In the last weeks of May, the MS Learning Specialist and I had a brainstorm. We had been part of an eleventh grader’s independent study project – me as the advisor and Candy as the content specialist –and had just received copies of the end result of the student’s project: a guide book for students (and also teachers) about how to make it through an independent school as a student with a learning difference. Our brainstorm was that every teacher in our school should read the book, and while we were at it, how about offering a series of workshops that would open faculty eyes to the diversity of teaching and learning. Within a day, using Google Docs, we had generated a proposal. [UPDATE May 24, 2010 – In edutopia’s Schools that Work series, there is an informative article on the use of differentiated instruction in an elementary school in South Carolina.]
It has long been a dream of mine to organize professional development for faculty that provided opportunity to think about learning and teaching while also engaging in activities that were outside of the typical academic realm. Many years ago, an art teacher, upon hearing this description, provided the perfect slogan for my idea: Synapse Sensations. Keeping in mind that last year my school focused on a year long theme of diversity, including the diversity of how people learn, and you will understand why we first brought our proposal to the Director of Diversity, who encouraged us to present the proposal to the next level of adminstrators. And just what was our proposal? To have one day of opening faculty meetings be devoted to workshops covering a multitude of topics related to teaching and learning. We included an opening day movie to set the tone, and a closing Student Panel session to wrap up the activities.
With the Director of Diversity’s accompaniment, it was an easy next step to the Assistant Headmaster, who took it to the next level and returned with approval for our proposal. With just days to go before folks would disperse for the summer, we asked 25 faculty if they would be willing to co-facilitate various workshops. All 25 said yes, and there began a summer of small study groups based around each workshop.
THE PROGRAM – part one (for a description of part two see Introduction to the Simulations, The Simulations and The Workshops.)
On Wednesday afternoon, September 2, our full faculty and staff watched the documentary A Touch of Greatness. This movie covers a decade in the teaching career of Albert Cullum. Teaching in the 1950s and early 1960s at an elementary school just a few miles from our school, Cullum was a practitioner of experiential education. You can read more about him and the film on this PBS site. By the way, it turned out that one faculty member had known Cullum, and another had Cullum as her fifth grade teacher!
While we ad libbed a bit, what follows are our introductory comments along with the accompanying images we displayed.
Tomorrow morning we will explore the diversity of learning and teaching by participating in workshops and hearing from some students. If you haven’t already done so, please sign up for two workshops on the sheets in the PAC Lobby. And here’s a short-term memory test: tomorrow morning please bring with you to the PAC a sheet of paper and something to write with. Thanks!
The movie you are about to see is about one man who taught in our community during the 50s and 60s. We are often told that what we remember about our teachers tends to be not what they taught us, but how they treated us. However, that’s not the complete story. If a teacher was really great, you remember how they treated you and also recall how competent they made you feel in their class.
We are fortunate today to be teaching at a time when there has been an explosion of research into the science of how we learn. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are producing a plethora of information and studies from which we can draw. Like any new information, we need to be responsible consumers, but this new information has much to offer in terms of making the teaching environment more productive, efficient and conducive to learning. In 1996, Linda Darling-Hammond was quoted in a Newsweek article making the statement that: Our school system was invented in the 1880s and little has changed. Can you imagine if the medical profession ran this way?
So much of what we are doing in this program is based on current understandings of how the brain learns.
Everything we are going to do this afternoon and tomorrow morning will tap into the three major Neural networks of your brain. David Rose, one of the architects of Universal Design for Learning at Harvard, describes these as the recognition, affective and strategic networks. [images come from Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning]
The affective network taps into your emotional brain, which facilitates the storage and recall of information. In fact, the structures in your mid-brain (the hippocampus, amygdala and thalamus) are storage centers for memory. All human emotions are processed in this area of the brain and effected by neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepeniphrine.
This limbic system is the chemistry and drama department of your brain. No learning can take place without the use and consent of the affective network because your brain is only interested in what is relevant to the survival and well-being of its own organism.
The last network is the strategic one. If the affective network has decided the information is relevant, the strategic network decides what to do with it.
Al Cullum, the teacher in the documentary you are about to see, was a master of knowing the benefits of tapping into the affective network to create a more rigorous, accessible and engaging curriculum. We are not endorsing this teacher or his style as the one way to teach, but rather as a model for thinking about different approaches to teaching. We find this movie inspiring; some of you may find it provocative. Either way, this documentary, we are sure, will tap your affective network.