Monday, March 13, 2017

Teaching the Whole Brain

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I had the privilege of hearing engineer, physician, astronaut, actress, and dancer Mae Jemison speak at UT Dallas. She asked those who believed they were right-brained to raise their hands.

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I raised my hand.

Next, she asked those who believed they were left-brained to raise their hands.

I kept my hand in the air.

Not knowing where this was going, I expected the classical argument about how one hemisphere rules each of us more than the other, and that we should cater to that side. Waiting for Jemison’s response, I mused…

How many times do teachers hear students confirm “I’m a math person” or “English just isn’t my thing” or “I can’t draw”? By high school, students have categorized themselves according to what they believe they can and can’t do, and school sometimes reinforces these foolish notions by separating content areas by subject, curriculum design, and even areas of the building. This separation is understandable for several reasons, including the content teacher’s educational background and expertise, focus on subject-specific standardized tests, graduation requirements under different pathways (current Texas-talk for an area of focus – much like a major in college), and personal preferences of both teacher and student. However, we know that cross-curricular education is powerful, and that’s exactly why most schools offer their advanced students some version of a combined English & history course. That’s why we know that writing across the curriculum works for the students and for their test scores across subjects. That’s why successful coaches are beginning to have their teams complete book-studies together to reinforce teamwork and perseverance.

STEM education is all the rage. We hear about the shortage of engineers and particularly the shortage of females in the math and science fields. It’s true: this is an area on which we need to focus and support all young people who show an interest and aptitude in these areas. However, leaving the humanities out of this equation is a mistake, and perhaps one that makes these fields less appealing to well-rounded individuals like Jemison. Bill Gates supports STEM education through scholarships via The Gates Foundation, which accomplishes great feats but also neglects the importance of the humanities. One would think that the experience of being out-maneuvered by Steve Jobs’ focus on aesthetics, marketing (which involves communication), and artistry (think about the impact that those white earbuds made when the iPod was introduced, or the colorful look of the iMac) would have imparted the importance of the convergence of business, engineering, and art as integral parts of a whole, successful business model. We cannot engineer what people want or need unless we understand what people feel and desire. Likewise, the arts must be balanced by reason. In short, humanities are absolutely essential in conjunction with math and science.

Jemison knows this. As she continues her introduction, she explains that everyone should have raised their hands to identify as both right- and left-brained.

Whew! I thought. I’m not just being a rebel again. Maybe I’m onto something.

Recently, Natalya St. Clair illustrated how Van Gogh captured the mystery of turbulence and light in works like Starry Night. In her Ted-Ed video, St. Clair discusses the relationship between art, patterns, and science. This should come as no surprise, for what do we call the close study and observation an artist makes of nature if not the first steps in the scientific process? How could an artist conduct an in-depth study of light, the seasons, and the movement of the stars and not look for patterns through repeated occurrences?

This closely relates to what I tell my students who claim to loathe literature because “there are no correct answers like there are in math.” I get it. In algebra, you plug numbers into an equation, and if you follow the steps correctly, you will indeed get a “correct” answer. However, literature, too, is made up of patterns. These patterns work magic on us at a subconscious level. The more we study the writing craft, the more we understand how that magic works on us, but that doesn’t diminish its effects. I try to help my students embrace the relationship between art, science, and math. I remind them that math and science, too, at their most advanced levels, are largely theoretical and demand some artistry in their approach.

A doctor and an astronaut, Jemison states that she cannot imagine her life without dance. She cannot imagine life without the arts and sciences as expressions of her whole mind, and we should not imagine such lives for our students.

Maybe it’s because my background is in the humanities – in all the accomplishments and creations of human beings – that I find it advantageous to include historical, artistic, architectural, philosophical, mythological, scientific, and cultural contexts when studying literature. Teaching literature without discussing what was happening in the world when that literature was created makes no sense to me, and neither should it make sense to teachers in other content areas. I’m not saying that math teachers need to stop class to have a conversation about feelings, or draw a picture of an equation, but wait – why not? Okay, maybe not the “feelings” part, but drawing or writing to convey real understanding of the content? What a great way to determine what students actually know! I’m not suggesting that math and science teachers become writing or art instructors, but why not provide students with alternate means to process what they’ve learned and reinforce patterns? Why not support cross-curricular learning for all students, not just the advanced ones?

