Cause a Commotion

Brains seek novelty. You can tell by the way students snap from their stupors when a new kid walks into class or mouse runs out from under a cabinet. The brain notices change. It engages most with what is new, different, or unusual. And often when teachers don’t provide enough novelty to make a class interesting, students do.

I found that I’d rather cause a little commotion of my own than to have students shoot spit wads to the ceiling with cafeteria straws or heckle each other or pass notes. Here are some ways to add variety to a classroom so students don’t feel the need to do it themselves:

  • Introduce new activities every eight to ten minutes. Explain a concept, and then have students turn and talk with a partner about the concept. Rotate individual work with partner work and group work.
  • Alter sound. Change your voice volume—whisper, then speak up. Play instrumental music. Use white noise during quiet work.
  • Vary visuals. Use slides and real objects and white boards. Teach with lights on and then off. Buy a lamp with multi-colored bulbs.
  • Move around the room. Teach from the front and the side and the middle.
  • Change pacing. Be urgent, then reflective. Push, then relax.
  • Tap into both logic and emotion. Discuss the theme of a book. But then tell a personal story about how that theme has shown up in your life. Stories invite emotion and increase understanding.
  • Incorporate micro-breaks. When eyes start glazing, ask students to stand and stretch before going on.

Teaching for high engagement, I found, takes some planning. But I prefer planning over writing detention slips. And my brain also enjoys the variety.

Bridging the Brain

“Your brain has two parts,” I’d tell students, “and the more the two parts work together, the better you can learn—words will flow, math will solve, concepts will sharpen, and interest will grow.

Then I’d tell them I knew an activity that could help make this happen, and I’d lead them in cross-lateral exercises—movements in which arms and legs cross from one side of the body to the other.

I wish I had known about cross laterals earlier in my teaching career. I learned about these simple movements in Eric Jenson’s book, Brain-Based Learning. Jenson explains how the corpus callosum functions as a sort of bridge across the fissure between the two brains. This bridge carries communication from one side of the brain to the other. And the stronger the bridge, the more information it can carry.

Cross lateral movements force the two parts of the brain to communicate with each other, strengthening the link between them. Examples of cross lateral movements are marching while tapping a hand to the opposite knee, opposite-side toe touches, raising a heel and touching it with the opposite-side hand. Students like following YouTube videos like Brain Gym  ( that show cross-lateral movements.

“You’re bridging your brain,” I’d say as they exercised. “This will help.”

Besides, the exercises rid them of fidgets and woke them up.

But beyond physical exercise in class, there are more academic ways to bring the brain together. Here are some examples:

  • As students read math story problems, ask them to draw what they read.
  • Sing the multiplication tables.
  • Use art prints to introduce concepts. How does the artist visually show elements of literature that will appear in a short story students are about to read?
  • With their bodies, invite students to create a frozen scene from a history lesson.
  • Use charts and diagrams and story maps to make concepts visual.
  • Play background music to stimulate the right side of the brain while students use the left side to read.

These activities bridge the brain, connecting the parts and bringing balance to learning.

Teaching Beyond Myself

I connected most naturally with students who thought cleverly and quickly. If students wanted to argue from a premise, analyze an essay, or construct a geometry proof, I was their kind of teacher. But I learned early on that my skill set, though valuable, was narrow. If I taught only with my way of thinking, I would miss most of my students. My teaching would be always limited by myself. To teach well, I had to come out of myself so I could see my students, not stamp my style on them.

I remember the exact day that set me on the path to discover how my students learned, what made them curious. This was back in grammar-teaching days, and as I had prepared the lesson I suddenly grasped some logic of syntax in a way I had never before understood. Impressed with the beauty of language, I made a chart to show students, sure I could catch their interest.

But I didn’t, except for a few—the logically clever.

So I experimented with my students, trying to learn from them. I tried different openings for lessons—openings that involved emotion and action and conversation and viewing art.

Jason, I found, thought mysteriously—out of the depth of himself, from down in his guts. He was alive with instinct and feeling, and at the first approach he didn’t think. Only after he felt, did his nerves carry what he already knew to his thinking brain.

Lilly learned as she heard herself talk. Her learning launched when she activated her social brain. Discussion, not logic, fueled her understanding. Other students learned by moving or making or hearing stories.

Teaching in a way that encompassed more students took more planning, created more mess. But it held more meaning, for them and for me.


Don’t Smile Until Christmas

Beginnings count. The longer I taught the more I saw the importance of the first week of a school year, the first day, the first hour, the first minute.

As a novice teacher, I tried to show at the beginning of a year that I wanted to be a friend, thinking that if students liked me, they’d learn from me. So I brought smiles and kind words and easy warm-up lessons to the first day of class. And my students took my gifts and trampled on them.

So after a few years, I caved to common wisdom—adopting the don’t-smile-‘til-after-Christmas strategy. I posted rules, set routines, and made my voice strong. Students followed my structures, but without spirit. Something, I felt, was missing.

My mistake, I came to see, was choosing between expectation and support. One did not need to exclude the other. And gradually I learned to start school years with a robust show of both, twining support and expectation together in opening exercises.

Here’s an example I often used with middle school students:

Before school started I’d go the bank and ask for a new $20 bill for each class.

“What is this bill worth?” I’d ask a class.

Then, as they watched, I’d crumple the bill. I’d drop it to the floor and grind it under my shoe. Next, I’d pick it up and try to smooth it. But the bill was wrinkled and dirty.

By the time you get to middle school, I’d tell students, you’ve been trampled on—by your friends and your family and bad deals in life. You’ve probably even hurt yourself a few times.

