Archive for the ‘Practitioner’s Corner’ Category

Using Humor to Enhance Climate and Promote Retention

April 2, 2012 1 comment

Humor has many benefits when used frequently and appropriately in the classroom and other school settings.

Physiological Benefits

  • Provides More Oxygen. Brain cells need oxygen and glucose for fuel. When we laugh, we get more oxygen into the bloodstream, so the brain is better fueled.
  • Causes an Endorphin Surge. Laughter causes the release of endorphins in the blood. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and they also give the person a feeling of euphoria. In other words, the person enjoys the moment in body as well as in mind. Endorphins also stimulate the brain’s frontal lobes, thereby increasing the degree of focus and amount of attention time.
  • Moderates Body Functions. Scientists have found that humor decreases stress, modulates pain, decreases blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, and boosts immune defenses. These are all desirable outcomes.

Psychological, Sociological, and Educational Benefits

  • Gets Attention. The first thing a teacher has to do when starting a lesson is to get the students’ attention or focus. Because the normal human brain loves to laugh, starting with a humorous tale (such as a joke, pun, or story) gets the learner’s attention. Self-deprecating humor (“You won’t believe what happened to me this weekend”) is particularly effective with teens.
  • Creates a Positive Climate. Students are going to be together in a classroom for about  180 days. We need to find ways to help this increasingly diverse student population get along. When people laugh together, they bond and a community spirit emerges—all positive forces for a climate conducive to learning.
  • Increases Retention and Recall. We know that emotions enhance retention, so the positive feelings that result from laughter increase the probability that students will remember what they learned and be able to recall it later.
  • Improves Everyone’s Mental Health. Schools and all their occupants are under more stress than ever. Taking time to laugh can relieve that stress and give the staff and students better mental attitude with which to accomplish their tasks. Let’s take our work seriously but our-selves lightly.
  • Provides an Effective Discipline Tool. Good-natured humor (not teasing or sarcasm) can be an effective way of reminding students of the rules without raising tension in the classroom. Laughter also dampens hostility and aggression. Teachers who use appropriate humor are more likable, and students have a more positive feeling toward them. Discipline problems, therefore, are less likely to occur.
  • Using Humor as Part of Lessons. Humor should not be limited to an opening joke or story. Because of its value as an attention-getter and retention strategy, look for ways to use humor within the context of the learning objective. Several books on the market give many helpful suggestions on how to get students to use humor in lessons.Administrators and Humor. Administrators also need to remember the value of humor in their relationships with staff, students, and parents. As leaders, they set the example. In meetings and other settings, they can show that humor and laughter are acceptable in schools and classrooms.

Some Barriers to Humor in Classrooms

  • “I’m Not Funny.” Some teachers want to use humor in the classroom but don’t perceive themselves as jokesters. They’ll say, “I’m just not funny” or “I can’t tell a joke.” But the teacher doesn’t have to be funny, just the material—and there’s plenty of it. Books on humor are available in local stores, and don’t forget that students themselves often provide humor by their responses in class and answers on tests. Be certain that you use this material appro-priately, avoiding teasing or sarcasm.
  • “Students Won’t Enjoy It.” Secondary teachers, particularly, believe that students won’t find humor in corny jokes or that they are too sophisticated to laugh. But everyone likes to laugh (or groan) at humor. I suggest starting each class period with humor for three weeks, then stopping. I’m certain that students will say, “Hey, where’s the joke?”—evidence that they were listening.
  • “It Takes Too Much Time.” This is a common concern. Secondary teachers often feel so pres-sured to cover curriculum material that they are reluctant to give time to what may seem like a frivolous activity. On the other hand, humor is an efficient as well as effective way to gain students’ attention and improve retention of learning. It really is a useful investment of time.

Avoiding Sarcasm. All of the wonderful benefits mentioned above are the result of using wholesome humor that everyone can enjoy, and not sarcasm, which is inevitably destructive to someone. (Did you know that the word sarcasm comes from the Greek, meaning “to bite flesh”?) Some well-intentioned teachers say, “Oh, I know my students very well, so they can take sarcasm.” More than ever, today’s students are coming to school looking for emotional support. Sarcasm is one of the factors that can undermine that support and turn students against their peers, the teacher, and the school. When a student who is the object of sarcasm smiles, you really do not know if the student thinks the comment is humorous or is, instead, plotting revenge. Besides, there are plenty of sources of good classroom humor without sarcasm. For a deeper look at the research on the effects of humor on the body and brain, see Cardoso (2000), Martin (2007), and Schmidt (2002).


Cardoso, S. H. (2000, Fall). Our ancient laughing brain. Cerebrum, 2, 15–30.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. New York: Academic Press.

Schmidt, S. R. (2002). The humour effect: Differential processing and privileged retrieval. Memory, 10, 127–138.