When I home-schooled my daughter, I interwove lessons around topics of her choice in order to meet state objectives. For instance, when she wanted to study alligators, we studied the ecology system in which they live, the biology of alligators themselves and the difference between alligators and crocodiles, the historical impact of alligators in certain regions of the U.S., and both non-fiction news stories and fictional representations of alligators. She completed art projects, wrote essays, and completed a scientific study of alligators culminating in a trip to the zoo. Honestly, I don’t remember all the ways I found to explore alligators, but she does. The cross-curricular approach to the different events we studied together cemented them in her mind more than any other lessons she experienced in isolation. This is something I try to remember and recreate as much as possible – all while preparing my students for a very specific standardized test. So how do we help students use both hemispheres of their brains while covering all the necessary content? Here are a few ways. Please comment with additional recommendations.

·      Art teachers can incorporate lessons from scientific texts such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for those students who are math/science oriented and “can’t draw.”
·      Literature teachers can incorporate non-fiction texts to reinforce themes or ethical ideas posed by literature.
·      Science teachers can assign book studies including biographies of scientists, fictional accounts of what can happen in the event of an epidemic (like The Hot Zone), and many other choices from science fiction to works that track cause and effect.
·      Math teachers can have students create and color complex graphs and charts or read texts about famous mathematicians or thrillers in which math is applied to solve a mystery. Want to prove to students that they will use math in real life? Bring in some real-life examples!
·      History teachers can focus on technological innovations and how those affected the ways in which people interacted.
·      Coaches can assign journal-writing to process the athletic journey and set goals. How about drawing out “plays” to aid in memorization? Book studies are great for team-building, too.
·      All subjects: have students quick-write to process information. This can be turned in as an exit-slip or formative grade, but non-writing teachers need not evaluate the writing itself. Just look at the student’s thinking.

These are just a few ideas, but imagine how empowering our students to think of themselves as whole-brained will impact their lives and support a growth mindset.

The Sun is Also a Star, and it Shines on True Love

Wiping the tears from my eyes as I closed the book, I realized that what I loved most about Nicola Yoon’s YA novel The Sun is Also a Star is its idealistic affirmation that soul-mates exist and that true love can form quickly. Maybe I’m biased because, like the main characters Natasha and Daniel, I fell in love with my partner in crime of almost 30 years within a day. I can only assume that Yoon has felt the power of such a deep connection herself due to her realistic description of this phenomenon.

As I read, I imagined how many people might react more skeptically or pessimistically to such a premise, but Yoon weaves science and poetry together to explain such an occurrence. Through Natasha’s perfectly scientific and quantifiable observations and Daniel’s poetic and hopelessly romantic approach to life, we learn that love can be defined by both chemistry and magic. Yoon incorporates recent studies that find that discussing deep thoughts, important concepts, and even secret experiences creates a strong bond in a short amount of time, as does staring into each other’s eyes. Throughout the years, when people have asked how I knew my husband was “the one” (to use an admittedly corny phrase) within days of meeting, I have always told them that we talked about important issues, not just the superficial, fun ideas that most dating couples discuss. I guess we were on to something that science is finally figuring out, and Yoon beautifully captures this experience in her novel.

Yoon’s writing style reflects a refreshing blend of prose accessible to youth and a maturity that proves satisfying for sophisticated adult readers. Her references to bands from my teen years – Soundgarden and Nirvana, for example – helped me remember those angsty teen years and connect to the characters. I tabbed several pages for use in my classroom with insight ranging from metaphysical poetry to profound observations of the parent-child relationship such as: “My father is shaped by the memory of things I will never know,” and “Who are we if not a product of our parents and their histories?”.

If all the talk about love isn’t a reader’s thing, how about the idea that each day, we alter the course of people’s lives in ways we will probably never know? The one driver who slows us down, so we curse them, but they might have saved us from a fatal accident down the road? What about the smile or the “thank you” we offer someone that might make that person reconsider suicide? Our fates are intricately intertwined, and we must make the most out of our interactions with others while always remembering that we have no idea what struggles they might be facing. I recommend reading this book and writing about various chance encounters that have altered the course of your life.

Note: Nicola Yoon’s novel Everything, Everything will soon be released as a motion picture in May, 2017. I am eager to read that novel before seeing the movie (although this generally backfires, as I love the book so much more than the film based on it). 

Special thanks to Mary Heffner for recommending this book to me!