Keep Learning Moving with Brain Breaks

A teacher excitedly came back from a workshop and shared that “we should be teaching whole brain.”  She went on to explain that students can only process information for a short period such as their age plus one or two.  This reminded me of an article I read recently that talked about the importance of taking a break by allowing student talk to keep learning happening.

Implementing a “Brain Break” is essential to keeping learning happening and can be a natural way for students to “sum up learning” or thinking. No more than 20 minutes of any activity should be taking place in the elementary school without a change in thought or activity. A person’s attention limit is approximately their age plus one –a second grader only has an attention span of about 8 to 9 minutes! By rebooting the brain, you restart the learning process by restoring to a calm state and producing dopamine.

Judy Willis M.D., Edutopia Article, stated the following, “For students to learn at their highest potential, their brains need to send signals efficiently from the sensory receptors (what they hear, see, touch, read, imagine, and experience) to memory storage regions of the brain. The most detrimental disruptions to traffic along these information pathways are stress and overload.” Providing our students with opportunities to summarize and talk about content often throughout a lesson can help students obtain optimal retention of information and attention.

Your brain contains 100 billion neurons or brain cells. These cells have the primary job of receiving information and signaling other neurons using electricity or chemicals to stimulate messages within the body. The hypothalamus is the regulation center of the brain. It keeps your body at a constant; including temperature, heart rate, etc. Learning happens when neurons are activated and a message is sent along the axon. When repeatedly stimulated a process called synapse is created. Synapse is created when two neurons are connected from the end of the dendrite. The creation of dendrites is when the brain is relating information that is important within the brain and “filing it” for retention or when the brain makes a learning connection which puts it in our memory.

When the brain is exposed to overload or stress the body begins to release cortisol which is the primary stress hormone. This chemical affects your heart, lungs, skin, immune system and circulation. In addition, it stimulates the hypothalamus and when it reaches the neuron, it shuts off the impulses of the dendrites which halt learning. This is a temporary response and the dendrites will grow back UNLESS there is a long term period of stress. When stress is repetitive the brain will respond by short circuiting that pathway which will stop impulses and result in the lack of input and messaging. Many of our students are in a constant state of stress from instability at home, lack of confidence in a subject, poor self-esteem, and relationships with their peers, etc. This constant state of stress causes inability to stay on task, inattention, and lack of self-control.  Brain breaks stop overload and stress and allow students to process the information you are teaching.

Top Way to Implement a Brain Break?

Have students summarize content material throughout the lesson.


  • During teaching stop frequently and ask students to talk to a partner and summarize learning or their ideas. To change things up you can have students draw, write or act out their learning as well.

Keep learning moving by allowing students to make sense of what they are learning through talking, drawing, acting or writing.  All of these activities allow students to review the information and have time to process the information. Overload shuts the brain down and stops learning.  Stop that cortisol production and overload with frequent learning breaks.


Rigor in Reading


We continually hear the same buzz words in our reading classroom such as rigor, complexity, language and conceptual understanding. We hear it BUT do we really get it?  We think of rigor and complexity as something that older students or proficient readers need BUT this is simply NOT true.  If we wait to provide complexity in syntax and language until students are proficient readers–it is like waiting to teach road rules and signs to a proficient driver.  

Rigor in reading is not simply asking higher order questions, doing a close read or giving more difficult text.  Students acquire language through the four domains of literacy which are listening, speaking, reading and writing. These domains build in complexity and are developmental. Students must first listen to a concept to understand. Once they have heard the concept they must begin making sense out of it through speaking and conversation. This allows students to synthesize the information they have learned and process it into their own ideas. By organizing information and making sense of it, students are building background knowledge of the topic. Once students have background information they are able to make sense of text when they read about the topic. Conversation about what they read deepens their understanding because they continue to synthesize more information together to create connections. Finally, students have enough knowledge to put their thoughts into writing which shows conceptual understanding of the topic. You have probably noticed that these are the ELA standards:

  • Speaking and Listening
  • Language
  • Reading
    • Foundational
    • Informational
    • Literature
  • Writing

Do you notice how they progress in the level of difficulty and mirror how students gain knowledge through the domains of literacy?

Speaking and Listening sets the foundation of understanding. Think of a two year old and the question–WHY!  Why do they continually ask WHY?  They are building their understanding of topics.  We must build this time in our lessons for students.  While teaching a concept–stop frequently and have students talk about the ideas you are sharing. Can they paraphrase or summarize?

The speaking and listening piece goes hand in hand with Language.  As students listen they are learning how words can be put together to make sentences. Think about how powerful a read aloud is for building syntax. Listening to poetry, rhymes and complex text helps children see that words, phrases and sentences can be put together in many ways. You expose them to dialect, punctuation, intonation and syntax by reading aloud.  

