Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Chapter Three Reflections

I read chapter three of
Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain with great curiosity. The book's author, Zaretta Hammond discusses how the brain works in this chapter. As I read the chapter, I realized that I want to spend some time with students at the start of the year teaching them how their brain works, and how to use that knowledge to learn effectively. As I write about chapter three, I use many of Hammond's exact words and phrases--she has a wonderful ability to clearly outline and relay information.

Brain’s physical structure = hardware, culture as the software. I found this simple video which I believe will help students to get an initial understanding of the brain. I would then follow up with more specific lessons--lessons I will prepare in the days ahead based on Hammond's book and other materials I find.

For students to manage their brain power and use it well, it is important that they have a good understanding of their brains. We all need to understand that relationships exist at the intersection of mind and body. Children make relationships and learn best in a welcoming environment, hostile or unwelcoming environments obstruct best possible learning. 

As I read this information, I thought about a few students over time who entered my classroom with anxiety--I wondered how I could have made the classroom a more welcoming place for those students right away. 

We cannot downplay a student's need to feel safe and valued in the classroom and school community. It is important to understand what students feel makes up a safe and welcoming environment, not just our own understanding of this. As I think of a few children who felt unwelcome from day one in my classroom, I realize those children came to school with great socio-economic-emotional complexity. Looking back, I understand that I needed to give them more time to let me know who they were, what they needed--time to settle in, form relationships, relay information, and build trust. I needed to be super sensitive to what might cause public humiliation and result in flight, fright, freeze, or fight mode. In these cases, families were unable to provide needed supports such start-of-school-materials, attendance at early school year events, and timely drop-offs or pick-ups which left students feeling humiliated from the start. Since then we've started a before-school orientation to help with issues like this--it's critical that we develop this orientation more to be more personal, responsive, and inclusive to welcome students and help us to know what these children and their families need. Further students need to feel affirmed and included in the classroom environment--I need to think about how to affirm and include all students with special attention to those who are distanced from the mainstream classroom culture due to multiple factors which begs the question, is their a mainstream classroom culture?

Building positive relationships with students is essential to successful learning and development. This clearly highlights the danger of the tough love myths that have been around since I was young--rather than "tough love" environments, we need to build warm, welcoming learning environments. 

Build neural pathways through music, repetition, and storytelling. Stories, art, movement, and music help to make learning sticky. When learning is a dynamic action, students attend to that learning. Methods such as call and response, perplexity, questioning, and other attention grabbing techniques wake students up and invite them into the learning. Successful learners are able to direct their attention effectively towards the learning. 

New learning must be connected to what we already know--we have to acknowledge what we know and then connect our new learning to that. The brain's main driver is to get smarter and more successful at leading survival. Many marginalized groups get watered down teaching/learning programs rather than programs that require higher order thinking. Hammond writes, "To empower dependent learners and help them become independent learners, the brain needs to be challenged and stretched beyond its comfort zone with cognitive routines and strategies." Hammond further emphasizes that study needs to be relevant and focused on problem solving. She writes, ". . . .challenge and stretch come with learning the moves to do more strategic thinking and information processing." 

In summary, Hammond reminds us that "dependent learners experience a great deal of stress and anxiety in the classroom as they struggle with certain learning tasks." When unsupported because of race, gender, or language, the anxiety is amplified. The goal is to help all students achieve a state of "relaxed alertness--the combination of excitement and anticipation we call engagement." 
Overall, chapter three, reminds me to s l o w it down at the start of the year so that I may learn about the students in my classroom through their words and actions. I want to build the trusting, positive relationships that set the stage for successful learning, and I also want to work with colleagues to design and forward learning programs with and for students that challenge and stretch students ability to learn and move from dependency to independence. Listening to John C. Urschel's story recently related to his own learning life provided me with an apt example of what this might look like in a classroom--his mother was a prime positive influence in his life--one who truly helped him become the successful, independent learner, teacher, and mathematician that he is today. I want to follow her example with my students. 

John C. Urschel