Brain-Friendly Intervention

My post today is more a book review. A colleague and I recently decided that we wanted a book study this year that focused on our learners as much as our content or instruction.  We chose Thomas Armstrong’s 2016 ASCD publication, The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.  As I read the first two chapters, I chased my own teenage children around the house telling them how amazing their brains are, how challenging it is to be an adolescent (so it IS all in their head, so to speak), and warning them of the side effects if they don’t use their mental capacities before their brains start the “pruning and wiring of circuits involved in decision making.”  The adolescent brain’s “pruning” process is introduced with a quote from Jay Giedd that summarizes the concept well:  “You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence.  Do you want to hardwire it for sports and playing music and doing mathematics–or for lying on the couch in from of the television?”  When sharing this idea with my son, I might have switched out the word television for the term video games.  With his active teen brain, he understood my point.  Even though he passively said, “Okay, Mom,”  he is choosing to spend fewer hours hunting down zombies. Sometimes all adolescents really need is awareness provided as a friendly FYI, versus commands that say they can’t draw their own logical conclusions.


As an educator, this book piqued my interest and increased my level of concern for how we engage students’ brains.  In a seven to eight hour school day, imagine how much we must contribute to or detract from effective hardwiring as our adolescent students build brains for adulthood.  I often refer to interventions classes as thinking classes.  Is that really true?  Do I or other teachers in our intervention “thinking classes” provide “brain-hostile” environments or “brain-friendly” environments to grow brains needed for college and career?  As I contemplated our intervention program for 6th through 9th graders and observed classes with Armstrong’s list of brain-friendly practices in mind, I wasn’t surprised that many intervention teachers make sincere efforts to engage students with brain-friendly instruction.  Although Dr. Armstrong provides eight brain-friendly practices, each with its own idea-packed chapters,  I am exploring the five recommended practices I see most frequently in interventions classes I’ve taught or observed.  We could very effectively use all eight practices, but I’ll leave the other three to your own reading exploration.

Below, I provide some examples of how I or my colleagues are striving toward brain-friendly practice.  Based on my knowledge of our work,  I can often think of more we all can do. When reading The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, you’ll find extensive support for your own efforts to develop a brain-friendly learning environment, no matter what content/skills you teach.

Opportunities to Choose
What our students are doing:

    • Choosing independent reading materials
    • Choosing collaboration partners for metacognitive strategy practice
    • Developing class norms

What we could help our students do more of:

    • Allow students to choose topics for strategy articles
    • Facilitate student choice of roles for collaboration
    • Provide choices for demonstrating skill proficiency  

Self- Awareness activities
What our students are doing:

    • Responding to and reflecting on a reader self-perception survey
    • Responding to and reflecting on a reading attitude survey
    • Identifying personal learning goals
    • Reflecting on personal assessment data
    • Writing about personal strengths and weaknesses based on data and work

What we could do more of: 

    • Reinforcing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset
    • Helping students track their own growth
    • Exploring age-appropriate social-emotional topics

Peer-learning activities
What our students are doing:

    • Collaborating to make meaning of text in reciprocal teaching groups
    • Engaging in games to explore vocabulary

What we could do more of: 

    • Participating peer-to-peer feedback/ coaching.  
    • Reflecting on the use of strategies
    • Modeling effective thinking with and for other students

Affective learning
What our students are doing:

    • Honoring high expectations offered through consistency and care
    • Experiencing one-on-one conferences about skills, interests, and needs
    • Learning in safe environments that allow for risk and mistakes
    • Connecting to books that explore their own personal obstacles

What we could do more of: 

    • Providing students with articles and texts for strategy practice that connect to what matters in their lives immediately
    • Celebrating learning and growth

Metacognitive strategies
What our students are doing:

    • Setting their own learning goals
    • Tracking their own learning goals
    • Practicing metacognitive strategies with many opportunities for authentic application 

What we could do more of: 

    • Reinforcing growth mindset over fixed mindset
    • Coaching/conferring with students individually to make connections between personal effort and personal success
    • Monitoring growth with students in small groups and individually and adjusting practice as a result
    • Providing more opportunities for students engagement in authentic metacognitive strategies across disciplines (through effective co-teaching)

If you are a literacy intervention teacher, what would you add to these areas?  If you are an intervention-minded individual or an advocate for all students, what would you like to see added to any of these areas of brain-friendly instruction?

Co-teaching for Literacy Access

“…the 21st-century notion of co-teaching places it within the context of some of the most innovative practices in education” (Villa, et al., 2013).


One of the unique elements of the secondary literacy model we currently implement in my district is the co-teaching piece.  We are in year four with an intervention model specifically used for students in grades six through nine. We’ve experienced a great deal of student success.  However, we are still growing, learning, and adjusting.

Over the last three years, many challenges arose in our work, and many of those were addressed by professional learning, collaboration and innovation from literacy teachers in our professional learning community. However, the co-teaching element needs more support and clearer direction over all.  With that in mind, I drafted a set of guidelines and expectations for literacy intervention teachers. This is not only intended to help literacy teachers gain a clearer vision of the plan and purpose of co-teaching, but it is also meant to be an additional data point for conversations with content teachers and building leaders.

Beyond the guidelines, I offer a few other resources to support initial thinking. To connect to our district’s work with Rigorous Unit Planning (Marzano), I developed a scale to help educators think about the progression of learning needed for this process.   I provide Dr. Richard Villa’s definitions and comparisons of four co-teaching approaches.  Lastly, I drafted a few ideas to troubleshoot common concerns.  I don’t presume these will be the solutions to all problems, but it is a place to start.  Additional support will be offered through collaboration, modeling and coaching.

