Professional Development: Blog

The Science of Learning

March 19, 2020
Remote Unity: Building a Sense of Community during School Closures

As schools transition to remote learning, or at-home learning, educators might consider ways to foster a sense of school community, even when social distancing means that “school” is spread out across individual homes. Teachers and those familiar with social-emotional learning already know: strong relationships are a key component of successful learning. So how can teachers build a strong sense of community during this period when “distance” has become necessary?

February 14, 2020
Disrupting the Myth about “Mediocre” Students

How one teacher turned an underachiever into an overachiever by teaching executive function. In early elementary school, Louise (all names in this story have been changed) was a sweet child who never caused trouble. She was also an average student who was rarely chosen for special duties or called on in class. Louise’s parents were concerned about her progress in school, given that her siblings were exceptional students. The school principal assured them that she was a bright little girl, but she would never get an ulcer worrying about school achievement. Children like Louise are often described as underachievers. But this description of Louise began to change in third grade under Mr. Stevens. He was a stickler for neatness, organization, planning, paying attention, and punctuality. He referred to himself as “Hurricane Stevens” because, without warning, he would check students’ desks for disarray or confiscate potentially distracting items. One day, Louise was admiring a yo-yo she had won during recess when the yo-yo suddenly became part of Mr.  Stevens’ “cyclone stash” of toys and comic books. These items were all returned each Friday with a wry smile and gentle warning that sometimes objects get lost in cyclones. “Class time is your job,” Mr. Stevens extolled her, “you can think about recess during recess. During class, you need to focus on learning.” "Fun Facts" Mr. Stevens also had a memory game he called “fun facts.” He started each day with a list of new history or science facts, vocabulary words, or current events details that would end up relating to class, and more information about the fun facts would be part of the daily lessons. Students were told to pay close attention, but they were not permitted to write anything down. Mr. Stevens would later quiz the class on the fun facts and how […]

January 31, 2020
How to Foster Executive Function in Every Grade

What does executive function look like? When I taught English to middle school students, I learned what executive function looked like firsthand. Sasha was the model student. She followed instructions after hearing them once. She concentrated on her work without being distracted by the girls giggling next to her or the occasional chatter leaking in from the hall. I could always count on her to remember every step of a class activity or homework assignment. When chaos reigned in the classroom and I, a young teacher, questioned my own abilities, Sasha was my rock. Brendan, on the other hand—well, he was what you might call easily distracted. Somehow, he didn’t get started on a class assignment until 5 minutes after everyone else was settled in, and then he would lean over to a neighbor to ask what to do. In group discussions, he would steer the conversion off-topic or be unable to help himself from pulling up a funny video on his phone. He made teaching eventful, to say the least. If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve also had versions of Sasha and Brendan in your classes. These aren’t their real names, of course, but their behavioral differences are plenty real—and common. It’s not that Sasha was inherently a good student, and Brendan was a bad one. They just had different levels of executive function. There’s a lot at stake when it comes to executive function skills. Executive function determines a student’s academic achievement throughout their time in school, and it even affects success in the workplace and life more generally. But some students, like Brendan, need extra support to reach their full executive function potential. Fortunately, executive function is a skill set that can be developed, and educators can do a lot to help students along the […]

December 3, 2019
The Overlooked Third Domain of Social-Emotional Learning: Cognitive Skills

