Magic, Brain Friendly Classrooms

For the past year, I have been THROWING myself in my studies! In addition to continuing my studies with Signum U, I also took additional classes online with the University of New England. I wanted to learn more about the science behind literacy and strategies I can use in my own classroom. While I have been teaching in the Early Childhood classroom this past year, it has been very helpful to learn and practice within the roots of literacy and foster a love of reading at a very early age.

While I’m teaching and studying, I’m always looking for small, impactful ways that I can bring magic and fantasy into my classrooms, in the present and for the future. One book that I found as a helpful read, not just for literacy but for the general classroom as well, was Best Practices at Tier 1: Daily Differentiation. For those who are unfamiliar with the Response to Intervention (RTI) method, Tier 1 refers to the first threshold in which children are monitored for growth in their reading skills (If a student does not show growth with Tier 1 strategies, the student with work in a small group with a teacher or literacy specialist in Tier 2 for more focused remediation. A teacher must use all of the resources and differentiation skills available to them at Tier 1 before recommending that a student receive services in Tier 2 or Tier 3). Regardless of the class’ overall reading abilities, a differentiated classroom is necessary to ensure that all students thrive. Differentiation is not only for students with documented disabilities and IEPs- differentiation is for all students because every learner is different and comes into the classroom with a different set of skills, experiences, and schemas.

Gregory, Kaufeldt, and Mattos (2016) introduce differentiation through the lens of a concept they term “brain friendly classrooms.” A brain friendly classroom is a safe, nurturing, differentiated environment that a child feels safe and free to learn. Teachers use neuroscience studies to support what they already know: that a one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t fit a diverse learning classroom. This research can support and assist teachers in creating a diverse curriculum, support social emotional growth in the classroom, and help students learn how to respond to various stimuli in different ways. Teachers need to set students up for success by creating a healthy, safe, and comfortable environment right from the start. Gregory et. al. (2016) offer strategies on how to set up norms for the classroom, build the community, and establish organization and management strategies for every possible situation.

Reading about the different methods of differentiation led me to think about classrooms and learning in various fantasy novels, particularly in how they may or may not differentiate for differently abled learners (To note: I use “differently abled” as a broad term- many students have different skills, abilities, and ways that they process information. I do not use “differently abled” necessarily as a synonym for students with documented disabilities or IEPs. Many students who struggle with reading do not have formal diagnoses or documentation. If you, as a reader, feel I am using this term lightly or incorrectly, you are welcome to (kindly) discuss your reasoning in the comments!).

Case Study: Neville Longbottom

Neville Longbottom is an interesting study to examine when thinking about student growth in the classroom. He is one of the few students of whom we receive a glimpse of in terms of their learning abilities and performance across the six years of study he receives at Hogwarts (we definitely can’t count year seven).

According to Shaw (2006), each brain is uniquely based on the individual’s genetics and environmental experiences. As a result, we all have different ways in which we process information and demonstrate competence. At the same time, we each react differently to environmental stressors. These stressors can inhibit the brain’s ability to retain or process information. Thus, a brain friendly classroom must be clear, consistent, logical, and governed by routine. “Without clear direction, consistent practices, well defined learning goals, and established criteria… students can feel lost, unnerved, and powerless to play a determining role in their own academic success” (Gregory, Kaufeldt, and Mattos 2016).

Neville has a plethora of stressors and expectations that he has to navigate on a daily basis. The trauma he endured at losing his parents at a young age, coupled with his grandmother’s exceedingly high expectations (which, based on his introductory anecdote in Philosopher’s Stone, extended to his other family members) and the pressure of consistently failing or falling short of those expectations, creates a lot of tension and an unfriendly learning environment for Neville. The brain is a survival organ, and stress is one of the brain’s survival responses to real or perceived environmental threats (Gregory, Kaufeldt, Mattos 2016). Neville’s brain is constantly in fight or flight mode; if he does not perform well in his studies, he suffers the disappointment of his family, the ridicule of his classmates and teachers, and the unbearable loneliness and emotional stress that comes with puberty.

For at least four out of the seven novels, poor Neville is consistently embarrassed in the Potions classroom for his clumsiness and lack of progress. Neville cannot thrive under Professor Snape’s gaze for multiple reasons. For one, he is not allowed to make mistakes- the moment he does, he is criticized, humiliated and threatened by the person who is supposed to be helping him develop his talents. As a result, Neville shuts down and forgets the next steps to the Potion recipe.

Neville regularly went to pieces in Potions lessons; it was his worst subject, and his great fear of Professor Snape made things ten times worse. His potion, which was supposed to be a bright, acid green, had turned —

“Orange, Longbottom,” said Snape, ladling some up and allowing it to splash back into the cauldron, so that everyone could see. “Orange. Tell me, boy, does anything penetrate that thick skull of yours? Didn’t you hear me say, quite clearly, that only one rat spleen was needed? Didn’t I state plainly that a dash of leech juice would suffice? What do I have to do to make you understand, Longbottom?”

Neville was pink and trembling. He looked as though he was on the verge of tears.

Excerpt From Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

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In the brain-friendly classroom, much rather like Professor Sprout’s class, Neville is allowed to thrive through the use of his hands, and by playing to his expertise in magical herbs and specimens. He is consistently praised for his work in Herbology, and his more agreeable Professors recognize when he does good work. If Professor Snape were even close to being a supportive teacher, he would assist Neville by playing to his strengths in Herbology and how various plants and ingredients should be used in Potions. Professor McGonagall recognizes when Neville’s grandmother puts too much pressure on her grandson, and recommends his sixth year class schedule based on his interests, not hers. I would love to mention Professor Moody’s recognition of Neville’s trauma in his initial class and offering him a Herbology book and a cup of tea for comfort, but sadly that image is punctured with the knowledge that it was for Barty Crouch Jr.’s ulterior motives (there will be frequent spoilers in my posts- sorry all).

In the meetings with Dumbledore’s Army (Book 5), Harry gives all of his students, including Neville, the opportunity to practice their spells in pairs and groups, rather than leaving them to their own devices. He walks around and coaches them in their use of the DADA spells, how to hold their wands, and how to adapt based on the changes their partners might make. Neville succeeds in his DAs a differently abled learner, Neville clearly thrives in a stress-free, tactile learning environment, particularly when success and praise are within reach. Harry understands what Professor Snape does not- that every student can learn with practice and guidance. That guidance simply may need to be changed or modified based on the individual students’ needs, rather than that of the whole group. Differentiation can be as simple as pairing or grouping students based on their strengths or as complex as creating three different activities to explain one overarching concept with multiple modalities and mediums.

I’d like to invite you now to put yourself in a Hogwarts professor’s shoes. As Harry, Hermione, Ron, or Neville’s teacher, how would you differentiate your Hogwarts classroom? Get creative- how would you teach your magical subject and set your students up for success in a brain friendly classroom? Please feel free to comment, Tweet, or email your responses!