Build the Brain the Common Core Way


Pamela Nevills

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    It is uncommon to find books by teachers for teachers. Expert teachers are doing all they can do to keep up with their teaching. When they pass a group of students to the next level they enter a phase of regeneration for the new group in the fall. Many books about teaching are by nonclassroom authors: retired teachers, consultants, researchers, psychologists, district personnel, or university professors. To read, gather resources, review or conduct research, access experience, investigate, validate, and turn a mountain of information into something meaningful and readable for teachers and people in charge of educational systems takes more than tenacity; it takes boatloads of thoughtful, reflective TIME.

    There is an innate excitement, passion for learning, and yearning to get to work that exists in learners who are engaged with a significant project. Students who are fortunate enough to be in school programs that ignite them with desire to know and discover feel this way. I felt just like that about this project, writing this book. It started as I read and heard more and more about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). My interest piqued as I realized that this is a significant change—a conglomerate of individuals have taken ahold of revamping educational priorities and deemed that children need to learn at substantially higher levels of thinking. I wanted to know how this happened. Chapter 3 is the result of my research into what the common core is, and what it is not. Also, the movers and shakers were identified: foundations, state governors, universities, and educational agencies; all working together to say, “Enough!” Students simply are not prepared for the constantly changing world that exists for them as adults or as college or career learners.

    Unify Educational Practice with Brain Science

    My excitement intensified as I grabbed ahold of the implications for my professional career passion, unifying educational practice with information from neuroscience. If students need to develop deep thinking skills, become critical thinkers, and be able to validate and talk about their thinking, then the neuroscience of learning is painstakingly relevant and necessary. There are “neurosceptics” who would like education to wait and not apply brain research to the classroom until we have better understanding of how the human brain learns (Dayal, 2013). There is no validity to their concerns. Although some have misinterpreted brain science research and caused the public to be swayed by “neuromyths”, there is enough purposeful information for neuroscientists and educators to unite, converse, and share professional evidence. The new field of neuroeducation has been birthed.

    If education held to this “let's wait” interpretation, there would be no common core. The CCSS are based on a premise that there are answers and there are more answers, and there are correct answers that have not yet been discovered. Knowing that does not hold learners from learning foundational elements for each of education's subjects. Such are the “big questions” that teachers are encouraged by the common core to pose to their students. Some simple answers are correct, but not complete. As students progress through their education years they revisit the questions that are not yet solved adequately, and grapple with them once again for more in-depth answers. Neuroscientists will continue to expand on what they currently know about how the human brain learns, and educators can gain more insight into the mysteries of the mind. But let's enjoy what we now know and put it to use.

    There are many well established truths from neuroscience that help teachers be better directors of learning. Teachers can understand working and long-term memory. They can use information about neuroplasticity to inform their classroom practices. Knowing that active engagement stimulates neuron networks in specified places in the human brain encourages them to plan activities that request students to be active in their learning. Understanding why some students are attentive and are able to filter unneeded distractive sensory input and that other students have trouble staying on task is useful information. Helping students know how to help themselves develop as competent learners is important work that makes sense when it is put in “brain terms.” All these insights came together in Chapter 4. With this on paper, I eagerly continued to write about all that was bubbling inside my head.

    Early Adopters for the Common Core

    Next, I needed to know what was happening already across the nation. My digging and investigative efforts yielded great rewards. There are some early implementers who are bold in their teaching and/or learning approaches. And they care enough to share their efforts. My daughter, who teaches high school courses, teacher friends, and colleagues validated what I learned as I visited professional conversations at social networking sites. All this information is so available, so inviting, and so important for what is happening across the nation with this educational reform movement. Realize that the common core has the most potential to make a difference for students that I have experienced in all my years of education. And, unlike previous books I authored, most of my resources have a website attached to them. This is a dangerous spot to be in, because they all have to be verified at the time of printing, and I hope they remain available to the reader. Learning and producing are so different in the age of computers and electronics. The common core begs for classroom projects that take advantage of all that is there for the students.

    Common Core Resource

    This book is a resource for every teacher. It is intended to spark their energy for the entire common core implementation process by empowering them and exciting them about their role, their potential. Principals and other administrators are encouraged to see the talent and persistence in their teachers. Readers will find enticing, fresh teaching strategies particularly in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. These ideas beg to be tried immediately, because they are easy to implement and powerful for student learners. Teachers need to thirst for more ways they can provide interesting, quality experiences for their learners as they are expressed in the common core expectations. They have more reason to collaborate. Professional relationships will thrive as the curriculum is completed and an instructional scope and sequence emerges that has not been provided through the common core. A new way of doing school, by shifting the focus from how teachers perform as lesson presenters to how students behave, as the actor/learners on center stage is an extreme change.

