Classroom Miracles Made Simple

Hero Teacher Martha Rivera Alanis

Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: How to involve, include and inspire every student, every day.

One teacher told me about her class. At the start of every school year she asks her young elementary level kids, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

One year a kid responded, “I wanna be like my daddy and be on welfare.” Some teachers would have rolled their eyes and thought, “How am I supposed to teach kids in poverty that have a home life like his?”

But this teacher refused to lower her goals or her standards for her kids. She does what high performing teachers often do.

Her strategy? What did she do?

The answer is, “Broaden the kid’s horizons and help him think bigger!” Read more

The Importance of the Impossible


For some, a new school year will start this month. If not, this message is just as important to you. I’ll address the importance of the “impossible” in your job, in students and in schools. This post is about impossibility, expectancy, student predictions, high goals and of course, the brain.

But first, I begin with a true story…

A few years ago, Diane and I hired a handyman to replace a cluster of smaller windows with a bigger window. We knew the bigger dining room window would help us enjoy the view more and we reconnected with a trusted guy (Martin) who had done work for us before. After he took out the old windows and prepped the area for the installation of the big new picture window, the main event was about to happen. Only one problem, though…the new window was going in on the second floor and it was too big to take through the house and up the stairs to the second floor. This meant the heavy 6’ x 6’ glass window had to be brought up on the outside. Read more

Rewarding the Brain for Great Teaching

decison in brain-based learning

Kimberly, a veteran teacher, has to make a big decision at the end of this school year. She’s either going to “re-up” and stay another year, or quit her job and seek another teaching job elsewhere. I am going to describe her work in a minute. But go ahead and put yourself in her shoes and ask yourself, “What would you do?”

First of all, Kimberly’s (I have changed her name; this is a true story) classroom kids all come from poverty. Every one of them has home issues, some have disabilities and all of them were struggling every year in school until this year.

Yet, her students alone outscored ALL other students on district-wide assessments by more than 25% points on average and 100% of her students passed their state-mandated and school mandated exams. In short, she is an “over the top, amazing teacher.” Many would call her an “irreplaceable asset.”

She has spent her entire 15-year teaching career actively seeking out schools where the students need her most, and her current school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the area.

So, what is the big decision that Kimberly, an amazing teacher, has to make at the end of this school year? It’s simple; “Should I stick around this school another year or not?” Read more

Water Bottles in the Classroom: A Smart Move or Another Colossal Hoax?

Over the years, all of us have heard how important it is to have kids drink water at school. That reminds me of a true story…

On one of my trips out to a school district, I was picked up at the airport by the local superintendent. We struck up a conversation on the way to the event. Since my topic was brain-related, the superintendent was gushing about how his district was now “brain compatible.”

I said, “Really? That’s great. Tell me what you’re doing.”

With a good deal of pride, he said, “We have water bottles on every kid’s desk.”

At that point I politely replied, “That’s nice.”

But IS it “nice”?

Is water on the desks really a good idea?

The Research

Years ago, I often repeated things I had heard from others who I thought were experts. But many were self-proclaimed experts who were also repeating what they had heard from other experts. Put enough experts together in one room and you have… grander delusions. Bottom line is that I was, at times, too careless and failed to go dig for the quality research. I know better now. Today, lean in close and read the truth about drinking water.

First, many of the studies promoted as “evidence” to support more hydration have 100 or fewer in the study. That’s too risky to draw much of a conclusion from, and has too few participants to generalize. In our first study, 58 children aged 7-9 years old were randomly allocated to either a group that received additional water or to a group that did not. Results showed that children who drank additional water rated themselves as significantly less thirsty than the control group and they performed better on visual attention tasks. Huh? What about every other type of task? That’s the best we can do? (Edmonds, et al. 2009)

Many questions arise from these studies.

For example, were the following variables teased out about the study:

What was the weather like during the study? How much humidity? Temperature?

What had the participants eaten? High or low water content foods?

Did the participants have any strenuous physical activity prior to the study?

What about water quality? Cultural favorite drinks? How about peer pressure?

Another study (same author) studied younger kids. This study had just 23 kids, aged 6-7 years old. There were improvements with the water group, who had less thirst and more “happiness.” They were also better on visual attention and visual search skills, but not visual memory or visuomotor performance (Edmonds, et al. 2009.) Again, too small of a sample, and the results are hardly dramatic.

Another recent study of 24 volunteers found that with a 24-hour dehydration, cognitive-motor function is preserved, but mood and reaction time deteriorated. No big shock there. There was a 2.6% decrease of body weight (woo-hoo!) during water deprivation (Szinnai, et al. 2005.) The most interesting part of this study was that females showed greater diminished capacity than males. In a follow-up study (Szinnai, et al. 2007) moderate dehydration induced by water restriction had no effect on blood pressure or heart rate reactivity to mental stress. However, stress-induced states become fortified during dehydration in females, but not males.

I was unable to find, anywhere in the medical journals, any scientific evidence that says, “Drink eight glasses of water per day.”
In fact, getting too much water may be just as bad as not enough (Valtin, 2002.) In one study, when initial thirst was high, the more water ingested, the higher the performance. When initial thirst was low, the more water ingested, the poorer the performance. This reminds us NOT to go overboard with pushing water on students every ten minute. A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. But make the water available, don’t push it on them.

There are, however, two additional issues to consider. One, children from lower income families cannot afford a constant supply of quality bottled water from home. It’s expensive and it’s no better than most tap water. Because of this, I suggest schools ensure all drinking fountains work well and have good water.

But wait; there’s more…

What about the studies on… Read more