Including the Arts in All Lessons

March 26, 2012 19 comments

Including arts activities in any subject and at any grade level can be simple and fun. It doesn’t need to be additional work and may substitute for some other activity you usually do.

Visual Arts. Are there components of the lesson that students can draw, sketch, color, or paint? Would a visual arts project be acceptable as an alternative assessment to measure student understanding?

Example: A science teacher has a student draw a chart to illustrate the important steps in an experiment.

Music.Is there an appropriate song or other musical composition that could be incorporated into the lesson or unit? Remember that music is a very effective memory device. Is there a familiar tune that would help students remember important facts about the unit?

Example: A social studies teacher has students put important facts about the Revolutionary War to a familiar melody.

Literary Device. Could students write a poem, limerick, or play to illustrate major points in the unit? Rhyming is also an excellent memory tool: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue . . .”

Example: A mathematics teacher has students devise limericks to help them remember the mathematical order of operations.

Dance and Theater. Is there a dance that could help students remember some critical events or information? Can students act out a play that other students wrote?

Example: An English teacher has students write and act out a different but plausible ending to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Community Artists. Are there community artists who can demonstrate their skills in the classroom? Teachers working with artists receive on-the-job training and learn techniques that they can use later on their own.

Acquiring Another Language

March 12, 2012 1 comment

When Should Children Learn Another Language? Although the brain maintains its ability to learn throughout life, it is quite clear from the research described earlier in this text that language learning occurs most easily during the first 10 years or so. We should take advantage of this window of opportunity if we offer additional languages in schools.

Why Learn Another Language? In addition to knowing our native language, we benefit from learning another language. Language instruction should start as soon as possible. Here are some reasons for learning another language at an early age:

  • It enriches and enhances a child’s mental development.
  • It gives students more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening. (The brain learns to respond to phonemes that are different from the native language.)
  • It improves understanding of a child’s native language. (Unless a language or hearingdifficulty exists, research does not support the claim that learning a second language early will interfere with learning the native language.)
  • It gives a child the ability to communicate with people he or she would otherwise not have the change to know.
  • It opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries. (This is important as our country becomes increasingly multicultural.)
  • It gives a student a head start in language requirements for college.
  • It increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a considerable asset.

What are the Characteristics of an Effective K – 6 Additional Language Program?

  • All students have access to the program regardless of race/ethnic origin, learning styles, home language, or future academic goals.
  • Program goals are consistent with the time devoted to additional language instruction. In the primary grades, the main goal is to hear the sounds, flow, and syntax of another language. here are different types of K–6 second language programs that achieve different levels of language proficiency and require different time commitments.
  • Sequence of language instruction should be available through the K–12 school years. Acquisition of another language requires consistent practice, so a K–12 sequence is crucial to mastery. For this reason, instruction in other languages is often exempted from block scheduling formats that limit classes to one semester per year.
  • Systematic curriculum development in content of another language is part of the school plan. Look for ways to include these language experiences across the curriculum.
  • Native speakers must be used for the primary-grade instruction to ensure that the young brain hears authentic language sounds.
  • Connections between language and culture are made explicit so that the learners understand the development of the additional language in the context of its culture.

Teaching Strategies for Acquiring Another Language

Teaching strategies for instruction in another language vary with the age of the learner who is beginning the study. Primary-grade teaching focus is mainly on recognizing, discriminating, and practicing the phonemes of the other language, as spoken by native speakers. Grammar is not taught, per se, but implied through extensive student conversation. In the intermediate and later grades (including adult levels), the main goal is to develop communication competencies so that the student feels comfortable speaking, writing, and thinking the other language. Thus, teachers of other languages and of English language learners should follow a sequence that begins with young learners. This sequence aims to do the following:

  • Develop Communication Competence. One of the primary goals of learning another language is to gain competence in communication. This involves acquiring four major competencies, requiring integration of the verbal and nonverbal aspects of language as well as right- and left-hemisphere processing. Teachers should keep these four competencies in mind as they select their instructional strategies:

Grammatical Competence. The degree to which a student has mastered the formal linguistic code of the language including vocabulary, rules of punctuation, word formation, and sentence structure. This entails the analytic and sequential processing of the left hemisphere.

Sociolinguistic Competence. The ability to use grammatical forms appropriately in contexts that range from very informal to very formal styles. It includes varying the choice of verbal and non-verbal language to adapt the speech to a specific person or social context, and this requires sensitivity to individual and sociocultural differences. This is essentially the right hemisphere’s ability to contextualize language.

Discourse Competence. The ability to combine form and thought into a coherent expression. It involves knowing how to use conjunctions, adverbs, and transitional phrases to achieve continuity of thought. This requires the integration of both hemispheres: the analytic ability of the left hemisphere to generate the grammatical features and the use of the right hemisphere to synthesize them into meaningful, coherent wholes.

