Thursday, June 18, 2020

Only the Learner Learns

Zaretta Hammond CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING & THE BRAIN —Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

I’ve heard Zaretta Hammond speak at conferences, present at webinars, annotated her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & THE BRAIN two times as I methodically read and process each idea. I also listened to the power of her message as she read aloud her book through an audible app twice. Each time I came away with another nugget of evidence-informed research on how our “brains are wired for connection” relevant to our relentless pursuit of having each and every one of our students be independent learners as well as readers. 

Although my current reality is we are all in the middle of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic and I need to know what to do right now as a school leader to support learning in our virtual classrooms. How can we make learning equitable and accessible for each of our students now that they are no longer in school, but isolated with their families at home, in hotels, doubling up with relatives and other unknown settings? More importantly, with the limited amount of synchronous “screen” time we have with students during Distance Learning, how do we deepen their learning by including the cognitive aspects of learning as identified in Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain?

Hammond gives us four practice areas for Culturally Responsive Teaching including awareness, learning partnerships, informational processing, and community building. All incredibly important, relevant, and valuable to build the confidence of each of our learners. Although in this unexpected time in our nation’s history, I feel an incredible sense of urgency to identify consistent evidence-based instructional strategies teachers can utilize collaboratively in the fall. More than likely schools across the country will still remain in some form of Distance Learning next year based on the health of the majority of the people living in their communities. Learning environments for our students could include limited seat time in the classroom, learning remotely from home, and/or a combination of both. No matter the format that is selected this uncharted experience will require plenty of relentless grace with a forward-thinking, we can do this mindset.

Hammon carefully reviews each of the three-stages recognized by cognitive sciences on how the brain processes information. She states, “The power of culturally responsive teaching to build underserved students’ intellective capacity rests in its focus on information processing...It is precisely explicit information processing that is too often left off the equity agenda for low performing students of color, preventing them from becoming truly independent learners” (p.124). 

She continues, ”As a culturally responsive teacher you should be planning instruction so that students move through the brain’s three stages of information processing--input, elaboration, and application” (p. 128). She implores teachers to consider these as essential components for every lesson, but should also include instructional strategies that help the student’s brain to not only process the information but to make it stick in their brain’s long term memory. The brief description of each stage and sample instructional strategies include:

    • Input - This stage helps students...focus on what you want their brains and minds to pay attention to. Here the information sits in the short term memory. “Think of this short term memory as a clipboard where you place temporary information” (p. 125).

      • Consider - a story, a poem, a quote, a puzzle, a problem, or a piece of music that will elicit emotion, a thought, or a question.

    • Elaboration - This stage helps students...make sense of what you just brought to their attention and to help them begin to better understand. “The brain moves the information from the clipboard of the short term memory on to the working memory”...“Think of the working memory as a workbench or tabletop” (p. 126). 

      • Consider - activities in a burst of short periods of time (5-20 min.) where students can practice, practice, practice what they learned. They are “kneading, massaging, and braiding together the material in order to make sense of it, and connect it to what the brain already knows” (p. 126).

    • Application - This stage helps students...apply what they have learned and to make it meaningful. Think of this as moving from the student’s tabletop to application with deliberate practice and real-life application.

      • Consider - “project-based learning or problem-based learning” opportunities not only for intentional practice now but “where it becomes part of our skillset, background knowledge, or conceptual understanding’ (p. 127).

As a culturally responsive teacher, Hammond offers “four macro-level instructional strategies that help students move through each stage” of learning” (p. 128-138). In my opinion, this is where the true joy of teaching and learning for both students and the teacher lives, grows, and thrives. It also has the ultimate potential to pass the baton of ownership of learning from the teacher to the student.

Ignite: Sparking the brain’s attention.
Chunk: Letting the brain take in bite-size pieces at a time.
Chew: Give the brain time to process and ponder.
Review: Give the brain a chance to apply what they now know.

Although in hearing Hammond speak it is critical to remember what Culturally Responsive Teaching is not. “Teachers need to interrogate their practice a little more robustly,” says Hammond. “It’s not an off the shelf program, it’s not two or three strategies. It is not plug and play.” To be more culturally responsive, consider gamifying with repetition, and connections. Consider it to be a social collaborative activity rather than a student sitting in isolation. Finally, storify it by creating a cohesive story that has relevance and meaning for the learner. (Cult of Pedagogy, Gonzalez & Hammon, Sept. 2017).

The question I continued to ask, Is any of this even possible during a pandemic without our students in our classrooms? In early May of 2020 Hammond address just this question on the Vrain Waves podcast. Using the analogy of the Apollo 13 space voyage. In this historic event, both the astronauts and those in the space command center had to puzzle through how to return to earth after a default of equipment during space flight. Working collaboratively they had to determine what resources the astronauts had on board the shuttle they could utilize in a different way in order to come home safely. The same applies to us as educators during a pandemic. Hammond suggests a resource to consider as we all navigate Distance Learning together is our parents and families. Converting our student’s homes into classrooms is not recommended, but we can develop a partnership with them on what learning should include for their students while at home.

What if…teachers and leaders prioritized relationships with parents? 

What if---teachers affirmed the parents are the teachers while at home?

What if...teachers and parents then co-planned lessons together? 

What if...teachers and parents become the co-collaborators of constructing learning activities with a happy medium of “the packet” with curiosity?

Hammond continues in the Vrain Waves podcast to remind the listener, learning pulls us all forward. She acknowledges the learning gaps that students are experiencing worldwide as we remain isolated. “Learning Gaps turn into Opportunity Gaps, that turn into Achievement Gaps.” Distance Learning is not the dragon” where the gold is right now is behind the challenge to get our students to be readers, be independent, and have curiosity. “Only the learner learns.” 

I am hopeful this unforeseen historical challenge will be a time for innovation and reinvention of what is possible. Hammond’s Culturally Responsive research and framework can act as our guide and a reminder of what the brain needs to learn and what impedes that growth. We are all in this together.

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