    Chapter 1 draws the reader's interest with something different, changes in perception for how we do school. It invites school personnel to challenge their thinking from what we have always done to the potential of the common core. A further look at common core expectations leads to what teachers will need to do to retool in Chapter 2. In this chapter, teachers are challenged to plan their lessons differently, and for those who evaluate teachers to turn their focus on what students are doing to learn. Each chapter has strategies and activities that can be used immediately. After a thorough look at the common core in Chapter 3, the reader learns or revisits some of what neurology has to offer education. Neuroscientists have provided abundant insights from what they have discovered about the act of learning. Knowing what is going on when students engage in active thinking gives teachers an advantage in planning and directing classroom activities. This is the intent of Chapter 4, How Learning Happens.

    The next chapter was a lot of fun to write, because it accepts the premise of “learning is all about what is happening for students.” It provides a new way to design lesson or big unit study that fits the common core requirements. It is filled with practical, try-this-now ideas. Chapter 5 talks about what teachers can do. It is followed by what the students can do in Chapter 6. This one has a somewhat whimsical excitement with even more gratifying possibilities than the previous one. But do not be misled; there are serious activities for students with respect for the important learning that must be done. Readers are challenged as directors of learning to place their students in situations that draw them into intense involvement as learners.

    The following chapter, Powerful Staff Development for Adult Learners, is intriguing because it looks specifically at professional teachers as learners. Teachers are promoted to be leaders of their peers during workshops and supported by research and best practice to do so. Chapter 8 talks about the very change process itself and how school districts can articulate vision and direction while providing support services. A soft change is described as school personnel move incrementally to meet the CCSS expectations. The system directing common core implementation is challenged to move steadily, purposefully, and incrementally over time.

    This book is a resource for every educator and encourages them to jump start the entire common core process. It plants a desire for teachers to take a fresh look at learning and promotes confidence by identifying all the skills teachers already possess. The American Educator (2013) addressed teachers’ perceptions of the common core. Members of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) responded to a survey about the CCSS and overwhelmingly supported it. While 78% of the teachers said they already received staff development related to the CCSS, less than half, 43%, felt the training was adequate for them to teach to the new standards.

    Approaching the common core from a new prospective and comfort level is needed. It is important to listen to friends who are teachers and those exiting the field. I was curious enough to listen in on conversations among teachers through professional Internet exchanges. District websites also provided information about what is available to support the common core. The time is right to gather information and to respond with support. My years as a teacher, staff developer, administrator, and university faculty have allowed me to talk with teachers and be in classrooms nationwide. This is the time to make known what the education system has allowed me to learn through many years of service.

    Special Chapter for Brainiacs

    I cannot forget Chapter 9, which was developed for the brainiacs and their inquisitive nature. While many readers do not want to be bogged down with some of the intricacies of how the brain functions, there are others who long for more detail. Chapter 9 is the chapter for descriptions and definitions, answers to brain questions, and some current findings that have classroom implications. The inquisitive reader is sent to Chapter 9 in prior chapters, when the details are unnecessary for the purpose of this book but are too interesting to leave out. This information is plucked out and made available in the chapter that culminates this book.

    It is a match! Common core expectations and understanding neurology make sense. This is the time for brain science to really impact what is happening in the classroom. Teachers are admonished to make good decisions for the time and energy spent by their students. There is precious little time during the school day to prepare our nation's children capably for the world. If teachers understand what happens when children learn at any grade level and at any level of intensity, teaching practices will improve. It is a powerful time to be a teacher, and a pivotal time to be the recipient of a world-class education through the common core.

    Note: Chapter-by-chapter questions for book study groups are available at

    About the Author

    Pamela Nevills is first and foremost a teacher, working with multiage learners—primary grades through postgraduate and doctoral students. In addition to speaking, writing, and consulting she is on faculty at Brandman University working with students in the doctoral program. She has participated on and has been honored by local and state advisory committees. As a two-time panel member for reading textbook selection for the State of California, she is well versed with state and national content standards. She is a national and international speaker and consultant on topics that include the common core state standards, brain development from birth through adulthood, the brain and reading, school designs for all students, and adult learners. Writing is a recent addition to Nevills's work. She is published with the State of California, the Journal of Staff Development, and organizational newsletters, in addition to her work with Corwin. More about her work, chapter-by-chapter study questions for this book and contact information can be found at

  • References and Further Reading

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