Connecting Two Hemispheres = Quality Teaching Strategies

brain-outline-free-vector-for-free-download-about-9-free-vectorI decided to expand on the brain and learning for this week’s blog.  I wanted to extend your knowledge of the two hemispheres of the brain, the importance of connecting these hemispheres and other strategies which help engage the brain in learning.

There are two hemispheres of the brain including the “Right Hemisphere” and “Left Hemisphere.”  You know the myth that we only use 10% of our brains but this is simply not true. We do however, have a dominant hemisphere that we use more often.

Right Brain                                                                      

The Right Brain, as it is called, is known as the creative sector of your brain. This part of your brain is holistic and synthesizing.  The Right Brain is the area of the brain that impacts your ability to collaborate, use your imagination, use symbols and icons.  Interestingly enough, the Right Brain is used for problem solving, integrating and risk taking!

Left Brain

The Left Brain is the logical side of the brain. It is the detail and fact oriented area of the brain.  This side dominates memory, the speed in fluency and completion of tasks especially in math.  It is the Left Brain that controls our focus and keeps us structured and following rules and procedures.

You can probably draw the conclusion already that we do not use only one hemisphere of the brain. We are all problem solvers and use detailed thinking at times but you probably see yourself more in one description or the other. Most people have a dominance though this does change based on the activity you are involved in and environment.  Here is a test for fun!   Yes, you use both sides of your brain!

Use Both

As teachers, the more we have students use BOTH hemispheres of the brain–the more engaged and learning is taking place. If you read last week’s blog, remember that when students engage in learning, they must use many areas of the brain to do different tasks that we give them. Processing, problem solving, recalling and evaluating require both sides of the brain connecting together to get the job done well.

There are many claims that Whole Brain or Brain Based Strategies are the best way for us to teach. You have probably been trained or heard of Brain Energizers and strategies that help students cross the midline of their brains. Of course, for every article that gives amazing reviews–we can find claims that they do not work.  I believe that many of the strategies used are good teaching strategies but cannot verify if they are “brain based.”

Here are 8 facts we DO know about the brain and the implications for teachers.

1.  A teacher has less than 3 minutes to engage a learner at the start of an activity.  A HOOK or great opening to your lesson will help ensure engagement.

2.  According to, an elementary child can only stay attentive for about 10-15 minutes.  “As a guideline some research suggests using a child’s age as a general starting point for the number of minutes a child can attend to a single assigned task…so 5 minutes for a 5 year old, 7 minutes for a 7 year old, etc.” which is a reminder that lessons should change and students should be moving during lessons. For example, you may start a reading lesson with a picture walk, then students may read–breaking up this reading with talking, writing, questions etc. help to keep the student engaged in learning.

3.  The cerebellum which is only 1/10 of your brain has the most neurons (40 million nerve fibers) which is 40 times more than your optic trac and  associated with your motor control. It is also a path to the section of the brain which controls memory and attention. When you are using the cerebellum (moving) then you are stimulating your memory!

4.  When a student (or adult) is stressed the hippocampus (the brain’s structure for memory) is negatively affected.  When in an overly stressed state the brain in unable to identify and store information into short or long term memory. Now with this being said, a small bit of stress can stimulate learning by engaging the learner so the teacher must know her/his students to ensure there is balance. A good example to remember is:  When you are in a competition–you are alert and engaged but if you are so scared that you are crying or consumed with anxiety–you will not perform well and most likely forget anything you were wanting to say.

5.  Students learn information more easily in small chunks. We used to think 7-8 but now researchers believe it is 2-4.  Breaks and process time are very important when learning new information.

6.  Your brain learns the circle as the first shape. When creating flashcards–using a circle will help students focus on the content more easily because the brain is not focused on the outline of the card itself.

7.  Colors affect our brain so therefore it affects learning.  Blue and green are calming where yellow causes more excitement. Red can help hold the attention of our ADHD students.  We have used colored overlays for students in reading for years–here is another reason to think about our decor.

8.  Waelti, Dickinson and Schultz (2001), found in brain studies that there is a benefit “associating rewarding, positive social experiences with the learning process” which is called dopamine-based reward stimulated learning.  This basically means that students are more comfortable and engaged when talking with their peers so collaborative learning helps to stimulate learning.

