Saturday, December 24, 2011

Brain-Based Literacy

Wendi Pillars writes in Education Week about "Teachers as Brain Changers."  The four pillars of brain change, according to her article, are Relevance, Pattern, Pleasure, and Thinking Critically (for and by oneself).  I am curious as to why Creating is not on this list, but I am not an interpreter of neuroscience.

I think about the role each of these plays in the development of literacy, and I sense that most ELA teachers today are embedding all four of them in instruction.  However, I think many teachers need to be reminded that these elements need to be in balance.  

On Pleasure: As I read through ELA forums, nings, tweets, blogs, and discussions, I am dismayed to find that Pleasure seems to be rising to the top of the list -  narrowly defined by the same definition implied by Pillars: "I'm finding more ways to bring laughter and pleasure into my classroom and creating playful ways to explore and learn." 

I don't believe into the notion that playful exploration is the brain-feeding pleasure essential to learning.  Instead, I believe in the pleasure that comes from connecting directly to a text at the exact time you are ripe for connection.  This is the pleasure described by author Nicholar Carr in his NY Times opinion piece "My First Page-Turner" and by Lisa Rowe Fraustino in her piece, "Here's to Pipi Longstocking."  I believe in the pleasure of understanding.  This is the pleasure discussed by The Tempered Radical in "Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals." I believe in the pleasure that comes after the hard work necessary to meet a writing or reading goal.  This is the pleasure that I discussed in my post about motivation.  I believe in the pleasure that comes from finding joy in someone else's text, a pleasure that puts those words into a permanent chink in the brain (and often, the heart).  All authors have written about this pleasure, and I remind you that our students are all authors.  Last, I believe in the pleasure found in "ah hah!" moments - those moments when patterns are discovered or invented or settle into place like puzzle pieces or leap fully formed into the brain - and the discovery leads to new questions and new patterns. This pleasure is found throughout science, mathematics, and engineering memoirs and histories.  It is what inspired me to write my Circus post. 

These are what I call Hard Pleasures. They are the Pleasures - not contrived games, "fun projects," digital machinations, celebratory events, hands-on and out-of-the-seat experiences - that connect to the learning of literacy.  I am not a Scrooge. I would not and never did forswear any of the easy pleasures just listed.  As a 1:1 teacher, I did these and more. There is no doubt that they make the classroom a happier place, like allowing everyone to sit with only whom he chooses, never giving HW, putting on a 10 minute performance to begin every class, and - hey - if students don't like to write they don't have to. But that is the necessary performance of education, not the stuff of it.  As Seymour Papert was fond of reminding us, learning is hard fun.

Frankly, it pains me to find teachers asking other teachers for pleasurable activities at the middle and high school levels. It is not that they ask, it is that I sense they are asking without a sound goal or identified reason. If you know your students, if you know their needs and interests, and if you like them, creating easy pleasures is almost automatic.  And the fact of the matter is that teachers can not create hard pleasures for their students.  They can only structure opportunities for them to be found.

This is where the other three elements of brain-based literacy come into play, for they are the elements that open the door for hard pleasure to be found.  Literacy instruction would go a lot further if ELA teachers went back to the drawing board and - UBD-style and Pink-style and game-theory-style - embedded Relevance, Pattern, Hard Pleasure, and Thinking Critically not into every unit, but into every class period.  Take out those old lesson plans and redraw them.  Put a checklist on your wall. Did you hit every brain-growth point this period?

On Relevance: Under-applied and over-applied. Related to but not the same as Differentiation.  Generally over-rated. Yes, lessons need to be relevant to the students in the class.  That is one way their brains listen to the message.  But every brain is different. A class of 22 will have at least 5 different relevance benchmarks, often more.  And the brain can be stretched through connection of new-to-known, meaning that relevance may not occur to a student until after texts and concepts have been explored.

Relevance is not the same as "teaching only what they are interested in" or "not teaching what they don't know something about already."  For most k-12 students, Easy Relevance is like sitting down with a beloved relative every few weeks. When content sits at the comfort level, relevance comes easy. That is what pleasure reading in all of its forms is about.  But it is Hard Relevance that interests me.  This is tall mountains and bad dreams.  It's tough choices and unfamiliar territory.  It's the relevance necessary for the student to advance in skill and understanding.  That is a hard truth that many teachers and writers avoid.  Sorry - it is true.  Relevance does not come easy.

For one thing, it is necessary if Patterns are to be found.  Something as simple as an author study in elementary school will show students that prolific authors use patterns in language, illustration, subject matter, theme. Other patterns can be found by locating folk tale story patterns and then applying these to horror fiction, tracing patterns in fantasy or magical fiction, or tracing memoir patterns across several generations of writers.  Patterns of journey-writing can be traced from the Romans to Lewis and Clark to Kerouac to today's wanderers and explorers.

This is hard work.  Pulling opportunities together takes a teacher of imagination and wide reading - or one with the support of a community of wide readers.  Asking for this type of input is an excellent use of an ELA network. 

Last, experienced teachers know that every class is different.  What worked last year will probably not work this year.   A teacher can not be successful with someone else's success.  Adapt, adapt, adapt. 

And that covers Thinking Critically.  Teachers have to believe that their literacy and their successes are also brain-based.  If not the teacher, then how the students?

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