About this episode
Welcome to POPCAST, Episode 18! In this episode, Jeff and Travis interview Alana Morris. Alana is an educator, author of Vocabulary Unplugged: 30 Lessons That Will Revolutionize How You Teach Vocabulary K-12, and an advocate for literacy and reaching the interests of every student. You can find her on Twitter @MorrisAlana.
Meet Jeff and Travis
For over thirty years, Jeff Anderson has inspired writers and teachers of grades K-8 with the power and joy of writing and grammar. He has written eight books for Stenhouse Publishers. He also writes middle-grade novels. Travis Leech is currently a middle school instructional coach in Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, TX. He has thirteen years of experience in education, including teaching middle school English Language Arts and as a gifted and talented specialist. Follow Jeff and Travis on Twitter.
Read the transcript
Travis: Welcome to POPCast
Jeff: A Patterns of Power podcast.
Travis: Discussing grammar in the context of the reading-writing connections.
Jeff: I'm Jeff Anderson.
Travis: And I'm Travis Leech. And we're your hosts for today's episode.
Jeff: It's going to be on the brain. I'm so excited about this episode.
Travis: We have with us today one of the people that can talk about the brain, I could just listen to her for hours talk about the brain and education. Her name is Alana Morris, and she's been leading literacy in Texas and abroad for over 33 years. She's taught all levels elementary through high school. She holds a doctorate in education and literacy from Sam State, Sam Houston State University. She's got an intense interest in the science of learning and how to best reach special interests of every student, including adult learners. She's coordinator of high school humanities in Spring Branch ISD.
Travis: And she teaches in the education department at the University of Houston. She's been president of just about every organization there is, and she has a great book called Vocabulary Unplugged, and she's written numerous articles. If you want to find her, look on Twitter, we'll try to add it to the links, but it's @MorrisAlana. So her name is like we're taking roll. Her last name is first. So @ M-O-R-R-I-S A-L-A-N-A, @MorrisAlana is her Twitter, and you can find her there and you're going to want to find her after this because we're going to be talking about the brain. So Alana, tell us about this thing we call mirror neurons. I'm so fascinated with all the things you have to say about mirror neurons.
Alana Morris: Yeah. So mirror neurons are actually the last type of brain cell that's been developed. I shouldn't say last, I should say most recent because anything can happen and we'll probably discover more brain cells as technology increases and that type of thing. But in the mid ‘80s, in Parma, Italy, a group of researchers, they were actually researching Parkinson's disease. We're exploring what happens biologically within the brain with grasping patterns, reaching patterns. In that moment, the researchers, they were using the macaque monkeys. They have all the electrodes all over their scalp and you can imagine how much time it would take to put these electrodes on these macaque monkeys, right? Because they're certainly not going to take these electrodes off and then go and put them back on. So one of the researchers was on his lunch break and this macaque monkey was just minding his own business, sitting in a chair, waiting for the lunch break to end.
Alana Morris: So the electrodes all connected, the computers on the researcher literally reaches across his desk to grab something that he was eating. It doesn't matter what it was now. Maybe a banana I don't know, so reaching for something. As soon as he reached for that item, the computer and these electrodes go crazy. So they're firing, they're going off, which surprised the researcher. He looks over at the monkey and the monkey is literally not moving at all. Absolutely sitting perfectly still, but these electrodes are going mad. They're going crazy.
Alana Morris: So he really didn't have the epiphany at that very moment as to what was happening, but it spurred the curiosity as to why in the world is this happening. From that discovery, that moment, he discovered that literally what's happening is when the monkey watched the researcher make this move. The monkey's brain is firing in the exact same way as if he or she, I don't know the gender of the monkey, if he or she were making that move themselves. Right? So that was a fascinating discovery as all of these discoveries happen. I think this is important as we're having this conversation about the brain and learning is that there are three layers. There's the neuroscientist, the researcher, then there's the translator, those folks out there that translate the research like Eric Jensen, right? Judy Willis, Marilyn Springer, Robert Sylwester, they take these studies and they write about them in a way that most people can understand. Some do it far better than others like Nicholas Carr in The Shallows.
