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Brain Games: Focusing on Memory to Reduce Effects of Poverty

Second-grade teacher Patrick Sokol is working to close gaps in achievement seen in students raised in poverty, and he’s zeroing in on helping students develop “working memory.”

In his West Elementary classroom on a Friday morning, Sokol drew a mixing bowl on a whiteboard in front of his students. He asked them to name ingredients needed to make pancakes. They eagerly answered: “eggs,” “baking powder,” “vanilla,” “flour,” “sugar,” as Sokol wrote the list on the bowl.

“If we get those all in the bowl, we are going to be able to do something with them. We are going to be able to make pancakes. But what if there are holes in the bowl?”

He told students to think of their brains like the bowl: They need to be able to use what they put inside. “If you can’t keep those things in your brain, are you going to be able to do anything with them?”

Sokol’s mini-lesson was an introduction to activities aimed to improve students’ working memory. That’s the ability to store and manage information in one’s mind for a short period of time, like remembering a list of items or series of number long enough to apply them to what you need.

During a game called “If I Went,” students named items they would bring to the beach or camping. On their turns, they recalled items named before them in order. “If I went to the beach I would bring food, an air mattress, marshmallows and…,” said Myana Santiago-DeJesus, remembering the items named by her classmates and adding “shelter” to the list.

They also created a string of numbers, adding one at a time, and recalling them with a partner.

Gianchrist Mendez-Jimenez and Yuleika Gonzalez-Morales work on remembering a series of numbers. “9, 0, 1, 8, 6… and 2,” said Gianchrist
Gianchrist Mendez-Jimenez and Yuleika Gonzalez-Morales work on remembering a series of numbers. “9, 0, 1, 8, 6… and 2,” said Gianchrist

Building Working Memory

Students enjoyed the tasks, taking pride in remembering eight, nine, even 10 numbers in a row, and a list of camping items worthy of the Scouts, but Sokol’s purpose is larger than meets the eye. He is hoping to “fill the gap” in memory function caused by the stressors present in many of the lives of students who grow up poor.

Sokol’s work is part of an ongoing study by Kelloggsville staff, administrators and Board of Education members of Eric Jensen’s book, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind.” In Kelloggsville, about 78 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and research shows students who grow up in poverty struggle with working memory.

That could be a factor in the stark correlation between poverty and student achievement. An analysis by School News Network as part of its series “The Burden of Poverty, a Backpack of Heartache,” shows a close correlation between poverty and performance in the 20 school districts in the Kent ISD. In almost all cases, the districts with the lowest family income levels also had the lowest scores on standardized tests.

In his book, Jensen, a former teacher who now presents on brain-based learning, explains that constant stressors affect the developing brain, “creating a devastating cumulative effect.”

“The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called ‘stress hormone,'” he writes, citing brain research from various sources.

“Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic and acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes–– an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as making judgements, planning and regulating impulsivity and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways that reduce learning capacity.”

Isaiah Wiseman and Alivia Walber work together on remembering numbers
Isaiah Wiseman and Alivia Walber work together on remembering numbers

Long-Term Focus

The Jensen book study – which started by reading and discussing chapters – is a long-term project involving ongoing district-wide training, Assistant Superintendent Tammy Savage said.

A Board of Education committee dedicated to poverty is gathering information this year. Administrators and staff members are studying and attending seminars on poverty, have watched a webinar by Jensen and attended a two-day Michigan Department of Education session in November with Jensen on his book. They hope to bring him to Kelloggsville to present.

The goal is to apply some of his strategies in the classroom and embed tools to boost student effort and engagement, Savage said. It’s also about developing empathy and understanding of living situations many teachers haven’t experienced.

The district has long been aware of the high level of need and has worked hard to address it, she said. This is about going deeper and examining poverty from different perspectives. “There are a lot of things we are already doing. That was an affirmation for the district. We are already doing a lot of things to connect with students and parents.”

More than just brain development, training involves developing strong bonds with students, which leads to better achievement. “We are focused on student engagement, and it goes back to building relationships with kids,” Savage said. “Research has always proven that student/teacher relationship is key.”

Teachers are doing fast-track relationship builders, recommended by Jensen, in the classroom. For example, they share something personal with students once a week.

“In order to build a relationship with somebody, it can’t be one-sided. It can’t be just the students sharing,” Savage said. “Teachers have to share about themselves too. The more we share about ourselves, the more students are going to feel connected with us.”

Jensen also recommends staff members provide a favor or a show of empathy so powerful that students remember it well; invest two minutes a day for 10 consecutive days with the student who needs it most; and discover three things other than a name about a student each day, every day of the year.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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