We as teachers want to find the magic formula for teaching but we know that it changes based on our students, their preferences, abilities, environments, etc.  Brain research is not the magic formula but it does give us insight into how we process information and give us some tips to make learning easier.  Just a bit of food for thought!




Articles that Provided Research:


Math and the Brain

Earlier this year, I did a professional development session with the teacher assistants on how our students learn math and why it is difficult for some of our students. Yesterday, I read an online article by Anna Christiansen and PBS News Hour entitled, “Why Is Math Easier for Some Kids Than Others?”  I have always been intrigued with how the brain works and how we code information while learning—this article helped me make some connections to things I had read previously.  Today’s blog entry will focus on my process of new information and sharing it with you to not only deepen my  learning but maybe to open up your thinking to some “Why’s” behind methods we use and their effectiveness.

To set the stage, remember that every brain is unique and how you code and retrieve information is different from someone else. What we do have in common is the “layers” of the brain and the “sections” of our brains.  The composition and organization is similar but rates, abilities, strengths, preferences and weaknesses are all one of a kind to you!

how do we learnSome things that we all have in common:

1.  Our brain needs 8 hours of sleep even if you think you do not. It is the time that your brain sorts information from the day and puts information into long term or short term memory. If you are not sleeping, this is not happening as it should.

2.  Our emotional state not only affects our learning but if our basic needs are not met or we are in an anxious/tense state, information we are learning will not be properly coded or retrieved.

3.  50% of our learning happens visually.  70% of our sensory receptors are in our eyes.  Once a symbol (letter/number) is truly coded and learned, it takes 0.15 seconds for our brain to process the meaning and 0.10 seconds to attach the meaning. So, in less than a quarter of a second your brain can look at a symbol and make meaning of it. (See the importance of automaticity?)

4.  We have 5 times more information shown to us then we did in 1985.  It is almost visual/information overload.  On average, we only read about 28% of a website we look at.  Think about how this affects our students looking at an EOG passage (without visuals)  The visuals help to make meaning of the text but also to keep us focused to the text.

5.  Some of us process information better by having information presented in small parts which lead to the big picture where others prefer to have the big picture presented and then for it to be broken into smaller sequential pieces. It is important for teachers  to provide both–share with students The Big Picture and then the road map (progression of steps) or you will lose part of your audience before you begin.

take 2Our brains are organized in a similar fashion with the following diagram explaining what controls which part of learning. To highlight the reason this is important to math, notice that the area that controls the learning of reading and language mainly is in the Parietal Lobe which is one area of the brain.  In Math things are a bit more complex because learning of numbers as symbols takes place in the Occipital Lobe because they have to decipher the symbols.  Students then use the Parietal Lobe for math calculations but when the problem requires problem solving they have to use the Frontal Lobe for their thinking. In addition, if we use learning styles and use music, dance or movement they may also be required to use the Temporal Lobe.  The reason I share this is–if we are teaching something— for the student to retrieve it–they must have similar conditions, processes OR a cue to know where this information was coded (with language/calculations/problem solving).  When we hear about teaching something conceptually–we also have to remember that we must teach it so that it is fluent (automatic) OR that the  information has been coded in long term memory and easily retrievable.  So, the procedural fluency is a HUGE piece to remember.

So finally, to the article, “researchers at Stanford University of Medicine found that when students begin  processing mental math, the brain reorganizes itself to use its short-term center the hippocampus.”  (Did you make a connection here to the above paragraph??)  To me this means, that students are using two different parts of the brain for procedure and memory retrieval. If they are skip counting because they have not learned their facts–they can figure the answer out BUT it will be bigger struggle for the student because they will have to access two sections of the brain. The more procedure we can do to make it “fluent” the better. This confirms with research the need for students to be automatic with facts and basic knowledge.   Mann Koepke (2009) of NIH, states, “…the child’s brain does not have to labor over simple math, there is more short-term memory space to learn new concepts, so they catch on earlier and faster.”

In conclusion,  conceptual understanding is important to build the child’s ability to make connections and problem solve. Moving students as they practice strategy based math to the point of automaticity or fluency is crucial to strong math problem solvers. This confirms many of you who have said, they need to memorize their facts–yes, they do.  In the meantime, continue to give them the strategies and procedures to figure it out.  We cannot go back to just memorization or turn and run completely to the other extreme–it is about balance.  The good news is that Engage NY is combining these concepts with both procedural fluency and conceptual understanding. I hope this gives you a “bit of why” or the research behind the things we do and how it affects student learning!



brain math  PowerPoint used with teacher assistants

Online Article


Why Student “TALK” Matters?