Once again I’d ask the same question: What is this bill worth?

My point, I’d tell them, is that bad times don’t diminish your worth. In this class I plan to recognize your value.

When I sat on a stool and said these things in a conversational tone, when I took my time and looked at each person, when I meant what I said and they could tell, I could feel them open toward me.

This, then, was the right time to talk about expectations. If I believed in my students, after all, I’d set high standards for them.




Creeping Fear

Even after teaching for several decades, I was surprised every year at the fear that crept in at the start of each school year. I brought some of this fear. On my class lists I found names of kids everyone hoped would be in some other class. Incoming students brought low test scores with them—and what if they didn’t show adequate progress in my class? As a beginning teacher, I worried that I was too young to handle a class. At the end of my career I suspicioned I was too old, too out of touch.

Parents of my students contributed to the anxiety. They asked for conferences, sent e-mails, and left phone messages laced with fear. My son has no friends. I just learned my husband has been abusing our daughter. My son hates school. Can you help?

And fear harassed my students. What if no one eats lunch with me? What if I flunk? What if someone calls me fat or dumb or a hillbilly? What if my lab partner is racist? What if someone calls me out on my thrift-store shoes?

This fear was insidious, almost invisible. But I learned to notice bodies hunched as if trying to remain invisible, faces with pinched looks, and darting eyes. And I’m sure students could sniff out my waves of nervous apprehension, as well. I couldn’t joke with students when I was afraid or plan creatively or see students clearly.

How can a teacher calm these fears that tighten brains, that leave students unable to concentrate and easily agitated? Here are some steps to take:

  1. Acknowledge fear. Tell a story about your first day in seventh grade. Admit you, too, had trouble sleeping last night.
  2. Demonstrate ways to deal with anxiety—breathing techniques and stretching or relaxing exercises.
  3. Avoid singling students out. Until you know students well, be careful even about spotlights that seem positive to you. Students may be trying to hide their intelligence or their uncanny knack at witty essays. Your showcasing of their abilities may be a social liability to them.
  4. Celebrate differences. Students who bring new cultures into a school may labor under what is sometimes called a fear of foreignness. I’m different, so people will think I’m wrong. I grew up in the hills, I’d tell students, and English wasn’t my first language.

Focusing on what students needed (instead of what I felt) helped me to sidestep my apprehensions, to teach from a place of love, not fear. I found, that though fear still lurked inside me, I could teach with compassion and wonder and intellectual curiosity. This, in turn, helped students calm their fears.

Hijacked by the Amygdala

Some of the most charming students I knew sat in my prison classrooms and in middle school detentions. They were the kind of people who smiled when they saw you, told good jokes, livened a conversation, and never had an empty spot beside them in the cafeteria. When they were in their right minds, that is.

What got them into trouble was what Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, calls an amygdala hijack. I explained this to Cory one day in the middle school hallway after he was calm enough to hear me.

“What just happened,” I told him, “is that your amygdala took over your brain.”

This caught his attention, sounding like the science fiction he read, so I went on.

“The amygdala is the part of the brain that handles your emotions. What your amygdala did back there in the classroom when John took your seat was shut down the thinking part of your brain.”

I paused, and he looked up.

“The neo-cortex,” I added, just in case he wanted to know.

“Your amygdala was screaming, ‘Is John going to get me or am I going to get him?’ And in that millisecond, without thinking, you reacted to what seemed like a threat.”

But Cory was thinking now, I could see, his neo-cortex back in action.

“I know,” he said. “After it’s over, I can tell.”

Cory was listening, so I told him about a way to train his brain, to help the neo-cortex inhibit the amygdala.

“You’ve got to slow your reaction,” I said, “to give your thinking brain a chance.”

“How?” Cory asked.

So I told him about the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise:

Think about

  • 5 things you can see;
  • 4 things you can hear;
  • 3 things you can touch;
  • 2 things you can smell;
  • 1 thing you can taste.

“Count it down,” I said, “and, by that time, John taking your seat won’t seem like such a big deal.”

This didn’t cure Cory’s outbursts, but it helped.


Macy Marks and the Bonsai Tree

I once killed a bonsai tree, the most unusual plant I’ve ever owned and a gift from my husband. Bonsai is one of the most intricate forms of gardening, an art that invites you into a world of different dimensions. The aesthetics and techniques and tools are specialized and sophisticated. My bonsai tree died because I treated it like I treated my other houseplants: water once a week along with a dose of Miracle Grow.

And I liked to teach in the same way I cared for my plants—to make a system and expect my students to fit right in. Only Macy Marks didn’t. Sometimes, seeing terrors other students didn’t see, Macy huddled under the corner table, leaving her essay unwritten. Or in a class discussion, she’d hone in on a matter of injustice, say the internment of Japanese who were U.S. citizens during World War II, and not let it go, even if we had moved on to other important ideas, like the change in bus schedules.

Some days, when her emotional load was light, Macy was full of goodwill, extolling the virtues of her classmates and bringing kids on the margins into discussion. But on her dark days, students took the long way rather than pass her desk, and in light of world tragedies, she saw her homework as highly insignificant.

I came to see that my systems didn’t work for Macy, not because she was defiant, but because the voices inside her called so insistently and with such volume. To reach Macy, I had to appreciate and release her intensities, not fight them. Macy sent me back to my books, to theorist like Dabrowski and Piirto. They showed me how to give Macy what she needed (forums for her passions and spaces for her dark times). And they guided me in helping the rest of us cope with Macy’s emotional largeness (not accepting responsibility for keeping Macy happy or taking on the burden of her angst). I needed specialized tools like this to reach into Macy Mark’s world.