Strategic Competence. The ability to use verbal and nonverbal communication strategies, such as body language and circumlocution, to compensate for the user’s imperfect knowledge of the language, and to negotiate meaning.

This research points out the need for teachers to ensure that the nonverbal form of intellect is not neglected in second language acquisition. In planning lessons, teachers should

  • not rely heavily on grammar, vocabulary memorization, and mechanical translations, especially during the early stages of instruction;
  • do more with contextual language, trial and error, brainstorming of meaning, visual activities, and role-playing; and
  • give students the opportunity to establish the contextual networking they need to grasp meaning, nuance, and idiomatic expressions.

When these skills are in place, shift to more work on enlarging students’ vocabulary and knowledge of grammar.

Teaching to the Whole Brain: General Guidelines

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Although the two hemispheres of the brain process information differently, we learn best when both are fully engaged in learning. Just as we would catch more balls with both hands, we catch more information with both hemispheres processing and integrating the learning. Teachers should design lessons so that students can integrate the new learning into a meaningful whole. In doing so, students get opportunities to develop both their strong and their weak learning style preferences. Here are some ways to do that in daily planning:

  • Deal With Concepts Verbally and Visually. When teaching new concepts, alternate discussion with visual models. Write key words on the board that represent the critical attributes of the concept, then use a simple diagram to show relationships among the key ideas within and between concepts. This helps students attach both auditory and visual cues to the information, increasing the likelihood that sense and meaning will emerge and that they will be able to accurately retrieve the information later. When using a video presentation, show the smallest segment with maximum meaning, then stop the tape and have students discuss what was shown.
  • Design Effective Visual Aids.How we position information on a visual aid (e.g., overhead transparency, board, easel pad, video screen) indicates the relationships of concepts and ideas. Vertical positioning implies a step or time sequence or a hierarchy. Thus, writing
    • Delaware
    • Pennsylvania
    • New Jersey

is appropriate to indicate the order of these states’ admission into the Union (chronology). Writing them horizontally

Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey

implies a parallel relationship that is appropriate to identify any three populous eastern states. Avoid writing information in visual aids in a haphazard way whenever a parallel or a hierarchical relationship among the elements is important for students to remember.

  • Discuss Concepts Logically and Intuitively.Concepts should be presented to students from different perspectives. For example, if you are teaching about the U.S. Civil War, talk about the factual (logical) events, such as major causes, battles, and the economic and political impacts. When the students understand these, move on to more thought-provoking (intuitive) activities, such as asking what might have happened if Lincoln had not been assassinated, or what our country might be like now if the Confederate states had won the war.After teaching basic concepts in arithmetic, ask students to design a number system to a base other than 10. This is a simple and interesting process that helps students understand the scheme of our decimal number system. In literature, after reading part of a story or play, ask students to write a plausible ending using the facts already presented. In science, after giving some facts about the structure of the periodic table of the elements, ask students to explain how they would experiment with a new element to determine its place in the table.
  • Avoid Conflicting Messages. Make sure that your words, tone, and pacing match your gestures, facial expressions, and body language. The left hemisphere interprets words literally, but the right hemisphere evaluates body language, tone, and content. If the two hemispheric interpretations are inconsistent, a conflicting message is generated. As a result, the student withdraws internally to resolve the conflict and is no longer focused on the learning.
  • Design Activities and Assessments for Different Learning Styles. Students with different learning styles express themselves in different ways. Give students options in testing and in completing assignments so they can select the option best suited to their learning styles. For example, after completing a major unit on the U.S. Civil War, students could write term papers on particular aspects of the war, draw pictures, create and present plays or write songs of important events, or construct models that represent battles, the surrender at Appomattox, and so on. Simulations, role-playing, designing computer programs, and building models are all effective assessment tools in addition to the traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

Strategies for Connecting to Past Learnings

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Transfer helps students make connections between what they already know and the new learning. It is important to remember that the connections are of value only if they are relevant to the students’ past, not necessarily the teacher’s. This process also helps the teacher find out what the students already know about the new material. If students already have knowledge of what is planned for the new lesson, then teachers should make some adjustments and move on. (The curriculum is notably cluttered with too much repetition at every grade level and in every subject area.) This method also alerts the teacher to any prior knowledge that may interfere with new learning (negative transfer). Here are a few suggestions to discover what students already know so that prior learnings can help facilitate new learning (positive transfer). Note that the activities use novelty and shift the task burden to the student. Choose those that are grade-level appropriate.