After receiving our Curriculum Visit feedback, I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring up the importance of student collaboration and discussion in our classroom across content areas.  You have heard it repeatedly….but do you understand WHY?  I didn’t!  So, I want to share what I have learned on my journey of understanding how “language” plays into our classroom instructional tool box.

toolbox2To set the stage, you need to keep in mind that there were three ELA “Shifts” in thinking with the new Common Core Standards.  The first was Balancing Informational Text with Literature which immerses our students into rich content vocabulary that require background knowledge or the ability to break down meaning from the text.  The second shift was that student Speaking, Reading and Writing would be grounded in text evidence.  By interacting with text repeatedly, our students are exploring the text at a deeper level through analyzing and synthesizing ideas or evaluating the ideas of others.  The final shift was to interact with complex text and Academic Language.   The words complex and academic probably jumped out at you!  By looking at these shifts, you can begin to see how important it is for us as teachers to scaffold learning so that our students can be successful as readers of complex text.  What does this scaffolding look like?


  • Modeling which uses LISTENING
  • Read Aloud which uses  LISTENING
  • Think Pair Share (collaborative work) which uses SPEAKING AND LISTENING
  • Activate Prior Knowledge which uses SPEAKING AND LISTENING
  • Questioning (Text Dependent) which use LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING AND WRITING

When you look at popular scaffolding strategies you see that they are embedding listening and speaking in each one. Even primary documents and graphic organizers are most effective when you pair them with speaking.  The speaking and listening piece allows our students to access the difficult text by having support while they process and think.  This shows the power of Language. We use the word “Language” often and what we mean by that is the communication of thoughts including reading and writing.  Listening and speaking are vehicles in which our students gain skills to read and write so they must master one while learning a topic before they tackle the next. We know when we are teaching something difficult such as electricity, our students must listen to gain knowledge, talk about it so that they can process the information, begin to read about it while talking to continue process and finally writing about it. If our students can write about a topic–they understand it. Each of these four domains (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) are interrelated and interact and affect one another–summation—these are reciprocal.

I read an article from Cornell University which highlighted collaborative learning as not just peer learning in groups and partners but extending to peer instruction where students are working together to help one another figure out problems and explain ideas in a student friendly language.  It explains that there are great benefits of collaborative learning including and increase in self esteem,  helping students see different perspectives from their own, increase in higher order thinking and oral communication.  The article showcased several teaching strategies which are worthy of checking out.  One I thought was interesting, was called a Fishbowl debate where students sit in groups of three and you assign them roles for a debate. Two people take opposing sides and the third person is the note taker and decides which debate is most compelling.  There are many ideas included in the article–bookmark it for a rainy day!

Also, the 40 Ways to Read Like a Detective resource created by NCDPI, is a great resource to help you scaffold instruction for your students and to infuse the four domains of language into your lessons. I will put a link to these in the resource section of this article.

In closure, by focusing on Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing as you teach and learning to move in and out of these domains while your students are learning–you are scaffolding instruction AND building conceptual understanding in your students.  It is talking that helps humans communicate and process ideas–so, my challenge to you this month is to make sure that in each lesson you have provided time for students to listen–speak to you and one another about what they are learning and reading.  When we are faculty meetings or professional development, we want to talk about things we are learning.  How often do we stop listening to the speaker to lean over and tell our neighbor our connection or idea about what he/she is saying. Our students are the same and need time to process their ideas.  As an added benefit, our students need extra opportunities to speak to one another because they do not get conversational language at home. They do not have background on how to ask good questions, how to follow up on a statement from someone else, how to disagree politely, etc.  So, check out the resources below and try something new out.



Kagan-Strategies-Desk-Mats  Conversational Group Work Mat for your desks. Remember that I shared a folder of several varieties of these in drive.

Capture This is an example of a SENTENCE FRAME I found. What a great way to help our students get their thoughts together. There are frames for inferences, comparing, contrasting, etc.  2012 all strategies 35 pages sentence frames

sentence starters for reader response (Sentence Frames for Reading and responding to text)

AccountableTalkFeaturesandLanguageStems  (Sentence starters for group work)

Accountable Talk Tool Kit (LOTS of resources here)

Text Structures with Graphic Organizers

40 Ways to Read Like a Detective












Limits?? Volume?? Where Do We Balance??

