Cultivate Authentic Engagement with Brainpower and Cultural Awareness

Your kids may be doing the work, but are they authentically engaged? How can you intentionally support them as they take charge of their learning? An effective way for our students to become insightful is by teaching them about the brain. When they gain self-awareness and understand how the brain works, they can take charge of their learning and embrace productive struggle. In Part 1, we focus on the Basics to Brainpower. In Part 2, we enrich perspective by explaining how Deep Culture drives information processing. The relationship between the two cultivates authentic engagement and transformational learning communities.

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

Zaretta Hammond presents a great metaphor to explain this relationship. “Think of the physical structures as the brain’s hardware and culture as the software that programs it.” (37)

Diverse learning communities are destined for greatness when they understand the functions of their hardware and capacity of their software. Learning is inevitable.

Part 1: Basics to Brainpower: Our “Hardware”

So, let’s start with some basics about brain structures (aka hardware) and how we can promote productive struggle in our students - beginning with the power in neuroplasticity .

Our brains are wired to do complex thinking and problem solving. Learning happens when we do hard things as it creates pathways in our brain. We strengthen these pathways through purposeful practice and repetition. Working through challenging tasks with purposeful practice, we build our brain’s capacity. It’s valuable to utilize instructional strategies, such as Signal Words (hard words with purposeful practice of gestures and definitions) and Literacy Reinforcers to ensure key concepts are revisited and practiced. By producing multi-sensory input (gestures to match vocabulary) it creates multiple pathways for learning and recall.

Before we introduce and teach complex topics to our students, it is important to activate and gauge prior knowledge (because we all have something to start with). Some easy Be GLAD strategies to activate their prior knowledge are by using Picture File Cards and Observation Charts. Once they’ve activated any prior thoughts, we’ll connect the new information to it. “In order to learn new skills and content, the brain figures out where to make connections to what we already know.” (49) Connecting new information to prior knowledge builds brain networking .

As educators, our job is to build the brain’s infrastructure for a lifetime of learning and problem solving. We prepare students by helping to wire the brain to use complex texts and ideas. To support the productive struggle, we utilize the “I do, we do, they do, you do” instructional approach, also known as Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) .

Another effective scaffold approach for new learning is through leveled questioning . Using Depth of Knowledge (DOK) question stems, starting with high level questioning and scaffolding as needed will guide higher order thinking for our students.

With multiple opportunities to scaffold easier to harder level questions, students are able to feel the right amount of success to keep them motivated to try the hard ones. It creates the right balance for a healthy productive mental struggle as they move to independent learning.

A low affective filter is key to develop and maintain this productive struggle. A low affective filter allows students to feel emotionally safe and take academic risks. For our multilingual population, it is important to allow time to process complex learning in their primary language or a language of comfort . This validates experiences and expertise. It also actively builds pathways in their brain.

Our brain has regions that harmoniously work together to empower our intellectual capacity . These ‘parts of the computer’ in our brain synchronize to create exceptional processing and powerful learning outcomes.

3 Main Parts of the Brain

When teaching about the brain to students, we’ll begin with the main functions of the 3 regions of the brain:

1. Reptilian

2. Limbic

3. Neocortex

The more we know about the regions and functions of our brain, the easier it is to empower our students’ learning experiences.

Reptilian Region

In the reptilian region (the oldest part of the brain), lies the RAS (reticular activating system ). This part of the brain is constantly searching the environment for novelty, relevance and emotion . When we activate the RAS, it instantly creates engagement and attention in our students. Some easy ways, we do this is by using:

· Expression – tone of voice, facial movements, hand gestures

· Visual Aids – pictures, realia, videos

· Infusing Humor – meaningful and fun

A simple way to incorporate these ideas with a story through our Narrative Input Chart strategy, is to dress up as an important character with props to create engagement and a memorable experience.

Limbic System

This regions function is to manage our memories and emotions. An important part of this region is the amygdala , also known as the alert system . When a threat is perceived, it alerts the emotional response of fight, flight or freeze. For example, when a student experiences a feeling of overwhelm, they may communicate their feelings by shutting down and not doing their work (and sometimes disrupting learning for others). Unfortunately, this causes all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking to stop because the alert system of the amygdala “cut off” the transmission to the neocortex. One technique to disarm the alert system is to provide processing time by providing a 10/2 (turn and talk with a guided question). Building our brains through the learning process is an emotional experience, thus validating time to process is valuable for engaging in rigorous learning.

Neocortex Region

The third, and largest, region of our brain is the neocortex region. This region is home to our executive functioning, (planning, organization, and self-regulation) as well as where we build our brainpower .

It’s important to be explicit and revisit learning expectations, so we can build pathways in our brain and not create detours. A great tool to support executive functioning for regulation and team tasks is the T-Graph. Communicating explicit descriptors of what it looks like and sounds like to demonstrate expectations creates pathways to behavior response. If the brain knows what to do, learning behavior will naturally unfold (thus executive function skills will develop).

