Poverty and the Brain

Mahar recently had an all-day PD on Poverty and the Brain. Frankly, I expected a day full of hearing about the needs of our students with little practical use in the classroom. I was pleasantly surprised to experience a speaker who provided specific techniques that are backed by research and were modeled throughout the day. John Almarode kept us actively engaged and humored from 8AM until 3PM. Here are some of his main points and ways I hope to change my teaching style.

1. “Learners need opportunities to recall, reorganize, and make meaning of learning.” The “rule of three” says people need to recall something three times in order to retain the information. Having students repeat after me, then fill in a blank verbally a few minutes later, and one more time toward the end of the lesson will help ensure lasting recall. We did this as teachers and found it helpful, so this method is not below our higher achieving students.

John used the term “press and release” to explain how we need to give students an opportunity to process information every 15-20 minutes before continuing instruction. If this involves students getting out of their seats, all the better. Spiral- explain, discuss, recap, add new information. I have had the tendency to instruct for the first half of class then give students the second half to apply the new information with practice problems. I now want to try breaking up the 90-minute periods more and provide a greater variety of ways to demonstrate understanding, including visuals and manipulatives. Even though adding transitions may seem time consuming, the outcomes will likely show greater retention.

2. Each lesson should incorporate at least three of the following considerations.

  • personal response
  • clear and modeled expectations
  • emotional safety
  • social interaction
  • sense of audience
  • choice
  • novelty
  • authenticity (not just a real-world example, but a common experience)

When we ask a class for ideas, expecting students to verbally respond in front of their peers, this can feel unsafe to some. As a safer alternative, have each student write down a few ideas then share with a partner. After this, ask a pair to share one of their ideas out-loud.

3. The key features for student success are the teachers’ collective view/expectations of the student, then the individual teacher’s expectations, and finally the student’s expectations of him/herself. Other factors that influence student success are. . .

  • culture
  • experience
  • vocabulary
  • interactions

It is critical that we provide our students opportunities to share their ideas with one another. This helps them process information in a low risk setting. It can also exposes the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. Until one has to explain something, it is easy to think you understand it better than you do.

I highly recommend John Almarod for PD at high-needs schools!


October 28, 2016_Handouts

AP exams

I admit I was discouraged when only three of my 10 AP Chemistry students signed up to take the AP test. There were various reasons- expense, lack of confidence, and their college won’t accept it. I mentioned this concern of mine to a group of science education leaders at a western Mass gathering of MSELA (Massachusetts Science Education Leaders Association). Several people made the point that whether students take the test should not really matter. The most important thing is that they have taken the AP level course which prepares them for college both by its rigor and content. I now accept their argument and am more at peace, especially since the score colleges accept for credit keeps rising.

Reflecting on my development as an Educator

Recently I have been trying to think back on how I have developed as an educator. The biggest way I feel I have changed is realizing how important it is to keep students actively engaged in their learning. In my beginning years, I felt I had to do most of the work. Now I realize if the students don’t work with the material and make sense of it for themselves, they are unlikely to retain the information or concept. Now I know I am doing my job well when I see the students analyzing information and collaborating with their peers to make sense of it.

My development as an educator has been gradual, so it is challenging to pick out the most substantial changes. I think this is like to frog in gradually warming water. They don’t realize the water is hot because of the gradual change. I will continue to reflect.


A couple months ago I reluctantly opened a Twitter account, having been told that Twitter is a great tool for professional development. I was skeptical, though willing to give it a try. Not sure how to start wielding this new tool, I decided to follow a few science education groups such as NSTA  and Edutopia. Shortly there after, Twitter suggested some like-minded people to follow. I selected a few chemistry teachers that sounded pretty passionate about developing as science educators. I now see how easy it is to become connected with many chemistry teachers across the globe. Of course I will have to pace myself here, but I want to share a link to a talk I listened to today by a veteran chemistry teacher who makes some great points about strategies to help one grow as a teacher. One of Jenelle Ball’s points mantras is “It’s not a class. It’s an experience.” Have a listen at the link below.

Advice for chemistry teachers

Leading Mindset PD

I was recently asked to lead two one-hour PD sessions on the growth mindset for Mahar teachers. Last week a colleague joined me in presenting these workshops to about a dozen teachers. We summarized the main points of Mindset in the Classroom and led an activity that illustrates how learning happens in the brain. We attached images of neurons to four teachers and asked them to share something they have recently learned. We then connected them with a thread, explaining that the memory will only be short term unless they work with that new information somehow. As they write it down and speak it, stronger connections are made between those neurons. At this point we replaced the thread with a string. As they continue to work with the new information, perhaps answering questions that make them connect it to previous knowledge, that string is replaced by a rope.

Illustrating what happens in the brain when we learn can encourage students to put in effort to learn. I used this activity with my advisory group last week. Studies have shown that students who understand neuroplasticity will persevere in their school work more than their peers who think ability is innate.


I was pleased to learn that the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District is spending sustained time looking at and discussing the growth verses fixed mindset in the classroom. The Science/Technology Department is reading “Mindset in the Classroom” and discussing it at department meetings. I am excited to see the impact this will have on teachers’ attitudes toward their students this school year.

Take-aways from the Ch.1 discussion:

What you might hear from someone with a fixed mindset- “I can’t”, I’m not good at that”

Why do third graders show a spike in fixed Mindsets? That’s when students recognize they are grouped by ability.

Our students need explicit instruction in study skills.

Making soap

After the AP Chemistry exam is behind them, my students conduct several organic chemistry labs, including making aspirin, soap, and esters. Here are some picturs of the soap making process.


Dr. Carlisle’s workshop



Jesse and I had an unexpected reunion at Amherst Regional High School this week, attending Debbie Carlisle’s Natural Approach to Chemistry presentation. We distilled essential oils and used a spectrophotometer. I’m excited to have my students distill some oils from lavender, lilac or star anise.  Thanks Debbie for a great two hours.

“Outliers” by Malcomb Gladwell

I am reading a fascinating book called “Outliers”.

Here are some key points that have stuck with me.

All virtuoso violin players have practiced at least 10,000 hours by age 20. There were no exceptions for natural talent. This information reinforces my disdain for hearing students say I “can’t”. It is a cop-out and they short change themselves by giving up so easily. I think we could all surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish if we put some serious effort into practicing.

The second point that was poignant is that low income, high IQ students don’t tend to self-advocate, whereas higher income individuals know how to use their voice to express themselves.

An international math test has a lengthy questionnaire associated with it. A study found that the number of optional questionnaire questions answered by students was directly related to how well they performed on the math test. This shows that persistence is key to success.

Every-day applications of Chemistry

I am continually trying to think of how a chemistry topic relates to my students’ lives.  Here are a few new thoughts on this.

Reaction rate- global warming will cause certain reactions to speed up.

Hess’s Law- hydrogen fuel cells produce energy by reacting hydrogen with oxygen to produce water. However, the reverse reaction requires energy. So how do we get the hydrogen fuel needed without spending as much (or more) energy than the fuel cell produces?

flame tests- used by CSI investigators to analyze an unknown sample; fireworks technicians rely on the signature colors of the metal salts to produce desired colors.