Showing posts from July, 2011

Ted Talk: Sebastian Seung "I am my Connectome"

Okay, so I may have gone "connectome crazy" here, but this Ted talk by Dr. Sebastian Seung is incredibly interesting and very accessible even for an English teacher like me. Give it a look-I'm sure you'll enjoy it and learn something important about the brain.
Sebastian Seung: I am my connectome | Video on
Here's more on Sebastian Seung, Ph.D on the MIT website.

Learned a new word: the "Connectome"

I always enjoy learning new words, and I came across one this morning connected to one of my latest interests-brain research-and it's called the connectome. Here's an excerpt from the article Brain's Connectome from Branch to Branch appearing on Neuroscience News:
"With some 70 billion neurons and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of circuits, the human brain is so complex that, for many years, it seemed impossible to reconstruct the network in detail. Each neuron is linked to about a thousand others by means of finely branched projections called dendrites and axons, and communicates with them using electrical signals. The connections between the cells are critical for brain function, so neuroscientists are keen to understand the structure of these circuits – theconnectome – and to reconstruct it in a three-dimensional map."
According to a connectome is a "synapse-resolution mapping of connections between all neurons in a model organ…

Matt Damon speaks out for teachers and creativity and against standardized testing at SOS Rally in DC

Matt Damon’s speech at the Save Our Schools rally, July 30, 2011

‘I think you’re awesome!” 
I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome. 
I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to Kindergarten through my senior year in high school I went to Public Schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything. 
I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself— my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity— all come from how I was parented and taught. 
And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned— none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success— none of these qualities that make me …

Deepak Chopra: "Video Game that aids in meditation and relaxation"

We have a Wii system in our house, and we have a great time playing the games, especially together, doing Wii Fit, playing Endless Oceans, Let's Dance II and Zumba to name a few. The thing I love about all of those games is that there is no killing, violence or destruction in any of them-they are all putting out positive messages while helping with personal health and well-being. This seems to be the case with Dr. Deepak Chopra's new game called Leela, "an ancient Sanskrit word meaning 'play,'" according to "Leela is described not as a game, but as a groundbreaking experience, combining ancient relaxation and meditation techniques with technology, to bring focus, energy and balance to one's life." I'm not into endorsing products, and this one doesn't come out until November, but I can get behind the idea of increasing relaxation and meditation techniques with students and parents, many of whom are stressed out beyond belief…

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Educational System

Dovetailing nicely with my last post about making school fun and making learning have meaning for students, I came across this speech by high school valedictorian Erica Goldson on the wonderful site The Innovative Educator. In less than ten minutes, Erica is able to eloquently point out the fallacies in our educational system and challenge educators to make a paradigm shift. It's worth a look.

You can read Erica's entire speech on her blog America via Erica.

Dare We Ask...Make School Fun? Make Learning Meaningful to Students? Ahhh....Yes Please!

I've often asked teachers in our classes "when does school cease to be fun?" Years ago the answer was grades six or seven,  but now it's usually more like second or third. Why is that? Why does school have to be drudgery? Thinking back on my own high school experience in the seventies it was the same-classes were boring and little if any meaning could be put to why we were studying this material. 
Today's brain-based research is clear, if students don't understand why they are learning something or if what is being learned has no meaning, then that information will be dumped within seconds and learning will not occur.
So it begs the question...why are our schools still doing this to students? Why are they attempting to cram knowledge down students throats with the thought that this will come in handy later on in life or they need this subject to pass a test or get into college when it is known that it doesn't work?
Certainly high-stakes testing plays into th…

Ted Talks: Julian Treasure "5 Ways to Listen Better"

How many of our relationships, not only as teacher and student, would be improved if we were able to listen better? In another wonderful Ted talk, Julian Treasure discusses listening and gives 5 ways we can become better listeners. Worth a look.

How the brain keeps track of what we're doing

Being informed on how the brain learns just makes sense if you are in the education world. The August issue of  Current Directions in Psychological Science gives a different view on "working memory" by neuroscientist Robert H. Logie. Read the entire article at How the brain keeps track of what we're doing
 An excerpt: "We have a range of different capacities, each with its own function, and they operate at the same time" when we perform a task or think about something, says Logie. Within this "multiple-component framework," working memory capacity is "the sum of the capacities of all these different functions."
This "workspace" in the brain, as Logie calls it, allows us to do something while other functions operate in the background or to apply ourselves to a single task involving more than one function."