I had a great conversation this week with some pretty awesome educators about whether we, as teachers, should “push” students to stay within a range of complex text or increase the volume of their reading.  So, we know that reading within a child’s guided reading level or lexile helps them develop their reading skills at a level that they can comfortably decode (75%) and understand. This level helps to stretch them to apply their reading strategies to build their understanding because it is not too easy–not too hard.  With this being said…a volume of reading can help increase vocabulary, increase fluency, love of reading and interest.  So, what is the balance?  We as a school are faced with setting a Reading Counts Goal that takes into account our need as teachers to ensure students are stretching to build themselves as readers AND to love reading.

I have spent some time since my reading discussion researching to see what is best–what would be most beneficial and hoping for that amazing nugget of knowledge that would make the controversy go away with a clear answer.  So, this is what I have learned…

There really must be a balance between having our students read within complex text and increasing the volume with the freedom of choice and well “lots of text.”  Of course, the BEST scenario would be for them to read LOTS of complex text but that is another obstacle.

One interesting fact I found was from an article by J.M. Adams (2009) in American Education, “Reading is like every other human activity in that the amount of practice really matters, especially the amount of reading done while reading proficiency is being developed.”  This statement confirms to me that while students are really not steady decoders and struggling with fluency–reading text of a lower level is great for them because they are building automaticity in their reading. However, on the tail spin of that, if you have a high fluent reader,they may not benefit as much from lower level text except to develop an interest or some excitement about a topic or genre.  We all know that our higher students are more difficult to grow and my personal theory is that they become apathetic readers, learning to skim because they can and still do “OK.” The Text Project has a great graphic on their site showing how 90% of our core words are made up of 4000 simple word families (decodable) and only 10% of words are complex.  Very interesting!

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There was a plethora of research to support the need of pushing students to read within in their lexiles and the 75% was highlighted most often as the reason for this need.  At 75% students are at a comfortable level of decoding which is not too easy or difficult. In 1923 when Lively and Pressery created the first readability formula, we have been leveling text for readers and lexiles are one of the newest ways.  The leveling system allows us to use formulas and mathematically calculate the “readability” of the text and better match our students to these texts.  The hazy part comes in when we add student background and interests into the equation.  These facts are a reminder of the importance of text complexity and all three elements that need to be considered to ensure students are reading complex text:  1.  Quantitative measure or the lexile  2.  Qualitative measures such as the content of the book, text features, idioms or figurative language, techniques such as dialect or flashback.  3.  Reader and Task.  A great example I found was in an article by the Text Project, which compared two books of the same lexile level.  The two books Tops and Bottoms (Guided Reading Level H)  and The Treasure (Guided Reading Level M) both have a lexile level of 650. The difference in the Guided Reading Level comes from the fact that Tops and Bottoms has an unusual trickster who goes against a conventional norm and it does not follow a typical genre pattern.  A teacher must know the content of the books that students are reading and know that sometimes content or text features can change the complexity.  Jennifer Muscarelli’s recent comment to us at staff meeting came to mind here. A bit of flexibility is needed for students when choosing books and knowing that we must adjust at times in and out of the lexile level to match students with the correct content, vocabulary and text features.  The great part about this fact is that we cannot simply rely on a computer alone and we see the necessity of teacher knowledge in student success.

In my research, I began to think about our students,–really at the tail end of the Millennial Generation and I found names for them such as the “Selfie Generation”  or the “Digital Natives”  but it looks like they may become the i-Generation or Generation Z.  They are comfortable with technology and interacting with social media. When they are curious about a subject they will get online and find out more. This generation is able to multitask and their attention span is more limited.  They often want instant results and constant feedback because they are used to having instant access to information. They do not judge reliability of information well and value opinions over fact.  They seek contentment and happiness rather than money. With these facts, how do you think choice would play into their motivation to learn or read?

Finally, I found an interesting article which highlighted a mix of leveled reading and volume reading outside the classroom. Check out this graph.

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I did not find that “one nugget” of knowledge that pushed me to an easy answer but I am ending the Blog with this graphic—balance is necessary–How will we find it?  I know my recommendations but what do you think??  Please list your thoughts and ideas!












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