Note: Literacy teachers in our secondary system teach two classes of  reading intervention (intended as a type of case load).  They also co-teach with two content teachers per semester in the same grade level as the students in their interventions classes. The hope is that they will also be an “indispensable resource” in the literacy initiatives of their buildings. We seek to contribute to a positive culture of literacy and to simply help teens read and write for learning.

The hope is always that the administrators and instructional leaders in each secondary building will be intentional about assigning co-teaching relationships with the students literacy development as the foremost priority in mind.   This is two fold.  First, both the content teacher and the literacy interventionist are clear on and committed to the ultimate purpose of providing students with research-based, strategies for processing text across disciplines.  Additionally,  there must be intentional time for planning.  Dr. Villa, among other scholars on this process, would say that where there is no intentional planning there is no effective co-teaching.

I welcome you to read through the attached document and offer feedback.  It is a fluid document meant solely to help teachers and building leaders deepen this valuable piece of our model.

2016-2017 Targeted Literacy Co-teaching Guidelines and Expectations

Engaged Reading in Content Classes

One way a reading or intervention specialist can support a content teacher is to make the process of reading-to-learn more manageable.  I enjoy helping teachers use instructional strategies (or techniques) that engage all students and require all students be accountable for their own reading and learning.  Sometimes the best text to address a difficult concept is lengthy and requires considerable concentration from students. Teachers want ways to help students read AND learn the content.

This semester, I had the privilege of co-teaching in Biology classes. Access teachers (special education, ESL, reading specialists) sometimes feel intimidated by content for which we are definitely not experts. I certainly feel this way in Biology.   However, access teachers have the expertise to accommodate students in processing lengthy texts to learn important new information.  Because Biology is a difficult topic for me, my modeling of meaning-making strategies are genuine and authentic.  I am a reader trying to make meaning of content that doesn’t come naturally to me as a learner. This is just part of the power of the access teacher – content teacher collaboration.

Below is a process I collaboratively implemented in Biology classes in my building.  I realize I am very fortunate to work with content teachers so willing to help students read to access new knowledge.

Collaborative Guided Summary & Jigsaw Groups 


  1. In “expert” groups students all receive the same text.  This can be fourths of a larger text or different texts that address a topic from multiple perspectives, etc. In Biology, we divided a long text about Charles Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution into 5 pieces.  Each piece was independently comprehensible. The first section is used to model the entire process (in parts or all at once) and introduce students to the topic.  The four other sections are copied and divided among “expert” groups, meaning all members in the group have the same piece of text about which they will become “experts.” 

2.  The co-teacher and access teacher model all of the steps:

A.  Access teacher reads and highlights important vocabulary. (Model
first couple paragraphs, guide students with the next couple.)
B. Content teacher “retells” using the highlighted vocabulary
(words & phrases)  to relay 
the main idea(s) of the section.
C. Access teacher asks any clarifying questions about the content.  This would include questions about concepts, language, & vocabulary that block understanding of the text.
D. One of the teachers models merging these ideas on the guided summary sheet.  Again, break this process down as works best for your class.

  1. Before reading:  The students begin the process of completing the “Guided Summary” form.  This, too, is modeled by the content teacher.  Before reading, students will identify title, subtitle, and use the text features to identify the topic of the text.  This form is completed by each student so that they will have the accurate information when they switch into a jigsaw groups.
  1. Students complete the reading process adhering to the following ROLES:
    1. Reader reads aloud 1-2 paragraphs at a time. The stop points can be designated on the text by the teachers in advance. 
    2. Reteller (who, like all of the students, has been annotating for essential ideas and vocabulary) retells (summarizes) the section aloud.  Other students offer any adjustments.
    3. Recorder identifies important words and phraseunspecified-33d, especially those repeated frequently, to the vocabulary section of the Guided Summary
    4. Clarifier asks clarifying questions. These should be identified by the students as the reader reads each section.  Additional confusions may arise as the reteller verbalizes the main ideas from the section.  If the retelling is too difficult, confusion is probably present.


  1. The content and access teachers are checking for adherence to process  and understanding of content.  When confusion can’t be clarified within the group, the content teacher can support students by answering questions or guiding students through a process to repair the confusion.  Teachers may also “Catch and Release” by stopping students to address common confusions with completing the process. 
  1. Students repeat the process until the entire passage is read, verbally summarized, and all the essential vocabulary is recorded on the “Guided Summary.”  
  1. Students work together as an expert group to use the  title/subtitle, topic, and vocabulary to develop an overall main idea for the text.  (This is modeled with the initial piece of text prior to the students’ efforts.)  Students then go section-by-section and use their annotation and vocabulary to develop a structured summary that supports the main idea.   This may be the last step in a class period. 
  1.  Potentially in a second class period (we function in 80-minute blocks),         students then shuffle to jigsaw groups.  This is a group that, once  gathered, has one student representing each of all four sections of the text (in this case about Charles Darwin). They share their summaries and ask each other clarifying questions.
  1. Then, as a group, Students read and  answer a few targeted implicit and
    explicit questions prepared by the  content teacher about the article  These questions are developed to  intentionally need the collaboration of all members and use multiple sections  of the text. The students are required to work together to think through  application of the new knowledge.   

Recently, I completed a similar process in an ESL class reading Romeo and Juliet. The content teacher chose four pieces of text about arranged marriages (both pro and con). We co-taught (team teaching model) using this same process, but with four different different texts, different perspectives.  The final questions still required students to pull evidence from more than one of the texts to answer focused questions about the cumulative learning.

This process is a lot more challenging to write about than to demonstrate in person.  If visualizing this process through my writing is challenging, please ask questions.  On the other hand, if it seems to makes sense, consider using it on your own or in a co-teaching setting, and let me know how it goes.