Ways to Stay Connected with Teaching Through the Arts: Please Join Us!

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Drama as a Teaching Tool

Drama is a performing art, an outlet for self-expression, and a way of learning.  Drama is an effective learning tool because it involves the student intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally.  Activities in improvisation, pantomime, play-making, and scene reenactment serve to develop the creative potential in the participants and help to develop critical thinking skills. 
In answering the question, "Why teach drama?'", theater director and teaching artist Matt Buchanan has this to say: "Dramatic Arts education is an important means of stimulating creativity in problem solving. It can challenge students' perceptions about their world and about themselves. Dramatic exploration can provide students with an outlet for emotions, thoughts, and dreams that they might not otherwise have means to express. A student can, if only for a few moments, become another, explore a new role, try out and experiment with various personal choices and solutions to very re…

Using Drama to Create Empathy in Medical Education

Using drama to help train future doctors? Sounds like a great idea to me. Our present educational system from kindergarten through graduate school needs a major paradigm shift. The day has long passed, if they were ever there, when lecture was an effective way to get students to learn. In fact most brain-based learning research puts lecture at a 5-10% retention rate! That is horrendous!
It's very heartening to hear that the University of California, Davis is integrating medical studies with literature in an attempt to "generate future physicians with both scientific acumen and cultural humility." The article "Drama and Empathy in Medical Education" by Matharu, Howell and Fitzgerald in LiteratureCompass (2011), discusses how medical humanities training is often "lecture-based, not allowing for much student input," so the use of drama is an effort to remedy that.
The following is from the article's abstract: "Increasingly, undergraduate and gradua…

Kinesthetic Learning: We Learn Better on our Feet than in our Seat!

Kinesthetic learning or movement is a staple in our courses;  we use it all the time. We know it's effective with all ages from kindergarteners to graduate students, but do we have any brain-based research to back it up?
In his book How the Brain Learns David Sousa provides one explanation:
"When we sit for more than twenty minutes, our blood pools in our seat and in our feet. Within a minute [of getting up], there is about 15% more blood in our brain. We do think better on our feet than on our seat!Students sit too much in classrooms, especially in secondary schools. Look for ways to get students up and moving, especially when they are verbally rehearsing what they have learned" (34).
This also speaks to the fact that as arts-based educators we need to have the language to explain our methods to others. So next time you have the students up and moving and your principal comes into your room wondering what's going on, simply relay this information and then ask him or h…

Formative Assessment: Weekly Summaries

In our attempt to give concrete examples of formative assessment techniques, we go back to Debra Dirksen's 2011 article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction" where she discusses weekly summaries.
She discusses having students "complete longer writing assignments in which I ask them to write a weekly summary reflecting on what they've learned from class discussion, activities, and reading during the week. To prompt reflection on personal learning, I ask students to respond to the question: What did you learn personally from class discussion, activities, and readings conducted this week? For evaluation, I ask, "How do you think what was taught this week, in class and through your readings, will work in the real world?" And finally, for transformation, I ask, "How will you personally use the information?" This is an opportunity for students to engage with the material and discover what resonates with them (Ta…

Formative Assessment: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Thumbs All-Around

Another formative assessment which is simple and quick--letting you know immediately how well the students are understanding the concepts is the thumbs up and thumbs down technique. Just ask them how well they "get it" by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down sign. I also allow them to show degrees of understanding by putting their thumb anywhere on the spectrum between up and down (hence the "all-around" in the title).
Other variations, that I've heard teachers use, are to put the sign right up against the chest, so that others in the classroom have a hard time seeing it or having students close their eyes when they do it. These may be necessary in the beginning of the year, in some cases, but should wain as trust builds in the room and students learn it's all right to admit they don't understand something or that they are wrong about something.
It's quick. It's simple.There's no reading involved. It's just an easy way to check for understand…

Formative Assessment: When the Cook Tastes the Soup....

Ever have a problem differentiating between the definitions of formative and summative assessments? Well thanks to Debra Dirksen in her article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessments to Guide Instruction," she offers the following image from the work of Robert Stake (Scriven 1991:169):

 "When the cook tastes the soup, that's formative: When the guests taste the soup, that's summative." 
"As the cook, or teacher, we need to stop and taste the soup before we move forward with instruction. We need to design instruction so students can press the reset button and go back to learn what they missed the first time. We can use many techniques to assess student achievement and understanding."

This is a powerful image that clearly delineates between the two concepts and helps to cement them into the mind. It's also reminds us of the power of using metaphors, similes, images and figurative language in our teaching practices.