The neocortex is slow in processing, but it has “ endless capacity to learn and rewire itself.” (40) Again, the power of neuroplasticity helps all students grow. This region is where new pathways are built as we engage in complex learning and problem solving. We just need to get past (or make use of) the lower brain’s gatekeepers (RAS and Amygdala) so we can engage in productive struggle without interference. Once we get past the gatekeepers, their brains are built to learn. With this quick overview of the hardware of our brain, let’s dive into the programming of our “computer.” Our culture functions as the software . It helps us function and process the world around us. Our brain (hardware) comes with the same ‘default settings,’ yet our culture (software) makes us vibrant!

Be GLAD Strategy



Signal Words

Multi-Sensory Input

Neurological Imprinting

Literacy Reinforcers

Repetition and Application

Build Brain Pathways

Picture File Cards

Activate Prior Knowledge

Build Connections

Observation Charts

Activate Prior Knowledge

Build Connections

Narrative Input Chart

Novelty, Relevance and Emotion: engagement and attention

RAS (Reticular Activating System) activated: neurological imprinting


Processing Time

Amygdala control: ‘alert system management’

Team Tasks

Explicit Learning Tasks; Build Community

Executive Functioning Skill Development


Explicit Behavior Expectations Collaboratively Defined and Referenced

Executive Functioning Skill Development

Part 2: Deep Culture: Our “Software”

Defined by author Zaretta Hammond, “One’s deep cultural roots is part of how the brain makes sense of the world and helps us function in our environment.” (23) That is why everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, has a culture .” (22)

As Zaretta explains in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, there are 3 levels of culture defined by emotional charge , or what may trigger an emotional response (signal the ‘alert system’):

1. Surface culture is defined by observable elements such as food, dress and holidays celebrated. Though these are valuable unifying characteristics, they typically have a low emotional charge.

2. Shallow culture is observable through behavior patterns, yet unspoken (such as concepts of time, personal space, eye contact). Oftentimes, these cultural characteristics are misinterpreted as defiance or disrespectful. Thus, it is vital to be curious about certain behaviors demonstrated as this level holds a strong emotional charge.

3. Deep culture “…is like the root system of a tree. It is what grounds the individual and nourishes (our) mental health. It is the bedrock of self-concept, group identity, approaches to problem solving and decision making.” (25) Considering this, when our cultural values at this level are challenged, it initiates an intense emotional response (activating the amygdala alert system). Therefore, as an educator, it is important to develop awareness and attunement to the ‘deep cultural roots’ of our student population.

But I have 29 different cultures in my class? How are you going to do that? “Instead of looking at the ‘fruits’ of culture (dress, food, holidays and heroes) – we have to focus on the roots of the culture: worldview, core beliefs and group values.” (25)

There are two different deep cultural archetypes that focus on the universal similarities across cultures:

1. individualism societies or

2. collectivism societies

“Collectivism societies emphasize relationships and interdependence within a community, (whereas), individualistic societies emphasize individual achievement and independence.” (25) These two archetypes generate two different ways the brain organizes information and it “turns out that our brains are wired for a communal view of the world.” (25)

Because of this, it is essential to utilize the power in community by engaging in personal interaction through group work or cooperative learning tasks. A Be GLAD example of this would be using Expert Groups to build collective understanding of complex texts.

Another meaningful way to integrate elements of both archetypes in our dynamic learning communities, is capitalizing on oral tradition by infusing song and chants into your learning experiences. When you include alliteration, movement and emotion, it not only activates our RAS and neocortex, but it also develops community.

Be GLAD Strategy


Cultural Element

Expert Groups

Collective Understanding of Complex Texts

Personal Interaction and Collectivism

Song and Chants

Using Alliteration, Movement and Emotion activates RAS and neocortex

Oral Tradition

Developing Community

Conclusion: Authentic Engagement

Having the same hardware unifies us. Our diversely programmed software makes our learning communities dynamic. By boosting brainpower and valuing culture in our communities, we achieve authentic engagement and develop transformational learning communities. Therefore, it is imperative to meaningfully integrate strategies such as the suggested Be GLAD® Strategies to build community and capacity.

*Thank you to National Certified Agency Trainer Laura Smith, M.Ed. for an amazing and insightful post. Here's a little more about the author:

Laura has dedicated the last 15 years as an empowering instructional leader. She has demonstrated high-quality instruction at the elementary and middle school level. She has contributed her innovation to district-level leadership teams. She has also facilitated exceptional professional development around evidence-based practices making her a distinguished leader. She applied her leadership skills to earn the title of GLAD© Certified Agency Trainer in 2019. Currently, she is supporting families and educators as they partner to build relationship and rigor with at-home learning. She enthusiastically encourages others through her coaching and collaborative support. She is a recognized leader in her community and within her learning partnerships.

Laura is passionate about designing and implementing learning experiences around brain research. As a traumatic brain injury survivor, she is a testament to the capacity of neuroplasticity. She inspires others to believe they can do hard things. She shares her research and reflection through her blog writing and her professional development opportunities. As a lifelong learner and respected leader, Laura will continue to provide powerful learning experiences for her learners.

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