About this episode
Welcome to POPCAST, Episode 19! This episode is part two of the interview with Dr. 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
Jeff: Welcome to Popcast.
Travis: A Patterns of Power Podcast.
Jeff: Discussing grammar in the context of reading and writing connections.
Travis: I'm Travis leach.
Jeff: And I'm Jeff Anderson and today we're hosting Alana Morris, who we have her extensive bio last episode, but we'll tell you, you can find her @morrisalana. @-M-O-R-R-I-S-A-L-A-N-A on Twitter. And she has been an educator. She has her doctorate. She has written books like Vocabulary Unplugged and articles and been presence of things. But most of all, she's just this delightful human being who Travis and I love talking about the brain with.
Jeff: Travis wanted to open up with a question.
Travis: Yeah. We're going to take advantage of her brain again today and pick her brain about the brain. Whoa. So Alana, yesterday, or our last episode, we were getting into a deep convo about mirror neurons. I just wanted to start by asking you, what didn't we get to discuss? What did we miss that you maybe wanted to talk about regarding mirror neurons to start our episode off?
Alana Morris: Yeah. So last time we talked about the modeling, right? And the connection with mirror neurons and modeling. And we also leaned in a bit about rapport and I just want to again, the stronger the rapport the students have with the teachers, the stronger the firing of the mirror neuron system. So bottom line is, kids aren't going to imitate or emulate or mirror someone they don't like. Okay.
Alana Morris: So yeah, I know. It hurts.
Travis: It's good truth. Good truth to know though.
Alana Morris: I mean that they like that you... they sense that you care about them, that you're... they're engaged in the learning, that they know you care about giving them great feedback that's going to move them forward. That's what we mean by building that appropriate rapport. Okay. So, but the two pieces are a couple of pieces I think continue to be important, and again, a lot of it is driven by curiosity, is we don't have all the answers to yet. But a couple of pieces that have begun to emerge is what is the connection between autism and the mirror neuron system. And there have been some studies done that say students have autism, whatever or wherever they are on that spectrum, that what's happening is the mirror neuron system might not be firing in the same way as other students. So they're not able to read those emotional cues that come with those empathy neurons.
Alana Morris: And so this is an area of continued research and something that you might want to study further and be aware of that with your students who do have various forms of autism. Another piece is they have done some studies that show that face to face meetings or instruction. The mirror neuron system fires more strongly when we're face to face than if we're watching it on video, or if we're looking at a screen virtually, and I think that's an important consideration, and really it's not that you don't do one or do the other. What we're saying is when you're in a virtual space, you have to work harder to build that rapport and you have to consider what's happening the neurologically with our students, so that we do think about that and make a plan for it.
Travis: It's very interesting. That's a great thing to note.
Alana Morris: Yeah. And then finally, on the mirror neurons, I think there's a great deal of thinking that we need to put into reading comprehension. So how much does the mirror neuron system play in reading comprehension? Understanding that that empathy and that emotional connection, if we're not emotionally connecting to the characters in the book, then is it that our mirror neuron system isn't firing as strongly? And if we're making connections, let's say Atticus walking down the street with a shotgun after the rabbit dog, and our heart rate increases, we start having those proprioceptions, are we having those proprioceptions because our mirror neuron system is firing? And are we not having those proprioceptions because the mirror neuron system is not firing?
Alana Morris: And is it not firing because of comprehension struggles?
Jeff: Well, and I love that you're bringing this up because one of the things we try to do in Patterns of Power, as you know, is pull together comprehension and pull together composition and show how the conventions draw them together, which can be a rather intimidating thing, a scary thing for people because they're so worried about being right or wrong. Instead of, what we say, is we focus on meaning and effect, not right and wrong. And I wondered about that language. Cause we intentionally through the Invitation to Edit, through the invitations, we don't ever use right/wrong language. It's like, what was the choice the writer made? Every choice a writer makes has an effect. What's effect here? Just kind of constantly keeping it up here in the order of meaning and effect instead of the threat level of right and wrong.
Jeff: I know Travis had a question about anxiety. Go ahead and ask that, Travis.
