Gray Matters

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From the outside it sounds facetious, “teaching to the brain.” Of course you teach to the brain. Teaching is expression: the telling. Learning is cognition: the synthesizing of what is being heard.

Teri Cox’s presentation on the “middle school mind” at the 2008 National Middle School Association conference left a lasting impression on me. It reminded me that “age appropriate” is not exclusively a consideration of subject matter. “Age appropriate” is also a consideration of format and presentation.

As the teaching day becomes more condensed – more required information, less provided time – survival instincts overwhelm rationality and teachers scramble to pare down teaching to digestible core forms and concepts. The art of providing context is lost. And along with it, the desire to engage in critical thought and reflection is lost. There has been much written about the importance of meaning and relevance in determining student academic success.

Teri’s presentation was not a revelation but a timely reminder regarding the frame of mind a teacher should be in as he or she develops lessons and curriculum. I have read about “brain learning,” but Teri’s did-you-knows resonated with me. Being told a middle level student only retains 15 minutes of new information a day has an enormous impact on how I structure a lesson and the prerequisites I need to consider before engaging in the lesson.

While some of the facts on how middle level students learn require an investment of time and energy to implement, she did convey a simple fact that only requires a change in habits.

To demonstrate, she distributed slips of paper identifying the possessor as high functioning, average, and low functioning. She then distributed thick crayons to those who held a slip identifying them as low functioning. I was “average.”

Materials in place. She asked us to write down the nouns we heard. She played Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” We wrote furiously. I wrote down all of the nouns I heard; television, backseat, piano, fire, world, plot, etc. Twenty-seven words total. Others had many more. They included proper nouns on their lists. The instructions said, “nouns” not “proper nouns.”

By the end of the presentation, we had proven that as teachers we needed to be sensitive to how the instructions for the activities we assign are worded. Regardless of a homogenous neighborhood, students are individuals with different experiences and different understandings. I was not the only one who differentiated between nouns and proper nouns.

We also proved that by slowing down the speed with which we speak will have a positive impact on a student’s ability to digest information and respond to our questions. The numbers that were given were: It takes middle level students 10 seconds to process information. We as teachers usually only allow 2. When “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was replayed seconds slower, the entire room managed to almost double the number of nouns they wrote.

While not the goal of the presentation, I would have liked to have engaged in a dialogue about what the “middle school mind” might think of the song? Would they find the tune catchy? Would they recognize it? Would they find it irrelevant? Would it matter?

I was at a birthday party for a classmate of my youngest child. A song came on and some of the parents began to bob their heads. I think it was C+C Music Factory. I can’t remember. I knew the song though. The kids were oblivious. It was just white noise to them but to the other parents and me it meant something. Nothing deeply philosophical or life changing but meaningful nonetheless.

In selecting media to use in the classroom, how sensitive should we be to the time and place of a song or video? The generations that attended Teri’s presentation recognized Billy Joel’s song. They probably also found some meaning in the song. Because this was true of the teachers in the room, would it be true for their students who are even more generations removed from when the song was first heard?

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