Formative Assessment: I Know What it is, but How Do I Do it?

Many of us know the theory behind formative assessments, but the burning question may be how do we use them in our every day teaching practices? In her article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction" published in the Phi Delta Kappan (2011) Debra J. Dirksen gives numerous practical applications on how to implement FAs in the classroom. Here's a couple using quick writes:
"We can also use short writing assignments to check for understanding. One example is called "3, 2, 1."Students write three things about concept A, two things about concept B, and one thing that connects concepts A and B. A similar activity is called "Circle, Square, Triangle." After giving a presentation or engaging students in a learning activity, I have students describe three metaphorical ideas by responding to the following questions:
1. What's still going around in your head? In other words, what do you still not quite understand? 2. Wh…

Formative Assessment: The Missing Piece?

In light of today's high-stakes testing atmosphere and the sense that there is so much content to cover that teachers just need to push on and hope the students "get it," many educators may be using formative assessments, but are they using them effectively?. Is there a missing piece?In the report "Understanding How Teachers Engage in Formative Assessment" from the Spring 2010 edition of Teaching and Learning, Sondergeld, Bell and Leusner discuss this and point out the cyclical nature of formative assessments.

"Formative assessment continues to receive increased attention in the field of education as being a cost-effective method of improving student learning (Black & Wiliam, 2007). However, defining formative assessment is problematic since it is often viewed as any use of assessment to support instruction. In fact, when teachers hear about formative assessment for the first time, they often say, "I do that already." We define formativ…

Is Abstract Art Really Best for Classroom Walls?

Evidently the answer is yes, at least according to this post at Give it a read and let us know what you think.

"We can greatly improve the physical environment of our learning spaces by adding colorful, visually appealing posters, pictures or other graphic images to the walls. Although we are living in a visual age, visual cues have been extremely important for survival for humans throughout the millennia.  In other words, responding to visual stimuli is hard-wired into our brains. A classroom that is visually appealing adds to the comfort level and can help to reduce stress and promote a sense of community.  According to Jensen (2000a), the brain is capable of registering 36,000 visual massages per hour.  Between 80-90% of information that the brain absorbs is visual.   Making use of color is very helpful in getting the brain's atten…

Arts Courses Improve both Verbal and Math SAT Scores. Really?

For some people this statement may be unbelievable, after all can't we improve SAT scores (or any standardized, high-stakes test for that matter) only by drilling students to death? Not so. Those of us who teach through the arts understand the power it can have on student learning and how that learning can be transferred in many ways.

David Sousa in his book How the Brain Learns offers the following:on this topic as he cites the work of Vaughn and Winner from 2000 saying the study of the association between students taking arts courses and their SAT scores is one of the largest of its kind taking several years and involving over 10 million American high school students.

-Students who took arts classes had higher math, verbal and composite SAT scores than students who did not take arts classes.
-The more years of art classes, the higher the SAT scores
-Acting classes had the highest correlation with verbal SAT scores while Acting classes, music history, music theory or appreciation…

Integrating the Arts into the Core Curriculum and Cognition

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time understands the power of integrating the arts into the core curriculum. After doing it for so many years, it is clear to us that it increases engagement, lifts the emotional climate in the classroom, makes students want to come to class, increases retention and much more. It's no surprise that David A. Sousa in his book How the Brain Learns, discusses how it also increases cognition saying that integrating the arts in the core curriculum "generates conditions that educational researchers and cognitive scientists say are ideal for learning." He goes on to discuss how they "develop essential thinking tools: pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observations of the world; and abstraction from complexity" (217).

In our present climate of high-stakes testing, many schools are responding to…

Emotionally Safe Classrooms

You may completely understand the importance of creating a safe classroom atmosphere, but if asked by an administrator or other stakeholder to explain, would you be able to put it into a language that they will understand? Let's face it, that language is one of data and research. So it follows that you'll need to have that data and research in your back pocket in order to make others see where you are operating from and convince them that your methods are sound.