  • Short Story. Students write short stories to describe what they already know about a given topic. This can be used in any subject area because writing is a skill that should be continually practiced. (Note: This activity is not journal writing, which serves a different purpose.)
  • Interviews. In a think-pair-share format, students interview their partners to determine their knowledge levels.
  • Graphic Organizers. Students select an appropriate graphic organizer to explain and relate their past learning.
  • Mural or Collage. Students make a mural or collage to communicate their current knowledge.
  • Music Activity. Students write a song that tells of their prior knowledge.
  • Models. Students build or draw models to express what they know.
  • Student Ideas. Students may suggest other ways of showing what they know, such as writing a poem, painting a picture, creating a quiz show, and so on.
Categories: Practitioner's Corner

Testing Whether Information Is in Long-Term Storage

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Testing Whether Information

Is in Long-Term Storage

Information that the learner processes during a lesson remains in working memory where it eventually will be dropped out or saved for long-term storage. Just because students act as if they have learned the new information or skill doesn’t mean it will be transferred to long-term storage. Extensive research on retention indicates that 70 to 90 percent of new learning is forgotten within 18 to 24 hours after the lesson. Consequently, if the new learning survives this time intact, it is probably destined for long-term storage and will not deteriorate further.

This time requirement confirms that the processing and transfer between working memory and long-term storage needs adequate time for the encoding and consolidation of the new information into the storage networks. Thus, tomorrow is the earliest reliable time we can confirm that what was learned today has been indeed retained.

How to Test. If teachers want to test whether information actually has been transferred to long- term storage, the test needs to

• be given no sooner than 24 hours after the learning;

• test precisely what should have been retained; and

• come as a surprise to the learner, with no warning or preparation time.

Rationale. If the learners have warning about the test, they are likely to review the material just before the test. In this case, the test may determine the amount of information the learners were able to cram and hold in working memory and not what they have recalled from long-term storage. While testing without warning may seem insensitive, it is the only way teachers can be sure that long-term storage was the source of the test information that the learners provided. Unannounced quizzes, then, should help students assess what they have remembered, rather than be a classroom management device to get students back on task.

Misuse of Tests. Some teachers use unannounced tests as punishment to get students back on task. This is a misuse of a valuable tool. Another approach is for teachers to

• establish sense and meaning to increase the probability that retention will occur;

• explain to students that unannounced tests help them see what as well as how much they have retained and learned over a given period; and

• ensure that the test or quiz matches the rehearsal when it was first taught. If the learning required essentially rote rehearsal, give a rote type of test. If it required elaborate rehearsal, use a test that allows the students more flexibility in their responses.

Using the Test Results. It is important that teachers

analyze immediately the results of the test to determine what areas need to be retaught or practiced. If some students forgot parts, consider forming cooperative learning groups that focus on reteaching the forgotten areas.

record the grades of only a small portion of these unannounced assessments. Rather, ask students to share their results and discuss in a think-pair-share format what strategies the students used to remember their correct responses. In this way, students talk about  their memory processes and have a better understanding of how they learn and remember.

decide whether memory strategies such as concept maps, mnemonics, or chunking (see the following chapters) can help in retention.

The analysis might also reveal areas of the curriculum to be reworked or updated for relevance, or it might show that the lesson should be retaught in a different way. A task analysis on a failed lesson is a good way to detect false assumptions about learning that the teacher may have made, and it recasts the lesson into a new presentation that can be more successful for both students and teacher.

Using tests as tools to help students to be right, rather than to catch them being wrong, will create a supportive learning climate that results in improved student performance.

Preparing the Brain for Taking a Test

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Sometimes little things make a big difference. Using what we know of the brain, we can make small adjustments that can boost our students’ brain power and give them an advantage when taking a test. The following is a Practitioner’s Corner from my book that teachers can use to boost cognitive performance in their students before they take an exam.

Taking a test can be a stressful event. Chances are your students will perform better on a test of cognitive or physical performance if you prepare the brain by doing the following:

  • Exercise. Get the students up to do some exercise for just two minutes. Jumping jacks are good because the students stay in place. Students who may not want to jump up and down can do five brisk round trip walks along the longest wall of the classroom. The purpose here is to get the blood oxygenated and moving faster.
  • Fruit. Besides oxygen, brain cells also need glucose for fuel. Fruit is an excellent source of glucose. Students should eat about 2 ounces (over 50 grams) of fruit. Dried fruit, such as raisins, is convenient. Avoid fruit drinks as they often contain just fructose, a fruit sugar that does not provide immediate energy to cells. A recent study shows how just 50 grams of glucose increased long-term memory recall in a group of young adults by 35 percent and recall from working memory by over 20 percent (Korol & Gold, 1998). Subsequent studies have found similar memory boosts (Smith, Riby, van Eekelen, & Foster, 2011; Sünram-Lea et al., 2008).
  • Water. Wash down the fruit with an 8-ounce glass of water. The water gets the sugar into the bloodstream faster and hydrates the brain

Wait about five minutes after these steps before giving the test. That should be enough time for the added glucose to fire up the brain cells. The effect lasts for only about 30 minutes, so the steps need to be repeated periodically for longer tests.