Travis: Yeah. Well, I think we touched on in the mirror neurons, just the importance of looking at them as empathy neurons, and the importance of positive relationships and the strength of connection through there. So that makes me curious about just maybe school in general. The stresses in, in that learning space and how stress, maybe a little bit more generally, how that affects the brain. If it's a positive effect, a negative effect, or kind of where that lies. I wonder if we could talk about that?
Alana Morris: Yeah. So stress is one of these pieces and there's been so many studies done on stress recently. One of the things we know is there's good stress and bad stress, and that's something we have to keep in mind. How do you balance that? That you stress that comes when you're stressed, yes. But it's a motivated stress. Like I get to finish this piece and it's going to be published in our class anthology, but it's due tomorrow.
Travis: It's 11 o'clock at night. Yeah.
Alana Morris: Yeah. But I'm so excited because I've got these revisions to do, right? I think Jeff always says, "fixing it is fun." And fixing it is fun, but there can be some stressors with that, but that you stress, right? It puts out this neurotransmitter, this norepinephrine that's a positive stress. And I always think of these neurotransmitters, like when you go to the hardware store to get your paint mixed and they push this button a little, little drop of paint goes, and another little drop of paint goes and to mix these colors.
Alana Morris: And we're always trying to have this balance of colors, but when you have distress, then it's cortisol. And cortisol in the brain is not the type of neurotransmitter that's going to lead in positive directions. And that causes us to shut down to disengage and remember if we're disengaged, then we're not that rapport piece. And it's not that when we're stressed, we're going to blame it on somebody. But the disengagement changes the chemical level in the brain, and we are chemical beings, right? And after you learn something new and you feel good about it, you're literally chemically a different person at the end of that learning episode. So one of the things that's a important, I think, for our audience here, especially those teaching adolescents, is that what we're now learning about adolescents and stress and the brain, is that in adolescence, the stress factors last longer. Yeah, it lingers for a longer amount of time.
Travis: Wow, it lingers. Interesting.
Alana Morris: So there's only two times in our...
Jeff: Do you have to, do you have to, do you have to let it linger?
Travis: I am.
Jeff: Oh, sorry.
Travis: Yeah. They've... Yeah. You know what's interesting is that they've tried to mitigate that and with different medications and things such as that, and literally it's development.
Alana Morris: Cranberries.
Alana Morris: So, so here's the thing with adolescence. Okay, dopamine, serotonin and melatonin are these neurotransmitters that are so impactful. And the dopamine is this pleasure sensing piece, right? So again, with Patterns of Power, I just... I love the whole piece with the musical celebrations. And those musical celebrations, it's not just like, "isn't this cool? Isn't this fun? Isn't this a cute song?"
Jeff: DJ Travis.
Travis: Whoop whoop.
Alana Morris: Woo hoo. Right? It literally is reducing those stress factors in the classroom. Really the same thing with the serotonin levels. So because we're chemical beings, the stress is going to impact us and it impacts us more in adolescence.
Jeff: So we have ways in which we can kind of dampen that, but also plan for it is what you're saying.
Alana Morris: Yeah. And be sensitive to it. That students are incredibly sensitive to stress during adolescence.
Jeff: Are they just as sensitive to the things that de-stress them? Like D-E, not D-I-S, but de-stress. Those things that make them feel better like humor, laughter, because I was just thinking about that whole component of the conversation thread throughout the Patterns of Power process.
Jeff: Now I know one of the things that David Eagleman talks about is that when you have a conversation, it builds up your conscious level of attention so that you see things as choices. So you see things. So that's why we do that beautiful piece of literature to start the conversation with because we want them to go toward that. But just in the interacting, that's safe. Everything's right. There's nothing wrong, right? We're not asking them to find what's wrong. We're not creating this stressful environment. We're figuring out what's right. And what David Eagleman says is when we do that, it becomes a conscious choice. And then it becomes more of a conscious choice. We'll see it more in the world around us, like that particular activating system that Eric Jensen talks about. So I just... my brain is just firing and wiring right now. So keep going, Alana. Sorry.
Alana Morris: No, no. I think what you just said is so important. Eagleman talks so much about perception and it really, a great deal of it, is about perception and perceived stress is just as real as whether it's actually there or not, or you can document it. So I agree. Having those conversations, the think-alouds so that they can put them... And by the way, the think-aloud goes back to the mirror neurons, right? So when you're thinking aloud, students are internalizing that and strengthening that. And I think when they're in that process, like you talked about that everything's safe, I think for the students, it allows them to pay attention more, which allows that mirroring to happen more.