SEL Goes Viral A few months ago, a Facebook post by an Oklahoma middle school teacher went viral. It was a simple photo of a plastic bag full of crumpled paper, but its accompanying caption moved hundreds of thousands of strangers. Karen Loewe described an “emotional baggage” activity, in which students wrote down sources of their pain that they literally left at the door in a bag. “I have never been so moved to tears as what these kids opened up about and shared with the class,” Ms. Loewe wrote. While this story surprised and delighted the public, educators across the country already knew that such classroom practices that foster social-emotional learning (SEL) have become increasingly common in K-12 schools. In fact, NewSchools goes so far to say, “Enthusiasm for social emotional learning has reached a fever pitch” in their 2019 report on SEL. The widespread acceptance of SEL is also indicated by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) federal funding provision for schools’ SEL programs. The RAND Corporation, one of the foremost nonprofit research organizations, even published a 2019 research brief on the state of SEL in schools. As this new dimension of learning continues to be shaped and defined by educators and education researchers alike, one important component of SEL is too often overlooked: cognitive skills. The invisible third prong of SEL, cognitive skill development should take on a bigger role in SEL models in schools. Here is what educators should know about why and how to target cognitive skills in their SEL practices. What is SEL, really? If someone asked you what SEL was, you would likely describe social and emotional learning—they’re right there in the name, after all. You might give classroom examples like the emotional baggage activity from the viral Facebook post. Or you […]

October 24, 2019
What I Wish I Knew about Dyslexia as a Teacher

When I taught writing, I had hard-working students who articulated great ideas in class discussions and didn’t seem to have any learning issues. And then they’d submit papers that were riddled with simple spelling errors or were even downright incomprehensible. Sometimes the essays demonstrated surprisingly low levels of reading comprehension. “What’s going on?” I’d wonder, give feedback, and move on. While puzzled, I figured there wasn’t much more for me to do than help them improve one paper at a time. What I wish I knew then was that these students might have had dyslexia. And if you’re a teacher, you’ve had students with dyslexia too. No, really, you probably have—even if you didn’t know it. One out of five people have dyslexia, and many go undiagnosed until adulthood, if ever. Out of students with learning disabilities, 80-90% of them have dyslexia, making it the most common learning disability that often accompanies other conditions like ADHD and apraxia. Some of your students or children might already be diagnosed and have IEPs to accommodate their learning differences. But many others with dyslexia might be hiding in plain sight. I spoke to Marlene M. Lewis, M.A., a registered speech-language pathologist, who works with children with dyslexia, among other learning disorders. She shared what she wishes everyone—educators, parents, and students—knew about dyslexia. These are the 4 things she said. 1. “Do not wait till grades 2 or 3 or later to see how a student progresses. Dyslexia should be treated as soon as a teacher or parent sees a student not picking up phonological awareness skills, which is typically noticed already in early grade 1.” Waiting to offer targeted support to learners until they begin failing at reading in 2nd or 3rd grade is called the “wait-to-fail” approach, and research has found that this common […]

November 15, 2016
Underperforming Student Success Strategies

Some low-income schools are wildly succesful while others continue to struggle. Dr. Eric Jensen has researched this phenomenon, studying what makes one Title I school a place where students are as successful as their high-income peers, whereas others continue to be low-performing. Following is a transcript of a portion of his Underperforming Student Success Strategies webinar, in which he outlines some game-changing, yet simple tips. Watch the full webinar by clicking here. 7 Secrets to Accelerate Underperforming Students We've got lots to do, so let's roll up our sleeves and get started. First things first; here’s an overview of what we're going to cover: Relationships matter the most. Learn how you can create relationships with struggling students. Understand the REAL problem.  Part of succeeding with struggling students is learning how to hear what people are not saying. Sometimes it looks like there's one problem you're solving but it's really a different problem altogether. Shift mindsets and expectations. Learn what kind of expectations are realistic with the struggling student. Build cognitive capacity relentlessly. How do you build cognitive capacity? And why is this important? [Hint: Dr. Jensen recommends Fast ForWord!] Teach grittiness for the long haul. Learn how you can teach grittiness. Work on social and emotional skills. How do you teach social emotional skills? Coaching for life. How do you become a coach for your students to be successful in life? I've worked with many underperforming students and of course, you can come up with a different list of seven but I think this list is solid gold, so let's get started. Be Conscious of How You Start Your Day One suggestion is every time you begin working with your students, always ask yourself: What's the posture your students are in? What's their metabolic state? How are they feeling at the moment? You and I know when […]

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