I recently picked up The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement by Traci Lengel and Mike Kuczala (2010), and while I'm still working my way through it, I came across this interesting piece on emotional climate in the classroom and its effects on learning. It considers how the brain prioritizes information:

1. Survival: if this need is not met, the student will not be "in a position to work at optimal levels."

2. Emotional State/Stress: If a student feels stressed or has emotional dist…

The Importance of Being a Teacher/Artist

Keith and I both believe in the importance of being a teacher/artist. This allows the teacher to be grounded in his art on the one hand but remain vital and creative-to break new ground as an artist which will only enhance his teaching-on the other. To that end Keith and I remain committed to working in the theater and were honored to be able to work at the Provincetown Theater on Yasmina Reza's 'Art' in February. I was the director and Keith played the part of Mark. It was an incredible experience to put on a show in the birthplace of modern theater and paid huge dividends in terms of remaining vital in our craft as director and actor and translating that into the classroom. I am also honored to be the sound designer for the upcoming play The Weight of Water by Myra Slotnick and directed by David Drake this Fall. I am excited to be directing the classic comedy Mister Roberts at the Barnstable Comedy Club in March with Keith as a cast member.

Who We Are: Meet Jeffrey Billard

Jeffrey Billard, M.Ed. holds a Master's degree in Creative Arts in Learning from Lesley University and a B.A. in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches at Northeastern University in Boston and has also taught American Literature & History, writing, poetry, drama, film and television production for twenty-seven years at the high school, primarily at Barnstable High School, and middle school levels. As Assistant Director of the Barnstable High School Drama Club from 1994 to 2001, Jeff was involved in over thirty productions as a director, assistant director, singer, and actor. More recently Jeff directed the original play The Uncle Binky Show and Yasmina Reza's 'Art,' both at the Provincetown Theater. He will also be directing the classic play Mister Roberts at the Barnstable Comedy Club in March, 2012. Jeff also collaborated on writing three chapters for The Stage and the School, a performing arts textbook published by McGra…

Who We Are: Meet Keith Caldwell

Keith Caldwell, M. Ed. holds a Masters degree in Creative Arts in Learning from Lesley University and a BA in English from Southeastern Massachusetts University. He currently teaches English Language Arts at Barnstable High School in Hyannis, MA and also teaches in the Graduate School for Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Keith has taught literature, writing, poetry, drama, and oral communication for the past 20 years. At Fontbonne Academy in Milton, MA from 1989-1994, Keith was the director of the drama department, directing and producing 15 plays and musicals. Keith's specialty is the dramatic arts; he wrote and developed the curriculum for the Drama and Theatre Arts course which he teaches at Barnstable High.

He has recently developed and taught a graduate course for teachers with fellow educator Jeffrey Billard on integrated teaching through the arts. The two have also co-authored a textbook for use in their course.

Keith believes that learning through, with, an…

Incredible Improv Resource

If you're not using improv as a teaching tool, you should re-think it. It frees up students to feel comfortable in the class and allows for a greater flexibility when doing things that are normally done with students firmly planted in their seats. One example is instead of reviewing a story, chapter, etc by asking questions and waiting for hands to be raised, improv can be used to do the same thing in a more lively, fun and engaging manner. Check out this excellent improv resource at and let the ideas flow. One word of caution, don't just jump into improv but use the many icebreakers, warm-ups and energizers included to get the students used to doing it before adding curricular connections. You won't be sorry.

Does the set-up of the desks in your classroom affect the climate in your room?

Since many people who read this blog are teachers, I wanted to pose this question regarding the set-up of the desks in your classroom and if it sends a message to students. The answer to me is a resounding yes. What do rows (called the graveyard setup by a recent student in one our graduate classes who went on to say and we all know that the graveyard setup is deadly) say about the feel of the classroom as opposed to a horseshoe or even a circle if you're lucky enough to have the room to make one? Somewhere along the line I came across the line that in a circle everyone sits in the front row, and I've always liked it. Keith and I set our classrooms up in a circle and feel that it's very important for us to be sitting in that circle-not standing up over someone in a position of superiority-we want to be part of the fabric of the class not set ourselves apart from it. Just something to think about.

Playback Theater

I first learned about Playback Theater while in an anti-bullying workshop given by Stan Davis and was intrigued from the start. Here is what says about it:

About Playback TheatreInteractive and spontaneous, playback theatre bases its material on the stories of the community. In theatres, workshops, and a wide range of educational and organizational settings, Playback Theatre draws people together and allows fresh perspectives.

Performances are carried out by a team of actors, emcee (called the conductor), and musician. As the show begins, audience members respond to questions from the conductor, then watch as actors and musician create brief theatre pieces on the spot. Later, volunteers from the audience come to the stage to tell longer stories, choosing actors to play the main roles. Although performances often focus on a theme of interest or concern, the performers follow no narrative agenda, but bring their dramatic skills and their humanity to embodyin…