Remember, students CANNOT read what they cannot speak. So, when you give them a compound sentence with phrases–does it make them stumble?  Yes, probably because you are exposing them to “language” at a higher level than their conversation.  The more exposure will increase their ability to expect longer sentences, be looking for the where, when and how that author’s add in complex text.

Reading is making meaning of text and the tasks we give students help to create the rigor or complexity for our readers.  We have used center rotations for years but do we really take time to think about the tasks we are giving our students and how they scaffold to the depth of the standard?  If my goal is for third grade students to master context clues in difficult text then I need to think about the skills needed for that task.  Having students practice spelling or read to self may not be the best center rotation to meet that task demand. Some appropriate tasks might include:

  • Reading paragraph task cards with a partner and applying their knowledge of context clues.
  • Reading to self and tagging unknown words and prediction/evidence of meaning for conferencing,
  • Reading a difficult passage with words identified. Students determine word meaning using context clues.

Application of skills is how students learn and extend knowledge. Think about the tasks that we give students and ensure that we are pushing them even working independently. If they need support—give them a partner, technology to help (lingro which can hyperlink all words on a website to a dictionary), a place or person to go for hints but DO NOT lessen the expectation. Continue to give them the rigor.

Scaffolding is the way to provide support such as think aloud, modeling, partners, annotation, graphic organizers and discussion.  Scaffolding helps to level the playing field so all students can access the task you want them to complete. The trick is the balance of knowing when to scaffold and when to pull it away for continued struggle.

Balance is the KEY!

RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is a balancing act. Rigor is obtained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  It is crucial that children learn content through each domain of literacy–listening, speaking, reading and writing. A text just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.  

Primary Source Images

For those of you who know me–know I LOVE history and helping children build background in this area.  It is not complicated but it does take some time to find the right resources to use. (This might be something your Instructional Facilitator could help you with–hint hint)

Primary Sources are documents, songs, poems, photographs or paintings and artifacts that was written or created during the time you are studying.  These items offer a view into the historical time period or culture you are studying.  Realia refers to everyday objects of a time or culture that may be authentic or not but can certainly impact your students by helping them to “see” and make connections. (Ex. 2nd Grade bringing in Sugar Skulls during their study of the Mexican Tradition or baskets when studying Native Americans)

There are three main types of Primary Sources or Realia that can be used which include:  1)  Original Documents   2) Creative Works and 3) Relics or Artifacts.  Original documents include letters, diary excepts, interviews, speeches, news film, court records, autobiographies, etc.  Creative Works include the art pieces, music, drama, novels and poetry.  Artifacts can include buildings, clothing, furniture, pottery, etc.

I mentioned with my post on inferences that you can find primary sources online through the National Archives, Library of Congress, NC Museum of History, etc. I wanted to get you ready for the next few months with some great places to begin using Primary Sources.  Here are common topics around this time of year and AWESOME documents to accompany your study.

4th Grade BLUE- Dust Bowl This site has photographs, lessons, and ideas

The Mayflower Compact

Native Americans

Thanksgiving Photographs/Documents and Teaching Ideas

3-5 resources Thanksgiving– the pictures could be used with any grade level

I know you are looking at this and thinking–KELLY THIS YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING.  But actually, not so much!  Think about this lesson:

click on this photograph and it take you to a larger version.


Show this photograph and have students discuss with a partner. What do they see? What are the people doing? The are simply sharing what they see. Have a set of partners pair up with another set of partners and discuss their ideas.  Bring together whole group and have students share out what they see.

After you have about 10 items on your list–stop them and tell students you are going to look deeper at their list. You will have things on the list like:  a woman is fainting, a man has his hand on his head, a book is open, etc.  It will be normal every day things–not spectacular but that is okay.

Say to the student–It is time to make some inferences about what we are seeing. Why do you think the lady is fainting? What evidence do you have to support that?  Why does the man have his hand on his head? How is he feeling? How do you know?

As you make inferences–if no one has noticed the title–point this out and ask what further information this provides us as the viewers.  How does the title change what we think about the woman fainting–what reasons does a voyage make you think about?  Continue discussing and asking questions.

Finally, you have went through this list and have lots of inferences. You might stop there because your students struggled but what if you go a step further and ask–So, now that we have all these inferences–what conclusions can we draw from this about the Pilgrims Voyage? Help students put ideas together such as the man with his hand on his head was feeling bad and maybe sick–the lady is fainting so this might help us draw the conclusion that many people got sick on the journey.  Make a list as students come up with conclusions. This list would be great to investigate or research to see if they were right.

Remember that inferences and conclusions are not easy but with modeling and visuals–it is much easier. AND if this is HARD–GREAT!! Know that it takes a lot of wrong answers to get to a right one and most of all a student who is engaged and struggling is more productive than a student who already knows the answer is regurgitating the info back to you.

I would love for you to try a Primary Source lesson and let me know how it goes!  I will be happy to help you find resources if you need me to do that!  GOOD LUCK!  Can’t wait to hear some great things from you!


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