Jeff: Oh Yeah. Cause you said that if I'm feeling safe when I like the person, but also just in the environment itself is safe, I'm more likely to mirror.
Alana Morris: Yeah.
Jeff: I remember in that workshop, you showed a picture of, that I saw a couple years back, you had a picture of an old man walking with his head hung sad. I think he was going to a funeral or something. And the little boy, the five year old boy next to him, who's holding his hand, did this same exact kind of affect to his body. And I never... After you showed me that I started noticing, especially with my dogs, my dogs do these mirrored positionings all over the house and it just freaks me out how deep this must run and how deep.
Alana Morris: Yeah.
Jeff: So keep going. I'm sorry.
Alana Morris: No, no. Yeah We really are scratching the surface of this understanding. As educators, I think that's so important that we have that mindset of continuing to explore and study, and like Simon Sinek talks about, to really be focused on that 'why?'.
Alana Morris: And to your point, Jeff, it's helping to solidify in our classrooms, the congruency of 'whys.' So there's the teachers 'why,' there's the students 'why,' there's the parent 'why,' there's the administration 'why,' there's your state education systems 'why.' And how do we bridge this congruency of 'why's' to best impact students. And that is not just focused when on our planning. And I love the planning piece in Patterns of Power, guiding that importance. So planning that intentionality for how do we increase what's happening neurologically? Those positive moves we can make that in the end, make learning more impactful. So what good does it do if we focus on the 'what' and never get to true, authentic learning, right? We're just really wasting our time if we're only focused on the 'what.'
Travis: Yeah. So let's... I like that idea of maybe drawing back to those... what are some of those positive moves? I think just building a positive relationship, a positive, safe relationship with your students. I see that as a great positive move.
Alana Morris: Yeah. The other neurological kind of positive moves we make that increase learning in our classroom are number... And it's kind of interesting that you have it in the top of your book, but patterns. The brain loves patterns. How do we plan for kids being able to see patterns? And it has to be intentional. You have to plan for it. Color. The brain loves color, right? It pays attention to color. So how do we increase the use of color in our moves instructionally? Music. Brain loves music. So increasing that. And part of that is the rhythm of it. But part of it is, again, that musical, I mean that emotional connection that we have with music.
Jeff: Grammar is music.
Alana Morris: Okay. What you just said should be a bumper sticker.
Jeff: I vote for the temporary tattoo. I'm going to wear it at some point.
Alana Morris: Or at least a temporary tattoo somewhere, right? What is grammar?
Jeff: Grammar is music. And we can put a little note on it. A little...
Alana Morris: Yeah.
Jeff: Little notes on it.
Alana Morris: Yeah.
Alana Morris: I love that.
Alana Morris: And the other thing that the brain responds well to is movement, right? So that act of moving that act of getting up and, even acting out some of the Senate structures, right? That movement piece is key as well. And the brain loves socialization. The brain loves connecting with others. And that goes back to the mirror neuron system. We know far more about that now than we possibly could have 50 years ago.
Jeff: I can't believe it. I can't believe we've already made it the end of the second episode with Alana Morris from Spring Branch, Texas. Thank you so much for coming. And can we convince you to come back for one more episode?
Alana Morris: You know what talking is a form of synthesis. Conversations is a form synthesis. And so I always love having that opportunity to synthesize learning. So yes, of course.
Jeff: Yay. Bam. You're rocking it. So we'll be here back in two weeks Travis, right?
Travis: Yes we will.
Travis: Before we go, we probably should give a little shout out to Stenhouse. Alana, we appreciate you so much. Thank you for sharing with us incredible info.
Alana Morris: Yeah. Thank you for the work you guys are doing. You're helping to change teaching and learning. That's always a good thing.
Jeff: And I just wanted to say that this episode is dedicated to Travis's dog Georgia, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. And I just... All our hearts go out to you and your family, Travis, and to Georgia as she lifts up to heaven.
Travis: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Jeff: Love you guys.
Travis: All right. We'll talk soon.