmarking service. You create "webmixes," which are collections of bookmarks (you can add documents and files too) in the form of a set of tiles. Tiles can be moved and grouped however you like within a webmix, so it can be an effective brainstorming/research tool as you or your students work to find resources on particular topics. Webmixes can be shared with other people as well.

  • Class Polling - We tend to think about services like Poll Everywhere, Socrative, Mentimeter, or Plickers as ways to gather formative assessment data. But, they can also be used as tools to prompt and encourage class discussion. You, as the teacher, can pose more open-ended/opinion questions, share the anonymous class results, and then use those results to facilitate a discussion of the topic. (If you're interested in Plickers, I still have laminated card sets available.)



In the name of accountability, the fun has been removed from much of education. "School isn't supposed to be fun." Brain research is showing a couple of pertinent things, though.

First, activities that are perceived as fun put the brain in a different state (chemical & electrical) than those that are boring or tedious. This state appears to be more conducive not only to increasing the ability to understand material, but also to retain it.

Second, the brain can only sustain focused, concentrated effort on a topic that is perceived as work for so long before its effectiveness begins to drop off. Short breaks for activities that are perceived as fun can somewhat reset this effect, though. Education systems in many other countries are starting to realize the value of play to not only create better individuals, but also in increasing academic performance.

Tools to Support It:

  • SMART Exchange - This site is a place for SMART Board users to share files and resources. You can search with a number of criteria, and then download Notebook files that you can then customize any way you like. A search for "review game" returned 1500 Notebook files. They include things like Jeopardy templates, board games, and koosh ball review, in which the students toss a soft object, like a koosh ball or bean bag, at the board to pick a category or question. Using the SMART Board has the added benefit of potentially tapping into another of the strategies, movement, depending on the game being played.

  • Digital Nation - As with SMART Exchange, this site has, among other things, a large library of pre-made files for use with your SMART Board, which you can customize however you like. This one, however, is licensed by our district, and every teacher has an account. If you don't know your username and/or password, email and they will set you up.

  • Class Dojo - This one isn't new, we have some teachers in our district who have been using it for several years, and isn't the only service of its kind. Particularly effective at the elementary and early secondary levels, this site turns classroom behavior into a game, with points awarded for things like participation, listening, etc. It's 100% free, works on any device, and includes integrated communication with parents. For an overview, check out the video at the top of this page.

Graphic Organizers, Semantic Maps, and Word Webs


Creating graphic organizers is an effective brain-based technique because it involves use of both hemispheres. Again, this can be especially useful when having students work together. More left-brain inclined students can focus on wording the content, and right-brainers can work on how to visually organize that content in logical and coherent ways.

Tools to Support It:

  • - This is one of those online services that works so well and is fully featured enough that it's hard to believe it's free. You don't even need to register to use it. Diagrams can be printed or saved to any of a number of cloud storage services, including your district Google Drive.

  • GoConqr - A free site that you and your students can sign into using your district Google account, you can use it to easily create and share interactive graphic organizers. Interactive organizers could be projected from the site, and you can also export them as pictures for print or to be added to other documents, etc.

  • Inspiration and SMART Ideas - Both of these programs are part of the standard image installed on all district PC's, and they work very similarly to help you create graphic organizers. One advantage of SMART Ideas is that it is specifically designed for use on a SMART Board, so it's ideal if you're creating the graphic organizers as part of a class activity. With either, finished organizers can be exported as images or pdf's to be saved or printed. Click on the Windows button in the lower left corner of the screen, click on "All Programs," and you should find both in the list.

Music, Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rap


Can you tell me which letters surround another letter, like K or V, mentally (or out loud - I'm not here to judge) singing the alphabet song? Clearly, music can be an extremely strong and effective tool to aid memory and retention. Songs about our content involve multiple parts of the brain, as Dr. Tate says, building more dendrites.

Also, music is an extremely effective way to enhance or influence moods. Movie producers have known this first the first time music was played along with silent films. If you've got 8 minutes, here's an interesting illustration of this showing the major role of music in creating emotion in the Lord of the Rings movies. Teachers can tap into this by using music to set the desired tone in class (energized, relaxed, calm, etc.), stimulate neural networks, serve as a volume barrier when students are collaborating, and more.

Tools to Support It:

  • YouTube - Most of us only think about videos when we think about YouTube (and understandably so). But YouTube also has thousands of music tracks available. If you're looking to use music to help set a certain mood in your students as they arrive to class or work on a project, search for some song titles that you know will set the desired tone. You don't even need to have your projector on, just your speakers. You can also look for channels with content-specific music. For instance, check out Mr. Beat's Social Studies Channel.

  • Classroom Speakers - If your presentation center setup includes a stereo amplifier (box that you need to have turned on for sound to come out of the speakers, has a volume knob, etc.), then you can also play music through the speakers from your own phone or other device. All you need (in addition to your device with the music on it) is a cable like this one.

  • Flocabulary - I'm putting this one in as a preview. It's a paid service we don't currently have, but next year we will have a district license, so you and your students will have full access at that time. The subtitle of the site is "Educational Hip-Hop." Now, hip-hop may not be your jam (it's clearly not mine as you can tell by phrases like that), but chances are a good portion of your students are at least familiar with the genre. They have videos covering the core subjects, life skills, and current events. You can see a breakdown of their current library here (it's continuing to expand). Each video includes a self-paced review, interactive lyrics with deeper information, interactive fill in the blanks, and a quiz.

Reciprocal Teaching and Cooperative Learning


At the simplest level, reciprocal teaching is pausing during instruction to have students reteach each other what was just learned. The basic principle is that if you can teach something to someone else, then you have a deeper understanding of it yourself.

Cooperative learning can be variation on this, or can have more of a focus on students working together to learn the material on their own or with guidance from the teacher, rather than direct instruction. This strategy clearly relies on students utilizing higher order thinking skills.

Tools to Support It:

  • Presentation Tools - Students can use any of a number of tools like Google Slides, Prezi, Bunkr, Biteable, and many, many more as multimedia tools in teaching concepts or skills to their fellow students.

  • Padlet and Lino It - Both sites do basically the same thing, which is to create a virtual cork board where you and your students can post virtual sticky notes, pictures, videos, etc. Both can be very effective in facilitating whole class or small group collaboration, especially for activities like brainstorming.

  • Google Drive - This is what the "share" function in Google was created for. It allows two or more individuals to work collaboratively on documents, presentations, drawings, maps, spreadsheets, and more. Furthermore, it lets them do it in real-time and facilitates communication between the collaborators.

Resource Roundup

Below are 3 tools that you might not have come across before that might make you say "ooooh."

Google Protip

Understanding Your Options When Sharing in Drive

When you share something like a Google Doc, you have more options in terms of control over that item than you probably realize.

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In the near future, you'll be getting even more control. Google has introduced the ability to set an expiration date on sharing. So you'll be able to share a document with someone and set a date after which they will no longer have access. It's a feature that's getting a staggered roll out across Google domains, so I don't know exactly when it will be available to us, but it will be within the next few weeks.
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Get In Touch

My job is to be here as a resource for you and your students. If you want help learning how to integrate technology in your classroom, please let me know. For more information on the sorts of ways I might help you, look at this.

- Mark Dalton, IT Coordinator