Travis: Oh yeah.
Jeff: Oh yeah.
Alana Morris: Then there's my favorite group of people, the practitioners. So they then read these books, these texts, these ideas from the translators, and they put it to practice in various context, whether it's in psychology, whether it's at the gym, but we as educators, we take that research and put it into action in the classroom. So I say that because this discovery in Parma, Italy, those researchers weren't thinking, "Wow, I wonder what this has to do with teaching and learning."
Travis: That's us.
Alana Morris: They didn't have that thought at all, but now we've taken that discovery and we have ongoing curiosities about it. Dr. Ramachandran, some of you may be familiar with him. He is the guru on phantom limbs. I imagine his curiosity about mirror neurons came from these phantom limbs, but he also calls mirror neurons, empathy neurons. Okay. That's important because it is through this ... Then let me give you an example. I'm going to use Travis for a second. So let's say I've known Travis for years. I walk into a room and I look over at Travis and I turned to Jeff and I say, "Wow, Travis is really sad today. He looks really down in the dumps." Well, most of us would think it's because I've seen Travis. I look at his face. I say, "Wow, he looks sad," but in truth, what's happening neurologically is tightly connected to these mirror neurons. What's literally happening is I look at Travis. When I'm seeing Travis and here comes the empathy neuron part, literally my brain cells are firing in the same way that Travis' brain cells are firing what I see him like that. I feel his sadness. Then I know he's sad and can use my language to talk about that. But literally I'm feeling it before I know it. That beauty of the mirror neurons.
Jeff: It's the mirror neurons are the ones that are ... They're like acting like a mirror from whoever I'm looking at. Like when that monkey was looking at the researcher move than the fired in his head, like all the movement stuff fired in his head. The same thing with Travis, if he's looking sad or down, and it's like, I don't like immediately actually have that conclusion. My mirror just senses from his frame. Then I kind of line up with him and feel what he's feeling. Wow. Mirror neurons.
Alana Morris: Yeah. It's pretty powerful. It's because my brain is firing with Travis. So it's ... Yeah. It's not happening in my eyes. It's happening in my brain. That is what makes me feel it and there's that empathy. So couple of examples that are kind of fun to explore.
Alana Morris: So you're at the store or at the mall. Then somebody has all these packages that are huge. They're trying to carry too much, heavy boxes. They're trying to get through the door, but the boxes are falling everywhere. You have that sudden sense that urge to go over and help them. It's not just because you're a kind person, your brain is literally firing in the same way that you're feeling what that person's feeling. That propels you to action. Same thing, you're watching sports and you can literally feel yourself moving. So here are the running backs running toward the end zone to make a touchdown. You can feel yourself moving across and you're trying to go with them because you're feeling what that they're feeling that intensity. Okay. Yeah. You want them to win. But it's more than that. Another example, these are some physiological connections when somebody yawns.
Travis: Yeah. We have to. Not tired, but why am ... I'm suddenly yawning. Here we go.
Alana Morris: You were just saying it. Right. So again, that's the mirror neuron system that drives emulation. It drives imitation and it literally drives empathy. We don't have time here to go into Ramachandran's work. But he has a terrific TED talk and just search mirror neurons and Ramachandran. Even if you get close, it's going to pop up on that spelling. He has a terrific TED talk on mirror neurons and talks about the evolution of this mirror neuron system and how socially connected we are. That we're literally connected through our skin and a Bruner and many of the other early cognitive psychologists, even though they didn't have MRIs and some of the technology we have now, they were so much ahead of their time and understanding the social connection and learning and the importance of that social connection and learning. Truthfully Jeff, that's one of the reasons patterns of power is so impactful is that social connection in those processes.
Jeff: We've even ended up writing an article about how it matches up with SEL education, because it's doing that social, emotional learning. It's allowing for that in part, because of that conversation that we're talking about. But tell us more because we know what we do. We know we go through this process, but what are the connections do you see?
