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Tornados, 'Brain-Based Teaching,' and Unsavory Language

Live from the ASCD Annual Conference in Philadelphia

A few more noteworthy moments from Saturday.

• The mid-day keynote address was given by Reed Timmer, host of the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. He showed some exciting footage of himself driving an armored car into a tornado. The connection to education was, well, thin at best. (Timmer's parents were teachers. He pushed the notion that STEM education can be fun—especially when teachers use clips like the ones from his show. Hint, hint.) To me, the hour could have been better used, but unfortunately it was the only presentation going at the time so we'd all been funneled in there. As one teacher later told me, she enjoyed the presentation but it was an attempt to connect science education and the real world that didn't quite "coalesce. ... And it probably had something to do with a sponsor."

• I ducked in and quickly out of a session about the basic differences between the new Common Core State Standards and states' current standards. I was interested in having someone break down these changes for me but couldn't sit through a nearly inaudible presenter having technical difficulties. I walked over to a session called "The Cure for the Common Classroom" and was greeted at the door by a woman dressed unmistakably like Peter Pan. Much better. Well, sort of. The teaching tools were less innovative than promised—stand and stretch, foldables, heterogeneous and homogenous grouping, changing approaches if a lesson isn't going well, and being just downright silly. The speaker focused on "brain-based teaching," referring to the amygdala as the brain's Peter Pan—i.e., the part that "won't grow up"—because it controls emotional responses. But I have to ask—are there teachers who don't take students' brains into account when teaching? Isn't teaching inherently brain-based, regardless of whether the teacher can specify what part of the brain does what?

• While in line for the restroom, I witnessed an interaction that left me unsettled. An attendee turned to her friend and said, "You sure my hair looks O.K.? Would you tell me if it looked retarded?" I think I would have been less surprised if she had cursed. Perhaps as a former special ed teacher, I'm hyper-sensitive to the term, but hearing it come from (I think it's safe to assume) an educator's mouth was particularly jarring. It's something I hope she would not accept from students. I'm interested to hear from readers, though—is it fair to hold teachers to a higher standard of propriety, even when they're outside school?

Despite the tenor of this post, it actually was a productive, positive day overall. I'll be sure to report on some of the more upbeat moments soon ...

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