Alana Morris: So other connections and I have a piece, if you would look it up, or if you contact me, I'll send it to you that I wrote for English in Texas and looking at, because my curiosity, when I came across this, the ideas behind the mirror neuron system, my curiosity is "Okay, that's great. How does that impact the teaching and learning in my classroom?"
Alana Morris: Started seeing all these connections, like even as a music major playing saxophone and you're getting ready to go in for a contest and you're outside the room, you can't play out loud, right? You can't play your instrument out loud in the hallway because that would disturb everybody. But you sit there and you practice you just with your hands. You're just practicing. Little did I know at the time when I would do this, although all the way through high school and college, literally what I'm doing is my brain is firing in the same way as if I were playing it in that room for the competition out loud.
Alana Morris: That's that piece of rehearsing, rehearsing, mental rehearsal, going through it in your head. Even those of us who pre-write we think about our piece over and over again, we percolate it in our head. That rehearsal is actually using part of that mirror neuron system because you're emulating. [crosstalk] is increased when you write it right on paper. So that's one of the curiosities, how has that connected? But another piece that was curious for me is this piece about emulation and that if you're doing something and someone else's brain is firing in the same way as you're going through that process, what has emerged from that is the importance of modeling. Not because somebody says, "Hey, modeling is a good idea." We've known that for a long time with mentor texts and with learning a new process. With apprenticeships, we know the importance of modeling instinctually, but now we know biologically, neurologically, why this is so important. It's literally the monkey see monkey do. So when people try to say, don't do, as I do do, as I say, like, it's not really possible. You're going to do it-
Travis: We ain't wired that way.
Alana Morris: Hey, you're not wired that way. So the modeling is really important because your student's brain, their brain is firing in the same way your brain is firing as they watch you go through these processes.
Jeff: So for example, when we asked the kids at one point in the Patterns of Power process to imitate, we show them how to imitate first. We generate ideas to go
to that while we're doing that, before they get their chance to do this on their own, they're actually rehearsing it mentally with you, as you do it, as their peers speak, they're hearing all of that. And that's being mirrored in their own brains and activated in their own brains for possibilities for them when they do their own imitation?
Alana Morris: Exactly. They're making these neurological connections and remember brain cells that fire together wire together. I don't think we yet know enough about it. I certainly, I am not a neuroscientist. I do not have a degree in neuroscience. I really do have a degree in curiosity though, and interest. And I think the more we read about these things and make the connections, but then what also happens is practitioners who go on to further study at, if they're getting their masters or their in their doctoral, or they're going in a doctoral program, these curiosities about these brain cells then lead to work in classrooms, that's then going to deepen our understanding about these cells and how they work.
Alana Morris: But here are a couple of other questions, curiosities realities with mirror neurons. Another is about rapport. So many of the researchers, those who've been continuing studies, there's this great book. Here's a whole book on the mirror neuron system and studies that have been done. So one of the things that they've discovered is the greater the rapport with the person you're emulating or imitating or mirroring the stronger the firing of the mirror neuron system.
Jeff: Okay. So that whole idea of having a safe writing community bodes well for mirror neurons, because I'm going to be able to reflect back to the mirror neurons that I see if I feel safe, if I feel comfortable, if I feel that rapport, that's going to soak in more, activate my brain more. Well you've activated my brain so much, Alana, and I can't even believe that we're already kind of coming up on the end of our first episode, but never fear. Why do they not have to fear Travis?
Travis: Because you can just come back to the next episode and we'll continue --
Jeff: There you go. So she's told us this magic about mirror neurons, and we'll learn more about mirror neurons and more about some other stuff. But I hear that music that theme music coming up from behind, what's that mean, Travis?
Travis: That means we got to thank our sponsor. Stenhouse Publishers, S-T-E-N-H-O-U-S-E.com. Thank you for sponsoring this podcast.
Jeff: Thank you to Alana Morris, Alana Morris you can find it @MorrisAlana on Twitter and come back and listen to us in a couple of weeks. We'll be doing another episode with Alana talking about patterns of power, talking about brain research and how it all works together. Thank you, Alana.
Travis: All right. We'll talk soon.